Way back in the purgatorial mid-seventies, when poor Abe Beame presided over New York, bankruptcy loomed, and the future seemed impossible and beautifully chaotic, my father invested in a Broadway show. It was his first such venture and it would be his last. A hard-nosed realist who spent much of his life dealing scrap and sheet metal out of a warehouse near the waterfront in Brooklyn, he was not predisposed to capricious investments. But in the case of The World of Sholom Aleichem his business acumen failed him. Here was the great Yiddish storyteller of the shtetl, his parents’ lost language and world that my father had absorbed secondhand though the transplanted ghettoes of New York. “This is for the past,” he said. “This is who we are. It’s like giving to the synagogue.” And he plunked down his fifteen hundred bucks for half a share.
The World of Sholom Aleichem was doomed from the start. It opened at the Rialto on Eighth Avenue, the outer fringes of Broadway. Sitting in the theater, we could feel the staleness and failed lust of its recent incarnation as a Forty-Second Street porn house. The only touch of glamour was the presence of Jerzy Kosinski at the premiere. He left looking gloomy, and so did my old man. How could we celebrate the comic, nonrational wisdom of Aleichem’s poor Yiddish-speaking Jews when we knew the horrendous fate that awaited them? The luxury of nostalgia, we realized as the curtain went down that night, was beyond us. Fiddler on the Roof had been a hit, it’s true (as “Sholom’s” depressed investors were often reminded), but it was fluffier, more sentimental, and in the end the young girl embarks for the boundless promise of America. In retrospect “Fiddler” only seemed to prove the obvious: the shtetl had passed from real memory to kitsch, and the time for earnest depictions of Yiddish culture in the old country was over.
Later, more detailed imagery of shtetl life would make a comeback, mainly as a means of providing a “humanizing” backdrop for the plethora of Holocaust based docudramas and fictions that would soon crowd the collective stadium of our minds. But the day of any inherent interest in the culture had passed; the wry, suffering textures of an era and language could now be conjured in three or four universally accepted images, and nobody, it seemed, needed, or wanted, more.
Around the same time that The World of Sholom Aleichem failed to make its splash, Irving Howe published World of Our Fathers.–of the eighteen books he would write, his only bestseller. Howe would later say that its success took him completely by surprise, but the book’s subtitle — The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made — explains its rise to the top of the charts. Howe inadvertently picked up the story where Fiddler had left off — with the arrival of the Jews in the New World — offering his mass Jewish-American audience what Sholom Aleichem could not: a future.
Other cultural events of the time contributed to the success of Howe’s book, to be sure. In 1977, Alex Haley’s Roots, TV’s first mini-series, drew record ratings with its saga of kidnapped Africans and their horrific lives as slaves in the New World.
Roots may seem tacky today, but it was the first time that white America, en masse, was enticed to consider the individual suffering the slave trade had caused. The empathies that Roots induced in its non-Black viewers were typically short-lived. These were essentially soap opera emotions — the image of themselves as the perpetrators of mass slavery is not one that Americans can look squarely in the eye. The immigrant experience, on the other hand, as told by the second generation — Howe’s generation — is a different matter. Implicitly it is a story of obstacles met and obstacles surmounted. Our fathers, it says, have not suffered in vain. Their sacrifices have been rewarded, and we are the reward. The implication renews America’s sense of itself as a success story, while substantiating its claim as Europe’s savior.
Howe, a lifelong Socialist, is an unlikely proponent of this myth: he had no intention to be the Jewish Alex Haley, I’m sure. It was one of the paradoxes he would have to live with — to tell the story is, unwittingly or not, to endorse it. And the difference between the two books is glaring. Roots is a work of historical fiction (“faction,” Haley rather hedgingly chose to call it), while World of Our Fathers is a 700-page tome of documented history, anecdote, reminiscence, exhaustively researched — a typical performance by the author of The American Communist Party: A Critical Study and other tedious-sounding volumes. But in the midst of the narcissistic national obsession with our genealogical past that Roots inspired, “the Jewish Alex Haley” was exactly what Irving Howe briefly became.
