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A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe
Edited by Nina Howe
AVoiceStillHeardYale University Press, 2014

In addition to being dead, Irving Howe might seem irrelevant to 21st century culture because he was dedicated to causes few take seriously anymore – at least in Howe’s country, the United States – causes such as socialism and aesthetic modernism. Consequently the title of the new collection of his shorter works – A Voice Still Heard – has polemical overtones: it stakes a claim for what it contains that is not immediately obviously true. Howe’s daughter, Nina Howe, has chosen for the volume a representative selection of her father’s shorter work, organized by decade, spanning the full course of his career from the 1950s to the 1990s. Why should we listen to a voice that seemingly wasted itself in the fight for lost causes through the medium of essays about books and politics? Foremost, perhaps, because Howe belonged to a group of thinkers and writers who perfected a certain kind of essay.

For the New York intellectuals, among whom Howe belonged by a bare margin, the purpose of the essay was aesthetic and political at the same time. The New York intellectuals published in the mid-20th century journals Commentary and Partisan Review. Dickstein notes of Howe that, “more than a decade younger than Trilling, Rahv, and their generation, he always felt like a latecomer.” Summing up the movement in retrospect, Howe said they combined “anti-Stalinist leftism and the defense of cultural and literary modernism. Two avant-gardes.” Elsewhere, he wrote that “there was a feeling in the air that a union of the advanced – critical consciousness and political consciousness – could be forged.” Their essays tried to show that this union was “not only a desirable possibility but also a tie both natural and appropriate.”

The New York intellectuals cultivated a specific prose style, which Howe described like this:

Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle — such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers.

That sarcastic phrase – “or most noticeable” – hints at the role this style played in the formation of Howe’s own writing. The essay just quoted was published in the ’60s, only the second of the four decades represented in A Voice Still Heard. The bravura of the New York intellectuals was an influence from Howe’s youth, an influence he left behind.

Or at least he left it behind stylistically. Howe’s prose developed a cool lucidity and evenhandedness, a development on display in this collection. In some ways, he achieved the very opposite of the fevered house style of the New York intellectuals. But he also never really abandoned the causes — literary modernism and socialism — that so absorbed the peers of his youth. Some of those peers did give up on their earlier ideals, and Howe watched former Trotskyites turn into Neo-conservatives. “I sometimes think that my own intellectual career,” he told Stephen Lewis, “consists of constantly turning my head from left to right, watching people who had attacked me from the left as they move toward the right.” But in his quieter way, Howe persisted. He once wrote something that could have described himself:

It is an advantage for a writer to have come into relation with a great tradition of thought, even if only in the stages of decay, and it can be a still greater advantage to struggle with the problem of salvaging elements of wisdom from that decayed tradition. For while a culture in decomposition may limit the scope of its writers and keep them from the highest achievement, it offers special opportunities for moral drama to those who can maintain their bearing.

Howe could lay claim to several decayed traditions.

First, like most of the other New York intellectuals, he was “from the world of the immigrant Jews.” He possessed a Jewishness disappearing in the scramble to assimilate, but which still set him apart. In “Strangers,” he describes his own introduction to an American literature he could not properly appropriate:


[…] for young would-be writers growing up in a Jewish slum in New York or Chicago during the twenties and thirties, the main figures of American literature, as well as the main legends and myths carried through their fictions and stories, were not immediately available. What could Emerson mean to a boy or girl on Rivington Street in 1929, hungry for books, reading voraciously, hearing Yiddish at home, yet learning to read, write, and think in English? What could the tradition of American romanticism, surely our main tradition, mean to them?

Howe adduces this experience as one reason why so many young Jewish intellectuals took up the defense of literary modernism — the second decayed tradition to which he could lay claim.

Like the Yiddish culture from which we had emerged, we were internationalist in our sentiment before we were part of any nation, living in the exalted atmospheres of European letters even as we might be afraid, at home, to wander a few streets away.

Howe would maintain the spirit of this commitment to modernism even as he abandoned its letter. To him, it seemed that the traditional masterpieces of modernist literature — Joyce, Eliot, Woolf — no longer required defense. They had been adopted onto college syllabi across the country. Already in the ’50s, Howe had decided that

[t]oday, in a sense, the danger is that the serious artists are not scorned enough. Philistinism has become very shrewd: it does not attack its enemies as much as it disarms them through reasonable cautions and moderate amendments. But this hardly makes the defense of those standards that animated the avant-garde during its best days any the less a critical obligation.

Howe fulfilled this obligation for the next forty years in a way that went far beyond railing against bourgeois resistance to Ulysses. He defended the new and difficult in literature — as in his reviews of books like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. But he also engaged in the less trendy work of rehabilitation, as two essays in this collection show.

The first is from the ’70s, when Howe attempted to revive the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Among Robinson’s “1500 crowded pages […] a small portion is very fine, and a group of fifteen or twenty poems unquestionably great.” He was a formally conservative poet and so “most critics hail poets like Eliot and Stevens for their innovations in metrics and language while condescending toward Robinson as merely traditional.” But Howe observed that “like all major poets he helped to enlarge for those who came after him the possibilities of composition.” Robinson, he argues, is an innovator because he opened up for his successors the subject matter of “the slow tragedy of haunted men” — an innovation in content rather than form.

