Commentary Magazine


World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe

World of Our Fathers.
by Irving Howe with the assistance of Kenneth Libo. 
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 714 pp. $14.95.

There is a haunting phrase at the end of the introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, written twenty-two years ago by Irving Howe in collaboration with Eliezer Greenberg, which lingers in the imagination because it defines an impelling paradox of Jewish existence. Howe and Greenberg, after seventy-one luminous pages which trace the backgrounds and the guiding assumptions of Yiddish literature, ruefully note how this once folk-oriented literature now survives in isolated pockets of writers and readers still stubbornly clinging “to a language which for them is not only history but the answer to history.” It is an answer for them, of course, as it cannot be for us. Now, in an ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between them and us through a sustained act of imagination, Howe has written World of Our Fathers, a massive account of East European Jewish immigrant life in New York City and of the culture of Yiddishkeit that expressed most of the distinctive values the immigrants sought to transplant and cultivate on American soil.

The tension between the two terms of that paradox about history is in a sense the real subject of Howe’s new book. The squalid, impoverished, confused, intensely vital world of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants was hurtling through a centrifuge of historical change that would quickly scatter it to vestigial atoms, but the ideological and cultural exponents of that world, together with their active constituency in amkho, the plain Jewish masses, cherished the belief that Yiddish culture might, or should, embody a principle of eternal renewal. For them, Yiddish, steeped in history, laid claim to being in some way beyond history. Focusing on this underlying contradiction between evanescence and renaissance, Howe becomes an elegiac poet—elegiac but not, I think, sentimental—of the immigrant milieu.

World of Our Fathers seems almost a genre unto itself, and it is important to see clearly the peculiar nature of the intellectual project it represents in order to get some sense of its actual achievement. The book reflects an enormous amount of historical investigation, but the result is not, at least in any conventional sense, a work of historical research. Howe, aided by Kenneth Libo and a whole team of researchers (all generously acknowledged), went through a vast literature in Yiddish and English of historical studies, both general and specialized, of memoirs, both published and archival, of newspapers and magazines of the period, and, finally, even conducted extensive interviews with elderly survivors of the immigrant world. Out of all this, he heroically aspires to cover every significant aspect of the old East Side with authoritative thoroughness. Living and working conditions, educational and cultural institutions, the family structure, the labor movement, socialism, the Yiddish press, Yiddish literature, immigrant involvement in American politics—each is accorded its own patiently detailed chapter; and the two large main sections of the book, “The East Side” and “The Culture of Yiddish,” are framed by two excellent introductory chapters on East European Jewish life and the experience of immigration and then two intelligent though necessarily somewhat sketchy concluding chapters on the subsequent generations of American Jewry.

The goal of total comprehensiveness is bound to be elusive, for anyone writing on the past is guided by his own implicit bias of values in what he sees as worth accounting for historically. There is, for example, as an otherwise enthusiastic review in Business Week observed, almost nothing on the contribution of the Jewish immigrants to American business at large or to the communications industry. Even in what is actually dealt with, one could sometimes quarrel with the amount of space allotted to different topics: some readers, for instance, might have preferred a greater stress on religious life, a less detailed account of labor-movement politics. In any event, a writer is entitled to emphasize the materials that are most congenial to him, and one must say that, whatever the emphases, not much is left out and nothing touched on is treated unfairly. The impulse, moreover, to give the fullest possible account of things leads Howe to devote attention not only to the impressive contributions of the immigrant world but also to its social dysfunctions and its trivia; so there are lucid sections on wife desertion, on Jewish prostitution, on delinquency and gangsterism, on the ordinary street life of the immigrant youth, on adult leisure activities, on the creation of the Catskill resorts as a haven from the teeming city. “A sense of natural piety toward one’s origins,” Howe remarks in his epilogue, “can live side by side with a spirit of critical detachment,” and he actually manages to achieve that difficult balance, both in the material selected for presentation and in his view of it.