Ironically, Blacks had a hard time joining in the genealogical fad. What personal ancestral link is there for those whose name’s were erased on the auction block? East European Jews had a similar problem: their family trees had been slashed and burned. I still remember the day my father proudly announced that he and mother would visit the great cultures of Europe. He meant Paris and Rome, of course, but my grandfather, with his own landscape in mind, scoffed at him. “You’ll never know Europe,” he said, in Yiddish. “Europe isn’t a hotel.” The fact was that while the curse of the African slaves began in the New World, for the Jews it is the place where it was finally lifted.
And so World of Our Fathers — dubbed “Rootsela” by those of us of the third generation who read it with a somewhat jaundiced and defensive eye — couldn’t have been published in a more favorable commercial climate. If The World of Sholom Aleichem was stuck in the dead Old World, Howe’s book transported the ghetto home. This ghetto was a reasonable facsimile of the original, but with the ecstatic difference that it had not been obliterated but merely disappeared, a one-generation way station where the bright, unmurdered puppies of America’s future would be spawned. For the Jews it is the one unequivocally happy story of the 20th century. And Howe, the quintessential “New York intellectual” (it was he, in fact, who coined the phrase), seemed the perfect man to tell it.
His “affectionate glance backward,” however, is in one crucial way, deceiving.
In his 1982 memoir A Margin of Hope, Howe writes of his father in the East Bronx. Reduced to taking a job as a presser in the dress trade after his grocery store went bankrupt in 1930, he worked himself to the bone. Ashamed at having failed in business, he would return to their apartment, his body blistered from the steam iron, and submit to the ministrations of his wife — “strong, humorless, enclosing” — who out of necessity held down a job of her own. For the author of World of Our Fathers it is a tellingly brief description. Though respectful and sympathetic, there is an undertone of pity, and removal, in the prose.
Some forty years, and three hundred and thirty pages later Howe returns to his father on his deathbed. He stands over him in the hospital, staring “at the shrunken body of this man who would never again greet me with an ironic rebuke.” When he dutifully proposes hiring a private nurse, his father resists: Why spend the money? Would a nurse make him young again? “Oh, the unmeasurable willfulness of these immigrant Jews, exerted to their last moment in the service of self-denial!” cries the son. With painful honesty he admits to having made his father into a myth. “I could not speak words of love,” he says, “because I did not love my father as a man. Yet I was overwhelmed with emotion at the thought of his decades of suffering and endurance. Even while still breathing he had become for me a representative figure of the world from which I came, and I suppose a good part of World of Our Fathers is no more than an extension of what I knew about him.”
Finally, sick with himself for being “a son with a chilled heart,” he gropes for a certain comfort. “To make a myth of the man I should have mourned as a father, to cast him at the center of the only story I had to tell, was to reach a kind of peace between generations.”
This unconvincing peace, this profound uneasiness with the father, haunted Howe’s generation of Jews. The critic Alfred Kazin in his own memoir, New York Jew, writes of his disturbing, ghostly journeys back to his parents and the tenement of his childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “News of the big money,” he says, “had not reached this house painter and this home dressmaker. They were as poor and isolated from America-at-large as the day they had met. They lived where they had always lived, and more and more they lived without hope.” The old Jews, left over in Brownsville, “with their ritual wigs, their legs bent like crutches, their boarded-up storefronts, their community kitchens for the destitute, and their bitter fear of the blacks,” fill Kazin with desolation.
My own late father, with unconscious candor, would sometimes reflect at how fortunate he was that my grandfather fell ill, losing his vitality when my father was still a young man. He knew where the big money was, and he didn’t want this strong-willed, culturally hampered yiddishkeit blocking the way of his great passage to becoming a prosperous, cosmopolitan New Yorker.
It was, by any measure, an amazing passage. The distance these Jews traveled, the transformations they enjoyed are unprecedented, probably unrepeatable in American life. Their timing was perfect. As if to continue his argument with my grandfather’s hard luck, my father would warn me not to expect the bounty or excitement that was his after The War. The diminished possibilities of his five sons, as he saw it, did not depress him. His good fortune gave him pleasure. He was a bit like old Cronus that way, but it looks like he may have been right. Probably Howe never said that to his kids, but from a generational point of view, the story of his liberation from the tenement is typical enough.
