A more intimate view of Irving Howe: critic, socialist and man of letters
Nina Howe is a Concordia University Research Chair in Early Childhood Development and Education. She recently published A Voice Still Heard (Yale University Press), a collection of work by her father, the New York-born literary and social critic Irving Howe. His many professional pursuits included founding Dissent Magazine, playing an active role with the Democratic Socialists of America and writing World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, which won the 1977 National Book Award in History. A Voice Still Heard was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times, among other publications.
Editing A Voice Still Heard, a selection of essays by my late father, Irving Howe, meant exploring his life. My father was a private person and did not talk very much about his childhood or his formative experiences at City College and in the army during World War II (he spent two years in Alaska). Nor did he share a great deal about his work with me.
During the 1950s and 60s, when he was building his reputation as a literary and political critic, I was a child. But after my parents divorced, when I was about nine, my father and I maintained a very warm relationship that grew stronger once I was in my 20s. At this time, I began to read his work more seriously and I, a voracious reader of fiction, began to rely on him for literary recommendations. In later years, when visiting New York, I would examine the stack of books on a small table next to Dad’s desk to see what he was reading and what he might recommend.
Our joint love of literature, especially of the American, European, and Russian schools, was one of the many strong bonds between us. Once he asked me if I could recommend any Canadian authors besides Margaret Atwood, and I sent him an early collection of Alice Munro’s stories, nervously awaiting his response. When he declared her stories to be “very fine,” I felt relieved — no doubt he would have been pleased that she won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.
The journey of curating this collection, together with my son, Nicholas [Howe Bukowski], was, in part, a personal exploration of my father’s more public ideas and persona. It was a way for me to capture a more intimate view of how he thought, of the ideas that attracted his attention and how he crafted his writing. As I read through many pieces recommended by several helpful individuals, I developed a deeper understanding of the role that democratic socialism played in his intellectual life. I have always been proud that he and Lewis Coser founded Dissent Magazine in the early 1950s at the height of the McCarthy era.
Reading his political writings from that time until his death in 1993 provided a view of the larger and enduring political themes in his writings and how intertwined they were with his literary interests. Throughout his life, my father was a caring and optimistic but ultimately realistic person; indeed he hoped for a “world more attractive.” Had his immigrant parents landed in Canada instead of New York, he might have entered politics as a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Stephen Lewis, whose NDP roots run deep, interviewed my father, partly about his early experiences, and the piece is included in the book. Today, the fact that the NDP is the official opposition in the Canadian parliament would have both pleased and surprised my father.
My father did not amass professional or personal papers. Shortly after his death, several universities eager to receive such a collection contacted my brother, Nick. They were dumfounded to learn that it did not exist.
When my father finished an essay or a book, he apparently disposed of any drafts and did not keep any correspondence or papers related to Dissent. When he died, Nick found only the essays in his desk that were published posthumously in A Critic’s Notebook; several are included in the present collection. The finished essays had a check mark on the top of page one, apparently to indicate that they were complete. We found no personal correspondence in his desk, and, in fact, I have only one personal letter from my father, written after I had experienced a bout of cancer. It is very short but touching, and I treasure it.
While posted in Alaska during World War II, my father wrote a number of letters to my mother, but, unfortunately, the box in which they were stored was lost in a move sometime in the late 1940s. I have often wondered what he wrote to her and whether the letters had a more personal tone than his formal writing. He also sent my mother a list of 96 novels that he read during his posting, which clearly formed a graduate education of sorts.
In reading through the pieces with my son for this book, there are hints of the personal in several of the essays. Although he wrote rarely about himself directly, the experience he describes in “Strangers,” about Jewish-American immigrant youths growing up in the slums of NYC during the Depression and coming to terms with literary figures like Emerson and Frost, could surely only have been based on his own experience.
The literary world he describes in “The New York Intellectuals” certainly speaks of his experiences, too, as probably did some of the chapters in World of Our Fathers, which we opted not to include in this collection. I felt that it was important for the reader to end the book with two pieces that provide a glimpse of the personal and emotional side of my father, which is why we included the moving piece on his conflicted feelings about the death of his own father, as well as the interview with Stephen Lewis in which Dad spoke of his childhood and youth.
Book reviews were in many ways the staple of my father’s life. Some were selected for the collection because they were about books that Dad had recommended to me, while others stood out for other reasons. I have a clear memory of a phone call from Robert Silvers while I was visiting my father in Cape Cod in the summer of 1963, at the height of a strike at The New York Times. Silvers was in the process of founding the New York Review of Books and asked him to write a book review. I remember how excited he was when he got off the phone.
Curating this collection with Nicholas, and with the contributions of other family members, has been a moving and proud experience for me. I only wish my father were still alive so I could share some of my perceptions and thoughts on his work with him and to bask in his pride for the work that his grandson and I did. But if he were still alive, I probably would not have edited this collection of his work because he would have likely done so himself. In some ways, this is a bittersweet moment for me but also a deeply enlightening and gratifying one.
Find out more about Nina Howe's research at Concordia.