Howe was born Irving Horenstein, the son of David Horenstein, at various times a grocer, peddler, and dress-factory presser, and Nettie Goldman, a dress trade operator. In 1934, while still a student at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Howe became active in left-wing but strongly anti-Stalinist politics. After graduating from high school in 1936, he entered City College of New York (CCNY), where, though a dilatory student, he took a serious interest in literary criticism, especially that of Edmund Wilson. Although
he was still Horenstein in class and is so called in the CCNY yearbook for the graduating class of 1940, he began to use the Trotskyist party name Hugh Ivan and, for speeches and articles, Irving Howe. Although an English major, he graduated with a bachelor of social sciences in 1940.
In 1941 Howe married Anna Bader. Living in Greenwich Village, Howe became managing editor of Labor Action, the weekly paper of the Workers Party. Under Howe’s leadership the paper consistently opposed American entry into and prosecution of the war against Germany and Italy. But in mid-1942 Howe was drafted into the army. He entered the army at Camp Upton, Long Island, New York, and was sent to Alaska in 1944. He spent sixteen months at Fort Richardson, near Anchorage. After serving for three and a half years, he reached the rank of sergeant before his discharge early in 1946. He then legally changed his surname to Howe. He divorced Anna that year and moved back to the Bronx. He resumed writing for Labor Action and for New International, the Trotskyist “theoretical” journal, but he began also in 1946 to write on Jewish topics for Commentary and on literary subjects for Partisan Review, which shared Howe’s paradoxical devotion to both Leon Trotsky and T. S. Eliot. During 1946 Howe took some graduate courses at Brooklyn College, but he earned no degree.
In 1947 Howe married archaeologist Thalia Filias, with whom he had two children. He worked for a time as assistant to Hannah Arendt at Schocken Books and to Dwight Macdonald at Politics magazine, where he wrote under the pseudonym Theodore Dryden. For four years, starting in 1948, Howe reviewed nonpolitical books for Time magazine, a publication typically scorned by people of Howe’s political persuasion. In 1948, after moving to Princeton, New Jersey, Howe became acquainted with the town’s numerous literary inhabitants, including Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow.
In his first public involvement in “Jewish” issues, Howe in 1949 entered the controversy over awarding the Bollingen Prize for poetry to Ezra Pound, who had spoken on behalf of fascism and against Jews during the war. At the same time Howe published with B. J. Widick The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949). His career as a literary critic burgeoned with two books on American writers well outside his New York milieu, Sherwood Anderson (1951) and the pioneering William Faulkner (1952). Largely for financial reasons, Howe accepted a post teaching English at the newly formed Brandeis University, where his job interview was conducted in Yiddish. During his tenure at Brandeis (1953–1961), Howe established a reputation as a superbly gifted teacher.
Although he had abandoned Trotskyism by 1948 and had resigned from the Independent Socialist League in 1952, Howe remained a committed socialist and did not give up on Marxism until 1960. In 1954 he founded Dissent magazine to promote “democratic” socialism, more as an animating ethic than as a political program. For the next forty years he spent two days a week editing the magazine without remuneration. Also in 1954 he published, with the Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg, the first in a series of groundbreaking anthologies adorned with brilliant introductions designed as acts of critical salvage of the destroyed culture of Eastern European Jewry. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954) was dedicated “To the Six Million.” Howe turned to Yiddish literature in belated response to the Holocaust during World War II.
Now writing on all his three tracks: socialist, literary, and Jewish, with the abundance of a major industry, Howe published in 1957 Politics and the Novel, his first major collection of literary essays, and The American Communist Party: A Critical History, with Lewis Coser However, his personal life was less than happy, and in 1959 he and his wife divorced. In 1961 Howe moved to California to teach at Stanford University, a place he soon disliked partly, so it was reported, because nobody there understood his Jewish jokes. When a job offer came from Hunter College in the City University of New York, he accepted it with alacrity and in 1963 returned to what he called his natural habitat. In 1964 he married Arien Hausknecht, a member of the New School (New York) faculty in psychology.
