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Irving Howe Essay

Irving Howe

Howe during his year as writer in residence at University of Michigan, 1967-1968

BornIrving Horenstein
(1920-06-11)June 11, 1920
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
DiedMay 5, 1993(1993-05-05) (aged 72)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
OccupationWriter, public intellectual

Irving Howe (; June 11, 1920 – May 5, 1993) was a Jewish American literary and social critic and a prominent figure of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Early years[edit]

Howe was born as Irving Horenstein in The Bronx, New York. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia, Nettie (née Goldman) and David Horenstein, who ran a small grocery store that went out of business during the Great Depression.[1] His father became a peddler and eventually a presser in a dress factory. His mother was an operator in the dress trade.[2]

Howe attended City College of New York and graduated in 1940,[2] alongside Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol; by the summer of 1940, he had changed his name to Howe for political (as distinct from official) purposes.[3] While at school, he was constantly debating socialism, Stalinism, fascism, and the meaning of Judaism. He served in the US Army during World War II. Upon his return, he began writing literary and cultural criticism for the influential Partisan Review and became a frequent essayist for Commentary, politics, The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. In 1954, Howe helped found the intellectual quarterly Dissent, which he edited until his death in 1993.[2] In the 1950s Howe taught English and Yiddish literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He used the Howe and Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Stories as the text for a course on the Yiddish story, when few were spreading knowledge or appreciation of the works in American colleges and universities.

Political career[edit]

Since his City College days, Howe was committed to left-wing politics. He was a committed democratic socialist throughout his life. He was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and then Max Shachtman's Workers Party. In 1948, he joined the Independent Socialist League and he was a key leader. He left it in the early 1950s.

At the request of his friend, Michael Harrington, he helped cofound the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the early 1970s. DSOC merged into the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, with Howe a vice-chair.

He was a vociferous opponent of both Soviet totalitarianism and McCarthyism, called into question standard Marxist doctrine, and came into conflict with the New Left after he criticized their unmitigated radicalism. Later in life, his politics gravitated toward more pragmatic democratic socialism and foreign policy, a position still represented in Dissent.

He had a few famous run-ins with people. In the 1960s while at Stanford University, he was verbally attacked by a young radical socialist, who claimed that Howe was no longer committed to the revolution and that he had become status quo. Howe turned to the student and said, "You know what you're going to be? You're going to be a dentist."[2]


Known for literary criticism as well social and political activism, Howe wrote critical biographies on Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, a booklength examination of the relation of politics to fiction, and theoretical essays on Modernism, the nature of fiction, and social Darwinism. He was also among the first to re-examine the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson and lead the way to establishing Robinson's reputation as one of the 20th century's great poets. His writing portrayed his dislike of capitalist America.

He wrote many influential books throughout his career, such as the Decline of the New, The World Of Our Fathers, Politics and the Novel and his autobiography A Margin of Hope. He also wrote a biography of Leon Trotsky, who was one of his childhood heroes.

Howe's exhaustive, multidisciplinary history of Eastern European Jews in America, World of Our Fathers, is considered a classic of social analysis and general scholarship. Howe explores the socialist Jewish New York from which he came. He examines the dynamic of Eastern European Jews and the culture that they created in America. World of Our Fathers won the 1977 National Book Awardin History.[4] He also edited and translated many Yiddish stories and commissioned the first English translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer for the Partisan Review.[2] He also wrote Socialism and America. In 1987, Howe was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.


He died in New York. According to the Sinai Hospital, the cause of death was cardiovascular disease.[2]


He had strong political views that he would ferociously defend. Morris Dickstein, a professor at Queens College referred to Howe as a "counterpuncher who tended to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy of the moment, whether left or right, though he himself was certainly a man of the left."[2]

Leon Wieseltier, who was the literary editor of The New Republic, said of Howe: "He lived in three worlds, literary, political and Jewish, and he watched all of them change almost beyond recognition."[2]

And Richard Rorty, American philosopher of note, dedicated his well-known work, Achieving Our Country (1999), to Howe's memory.

Howe had two children, Nina and Nicholas (1953-2006), with his second wife, Thalia Phillies, a classicist.[5]

He is survived by his third wife, Ilona Howe.


