I met Irving Howe only once. We shook hands, spoke a few cordial words, nothing more. Before that we had exchanged a couple of brief, friendly notes about book reviews I’d written for his quarterly, Dissent. Nevertheless, I had a fairly intense relationship with Howe. I can best characterize it by quoting from an essay by a friend of Howe’s, the editor and critic Theodore Solotaroff. A young writer asks Solotaroff who he writes for. Solotaroff reflects a bit and answers: “I guess I write for a few good voices inside my head.”
I wrote – still write; will always write – for Irving Howe and a few other people. Not all these people agree with or even like each other – sometimes the conversation inside my head gets a bit rowdy. But each is, for my purposes, indispensable. Howe is there for a number of reasons, chief among them, perhaps, his cosmopolitanism. Ever since I came across the phrase – by Henry James, I think – “one of those on whom nothing is lost,” it has been my ignis fatuus, my will-of-the-wisp. (A similar ideal, vielseitigkeit or “many-sidedness,” descends from Goethe through Marx to the classical socialist tradition.) In the modern and especially the postmodern world, this aspiration to comprehensiveness has become problematic. To put it all together, always heartbreakingly difficult, is now just about impossible. There’s too much to know, too much to care about, too much available information, too much possible experience.
But in the generation preceding mine, perhaps for the last time in this cycle of European civilization, it was not an absurd hope. And as well as, maybe better than, anyone else in his generation, Howe succeeded in negotiating a dual allegiance to literature and to politics, the claims of beauty and the claims of justice. No one can fully live up to either set of claims, much less both; and Howe failed now and then, in one or another respect, at least in my opinion. But very few other people in this century have been as informed and discriminating, as passionate and illuminating, about literature and politics, and above all about the relation between them.
Contemporary criticism is, alas, all but overgrown by theories about the relation between literature and politics. Howe had no theory, as far as I can make out. He didn’t even have a method, unless, as T.S. Eliot said, the only method is to be very intelligent. Here a few specimens of that sharp, wry, rueful intelligence.
First, from “The Culture of Modernism,” a paragraph that probably says as much as any paragraph could about the most vexed question of 20th-century literary criticism:
We read the late novels of D.H. Lawrence or the cantos of Ezra Pound, aware that these are works of enormously gifted writers yet steadily troubled by the outpouring of authoritarian and Fascist ideas. We read Bertolt Brecht’s “To Posterity,” in which he offers an incomparable evocation of the travail of Europe in the period between the wars yet also weaves in a justification of the Stalin dictatorship. How are we to respond to all this? The question is crucial in our experience of modernist literature. We may say that the doctrine is irrelevant, as many critics do say, and that would lead us to the impossible that the commanding thought of a poem need not be seriously considered in forming a judgment of its value. Or we may say that the doctrine, being obnoxious, destroys our pleasure in the poem, as some critics do say, and that would lead us to the impossible position that our judgment of the work is determined by our opinion concerning the author’s ideology. There is, I think, no satisfactory solution in the abstract, and we must learn to accept the fact that modernist literature is often – not in this way alone! – “unacceptable.” It forces us into distance and dissociation; it denies us wholeness of response; it alienates us from its own powers of statement even when we feel that it is imaginatively transcending the malaise of alienation.
In Politics and the Novel Howe draws a masterly contrast between Hemingway and Silone, in a passage that includes a phrase, “the heroism of tiredness,” that has since been applied often to Howe himself:
If we compare Silone’s view of heroism with that of Hemingway, we see the difference between the feelings of a mature European and, if I may say so, an inexperienced American. For Hemingway heroism is always a visible trial, a test limited in time, symbolized in dramatic confrontations. For Silone heroism is a condition of readiness, a talent for waiting, a gift for stubbornness; his is the heroism of tiredness. Hemingway’s heroic virtues are realized in situations increasingly distant from the social world, among bullfighters and hunters and fishermen; Silone’s heroic virtues pertain to people who live, as Bertolt Brecht has put it, in the “dark ages” of modern Europe, at the heart of our debacle.
Howe concludes with a wistful but clear-eyed comment which, though of universal application, taught me something unexpected about the moral resources of my own heritage:
Silone is not at all sentimental about the peasants, for the sardonic humor that twists through his books is often turned against their coarseness and gullibility. But they are his, by adoption or blood, and he remains hopeful, with a hopefulness that has nothing to do with optimism, that from the hidden inarticulate resources of the poor, which consist neither of intelligence nor nobility, but rather of a training in endurance and an education in ruse – that from all this something worthy of the human may yet emerge.
Finally, from a review of Orwell’s Collected Essays, a passage that is keenly, poignantly satisfying because, consciously or not, Howe is describing not only Orwell but himself as well, especially in his marvelous final sentence:
My sense of Orwell, as it emerges from reading him in bulk, is rather different from that which became prevalent in the conservative fifties: the “social saint” one of his biographers called him, the “conscience of his generation” V.S. Pritchett declared him to be, or the notably good man Lionel Trilling saw in him. The more I read of Orwell, the more I doubt that he was particularly virtuous or good. Neither the selflessness nor the patience of the saint, certainly not the indifference to temporal passion that would seem to be a goal of sainthood, can be found in Orwell. He himself wrote in an essay on Gandhi: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things a saint must avoid, but sainthood is a thing that human beings must avoid.”
As a “saint” Orwell would not trouble us, for by now we have learned how to put up with saints: we canonize them and are rid of them. Orwell, however, stirs us by his all too human, his truculent example. … If he was a good man, it was mainly in the sense that he had measured his desperation and come to accept it as a mode of honor.
As these examples suggest, Howe has written his own epitaph, and far better than I, at any rate, could hope to – not only in his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, which is immensely wise, generous, and entertaining, but above all in “The New York Intellectuals,” probably his best-known essay, and deservedly so, for its density, velocity, and lucidity are astonishing. “The radicalism of the thirties,” Howe wrote, “gave the New York intellectuals their distinctive style: a flair for polemic, a taste for the grand generalization, an impatience with what they regarded (often parochially) as parochial scholarship, an internationalist perspective, and a tacit belief in the unity – even if a unity beyond immediate reach – of intellectual work. … [This style] reflected a certain view of intellectual life … one which, for better or worse, differed radically from the accepted modes of scholarly publishing and middle-brow journalism; which celebrated the idea of the intellectual as antispecialist, or as a writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.”
Not all readers have a taste for that style, and not many writers have a talent for it. But Howe had the talent and I had the taste, so into my head he went and has lodged there ever since.