In the disconsolate Bronx a kind librarian introduces him to Wordsworth while the Yiddish socialists turn him on to political thought, the two threads that will form the foundation of his intellectual existence. His timid, ghetto-minded parents warn him of the dangers of radicalism, but for Howe it’s too late — already under the sway of the charismatic Norman Thomas, he joins the Young People’s Socialist League, roaming the city in support of strikers, a fervent (though admittedly dismal) street orator out in the cold. During the Depression, before the ubiquitous prophesies of Marxism have lost their luster, such commitment is not uncommon. Howe, however, carries his much further that most. The convolutions of thirties radical politics and internationalism consume him. He throws himself into a Trotskyist sect and trades his Jewish name for a party name, this, as his comrade Lewis Coser explains, to assert his “newly-achieved elite status” and make a “decisive break with the outside world of [his] past.”
As ambitious as he is dogged, he reads the voluminous works of Trotsky “with an almost Talmudic care.” Like other Jewish intellectuals of the time (including the conservative ideologue Irving Kristol, whom Howe recruited to his Trotskyist youth group at City College in 1938) he is training to master the rigors of intellectual discourse that will define his career.
In the meantime, his nascent interest in literature deepens. He is intoxicated by the great modernist writers — Joyce, Proust, Mann, and Yeats. To the Stalinists such a passion for highbrow culture would be heretical, but for a Trotskyist it poses no contradiction. “We admired modernist writers on principle,” says Howe. Trotsky himself had “set the example through his own skillful literary criticism and his friendship with Andre Breton and Diego Rivera. It seemed only right that we of one vanguard should tip our hats to the giants of another.”
His fascination with T. S. Eliot is a little harder to reconcile, but face to face with the haunting melody of The Hollow Men (“This is the dead land/This is the cactus land”) ideological severities crumble. Howe is “dizzy with excitement.” Eliot may have meant his poems to reflect the sterility of a faithless age, but to the Jewish revolutionary at City College they are about “the decay of bourgeois civilization.” Howe knows Eliot is a reactionary, but he really doesn’t care.
Then comes Pearl Harbor and four years in the army, most of them spent in safe and sluggish boredom at an outpost near Anchorage, Alaska. No heroics here. In the bleakness of the tundra enemy fire is as abstract as politics. By his own account, he hardly knows the difference between a machine gun and a howitzer — an ironic, but fitting, fate for the self-styled vanguardist. Condemned to sort meaningless documents in a tin mess hall at the fort, he has no choice but to confront “the self,” a subject that Howe, with the crushing baggage of his theories, is peculiarly unequipped to tackle. His modest discovery is that he has a “self” at all, but what to do with it remains unanswered. He yearns to be a socialist leader, a man of action, but what he loves is the Talmudic solitude of the written word.
On the tramp steamer from Alaska he clutches the railing and weeps at the ardent vision of himself he both wishes for and has lost. A whistle-stop in that other outpost, the Bronx, reveals his father broken from years on the press iron and his mother terminally ill with cancer. The thought of hanging around is enough to make him gag. Nor does the movement any longer provide an alternate home: Howe’s ambitions don’t jive with the role of a penniless party drone, no matter how much guilt he feels at the thought of abandoning his comrades — whose cause he will more or less endorse to the end. The imperatives of success and of possible power convince him to make the break and set forth (as if leaving a shtetl of his own) into the larger world.
That world is in Manhattan, and the ambitious Jews of his generation will be waiting for him there when he arrives.
At “The Partisansky Review” (as Edmund Wilson archly acknowledged its peculiarly Jewish cast), he finds his third home. Howe is not one of the true luminaries of the crowd — he’s less nimble than Kazin, less incisive than Clement Greenberg, less inspired than Isaac Rosenfeld, less imaginative than Bellow or Delmore Schwartz; but with his emerging, intensely humanist approach to literary criticism, and his prodigious work ethic (he juggled several interlocking careers) he’s able to elbow his way into the shop.
What these guys shared was what they were: young Americans and old Jews. The energies this combination unleashed in them was often brilliant. The critic Harold Rosenberg, one of the Partisan‘s old guard, coined the term “the tradition of the New.” It’s a good description of what distinguished the crowd. The hybrid fabric of their lives made them a vital link in the “Europeanizing” of American culture. With some arrogance, but also from the core of their being, they took the bloody irrelevancy of European politics and the soul of modernism that arose from it, and grafted them on to the American scene. They were unabashed elitists, but it was a socialist elitism, an open one that newcomers, such as themselves, could acquire.