Books and pamphlets[edit]

  • Smash the profiteers: vote for security and a living wage, New York, N.Y. : Workers Party Campaign Committee, 1946.
  • Don't pay more rent!, Long Island City, N.Y. : Published by Workers Party Publications for the Workers Party of the United States 1947.
  • The UAW and Walter Reuther, with B. J. Widick. New York, Random House, 1949.
  • Sherwood Anderson, New York, Sloane, 1951.
  • William Faulkner, a critical study, New York, Random House, 1952.
  • The American Communist Party, a critical history, 1919-1957, with Lewis Coser with the assistance of Julius Jacobson. Boston, Beacon Press, 1957.
  • Politics and the novel, New York, Horizon Press, 1957.
  • The Jewish Labor Movement in America: two views., with Israel Knox New York, Jewish Labor Committee, 1957.
  • Edith Wharton, a collection of critical essays, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall 1962
  • Poverty : views from the left, with Jeremy Larner New York : Apollo, 1962.
  • T.E. Lawrence: The Problem of Heroism, The Hudson Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1962.
  • A world more attractive; a view of modern literature and politics., New York, Horizon Press, 1963.
  • Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Washington, DC : Voice of America, 1964. American novel series #14.
  • New styles in "leftism.", New York, League for Industrial Democracy, 1965.
  • On the nature of communism and relations with communists, New York, League for Industrial Democracy, 1966.
  • Steady work; essays in the politics of democratic radicalism, 1953-1966., New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
  • Thomas Hardy, New York, Macmillan, 1967.
  • The idea of the modern in literature and the arts, New York, Horizon Press, 1967.
  • Literary modernism., Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Publications, 1967.
  • Student activism., Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
  • Shoptalk : an instructor's manual for Classics of modern fiction : eight short novels editor, New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
  • Beyond the new left, New York, McCall Pub. Co., 1970. ISBN 0-8415-0021-5
  • Decline of the new, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970
  • The critical point, on literature and culture, New York, Horizon Press, 1973
  • World of our fathers; the journey of the East European Jews to America and the life they found and made , New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976
  • New perspectives: the diaspora and Israel, with Matityahu Peled New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976
  • Trotsky, London : Fontana Modern Masters, 1978
  • Leon Trotsky, New York : Viking Press, 1978
  • Celebrations and attacks : thirty years of literary and cultural commentary, New York : Horizon Press, 1979. ISBN 0-8180-1176-9
  • The threat of conservatism with Gus Tyler and Peter Steinfels, New York, N.Y. : Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1980.
  • The making of a critic, Bennington, Vt. : Bennington College, 1982. Ben Belitt lectureship series, #5.
  • A Margin of Hope: An intellectual Autobiography, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. ISBN 0-15-157138-4.
  • Socialism and America, San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
  • The American newness: culture and politics in the age of Emerson, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • American Jews and liberalism with Michael Walzer, Leonard Fein and Mitchell Cohen, New York, N.Y. : Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1986.
  • The return of terrorism, Bronx, N.Y.: Lehman College of the City University of New York, 1989. Herbert H. Lehman memorial lecture Lehman College publications, #22.
  • Selected writings, 1950-1990 San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
  • A critic's notebook edited and introduced by Nicholas Howe, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.
  • The end of Jewish secularism, New York: Hunter College of the City University of New York, 1995. Occasional papers in Jewish history and thought, #1.

Articles, introductions, translations[edit]

