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 course.) In broad outline the picture which Mr. Howe sketches—of a society characterized by “a peculiar blend of frenzy and sluggishness, amiability and meanness”—is familiar enough, but it acquires in his hands something like the force of novelty. For he means business, and there is an earnestness in his refusal to compromise which will make many an easy-going, self-indulgent reader wince.
He is a humane critic, however, who deplores bad writing instead of merely despising it. His severity is tempered by an awareness of just how strong and unremitting social pressures can be, an awareness which also endows him with a kind of weary common sense. Talking about New Grub Street, for example, he remarks that “once men have made a fundamental choice of vocation, traits of character matter a good deal less than we would like to suppose.” Or again, he concedes that in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky was concerned with ultimate questions of freedom and responsibility rather than simply describing the plight of a penniless student in Czarist Russia—“yet we cannot help noticing that the social setting of his novel ‘happens’ to fit quite exactly the requirements of his theme.” Mr. Howe is certainly no phrase-maker, yet for all that his phrases stick in the mind, as when he writes that Edith Wharton “lacked the vocabulary of happiness.” He largely keeps to the language of a man talking to men—which is no small thing at a time when so much criticism seems to be written by a zombie talking to zombies.
There isn’t a single essay in this book which isn’t the product of hard thought and genuine feeling. Yet, I must admit to finding a certain thinness in many of the literary pieces, a tendency to treat authors as case histories. A little more haecceitas would help, a little more elaboration of what it is that makes such-and-such an artist unique. As it is, individual colors tend to fade in the ideological wash. I enjoy Mr. Howe lampooning the imbecilities of literary pedantry, but I part company from him when, for example, he scoffs at Professor Johnson for documenting the life of Dickens in such rich detail. After all, we read Dickens not because he was a critic of Victorian society but because he was Dickens, and the patient accumulation and sifting of biographical fact is certainly one way of making his genius yield up its mystery. If Mr. Howe dwelt a little more fully on the individual creative achievement, he might seem less careworn than he does. God knows his gloom is often justified; maybe it’s only a frivolous temperament which finds that cheerfulness keeps breaking through. Still, when I read that “the mere existence of man is a difficulty, a problem, with birth, marriage, pain and death being only among the more spectacular of his crises,” a small voice inside me wants to protest that marriage needn’t be quite as bad as all that.
Mr. Howe himself sees his essay on T. E. Lawrence as the center-piece of the collection; but while his choice of Lawrence as a representative modern sensibility is unexpected and interesting, most readers will find the natural center of the book in the straight political pieces, above all in “Images of Socialism,” a credo written in collaboration with Lewis Coser. At a time when democratic socialism has difficulty in surviving even as an idea, the authors try to define their vision of the good society, putting an equal emphasis on personal freedom and economic equality. They agree with Oscar Wilde that the distinctive virtue of true socialism is that it will make possible true individualism; they are repelled by the tradition “whereby the movement swallows up the whole life of those who belong to it.” They see a socialist society not as a stagnant utopia but as something continuously evolving, with new and more fruitful conflicts replacing old ones.
All this is attractive enough in principle, but leaves one big question hanging in mid-air. Even allowing for the fact that they are outlining a vision, not providing a blueprint, the authors are remarkably reluctant to face up to the whole problem of the centralized modern state. The emphasis on centralism, we are told, must be abandoned; it springs, at least in part, from “the condition of technology in the nineteenth century.” But how much evidence is there that twentieth-century technology favors decentralization? Even if it did, the fundamental role of the state, that of establishing and maintaining law, would remain the same; while if there is one thing that every country in the world has in common today, it is surely that governments are playing a bigger and bigger part in economic planning (however disguised) and in organizing transport, education, and other social services. Mr. Coser and Mr. Howe feel that “one of the measures of the success of a socialist society would be precisely how far it could afford to discard the criterion of efficiency.” Perhaps I’m jaundiced by having just had to fight my way through the crowds streaming from the biggest- and-best-ever Earl’s Court Motor Show, but right now I find it impossible to visualize any modern society discarding the criterion of efficiency to a degree which would permit a drastic decentralization of power.
None of which absolves us from the duty of trying to set up as many checks as possible on the undue concentration of power or the misuse of authority. Irving Howe has been unsparing in his attacks on intellectuals, of whatever persuasion, who have surrendered their right to criticize the status quo—most notably in his well-known essay “This Age of Conformity,” written during the worst days of McCarthyism and reprinted in this collection. He himself manages to voice unpopular opinions without slipping into either self-congratulation or self-righteousness; as he says, it ought to be as instinctive for an intellectual to defend freedom as for a child to reach for food. It may be that in a mass society an intellectual can remain loyal to his own standards only by taking up the position of a professional dissenter, a Bartleby among the yes-men. But it is as well to recognize that if he does so he will be condemning himself to play at apocalyptic politics, which are going to be no more relevant to actual politics tomorrow than they are today. The world which is the world of all of us is likely to remain a mass society for as long as anyone can foresee.
November 28, 1963