The 1960s was a decade of controversy for Howe. In 1963 he organized a tumultuous public forum to debate Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the book that blamed European Jews for having significantly and willingly participated in their own destruction. He was active in the dissent against the Vietnam War but also against its antidemocratic, New Left opponents. His critiques of the “authoritarians of the left” were collected in a volume of essays on the politics of democratic radicalism entitled Steady Work (1966). By now a famous, respected, and honored literary critic, Howe published his only book-length study of an English novelist, Thomas Hardy (1967).
In the 1970s Howe became a sharp critic of the new generation of militant feminists and also of the professors who, in universities and professional organizations, exploited literature for partisan political purposes. At the same time he continued his collaboration with Greenberg in establishing a canon of the essential works of secular Jewish-ness. A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry appeared in 1969 and Voices from the Yiddish, a collection of nonfiction writing, in 1972. In 1970 he was named distinguished professor at the City University of New York and in 1971 received both the Bollingen and Guggenheim Fellowships. In 1972, with indefatigable energy and in defiance of the expectations of friends, Howe plunged into work on a massive history of the immigrant Jewish world of New York. For four years he pored over memoir literature in English and Yiddish, studies of immigrant experiences, the Yiddish and American press, historical studies, personal interviews, and works of fiction to produce a work of social and cultural history that could “lay claim to being an accurate record.”
Howe timed the appearance of World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, a masterwork of historical writing, in 1976 to coincide with the bicentennial celebration of American independence. He proclaimed that the history of the 2 million East European Jews who came to the United States starting in the 1880s was a distinctly American story and a part of American history. The book sketches the world of the shtetl and its demise and the trials of departure from the Old World and arrival in the new. It then examines life on “the East Side,” with emphasis upon social and political movements. The third part of the volume deals with the literary culture of Yiddish. Written with the assistance of Kenneth Libo, the huge volume of more than 700 pages was a best-seller and a selection of the History Book Club.
World of Our Fathers won the National Book Award for History and the Francis Parkman Prize and prompted the election of Howe as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979. The book’s popularity threatened to make Howe into an institution, but he was determined to make a full and honest reckoning with his past. This he did in Leon Trotsky (1978), A Margin of Hope (1982), and Socialism and America (1985). In all three Howe tried to tell the truth about his radical socialist past. The second is an autobiography that tells little of his life and loves but much about his career as a public intellectual. Still its dedication reflected yet another change in Howe’s private life. World of Our Fathers was dedicated to his third wife, whom he divorced about 1978. The 1982 book was dedicated to Ilana Wiener, an Israeli expatriate who became his fourth wife in about 1980.
Howe retired from the City University of New York in 1986 but continued to write voluminously. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1987. For the third time in his career he went into combat against literary radicals, now called “theorists,” who saw little intrinsic value in literature and used it mainly as an instrument of their political ambitions. Slowed by illness in his last years, he died of a ruptured aorta in New York City.
Howe’s career was the story of three loves. He began as a passionate believer in the capacity of socialism to end war and injustice but eventually was forced to acknowledge its almost universal failure as a political movement. Nevertheless, he transformed socialism into a myth of considerable power as an ethical instrument of social and political criticism. He was stirred belatedly into Jewishness by the Holocaust and undertook a heroic effort to save a language and a literature that were almost destroyed by Nazism. Although he endowed the idea of secular Jewishness with a special twilight beauty, he ceased to believe in its future long before he died. Literature proved the most powerful and compelling of his three loves. He defended its autonomy against Stalinists and Trotskyists in the 1940s, against “guerrillas with tenure” in the 1960s, and against theorists in the 1980s. Among American men of letters in the twentieth century, he was the exemplar of intellectual heroism and tenacious idealism.
Howe’s A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (1982) is almost as impersonal as its subtitle suggests but is of great value. Edward Alexander, Irving Howe— Socialist, Critic, Jew (1998), the only book-length study of Howe, is primarily a biography of his mind. Useful discussions of particular aspects of Howe’s work are in Edward Alexander, Irving Howe and Secular Jewishness: An Elegy (1995). Journal articles include Alvin Rosenfeld, “Irving Howe: The World of Our Fathers,” Midstream 22 (October 1976): 80-86; and Sanford Pinsker, “Lost Causes/Marginal Hopes,” Virginia Quarterly Review 65 (spring 1989) : 215-230. Several personal memorials and tributes are in “Remembering Irving Howe,” Dissent 40 (fall 1993) : 515-549. An obituary is in the New York Times (6 May 1993).
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