Unlike the Beats they were uninterested in America’s past. The mystical intuitive romanticism of Melville, Whitman, Emerson, and later Hart Crane that the Beats embraced barely existed for the Partisan writers. Anyway, their upbringing had put them too deeply outside the mainstream to rebel against it as overtly as the Beats did. They were sublimely unhip: there were no open spaces this side of the Hudson; metaphorically they were in the cramped sweatshops and tenements of their parents, not on the road.
Still, in the Village of the late forties and early fifties, they were having a blast. Saul Bellow recalls that all you had to do was declare you were a writer and the seduction of many an attractive woman was sealed — in keeping with the rabbinical tradition, theirs was an emphatically patriarchal order. The brilliant, under-achieving Isaac Rosenfeld kept a homemade orgone box in his tiny Barrow Street apartment. Bellow underwent Reichian analysis and so did Paul Goodman and others, an attempt perhaps to eradicate some of the Old World moralism that in booming America was more a liability than an asset.
Howe was less experimental by nature, more conservative and staid. The sacrifice of ideology in favor of personality (and reputation) may have made him uneasy. Certainly it was one of the crucial areas of ambivalence in his life. But in the intellectual sweatshop of the fifties he too would achieve fruition with the publication of his only important, authentically original critical work: Politics and the Novel.
What happens to the novel, he asks, when “the impersonal claims of ideology” are exposed to “the pressures of private emotion,” when abstraction confronts the “flux of experience,” when “purity of idea” collides with the “contamination of action”? Howe, who could neither surrender ideology nor find satisfaction in it, had to tackle this question to get to any real depth in his work. The changed quality of the writing immediately alerts us: Howe knows that he has found his subject. Humor and wit, the vital ingredients lacking from most of his writing, are not missed here. The prose in Politics and the Novel is unusually alive, energized by the sense that the disparate factions of his intellect are finally free to abrade, spurring a more tense — and personal — insight from his otherwise tame critical heart.
The two political specters of the fifties stand over the book, though wisely they are never mentioned in its pages: the paranoid monolith of Stalinism in Russia, and the choked and petty terror of McCarthyism at home. Both have made clear to him the extreme danger that ideology poses, to fiction as well as to life. But that won’t let us off the hook. “Ideology cannot be avoided,” he says bluntly. “There is hardly a choice. Even the most airy-minded liberal must live with it.” Though it is also, he admits, the “great sickness of our time.”
Howe knows that overtly to inject ideology into the novel threatens the integrity of the form. But it also forces it “to reach new heights, conquer new ground.” The writers he chooses to illustrate this point — Dostoevsky, Conrad, Henry James, Turgenev, Stendhal — not only vindicate the ambivalence that had been troubling Howe for twenty years, they dignify it with the possibility of transcendence.
Interestingly enough, Malraux, Silone, Koestler, and Orwell, writers closer to the battles of Howe’s time and with whose politics he is more sympathetic, fare the least well in his critical optic. Their works are informed by disillusion, “obsessed by the failure or betrayal of the revolution.” Like Howe, Malraux and Silone were political activists before they turned to writing. But “what they gain in political authority, they lose in novelistic subtlety and range.” Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is “in the grip of a fixed idea” with little of the “intellectual fluidity, the richness of absorbed life…that distinguishes the political novel at its best.” It reflects the kind of intellectual sclerosis that Howe, with mixed results, would spend much of his life trying to avoid.
Dostoevsky on the other hand, he says, is “unequaled in modern literature for showing the muddle that may lie beneath the order and precision of ideology.” It may seem strange that Howe would use an avowed reactionary as his primary example; but what interests him is the muddle itself, not the actual content of the ideas. The Possessed was written with the “explicit purpose of excommunicating all beliefs that find salvation anywhere but in the Christian God.” But when Dostoevsky’s characters are presented with the possibility of salvation, the “cautions of the will” are submerged by the chaos of the discordant subconscious, and they dismiss God and turn away — much like Howe turned away from the absolutes of his socialist party.
James’ skepticism (in The Bostonians) “is that of a man who is living, and knows he is living, in the backwash of a great historical moment. It is the skepticism of a man who in his own life has known something about the reforms of yesterday and who wants little to do with them, except perhaps to honor their memories.” The novel’s characters are “all of them displaced persons, floating vaguely in the large social spaces of America.”? A condition that Howe himself, for all his effort of will and supposed conviction, would be unable to escape.