The second rehabilitation on display in this collection is an essay entitled “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Woolf.” In this piece Howe challenges directly the crusading modernism of the early 20th century, characterizing it as merely a fashionable polemic. In her famous takedown of the Edwardian best-seller Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf accused the novelist of obsessing over the dull particulars of outward life while ignoring the life of his characters’ minds. He might describe “Mrs. Brown’s” clothing, house, and habits well enough; but he never trod beyond the threshold of her consciousness. Howe points out that it’s silly to believe that Woolf’s style of characterization is objectively superior to Bennett’s:

The deeper issue […] wasn’t really, as both Woolf and Bennett said, which writer could create more persuasive characters; it was a clash over competing versions of the novel as a form. Such clashes are never fully settled.

worldofourfathersBennett had his own virtues, represented by a clutch of significant novels in which he is “the prosing poet of the shopkeepers.” His outward descriptions of ordinary life, at their best, had a value of their own.

Both of these rehabilitations show that Howe was committed to any literature which innovates in its time and challenges the accepted values of our time. Those were the authentic elements at stake in the defense of modernism. In this way, Howe adhered to the New York intellectuals’ first avant-garde even while criticizing the ossified form it was beginning to take in its dotage.

Socialism is the final decayed tradition to which Howe could lay claim. He is perhaps best known as one of the founders of Dissent, an organ for democratic socialist critique which is still being published. He had no illusions about the political influence of an intellectual journal. In his introduction to a collection of representative pieces from the first 25 years of Dissent, reprinted in this book, he notes that “when intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine.”

But, he also notes, “starting a magazine is also doing something: at the very least it is thinking in common. And thinking in common can have unforeseen results.” In Howe’s case, the unforeseen result was that he often found himself criticizing the history and dogmas of his own ideology, socialism. At the beginning, socialism was an embattled politics because it invited associated with the atrocities of Stalinist Russia. Consequently, along with the other New York intellectuals, Howe expended a great deal of energy in the ironic task of defending democratic socialism from attacks on the left, hewing out a theory of socialism that would distinguish it from Stalinism. This task is one of the stakes in his magnificent essay “This Age of Conformity,” which opens the book and is probably the piece most in the old style of the New York intellectuals.

Later, Howe’s democratic socialism faced a different challenge. The welfare state challenged socialism’s critique of capitalism because it seemed to resolve capitalism’s problems without any fundamental transformation. Should socialists embrace the welfare state’s ameliorations of capitalism, even if they obscured the point of a deeper critique? Howe saw this as a false understanding of the situation:

A bit sooner or a bit later, we shall again, as a society, have to confront the inequities of our economic arrangements, the maldistribution of our income and wealth, the undemocratic nature of our corporate structures. When that happens, the overall perspective suggested by [Dissent] ought to have a growing relevance. It is a two-sided view of political and social action within a democratic society. One one side, a constant battle for all those “little” things — better health care, new housing programs, more equitable taxation, the rights of women and blacks — that occupy the attention of liberals. On the other side, a fundamental critique of the society in the name of democratic socialist values.

Howe’s death-watch commitment to the the double avant-gardes of literary modernism and democratic socialism made him a writer at once challenging and admirable. The sum of his Dissentmagtalents and purposes is best displayed in one of the last essays in this book — easily the best piece in the collection — “Writing and the Holocaust.”

In that essay, Howe takes as his problem the seemingly absurd claim that the Holocaust cannot be represented in literature. Theodor Adorno was the most famous proponent of this position, writing “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”

What can this mean? Don’t we have a multitude of memoirs, novels, histories and — yes — poems that, without being barbaric, seek to grapple with the low-point of human history? “Looking back at these remarks,” wrote Howe, “we may wonder what these writers were struggling to express, what half-formed or hidden feelings prompted their outcries.” Howe sets out to explain like this:

We are trapped. […] Our desire to see the Holocaust in weightier terms than the merely aesthetic lures us into a shy recognition of the moral reverberations of the aesthetic. This does not make us happy, but the only alternative is the silence we all remember, now and then, to praise.

To portray the Holocaust in a memoir rendered palatable to those who did not experience it, or to put it in a novel where it must be shaped “in terms of resolutions and completions,” are strategies of representation inadequate to the enormity of the subject. A good story offers solace, no matter how great the tragedy it describes — and that seems like an unacceptable response to the Holocaust:

[A]ll such literary problems come down to the single inclusive problem of freedom. In the past even those writers most inclined to determinism or naturalism have grasped that to animate their narratives they must give at least a touch of freedom to their characters. And that, as his characters inexorably approach the oven, is precisely what the Holocaust writer cannot do.

Consequently, “in approaching the Holocaust, the canniest writers keep a distance.” In Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, for example, the interactions of a group of Jews in a resort near Vienna is overshadowed by the reader’s apprehension of the ghastly wings of fate spreading above their heads. “At the end, the guests are being packed into ‘four filthy freight cars’ — but here Appelfeld abruptly stops, as if recognizing a limit to the sovereignty of words.” Howe decides that “if there is a way of coping with this difficulty, it lies in a muted tactfulness recognizing that there are some things that can be said and some that cannot.”

As I read this piece, toward the end of the collection, suddenly I saw how the “decayed traditions” that shaped Howe’s life – from immigrant Jewish culture, to socialism, to modernism, to the literary experiments of the New York intellectuals – fructify in Howe’s maturity into an essay like this, beautifully phrased and both morally and aesthetically wise, superlative of its kind. For this essay alone, Howe’s is a voice that ought still to be heard – and in this collection we may bear privileged witness to the gathering power of that voice over the course of its long development.

Robert Minto is an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.