  • The essence of Judaism, by Leo Baeck, translated by Howe and Victor Grubwieser, New York: Schocken Books 1948.
  • A treasury of Yiddish stories, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York, Viking Press, 1954.
  • Modern literary criticism: an anthology, editor, Boston, Beacon Press, 1958.
  • "New York in the Thirties: Some Fragments of Memory," Dissent, vol. 8, no. 3 (Summer 1961), pp. 241–250.
  • New Grub Street by George Gissing; edited and introduced by Irving Howe, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  • The basic writings of Trotsky edited and introduced by Irving Howe, New York, Random House, 1963.
  • The Historical Novel by Georg Lukacs; preface by Irving Howe, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963
  • Orwell's Nineteen eighty-four: text, sources, criticism editor, New York : Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963.
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; afterword by Irving Howe, New York : Signet Classic, 1964.
  • Jude the obscure by Thomas Hardy; edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  • The radical papers editor, New York : Doubleday, 1966.
  • Selected writings: stories, poems and essays. by Thomas Hardy; edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Publications, 1966.
  • Selected short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, New York, Modern Library, 1966.
  • The radical imagination; an anthology from Dissent Magazine editor, New York : New American Library, 1967.
  • A Dissenter's guide to foreign policy editor, New York : Praeger, 1968.
  • Classics of modern fiction; eight short novels editor, New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
  • A treasury of Yiddish poetry, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
  • Essential works of socialism editor, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
  • The literature of America; nineteenth century editor, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1970.
  • Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East editor with Carl Gershman, New York, Quadrangle Books, 1970.
  • Voices from the Yiddish: essays, memoirs, diaries, editor with Eliezer Greenberg Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • The seventies: problems and proposals, editor with Michael Harrington New York, Harper & Row, 1972.
  • The world of the blue-collar worker editor, New York, Quadrangle Books, 1972.
  • Yiddish stories, old and new, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York, Holiday House 1974
  • The new conservatives: a critique from the left editor, New York, Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1974.
  • Herzog by Saul Bellow text and criticism edited by Irving Howe, New York, Viking Press, 1976.
  • Jewish-American stories, editor, New York : New American Library, 1977.
  • Ashes out of hope: fiction by Soviet-Yiddish writers, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York : Schocken Books, 1977.
  • Literature as experience: an anthology editor with John Hollander and David Bromwich, New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
  • The best of Sholem Aleichem edited by Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse, Washington: New Republic Book, 1979.
  • Twenty-five years of Dissent: an American tradition compiled and with an introd. by Irving Howe, New York : Methuen, 1979.
  • How we lived: a documentary history of immigrant Jews in America, 1880-1930 editor with Kenneth Libo, New York : R. Marek, 1979.
  • The portable Kipling editor, New York, Viking Press, 1982
  • Beyond the welfare state editor, New York : Schocken Books, 1982.
  • Short shorts: an anthology of the shortest stories edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe with an introduction by Irving Howe, Boston, Mass: D.R. Godine, 1982
  • 1984 revisited: totalitarianism in our century editor, New York : Harper & Row, 1983.
  • Alternatives, proposals for America from the democratic left editor, New York : Pantheon Books, 1984.
  • We lived there, too: in their own words and pictures—pioneer Jews and the westward movement of America, 1630-1930 editor with Kenneth Libo, New York : St. Martin's/Marek, 1984.
  • The Penguin book of modern Yiddish verse edited by Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse and Chone Shmeruk New York, Viking Press, 1987
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, introduction New York: Bantam, 1990.
  • The castle by Franz Kafka, introduction London : David Campbell Publishers, 1992.
  • Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, introduction London : David Campbell Publishers, 1992.


  1. ^Rodden, John and Goffman, Ethan (2010). "Chronology". Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations With Irving Howe. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press. ISBN 9781557535511. Pg. xv.
  2. ^ abcdefghBernstein, Richard (May 6, 1993). "Irving Howe, 72, Critic, Editor and Socialist, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-27.
  3. ^Edward Alexander, Irving Howe - Socialist, Critic, Jew (Indiana University Press, 1998; ISBN 0253113210), p. 10.
  4. ^"National Book Awards – 1977". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  5. ^"In Memoriam: Nicholas Howe". University of California. 2006. Retrieved 2013-01-12. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Alexander, Edward. Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.
  • Rodden, John, (ed.) Irving Howe and the Critics: Celebrations and Attacks. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
  • Sorin, Gerald. Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Cain, William, and Irving Howe. "An Interview with Irving Howe." American Literary History (1989): 554-564. in JSTOR
  • Howe, Irving. Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010); interviews during the last fifteen years
  • Libo, Kenneth. "My Work on World of Our Fathers," American Jewish History (2000) 88#4 pp: 439-448 Online; memoir by his research assistant
  • Rodden, John, ed. Irving Howe and the Critics: Celebrations and Attacks (U of Nebraska Press, 2005); Essays and reviews written by his critics

External links[edit]

Irving Howe 1920–1993

American critic, essayist, editor, historian, nonfiction writer, biographer, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Howe's career.

