A World More Attractive
Mr. Howe has taken his title from Trotsky, who once wrote that “in my eyes authors, journalists, and artists always stood for a world that was more attractive than any other.” Whatever Trotsky himself may have had in mind, the phrase as it appears on Irving Howe’s title page strikes one as double-edged. It suggests that literature both presents a more attractive world in itself and provides an incitement towards making the real world a more attractive place than it now is. For Mr. Howe, as a socialist, is unmistakably committed to the world which is the world of all of us.
the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.
At the same time, his literary standards derive from what might loosely be termed the between-the-wars avant garde, from writers who placed a huge burden on literature, “almost the burden of demanding that literature provide us with norms of value we find impossible to locate in experience.” Sometimes radical politics and modern literature overlap, sometimes they collide; the interplay between them is Mr. Howe’s true subject, the one to which he always returns. This is why he is justified in claiming that his essays, however varied in subject matter, are unified in outlook.
At a more prosaic level the book is something of a ragbag, as any collection of articles written over a dozen years must inevitably be. At one point Mr. Howe finds himself grouping together under the heading “Some European Moderns” essays on George Gissing, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Sholom Aleichem. When shall we three meet again? Still, almost without exception the modern writers whom he admires are shown in these pages in the same light, as men for whom traditional moral assumptions no longer hold good, struggling to hammer out their own values and learn a style from a nihilistic despair. This is what links such otherwise incongruous figures as T. E. Lawrence, the hero who finds it harder and harder to believe in himself; Wallace Stevens, “a most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place,” prodding half-dead secular imaginations back to life; Edith Wharton, for whom a hollow society could acquire tragic significance only through its power of blighting people and ideas. The act of rejection tends to be taken as a test of virtue, whether it is as violent as Céline’s nausea or as low-pitched as the wisdom of Frost’s finest lyrics, “struck aslant and not to be settled into the comforts of an intellectual system.” Not rejection for its own sake, perhaps, but as an indispensable first step, disinfecting the artist’s feelings and perceptions in a dirty world.
Such sentiments began to appear in literature at least a hundred and fifty years ago. But they need to be voiced more forcefully than ever—or so Irving Howe believes—as America comes increasingly to resemble his imaginary model of a mass society, a society of manufactured opinions and second-hand experience. (And not only America, of …