The Touchy Irving Howe

by Corey Robin on January 14, 2015

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.



Peter T 01.14.15 at 5:08 am


That’s a very perceptive piece of yours about violence (not so much fucking) you link to.


gianni 01.14.15 at 5:51 am

Yeah, I agree with Peter T that essay was very good.


ZM 01.14.15 at 8:48 am

“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.”

You seem to be feeling a bit jaundiced Corey Robin – when you’re jaundiced there’s nothing like a bit of poetry to cheer you up – literary criticism and Philip Roth books are not the thing when your jaundiced at all. Since you live in Brooklyn from memory, here is one you can think of the images for when you cross the Brooklyn Bridge next

Invitation To Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.
Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.


bianca steele 01.14.15 at 3:04 pm

Me, I’ve thought for years that the revenge on Howe was in “Zuckerman Bound,” the second volume of the trilogy.


Rich Puchalsky 01.14.15 at 3:50 pm

From your linked essay: “In 1965, George Steiner asked, ‘Is there any science-fiction pornography?’ Mostly rhetorical, the question was a typically Steinerian prompt to a typically Steinerian rumination on the relationship between sex and language.”

American SF claimed to be “the literature of ideas”, but through 1965 it was more properly the literature of genocide, fascinated with the end of all human life, naturally thinking that the response to inter-species conflict should be the complete extermination of enemies. (See e.g. Spinrad _The Iron Dream_ 1972, Moorcock _The Black Corridor_ 1969 for some reactions to this.) A couple of decades later you have writers like Octavia Butler (_Patternist_ series 1987-1989) who can address sexuality within SF, and at the same time the level of genocidal violence drops. I always thought there was a connection with one being the repression of the other, if you want to put it in crude terms.


bianca steele 01.14.15 at 3:58 pm

Rich, have you read Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster”? (I refuse to drop the definite particle as a reaction to how pretentious Steiner’s (and Allan Bloom’s) obsessive and nearly tone-deaf insistence on dropping it comes across to me.) It’s, probably abridged, in Against Interpretation. It’s been a long time since I read it, but she talks about US and Japanese monster movies, among other things like SF, and probably ends up attributing it all to a kind of Freudian death drive, an unacknowledgeable and unconsidered wish for rest that gets manifested in irrational violence.


bianca steele 01.14.15 at 4:04 pm

The Jacob-and-the-angel trope Howe uses in the essay is also used by Roth in Operation Shylock, apparently unironically, as the text the agent leaves on the blackboard while trying to recruit the character “Philip Roth” (but unfortunately it’s in Hebrew and he doesn’t know what it means), and in the epigraph. So possibly the recruiter is another version of Howe.


Anderson 01.14.15 at 5:40 pm

Bianca, I don’t think any of the essays in Against Interpretation are abridged, tho my copy’s at home so I can’t check right now.

(Now, if you mean “edited by Sontag for book publication,” Idk about that.)


bianca steele 01.14.15 at 5:52 pm

Anderson, The only NYRB essay that’s free online (or was when I checked a few years ago, they may have put more up) was the one on Simone Weil. The book version cuts off about halfway through. You can call that “edited” rather than “abridged,” but I don’t see what the difference is supposed to be.


Ronan(rf) 01.14.15 at 6:45 pm

Fwiw, I agree with some above that the linked article on violence is very interesting, Corey. I agree that a political,ideological or social explanation is more convincing, but .. do you think there’s room for the sort of physchological analysis that Pfaff appears to engage in? In a more limited and sophisticated form ? Also, afaict Pfaff seems to be drawing a distinction between those who kill and die to maintain the current order, and those who do to overthrow it? (this obviously become complicated, I guess, by what ‘order’ you’re fighting to maintain or ovethrow,what you even mean by these categories) , but .. do you think this distinction is meaningful at all, even in a more limited form ?
Also, if you don’t mind me asking, have you read ‘Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships’ by Tage Rai..if so would you recomend it ?What do you think of the argument ? (I havent, but am trying to get round to it)
(ps sorry if this is off topic)


Anderson 01.14.15 at 7:24 pm

Bianca: I stand corrected – what on earth is up with that?? Looking forward to checking that out. And it seems we need a Collected Essays ….


Leo Casey 01.14.15 at 10:24 pm

There is no doubt that Irving could be difficult and prickly: I can testify to that from personal experience in political work, where we were in the same organization and from convergent, if not identical, traditions. He would even be reluctant to concede arguments that he himself believed, such as the fact that the Trotskyists got World War II all wrong, when he was uncertain about their motivation. Reflecting back upon those years, it is clear to me that I found in hard to hear arguments with which I had a great deal of agreement because of the way in which they were delivered. That played a role, I am sure, in the tempest with the New Left in the 1960s.

But you seem to have picked a strange quality for criticism — his disdain for snobbery — especially given, that in Howe’s case, it grows out the class instinct of a poor Jewish boy from the Bronx. I actually find that admirable, all the more so that it is so consistent and insistent.