Best known for World of Our Fathers (1976), his cultural study of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Howe was one of the "New York Intellectuals," a group of writers and critics—which included Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, and Alfred Kazin—that became nationally prominent in the 1940s. As a critic and editor, Howe introduced English-speaking readers to the work of Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and founded the journal Dissent, a quarterly devoted to democratic socialism. Although some commentators have criticized Howe—a lifelong socialist—for allowing his political views to cloud his critical judgment, he is generally admired for his engaging writing style, staunch intellectual honesty, and lucid assessments of both literature and historical events. A critic for The New Yorker wrote that "for Irving Howe literature and politics were both part of a project greater than either, which was to treat all things of the mind and of the artistic senses with perfect seriousness, and to be true to his own responses and thoughts, and to be no one but himself."

Biographical Information

Howe was born in the East Bronx, New York, an impoverished community whose population was predominantly Eastern European and Jewish. His parents operated a grocery store there until it went bankrupt in 1930, at which time they both became workers in the garment industry. A socialist since the age of fourteen, Howe espoused concern for the common man throughout his career as an academic and social critic. He attended City College of New York, where he took an active role in the informal political debates between the socialists and communists on campus, and graduated in 1940. He subsequently spent one and a half years in graduate study at Brooklyn College before entering the U.S. Army and serving in Alaska during World War II. Howe returned to New York after the war and wrote articles and reviews for such journals as Partisan Review, Commentary, and Time. In 1953 he founded Dissent and remained its editor until his death. Howe also began his academic career in 1953 when he became a professor of English at Brandeis University. He subsequently taught at Stanford University and in 1970 became distinguished professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York. In 1976 Howe received a National Book Award for World of Our Fathers. He died in 1993.

Major Works

The focus of Howe's works covers three basic areas of concern—contemporary politics and society, Yiddish literature and culture, and literary criticism. In such works as The American Communist Party (1957) and Socialism and America (1985), Howe investigated the development and subsequent deterioration of leftist politics in the United States, attributing the decline of the American Socialist Party to its failure to recognize the distinctive characteristics of American society. Among his best-known political essays are "This Age of Conformity" and "New Styles in Leftism," both published in Steady Work (1966). The former remarks on the absorption of intellectuals into the higher strata of society and their resulting inability to analyze and criticize the elite class, while the latter focuses on the New Left movement of the 1960s, castigating it as "mindless activism" that celebrates violence and lacks any firm grounding in political theory. In Leon Trotsky (1978) Howe assessed Trotsky's historical importance and examined his conception of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. Howe's work in Yiddish literature and culture includes several collections of Yiddish stories, poetry, essays, and memoirs that he edited along with Eliezer Greenberg. His best-known work, World of Our Fathers, presents an account of East European Jewish immigrant culture in New York City during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Based on extensive research, the book, coauthored with Kenneth Libo, offers a broad picture of Jewish life as well as striking portraits of such renowned Jewish figures as Isaac Bashevis Singer. Though not a work of conventional history—World of Our Fathers reviews themes and subjects already addressed in other works and offers no new interpretations—it is one of the most comprehensive treatments of its subject available in a single source. Howe's literary criticism includes monographs on Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Thomas Hardy as well as several collections of essays and reviews. Among his best-known essays is "The New York Intellectuals," published in Decline of the New (1970), in which he examined the evolution of the New York Intellectuals' literary theory, which was heavily influenced by socialist concepts.

Critical Reception

Commentators generally describe Howe's works as highly readable and praise his ability to synthesize previous interpretations and place his subjects in a historical perspective. Critics did not consider such books as Leon Trotsky, for example, to be the most scholarly treatment available but nonetheless viewed it as an insightful and valuable introduction to Trotsky's political ideology. In assessing his literary criticism, scholars have noted Howe's preeminent concern with the cultural and ideological ramifications of literary works, and several have charged him with allowing his political preoccupations to overly influence his critical judgment. Despite reservations that Howe was not the critic best suited to write on the works of Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, scholars have nonetheless found his literary criticism insightful and valuable. Commenting on the diversity of Howe's works as well as his efforts to preserve Yiddish culture and the efficacy of socialism, Sanford Pinsker wrote that the phrase "'Trying to keep alive a tradition' … as much as anything, might do rough justice to the seemingly disparate activities that make up the zigzagging graph of Howe's career."