The Touchy Irving Howe

Last night, I was trying to find a comment I had remembered Irving Howe making about Hannah Arendt, and I found myself holed up, late into the night, with a volume of his criticism. I run into these sorts of detours a lot. I set out for a destination, and before you know it, it’s 2 am, and I’m miles away from where I need to be.

I’ve read Howe’s criticism many times before, but I never noticed just how touchy he is about what he perceives to be the haughtiness of authors and critics. Howe is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the power dynamics of fiction and criticism: how writers look down on the people they’re writing about or the readers they’re writing for, how they create scenes and settings in which the sole object is to put on display the superior sensibility that conjured them.

The first time I noticed this tendency in Howe was in his essay on George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which he reviewed in Commentary in 1971:

A phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression Mr. George Steiner’s lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that his book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are prepared for some decidedly high-class prose.

High-class prose. Well, I thought to myself, it’s Steiner, who is a terrible snob, often embarrassingly so. Even when he’s talking about fucking, Steiner can’t help sounding pretentious (“The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”)

But then, as Howe goes on, the resentment gets hotter. He circles back to that tittering audience at Kent, those eminent and English souls, sylvan and stupid (“smiles of appreciative concord flit through the auditorium”). He can’t shake that image of the well-heeled Steiner: “Not for a moment does this cause him to strain his syntax, lose his cool, or breathe an ill-mannered rasp.” At times, he gets ugly: “His style, in all its mincing equanimity.” That word: mincing.

I moved onto Howe’s essay on Lukács and Solzhenitsyn, which appeared in Dissent in 1971. Howe wrote a manifestly sympathetic introduction to Lukács’s The Historical Novel back in 1963. Howe clearly respected Lukács then. And even in this later essay, even with his criticism of Lukács’s political compromises and apologias for Stalinism, he still respects Lukács.

But the respect and the criticism are eclipsed by something else. A simmering contempt for Lukács’s “silken” captivity that reaches a boil in Howe’s conclusion. There Howe dwells on what seems like an over-reading (or at least an undefended reading) of Lukács’s use of the word “plebeian.” Lukács’s Stalinism, Howe suggests, is a function of his snobbery; his real sin is a condescension that cannot be contained.

But Lukács, like Steiner, is a mandarin, I thought, so perhaps Howe’s temperature is understandably raised.

Then I got to Howe’s epic broadside against Philip Roth (upon which Roth took some fun revenge in The Ghost Writer The Anatomy Lesson.) Roth was/is no mandarin, but he gets under Howe’s skin. So much so that we find Howe, midway through the essay, speaking like an outraged attorney on behalf of his clients, the aggrieved middle classes of Roth’s early fiction. “Even a philistine character has certain rights,” Howe thunders. Accusing the author of “not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault,” Howe defends the Patimkins against Neil Klugman, Mrs. Portnoy against Alex, the Jews against Philip Roth.

What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground.

For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self.

Their [Roth’s characters] vulgarity is put on blazing display…the ridicule to which she is subjected…immobilizing the Patimkins…straight-arming all the other characters…

Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story [“Eli the Fanatic”] finally comes apart.

There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy’s novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author.

You might say it’s a point in Howe’s favor—his almost intuitive grasp of the will to power of a writer, his willingness to stand up to the bully on behalf of the little guy—except that it recurs with such frequency that you begin to wonder whether the judgment is required more by the critic than his text. To turn Howe on and against himself, it’s as if he feels slighted by the writers he’s writing about, as if he needs to wrestle them into some properly belittled proportion.

You come away from Howe depressed. Not with enlightenment but with the sense that the world is ugly and small, that nothing can escape the irrepressible struggle for dominance, not even the words on a page.

In a throwaway line about Roth, Howe gives some sense that he knows this:

His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue says, of always being “on top of it.” (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.)

It’s a moment of acute self-understanding. Yet it’s marred by one thing: the realization that Howe never took pleasure even in this, his momentary triumph over the object of his critique, even when that object was himself.


  1. zzflowz January 14, 2015 at 7:30 am | #

    Reblogged this on zzflowz's Blog.

  2. thenodster January 14, 2015 at 7:50 am | #

    I’ll make a guess and say you still didn’t find the Arendt quote…

  3. Roquentin January 14, 2015 at 9:40 am | #

    I do that sometimes too. It’s even worse with the internet around. I got into a heated discussion/quasi argument about Charlie Hebdo and whether or not the charicatures of Mohammed were racist or not. I had brought up Der Sturmer sarcastically, as in “You make Charlie Hedbo sound like it’s two steps away from Der Sturmer.” This lead to a whole lor of Googling on the subject, reading a bit about Julius Stretcher, even adding a biography of him by some professor of rhetoric in Grand Rapids, MI to my Amazon wish list. I had realized in cracking that joke that even I wasn’t entirely sure what was really in the pages of Der Sturmer. I know that Heidegger disparagingly referred to it as porn, but that was about it.

    As for the topic at hand, psychological projection is as regular as the weather. It’s totally ordinary to behave this way. What he can’t accept in the people he critiques is what he can’t accept in himself, and so forth….