But the writer who elicits his most passionate reading is Conrad, an extreme example of the reinvented man. In England Conrad tried to lose himself in Jamesian respectability, changing not only his name but his language and national identity — a prototype for V.S. Naipaul who under the cover of safe bourgeois prudence sets his harrowing novels in the bleakest and most unstable landscapes of the post-colonial world. As a second generation American Jew, Howe is well-equipped to see through this disguise. He highlights the dismissive embarrassment with which Conrad used to say that his father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was merely “a patriot.” But back in Poland he had been far more than that — a mystical nationalist revolutionary who believed in direct violent action. After the collapse of the Polish rebellion the Conrads, including Joseph, were exiled to a distant province in Russia. His ultimate escape into the bucolic security of Sussex was as thorough as it could be. But in his revulsion toward Dostoevsky Conrad shows his hand. “He did not,” observed his friend Richard Curle, “despise Dostoevsky as one despises a nonentity, he hated him as one might hate Lucifer and the forces of darkness.” To Conrad the old Russian was “a grimacing and haunted creature” whose novels read like “fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages.”
But the “prehistory” Conrad is referring to, says Howe, is “a projection of his own past, the years of his youth which he may well have wished to consign to the blackness of the prehistoric.” The fact is, Dostoevsky was “profoundly accessible to Conrad…a nagging memory” to him, “a sardonic challenge, an unsubdued pressure of rejected energies” who brought the atmosphere of his father’s fanatical world back to him like no other writer could.
For Howe, the acute sense of repression under which Conrad functions is what facilitates his artistic triumph. “By straining his will [Conrad] suppresses the chaos within him; but it breaks past his guard in the shape of a free-floating anxiety, a sense that the universe is — not actively malicious, which might even be consoling but — permanently treacherous and ominous. Conrad is finally unable to sustain any commitment of skepticism: what remains is the honorable debris of failure.” Honorable, because it results in what must seem like a supreme achievement to Howe: the transformation of the rejected world of one’s father into art.
The Partisan group’s lifespan as America’s first bona fide Intelligentsia was short. Despite periodic recessions, the post-war economic boom continued with almost monstrous force; in the face of such prosperity, Socialism was an increasingly futile chant. How do you fight an expansion that you’re an integral part of? And, more to the point, how do you maintain your status as an alienated outsider when the culture is enshrining you as the latest word? By the sixties these Jews had come to permeate American culture so thoroughly that the essayist Edward Hoagland published a piece (in Commentary) entitled “On Not Being a Jew.” With a certain irony Hoagland peruses old photographs of his forebears for evidence of the “rashness” and vitality in his past that, for the moment at least, seemed to be the exclusive province of Jews.
All that has changed of course: the “specialness” by now belongs to newer immigrants — Russians, Jamaicans, Koreans, Chinese — as a kind of recyclable American award. And by the mid-sixties Howe feels as adrift in “the large social spaces of America” as one of James’ protagonists. After two miserably cushy years in California, at Stanford, he returns to New York to find literary life has “crumbled into success. Plenty of talented people remained but I could find no sense of shared purpose. It was now everyone for himself, on the lookout for reputation.” It’s a condition that he, an aspirant who thrived on the belief that he belonged in a movement, had both longed for and feared. “Everything I had striven for,” he writes, “seemed pointless.”
He goes through a divorce, resorts to a therapist, fantasizes of a radical metamorphosis in his life. But didn’t he already do that when he left the Bronx, and then later when he dropped out of the Socialist Party? “People like me,” he says, “were living through a confused experience of self-acceptance, a sinking inward to that part of our being which fate or circumstance had given us.” The New Leftists of the sixties dismiss him as a fossil, failing to recognize that Howe’s confusion, his evolving willingness not to know, is his strongest trait. He is as irrelevant to them as he had thought his own father was to him.
That part of his being which “fate or circumstance” had given him was his Jewishness and his father. Howe’s crisis will lead him back to them in a fraught, and somewhat sorrowful way.
