A Voice Still Heard: Select­ed Essays of Irv­ing Howe

Irv­ing Howe; Nina Howe, ed.

  • Review
By – March 30, 2015

Nina Howe has per­formed a valu­able act of fil­ial piety by bring­ing to press this gener­ous col­lec­tion of essays by her father, Irv­ing Howe. Arguably the most impor­tant pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al of his gen­er­a­tion, Howe came to promi­nence as a pro­po­nent of social­ism in the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing World War II and con­tin­ued to write on polit­i­cal, lit­er­ary, and cul­tur­al sub­jects until his death in 1993 at the age of 73.

The essays in A Voice Still Heard reflect the aston­ish­ing range of Howe’s inter­ests and achieve­ments. Includ­ed are such land­mark pieces on pol­i­tics and cul­ture as This Age of Con­for­mi­ty,” New Styles in Left­ism,’” The New York Intel­lec­tu­als,” and Two Cheers for Utopia”; Howe’s immense­ly influ­en­tial appre­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can poet Edward Arling­ton Robin­son; his valu­able intro­duc­tion to a selec­tion of sto­ries by Sholom Ale­ichem; short and acute pieces on Orwell, Dick­ens, Tol­stoy, Sarah Orne Jew­ett; and per­haps the most astute essay ever writ­ten the prob­lem of writ­ing about the Holocaust.

Although the title of the vol­ume sug­gests that Howe’s work is of endur­ing val­ue and unlike­ly to grow obso­lete, many of the essays are marked by a musty, if some­what charm­ing, evo­ca­tion of a bygone age and the cru­cial as­sumptions that under­gird­ed it. Howe came of age in an era when lib­er­al­ism was regard­ed by wide con­sen­sus as the sole legit­i­mate polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy in Amer­i­ca, polit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sy con­sist­ed most­ly of the­o­ret­i­cal argu­ments among pro­po­nents of dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the left, and the study of pop­u­lar cul­ture was in its infan­cy and accord­ing­ly treat­ed as a juve­nile pas­time. (“A crit­ic who con­tributes a nuance to Dos­to­evsky crit­i­cism is work­ing with­in a struc­tured tra­di­tion,” Howe asserts, while one who throws off a clever obser­va­tion about Lit­tle Orphan Annie is sim­ply show­ing off what he has done.”) In this case, the more things change, the more they change.

Howe’s polit­i­cal essays also high­light that while he and his col­leagues were aware that they were a breed apart, in more ways than one, their enter­prise was not geared to effect­ing actu­al change; indeed, they often seemed to take pride in their polit­i­cal irrel­e­vance. The title of an oth­er­wise excel­lent essay — Why Has Social­ism Failed in Amer­i­ca?” — hints at the extent to which Howe could con­duct him­self on too the­o­ret­i­cal a plane; one might as well ask why your child’s Lit­tle League team failed to defeat the San Fran­cis­co Giants in the 2014 World Series. The con­tro­ver­sies embed­ded in the pages of Dis­sent, Com­men­tary, The Par­ti­san Review, and oth­er small pub­li­ca­tions were large­ly con­duct­ed and attend­ed to by a self-con­tained coterie that seemed too caught up in its own pilpul to dirty its hands with prac­ti­cal politics.

Mean­while, their coun­ter­parts on the right were active­ly build­ing polit­i­cal institu­tions that would trans­form Amer­i­can pub­lic dis­course. Howe acute­ly describes the ear­ly stages of this phe­nom­e­non in the pre­scient essay Rea­gan­ism: The Spir­it of the Times,” which appeared in 1986. As in his lit­er­ary essays, and his mag­is­te­r­i­al study The World of Our Fathers (which is not excerpt­ed in this col­lec­tion), Howe proves him­self an extraordi­narily effec­tive observ­er and diag­nos­ti­cian, but he remained an observ­er. While he effec­tive­ly decried the activism of the New Left in the 1960s as coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, he nev­er put for­ward a prac­ti­cal pro­gram that would advance his most deeply held beliefs and blunt the force of those who sought — with con­sid­er­able suc­cess — to under­mine them.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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