The real question about World of Our Fathers is what it is all for. I have said that, despite its impressive thoroughness, it is not quite a work of historical research. By this I mean simply that Howe, in undertaking an indefatigable survey of the whole, is necessarily limited in the amount of new light he can throw on the various parts. His chapters, for example, on the shtetl, on the travails of immigration, on Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater, are lively, balanced, and often keenly perceptive, but from the viewpoint of the professional historian they are reviews of familiar material for which a variety of specialized studies exists. Howe’s overview of the whole subject, moreover, in no way pretends to be revisionist history, wisely eschewing any doctrinaire approach like Marxism that might provide the leverage for sweeping reinterpretation. There are, however, other grounds for originality in a historical study than those that would be recognized by the professional historian.

What this is, above all, is a writer’s book about the immigrant experience, constantly pressing, through all the wealth of historical documentation, to find a prose adequate to the contradictions, the variety, the minute shadings, and the felt emotional qualities of its vast subject. The models for this kind of enterprise would have to be sought in the period before the academic professionalization of historiography, when there was no sharp boundary between historical and imaginative writing, in figures like Gibbon and Michelet for whom the management of a prose-rhythm, the selection of an image or an illustrative detail, were paths of access to the reality of their historical subject. Howe’s writing is a good deal less elaborate than theirs but hardly less consciously mediated in its rhetorical maneuvers.

As Howe touches upon hundreds of individual figures in this sprawling historical landscape, there are a few that seem particularly to arrest his attention as luminous mirrors of his own writer’s enterprise. His warmly sympathetic portrait of Hayim Greenberg, Labor Zionist thinker and intellectual journalist in four languages, has the look of an oblique autobiographical sketch: “At once enthusiast and skeptic, public man and private intelligence, a creature of multiple moods and personae, Greenberg emerges finally as a writer, the kind who responds to his moment, receptive and caustic, oratorical and furtive.” The emphasis is Howe’s. The discussion of critics, journalists, novelists, and poets is especially apt not only because Howe as a literary critic feels at home with their work but also because he identifies so readily with their undertaking and thus is able to rescue them for us from their sinking shipwreck of cultural strangeness. His generous understanding, for example, of the late Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein, extending even to Glatstein’s polemic espousal of a Jewish patriotism not entirely shared by Howe, illustrates in miniature what the book as a whole does with the vanishing milieu of Yiddishkeit. Howe pointedly juxtaposes Glatstein’s “pride of self-sufficiency, his readiness to live within the narrowing circles of Yiddish,” with the poet’s awareness of what it means to write out of an abandoned culture: “It means that I have to be aware of Auden but Auden need never have heard of me.”

Perhaps the most striking of all the literary portraits here Is that of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer’s paradoxical project, the repeated and confident imaginative resurrection of a dead world in a dying language, is a kind of drastically foreshortened version of the historical fate of Yiddish culture in America; and apart from the difference in language, it is also an exaggerated version of Howe’s underlying enterprise in World of Our Fathers: “A clever and sophisticated man, living in New York City, composes stories about Frampol, Bilgoray, Kreshev, as if they were still there, as if the world of the past were radiantly alive: the hasidim still dancing, the rabbis still pondering, the children still studying, the poor still starving, and nothing yet in ashes.” The imaginative assertion of life in contradiction to grim historical fact is precisely the tension which Howe’s own writing incorporates. The elegiac note at the end here is necessary, for to omit it would misrepresent the fundamental fact of ephemerality that has conditioned the flourishing of modern Yiddish culture; but throughout the book, Howe is able to hold the inevitable elegiac perspective in just proportion.

_____________

 

In his prolific career, Howe has been a critic, editor, historian, and polemicist, but nowhere else has he realized so fully his vocation as a writer, because here he has a long richly variegated narrative to execute, a narrative that has the most crucial personal relevance for him It is fitting that World of Our Fathers should conclude with a celebration of the story itself, in a gesture that Howe as storyteller has abundantly earned: “The story of the immigrant Jew is all but done.” There is, of course, pointed ambiguity in this use of “story,” referring to the actual historical experience now almost ended and to the writer’s account of it finally drawing to a close. He concludes:

Like all stories of human striving, it ought to be complete, with its beginning and its end, at rest in fulfillment and at ease with failure. A story is the essential unit of our life, offering the magical imperatives of “so it began” and “so it came to an end.” A story encompasses us, justifies our stay, prepares our leaving. Here, in these pages, is the story of the Jews, bedraggled and inspired, who came from Eastern Europe. Let us now praise obscure men.

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