The Dark Avenger 01.15.15 at 12:39 am

I never had the sense that Roth was snobbish in his writing. If anything, he cares about his fellow Jews enough to be telling tales out of school, what they say to each other when the goys aren’t around. That’s Roth’s sin, betrayal.


J Thomas 01.15.15 at 1:36 am

#5 Rich Puchalsky

American SF claimed to be “the literature of ideas”, but through 1965 it was more properly the literature of genocide, fascinated with the end of all human life, naturally thinking that the response to inter-species conflict should be the complete extermination of enemies.

This may be a blind-men-and-elephant thing, but in my experience that was a minor theme.

I considered discussing it at length and providing evidence etc, and then felt like this is the sort of dispute that can turn reasonable people into trolls trolling each other. So I won’t get into that unless you want to.

I’ll settle for claiming that people can reasonably disagree with your claim, and still there could be some truth to it. While it’s a minor theme in science fiction, arguments for and against genocide are quite rare in romance stories, murder mysteries, and westerns, and possibly more common only in action-adventure, military fiction, and spy stories. Since the latter often involve a futuristic weapon which can kill a lot of people, those might liberally be regarded as science fiction.


Rich Puchalsky 01.15.15 at 5:01 am

Probably shouldn’t go into it at length, but if you look at the list of genre generational vogues here, you’ll see what I mean somewhat better. Specifically, 12) Gernsbackian SF, 15) Campbellian SF, 18) Cosy-catastrophes. 19) Messianic SF is divided right around 1965: Blish’s _A Case of Conscience_ is one of the most genocide-celebretory books in SF, but by Heinlein’s _Stranger_ the protagonist merely has the ability to wipe out all life on Earth if he decides there’s a problem but decides not to. By 20) Psychedelic SF and 21) Gender SF the reaction to this has set in.


J Thomas 01.15.15 at 12:51 pm

#15 Rich Puchalsky

Probably shouldn’t go into it at length, but if you look at the list of genre generational vogues here, you’ll see what I mean somewhat better.

A couple of notes on this. Firstly, of course there’s a lot of wiggle-room in these little categories. They’ve been subjectively arrived at; and are meant to identify the core vogues for their respective topics rather than the exhaustive categorisation of the field (so for instance, obviously, plenty of utopias were written after 1915; although I’d still argue that the immediate wake of Bellamy’s book saw the real heart of the vogue).

Genocide has always been a minor theme in SF, but it has been present a lot and you’re probably right that it might be possible to decide some times that it’s been more prominent than other times.


Stephen 01.15.15 at 9:29 pm

#15 Rich Puchalsky

Messianic SF is divided right around 1965: Blish’s _A Case of Conscience_ is one of the most genocide-celebretory books in SF

Do you think so? It struck me as, among other things, a metaphor for the failure of the Catholic Church to adequately condemn the Shoah. The Lithians, a people who ought to know the Messiah, mysteriously don’t, and this prevents Ruiz-Sanchez from vetoing the actual genocidaires when they decide to turn Lithia into a massive weapons productions plant. The alienated Lithian, the spelling of whose name now escapes me, then attempts to start a revolution which leads to a counter revolution. It is not difficult to think of examples of Jewish involvement in the the far left, nor the far right’s response to this during the period. When, in the final scene, the obscenity of the militarists plan for Litihia becomes apparent Ruiz-Sanchez is too tied up with his own theological agenda to do anything more than exorcise Lithia which, dramatically, coincides with the destruction of the planet. Ruiz-Sanchez does not hate the Lithians (and Pope Piux XII did plaintively issue a “Hello Brian, Hello Sue” J.C. Flannel condemnation of the holocaust) but his theology leaves him as a hand-wringing bystander in the face of genocide.

The analogy is not an exact one, of course, few analogies are. But the alternative is to accept that Ruiz-Sanchez’s interpretation of events is correct and that the rite of exorcism can, actually, blow up planets. Which, given that Blish states in the introduction that he was an agnostic (and given that Black Easter and The Day After Judgement are hardly works of orthodox theology) strikes me as being unlikely. The final line “They left him alone with his God and his grief”, to me, implies a moral failure based on good, but flawed, intentions.


MPAVictoria 01.17.15 at 1:21 am

Jeet Heer has just finished an awesome twitter essay on Howe. Easily found at @HeerJeet.

Check it out.


Dick Muliken 01.19.15 at 3:53 pm

I’ve for years had warm feelings for Howe, largely on the basis of his remaining socialist all those difficult years, and his book on the Modern. He was also very kind to me in correspondence after I (a nobody) asked him to participate in a symposium I was putting together in the late 70s. So this amazing review of Roth introduces me to a waspish, aggravated Howe.. Somehow I feel he is seeing more in Roth than is there. But then, I’m an outsider. But I feel he is onto something that always bothered me about Roth: a coldness, a superior contempt for his characters. Maybe just a lack of love.

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