I first read Irving Howe in college, in Andrew Ross’ seminar on intellectuals. We read Howe’s ”The New York Intellectuals.” I don’t remember what I thought of it. What I remember is that Howe was an object of great attraction for someone like me, the epitome of the independent left intellectual.
At some point in graduate school, I grew less enamored of the New York Intellectuals as a whole: in part because of their compromises or collaboration with McCarthyism, in part because the ideal of the independent left intellectual lost its allure for me. Howe’s star fell somewhat. Which is ironic because Howe was one of the few anti-Stalinist intellectuals who managed to keep his bearings during the McCarthy years.
This past year, I’ve been re-reading Howe. His literary criticism, which I used to love, now leaves me cold (I’d add to my list of resentful essays I discuss in that post his bitchy reassessment of the battle between Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett.) But to my great surprise I’ve been newly impressed by his political criticism. When he’s not obsessively whacking Tom Hayden or the Berkeley radicals, he can be astonishingly keen and prescient about the weaknesses of the American Left, the contradictions of the welfare state, and the long-term impact of McCarthyism. Free of that crabbiness of spirit that so often mars his judgment and makes his voice so grating, he can see what’s moving and what’s stagnant in the American current.
This morning, I re-read “The New York Intellectuals.” It first appeared in Commentary in 1969. It has two weak moments: when he’s rehashing his critique of the Stalinism of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940, and when he’s gnawing on the “new sensibility” of the counterculture and its spokepersons (Marcuse, Mailer, Norman O. Brown, even Susan Sontag). They feature that pugilism that Howe is so often celebrated for but which now seems so tiresome and familiar. When he’s not rehearsing his case for the prosecution, Howe can really rise above the material. [click to continue…]