Commentary Magazine

Irving Howe

To the Editor:

Irving Howe deserves better from both COMMENTARY and Joseph Epstein than he receives in “The Old People’s Socialist League” [August]. After all, as Edward Alexander notes in his biography of Howe, “between August 1946 and January 1980, Howe published 35 articles and reviews in COMMENTARY.” In essays like “The New York Intellectuals” (October 1968), Howe distinguished himself as one of the earliest, most articulate, and most balanced critics of the New Left and the counterculture. Criticizing the New Left for its anti-Americanism, its authoritarianism, and its irrationalism, Howe both anticipated and influenced the neoconservative direction COMMENTARY would take in the early 1970’s. Even today, much conservative rhetoric about the evil of the 60’s is merely a third-hand regurgitation of ideas first expressed clearly and cleanly by Irving Howe.

In his maturity, Howe’s political ideas were not a simple-minded quasi-religious adherence to the socialist pieties of his youth. Rather, Howe sought to salvage what was still living in the socialist heritage by merging it with liberalism. (On cultural issues, he was also open to conservative ideas.) Because American liberalism is so infused with Emersonian individualism and so temperamentally hostile to the claims of community and group solidarity, the alliance Howe sought to create was inherently difficult and unstable. Yet outside the United States, in countries like Canada or Great Britain, where labor unions and social-democratic parties still have a strong presence in public life, Howe’s ideas about a liberal-socialist alliance are both realistic and useful.

We are also told that Howe’s socialism “marred much of his literary criticism.” In support of this contention, Mr. Epstein cites Howe’s treatment of Henry James and Joseph Conrad in Politics and the Novel (1957). Now, Politics and the Novel happens to be one of Howe’s earliest books, written only a few years after he ceased to be a Trotskyite. As Howe himself admitted in the preface to the 1987 edition, he was somewhat embarrassed by the youthful bravado of the book:

How could the earlier self whom I struggle to recall have written with such assurance about Dostoevsky’s The Possessed or been so withholding in appreciation of Conrad’s The Secret Agent?

As he matured as a critic, especially in the last two decades of his life, Howe’s voice lost its dogmatism and became more nuanced, more precise, and more responsive to other points of view. James and Conrad, to take the examples Mr. Epstein uses, are much better treated in Howe’s marvelous posthumous collection, A Critic’s Notebook (1994). Or, from the same book, consider the perceptive generosity and affection of Howe’s comments on Kipling:

One great flaw in the reforming passion is that in its eagerness to remedy social wrongs it tends to neglect, certainly to undervalue, the experience of those whose lives it wishes to improve. . . . Now Kipling, it is true, did not see India as particularly oppressed, and I am as ready as the next liberal or radical to deplore this failure; but he did see the people of India as vigorous, full of humor and energy, deeply worthy. How are we to explain that in the pages of this apologist for imperialism, the masses of India seem more alive and autonomous than in the pages of writers claiming political correctness?

These are not the words of someone who let politics blight his response to literature.

In his Selected Writings, A Critic’s Notebook, and the many uncollected essays from the last decades of his life, Howe left a legacy of criticism notable for its maturity, its ability to balance competing claims, and its responsiveness to the complexity of the world. The “rhetorical flourishes” of his early prose gave way to a style of great lucidity and equipoise. In an age of academic jargon, he continued to speak to the common reader.

The epigraph to Mr. Epstein’s article is a quotation from Isaac Bashevis Singer that begins, “A wonderful man, Irving Howe.” Howe was, indeed, “a wonderful man.” COMMENTARY, which was happy to publish him while he lived, should be more respectful of his memory.

Jeet Heer
Toronto, Ontario



To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein claims that Irving Howe’s socialist politics made most of his literary criticism worthless, and even forced him to deny the gifts of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Howe wrote critically on these two writers but he did not dispute their greatness. Moreover, if Mr. Epstein were fair enough to include Howe’s insights on other writers with whom he disagreed politically, such as Dostoevsky, Stendahl, and Faulkner, COMMENTARY readers would learn that, for Howe, the literary quality of a work, its depth and complexity, were more important than any particular “political message.” Early in his literary career Howe wrote:

Let it be remembered that two of the world’s literary masterpieces, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, are expositions of reactionary ideologies. That does not prevent any sensible person from reading them again and again.

