Irving Howe built three careers in one heroically productive life. From his high school years in the 1930s until his death at seventy-two in 1993, he was a political activist and polemicist, angry defender of the democratic-socialist faith against old-guard Communists and New Left firebrands, and founding editor of the still-lively political quarterly Dissent. In the 1940s he began writing the generous, sharply focused literary criticism that, together with his university teaching, gave him the greatest pleasure. Many of his later essays, notably “Writing and the Holocaust,” are grave, measured, even magnificent in their comfortless density and depth. Starting in the 1950s he made himself the preserver and historian of immigrant Yiddish culture, culminating in his best-selling World of Our Fathers (1976), a book that redefined many American Jews’ sense of themselves, and inadvertently helped set the stage for American multiculturalism.
In all his careers Howe tended to write as “we,” not “I,” expressing the collective views of ancestors and contemporaries. Even his autobiography, A Margin of Hope (1982), is written largely in the first-person plural. His 1969 essay “The New York Intellectuals” (his name for a miscellaneous cast of Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Howe himself, and many more) presents a collective historical narrative almost universally accepted. But Howe’s collective vision of history, in his essays and in World of Our Fathers, was the most idiosyncratic thing about him, the product of a unique sense of loss and longing that drove everything he wrote.
In his later work he acknowledged that he was reshaping the past even as he did so. His 1977 essay “Strangers” was a collective memoir, based on “recollections of the experiences shared by a generation of American Jewish writers.” He first cautioned: “I will use the first person plural, though with much uneasiness, since I am aware that those for whom I claim to speak are likely to repudiate that claim and wish to provide their own fables of factuality.” Then he shed his uneasiness and wrote the rest of the essay about what “we read,” “we chose,” and “we knew.”
In an issue of American Jewish History devoted to World of Our Fathers, historians testified that the book had changed their lives, but they realized years later that its emphasis on socialist activism, its near silence about religion, amounted to a disguised autobiography. Howe always saw the immigrant past as a “brief flare of secular passion,” but he, too, came to recognize that his sense of it was shaped by private vision. His father, he said, was “for me a representative figure of the world from which I came, and I suppose a good part of World of Our Fathers is no more than an extension of what I knew about him.”
When Irving Howe was born in the Bronx in 1920, his Russian-Jewish father owned a grocery store. Ten years later the store failed and the father first became a peddler, then a presser in the garment trade,…
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