Some of the old crowd, like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg (both by this time icons of the exploding New York art scene) are grappling with the same dilemma. Stunned by the Holocaust, and on the defensive after Hannah Arendt’s essay Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to damn the Jews as co-conspirators in their own annihilation, they are struggling to redefine the cultural-historical thread of their past. It’s the Jewish intellectual’s version of genealogy: for a nomadic tribe the construct of a family tree is superfluous. There is only the father, and behind that five thousand collective years. Alfred Kazin captures the condition more viscerally when he cries: “I want to love again. I want my God back.” I want, I want…. It is also the refrain that the narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift will use as he gropes through Chicago and New York,
And for those who, like Howe, reject the ritual, the Bible–the faith–the thread becomes a filament. It would be wonderful to embrace God in a moment of epiphany that instantly dissolves all doubt, but let’s face it, not all of us have an aptitude for that sort of thing. That, some will suggest, may be exactly what rituals are for — to help you out, to give you a structural hand, a link to tradition, if not to God. But in a culture whose very definition is the absence of tradition (even “the tradition of the New”), the ritual feels unbearably inauthentic and forced.
Howe can’t quite buy it. He’s rejected enough orthodoxies by now not to be self-deceived. Like my own father, he possesses a hardheaded, bottom line clarity about himself and about the world. “I had almost nothing coherent to say on Jewish themes,” he declares. Then on second thought, he adds: “I could not release my true feelings because they were blocked by worn opinions.” What he can relate to about the Jews is their “persistent choosing of identity,” their “heroic self-assertion.”
Who exemplifies this trait more than the old Yiddish writers, still toiling in their isolated corners of New York? Working in a dead language, like figures out of a fiction by Borges, the Yiddishists lived in New York, but inhabited — unsentimentally, as writers — the dreamscape of dead shtetl Europe. In his involvement with them Howe is able to fall back on the comfort of method that he is so used to — this time not as a Marxist, but as a folklorist, a kind of literary anthropologist. This detachment will allow him to re-enter the world of his father, but on a higher, literary plane. The Yiddishists are for him, in a much more modest way, what Dostoevsky was for Conrad. He can see the bond between them and his father, “though [the Yiddish writers] could quote Heine and Pushkin,” while his father, languishing now in the gargantuan housing project of Co-Op City in the far eastern reaches of the Bronx, “never read anything but the Yiddish paper.” That bond may be no more than a “shared bias,” but for Howe it is enough. He’s not trying to solve “the Jewish problem.” As a “partial Jew” (a “non-Jewish Jew” as Isaac Deutscher called Trotsky) he knows he is a lost cause — a man at a “historical dead end” — as doomed as the Yiddish writers and as doomed as his father. Knowing them, he says, “I learned where I had come from and how I was likely to end.”
They will lead him to one of his more significant contributions to American literature: the discovery of I.B. Singer, the most masterful Yiddish storyteller since Sholom Aleichem. The story he finds, in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward, is the now famous Gimpel the Fool. He enlists Bellow to translate, and hands the result over to Philip Rahv who publishes it in the Partisan Review. It is a fitting event for Howe to be a part of. For in his finest work Singer sets his folklorist philosophers and camp survivors loose in the cafeterias of East Broadway, in the Jewish neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, and on the Upper West Side, turning these into a kind of nightmare landscape of love and lust and dispossession and psychosis — a luxurious but comfortless halfway house between survival and obliteration. It’s a post-Holocaust New World that holds no more future for them — who escaped death but not the terrors of Europe — than it does for the language in which they are described.
It is the Yiddishists, incarnating his father’s background and wedding it to the written word, who lead Howe to write his unlikely bestseller. But even if Singer’s characters had no future, they had, at least, an identity, no matter how scarred, no matter how haunted, now matter how projected from a world long gone. For Howe, there was only an “affectionate glance backward,” the memorialization of The World of Our Fathers that even it’s author mistrusted. The only faith left him after his long traverse of the mid-twentieth century is the one that he must have felt never betrayed him: his favorite writers.
Howe’s A Critic’s Notebook, published now, eighteen months after his death, is a restrained, final turn in the garden by a depleted though still thoughtful man. Howe, his son Nicholas informs us in the introduction, called this book his shtiklakh, from the Yiddish for “morsels.” It’s a reference to the short length of the pieces but also, I think, a warning not to expect a tilling of new ground. His long-time friend Leon Wieseltier, who published some of the pieces in The New Republic, was more on the money when he described the work as “provisional.” He meant it as a compliment, but insofar as the word suggests a stopgap, something pending permanent arrangement, he speaks for the book’s inherent weakness.