  4. Chip January 14, 2015 at 1:16 pm | #

    It’s tough being a working class academic. But I guess less tough these days, because they don’t exist anymore.

  5. jshoulson January 14, 2015 at 1:34 pm | #

    A helpful account of Howe’s stance, Corey. Thanks.
    Is it especially surprising, though, given what was–and is–Howe’s intellectual and literary standing relative to the names you’ve connected him with (Steiner, Lukacs, Roth)? Not saying it’s not necessarily a deserved second-tier (or third-tier?) standing, but can you blame him for feeling a bit resentful?

    • Corey Robin January 14, 2015 at 1:58 pm | #

      It’s a good point. Funny, I always thought of Howe as way up there in the critical pantheon. And I thought you folks in literary academia had nothing but scorn for Steiner.

    • LFC January 14, 2015 at 6:37 pm | #

      Why would or should Howe have felt resentful of Roth? Roth was/is a novelist and short story writer (though now no longer writing fiction, I gather). Howe was a literary critic, an editor of a magazine, a writer on political topics, a polemicist, a commenter on world and national affairs, an occasional activist, a lender of his name to various causes, an historian of the shtetl, etc.

      Howe would no more have tried to write The Counterlife or I Married A Communist than Roth would have been capable of editing The Essential Works of Socialism.

      If Howe had done nothing more in his life than found (with others) and edit Dissent, he would have made an important contribution to American intellectual life. Since there is no evidence of which I’m aware that Howe aspired to write fiction, as opposed to writing sometimes about fiction, I can’t see why he would have resented Roth.

      It’s well known that Howe was often a ‘difficult’ person. Apparently he was brusque, he could be abrupt, he hung up the phone without saying goodbye — the stories are well known. But unless one thinks that imaginative writers are somehow higher in some pantheon than those who are other kinds of writers, I can’t see that the Roth/Howe comparison is much more than apples and oranges.

      • LFC January 14, 2015 at 6:40 pm | #

        P.s. And to imply, as jshoulson does, that Howe’s ‘intellectual standing’ is lower than Roth’s is, in my view, pretty ridiculous.

  6. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott January 14, 2015 at 4:05 pm | #

    So here’s the source, I’m guessing. “The New Yorker and Hannah Arendt” appeared in Commentary, (October, 1963) In 1963 Howe, was one of the phalanx of New Yorkers who admired her ability to write about the most controversial subjects with irony, passion, brilliant arguments and a clear eye for direct evidence. He also did not hesitate to mercilessly critique her tone and her conclusions, as he did re: her Eichmann “report.” But by then Howe was also venturing into the contested terrain of comparisons and contrasts between Black and Jewish writers and how their identities should affect their work. Arendt’s incendiary prose was as dangerous as that of James Baldwin for the reason, as you note, that they wrote from a great analytical height about issues of “the street” and yet had written their most controversial articles for a “middlebrow” journal, The New Yorker., Their reportage had the dangerous effect of being read as authoritative regarding Negro and Jewish experience. Howe fumed that “the editors regard her work as ‘literature’ quite as they might regard Baldwin’s. A terrific piece, a great story. You don’t argue with literature.” Even worse, the they refused to publish rebuttals to her Eichmann articles, unlike the “little journals” whose editors felt it their obligation to engage in the “grubby literature of critique and counter-critique.” The latter particularly infuriated Howe, as it did another strident critic, Marie Syrkin. “How many New Yorker readers, Syrkin had erupted to Howe, “had ever before cared to read anything of the vast literature about Jewish resistance and martyrdom.” And they never would because Arendt has been anointed to speak “ex cathedra” for all Jews, just as Baldwin has for all Negroes.
    But that was not the end of it. In “Black Boys and Native Sons” (Dissent, Autumn, 1963) Howe decides that Baldwin might be relatively acceptable as a Negro spokesman, even if he does turn up in “mass” periodicals like The New Yorker. The odd Negro writer out, in this game of authorial authenticity, is Ralph Ellison. The trouble, Howe writes, is that Ellison’s work is Modernist to the core, abstract and metaphor- driven. He is a perfect example of the “postwar zeitgeist” of the 1950’s, with its love for America and the illusion of “unconditional freedom.” His invisible man can descend into the darkness and rise again in the classic manner of the American individualist hero. Even worse, “to write about the ‘Negro experience’ with the aesthetic distance urged by the elite critics of the fifties is a moral and psychological impossibility,” because “plight and protest are inseparable from that experience…” Arendt’s own experience, or Ellison’s, apparently did not count.

  7. Bruce Gillespie January 14, 2015 at 7:55 pm | #

    At a graduate student evening political theory seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center orchestrated by Prof. David Spitz in the early 70s Howe was speaking on the New Left. He arrogantly argued that the New Left had contributed nothing to politics. I heard a closed mind, and I never listened to him again.

    • LFC January 14, 2015 at 8:33 pm | #

      That was your loss, since among other things you never heard or read him publicly reconsider (which he did) the way he had reacted to the New Left.

    • B January 17, 2015 at 9:00 am | #

      “I heard a closed mind, and I never listened to him again.”

  8. graccibros January 15, 2015 at 11:03 am | #


    Upon your main points about Howe’s dynamics with writers: the constant “Will to Power” on display.

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