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IRVING HOWE by Edward Alexander

IRVING HOWE

Socialist, Critic, Jew

By Edward Alexander

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-253-33364-4
Publisher: Indiana Univ.

A detailed and dogmatic intellectual biography of one of the leading American literary critics, political journalists, polemicists, and Jewish intellectuals of the past 50 years. Alexander (English/Univ. of Washington) seems to have read everything Howe (1920—93) wrote. His tripartite division of Howe’s work (per the subtitle) is useful, though it would have been better had he proceeded strictly thematically, rather than using a chronological approach and shuttling back and forth among his categories. Alexander is most interesting and insightful on Howe as critic, tracing the influence of such intellectual precursors as Matthew Arnold, George Orwell, and Edmund Wilson on Howe’s thinking and writing. Alexander traces Howe’s political evolution from antiwar Trotskyist polemicist in the early 1940s to a much more nuanced social democrat who cofounded Dissent in 1954 and battled the New Left during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Unfortunately, Alexander’s analysis of Howe’s political views too often is tendentious or otherwise rhetorically overcharged. Alexander praises Howe’s Jewish commitments, particularly the six anthologies on which he collaborated with the American Yiddish journalist Eliezer Greenberg, though he has some justifiable reservations about the exclusion of a discussion of synagogue and other religious life among Lower East Side immigrants in World of Our Fathers. But when it comes to Howe’s writings on Israel, particularly his pro—Peace Now pieces from 1979 until his death, Alexander waxes hysterical. He makes the untenable charge that Howe became involved in “anti-Israeli American Jewish politics”—untenable unless all critiques of Israeli policies are deemed “anti-Israeli.” In Alexander, Howe has found as rigorous, and sometimes sardonic, a biographer as he himself was a writer. But he also deserved someone far more attuned to all the dimensions of his life and his political commitments.