Howe wrote almost no literary criticism in the forty-odd years since Politics and the Novel, fearing, according to his son again, “self-repetition” and “a return to old themes.” But isn’t that a way of admitting exhaustion, of conceding that he has nothing more to say? There is an unstated sadness to this book, a tacit sense that Howe’s way of reading and looking at the world has passed. The sharp polemics of Politics and the Novel are gone; the urgent sense of discovery is — understandably perhaps considering his age — absent. Much has transpired since the fifties to water his passions down to the meek, almost apologetic assertion in A Critic’s Notebook that political struggle and debate “at least in some cultures can be a way of fictional creation.” Left unsaid is that this is obviously not so in our culture. Where does that leave Howe, famous but passé, in the twilight of his career?
To my mind, Howe missed the boat: a retackling of the themes from Politics and the Novel in readings of important contemporary writers would not have been repetitious, but challenging and welcome. He was said to admire Kundera, Garcia Marquez, Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, and George Konrad — certainly it would have been worthwhile to hear him discuss how the novel has reshaped itself to accommodate ideology since the Second World War. Why then does he so scrupulously avoid serious discussion of contemporary work, confining himself to Kipling, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Austen, Lermentov, Gissing, Chekov, and George Eliot — Brits and Russians of the faded old days?
Perhaps because he wanted to write about what he was sure had endured. But I doubt it. The reason, I think, is that Howe’s final work essentially is not “A Critic’s Notebook” at all, but “A Reader’s Notebook,” informed by a kind of meditative indulgence that, at its best, is the book’s most endearing quality. For Howe, at this point, reading is an act of refuge, not confrontation; it is almost an act of hesitant prayer. There are, of course, moments of genuine revelation. His essay on George Eliot and her “religion of humanity” sent me out to buy a copy of her last novel Daniel Deronda, only to find the bookstore didn’t have it in stock. His piece on naturalism is informative and relevant. And, as with Dostoevsky and Conrad in his earlier work, he still likes it best when characters “get out of hand,” when they “stumble past the contraptions of plot…and assume a more or less independent being,” grabbing more space and attention than the writer had intended to allow. He still displays a soft spot for the arch-conservatives of what he clearly considers to be the heyday of the political novel. Reading Kipling’s Kim, he wonders: “How are we to explain that in the pages of this apologist for imperialism, the masses of India seem more alive and autonomous than in the pages of writers claiming political correctness?”
But for the most part his critical posture is defensive and reluctant. “Sometimes,” he says, “our apparent access of insight is no more than a token of vanity.” Elsewhere he speaks of the “untheorizable” aspects of fiction. And still elsewhere he says: “A part of critical wisdom is to recognize the limits of critical reach.”
He does offer his rebuttal to “the formalists” who, in the words of William Gass, would define a fictional character as no more than “a noise, a proper name, a verbal center” but “not a person.” To Howe, whom I suspect sees himself as an exemplar of “the Common Reader” in the mode of Dr. Johnson — that is, one who simply reads for the high level of intellectual and emotional experience it affords him — such a reduction of fiction to its coldest, most artificial signs is a cause for consternation. It threatens to deny him his pleasure, his eagerness to be “kidnapped” by literature, to spend time with those “enduring companions of consciousness” that are his favorite characters. “No matter how many fingers of reproach the formalist critics wag at us,” he says defensively, “we all [read for] this — and they [do] too, I suspect.”
But his rebuttal lacks the old fire. He’s on the outside again, as he was in the thirties when he had believed himself at the vanguard of a sea-change in human history that would last for centuries. Only now he’s not trying to get in. The role he and his Partisan cohorts had construed for themselves as independent intellectuals, unaffiliated with any institutional career, no longer has a place — if it ever really did — in American intellectual life. He knows that the “Common Reader” is close to extinction, having been “unable to withstand the increasing professionalization of literary life that began around the First World War.”
Reading A Critic’s Notebook I was reminded of my father during his last years, in his warehouse with my brothers, his sons — different sons than he was — lording it over them, and trying, with drifting attention, to help them figure out their next move. The market for sheet metal in New York was growing consistently smaller, threatening to die away. Should they liquidate and close down, or move closer to new markets, risking an expenditure that would compromise the strength of their independence? My father sat at his old desk, mulling it all over, as if to pretend the world he knew would not disappear.
Originally published in the February/March 1995 issue of Boston Review