Irving Howe

Adam Kirsch reviews A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe, a posthumous collection of essays by Irving Kristol, a seminal figure in the “New York Intellectuals” scene — i.e., the cadre of radicalized NYC Jews who dominated the socio-political journals such as Dissent, Partisan Review, and Commentary. (Arguing the World is a good documentary which profiles four members of this group: Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer. See the trailer here.)

The majestic peroration referred to by Lowell can be found in Howe’s essay, itself titled “The New York Intellectuals”, which appeared in Commentary in 1969. Writing when he was forty-nine years old and Partisan Review had entered its fourth decade, Howe tried to sum up the achievements of this influential and much-mythologized group. The New York Intellectuals, he explained, were what resulted when the intellectual energy accumulated by generations of downtrodden Eastern European Jews, like “a tightly gathered spring, trembling with unused force”, suddenly broke free in the first American generation.

Born in poor immigrant neighbourhoods of New York – the Lower East Side, Brownsville, the Bronx – in the first decades of the twentieth century, these writers discovered or forged for themselves a new sensibility, “the union of politics and culture, with the politics radical and the culture cosmopolitan”. And in the pages of their house journal, Partisan Review, they created a new kind of essay, characterized by “a flair for polemic, a taste for the grand generalization, an impatience with what they regarded (often parochially) as parochial scholarship, an international perspective, and a tacit belief in the unity . . . of intellectual work”.

Howe was, of course, describing himself, as well as Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling and other leading lights of the circle. But he saw himself as the eulogist of a movement that itself had been belated; the New York Intellectuals, he emphasizes, “came late”. Their politics were shaped by the Russian Revolution and their literary tastes by high modernism – that is, by events which took place in their childhoods. By the time Howe reached City College in the mid-1930s – the public university, mediocre but free, where many ambitious Jewish immigrants sent their children – left-wing struggle had degenerated into a war of words between sects. Characteristically, the sect that drew Howe was not the Communist Party, larger in numbers and faithful in support of Stalin’s USSR, but the Socialists and then the Trotskyists. In such groups, he could preserve his intellectual independence while still feeling himself to be on the right side of history.

Like many of the other New York Intellectuals, Howe preached utopianism and the evils of nationalism, while at the same time cherishing aspects of his Jewish identity and Jewish traditions. Kirsch writes:

Essential to understanding Howe’s politics is the fact that he was a literary man as well as a political one. The fusion of the two, the refusal to forsake the life of the mind for any party line, was a badge of the New York intellectuals’ humanism… The most powerful literary essays in A Voice Still Heard are those in which Jewish subject matter leads Howe to a more personal kind of involvement and exposure. These include “Writing and the Holocaust”, a 1986 survey of the subject which in some ways has never been surpassed, and “Strangers”, a reflection on the ambiguous relationship between Jewish immigrants and American literature:

With American literature itself, we were uneasy. It spoke in tones that seemed strange and discordant. Its romanticism was of a kind we could not really find the key to . . . . The dominant outlook of the immigrant Jewish culture was probably a shy, idealistic, ethicized, “Russian” romanticism, a romanticism directed more toward social justice than personal fulfillment.”

Howe aptly depicts Jews as ‘strangers’ to what had been the dominant Christian (and specifically Protestant) culture of the U.S. well into the ‘60s. Forever alienated from the native cultures of whatever host countries they inhabit, Jews have managed, in many countries such as the U.S., to wield a hugely disproportionate influence upon Culture, transforming the host countries’ cultures into modes of cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and utopianism.

Woody Allen, who ironically fits into the New York Intellectual cadre himself, has an exchange in Annie Hall (1977) poking fun at the Howes of the City. At a cocktail party, Alvy Singer (played by Allen) lets off a good zinger:

Alvy Singer: I’m so tired of spending evenings making fake insights with people who work for Dysentery.

Robin: Commentary.

Alvy Singer: Oh really? I had heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery.

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