Mr. Epstein also claims that James’s “tragic view of life . . . is entirely at odds” with Howe’s own “politics-ridden mentality.” But it was Howe who said of Dostoevsky that “No other novelist has dramatized so powerfully the values and dangers, the uses and corruptions of systematized thought.” And for Howe what made André Malraux’s Man’s Fate successful as a work of literature was the tension it generates between Malraux’s mystique of the deed and his awareness of the waste and failure in historical action. Along with Kyo, the main protagonist of the novel, Howe seems chastened by the message that “political struggle is not the true end of man’s life.”

The examples could be multiplied a hundredfold. But Mr. Epstein selects from Howe’s Politics and the Novel only what he needs to beat up on his old mentor and benefactor. And he has to beat up on him because Howe continued to call himself a socialist until the end, even though socialism had become for him less a political than a personal persuasion, less a blueprint for the future than a moral influence, a way of measuring, and responding to, changes in American culture.

Gerald Sorin
State University of New York
New Paltz, New York



To the Editor:

May I offer a factual correction to Joseph Epstein’s sly whimsy in discussing Irving Howe and other radicals of his generation, including myself? He writes that Howe changed his name from Horenstein, and that

[h]e was hardly the only Jew in the “movement” to do so, the ostensible purpose being to secure a broader American audience for the views of these budding radicals. Thus Daniel Bell was originally Daniel Bolotsky.

I was born Daniel Bolotsky (and never made a secret of it) but my father died when I was an infant in the influenza epidemic of 1920, and my legal guardian became my uncle Dr. Samuel Bolotsky, a dentist. In 1931, when I was twelve years old, my guardian changed his name legally to Dr. Samuel Bell, and my brother and I, his wards, had our names changed as well. Since some persons regard Mr. Epstein as a writer of record, I wish the correction to stand.

Daniel Bell
Cambridge, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

Although grateful for Joseph Epstein’s generous remarks about my book on Irving Howe, I think that one of his factual assertions needs correction. He says that Howe suffered “no known writers’ blocks, [was] never (apparently) an analysand. . . .” But in one of the livelier personal anecdotes in a generally impersonal autobiography, Howe describes “going to a therapist in San Francisco” whose name in Hebrew meant “dog.” When Howe complained to “Dr. Dog” that he felt so bad he wanted to be hospitalized, the doctor asked what had happened to him that week. “Well,” reported the patient, “I had written a little, though badly, and had had an encounter with a woman, not too bad . . . .” To which the merciless therapist replied: “A little creativity, a little sexuality—my God, who can stand it?” So it would appear that Howe did not have writers’ block, but did have an analyst.

Edward Alexander
Seattle, Washington



Joseph Epstein writes:

I would argue with at least two of Jeet Heer’s points about Irving Howe. The first is that he “anticipated and influenced the neoconservative direction COMMENTARY would take in the early 1970’s.” That would be a hellacious thing to have to prove. Irving Howe wrote some very good things in COMMENTARY after the magazine’s turn against the radical Left, but that turn was already well in evidence by the time “The New York Intellectuals” appeared. It was because he agreed with it that Howe desired to publish the essay in COMMENTARY in the first place. In any event, it would be only a short matter of time before he began to consider that the much greater menace on the American political scene—and the greater threat to his own brand of leftism—was represented by, precisely, neoconservatism.

The other point I would argue with is Mr. Heer’s contention that Irving Howe became a more mature and nuanced thinker as he grew older. This is only partly true. When his political views were directly confronted, he tended to return to form. For an example, I recommend that Mr. Heer read the older Irving Howe on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Since Gerald Sorin’s letter recapitulates Mr. Heer’s, with concision and rancor added, there is no need to say anything further about it, except perhaps to point out that Irving Howe was never, in any sense, my “mentor,” a word Mr. Sorin uses with today’s confident intellectual sloppiness. I have had no mentors, never wanted one—I ain’t no mentee—and do not wish ever to be anyone else’s.

I am glad to have Daniel Bell’s factual correction concerning the origin of the change in his family name.


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