Irving Howe (/haʊ/; June 11, 1920 – May 5, 1993) was a Jewish American literary and social critic and a prominent figure of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Howe was born as Irving Horenstein in The Bronx, New York. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia, Nettie (née Goldman) and David Horenstein, who ran a small grocery store that went out of business during the Great Depression. His father became a peddler and eventually a presser in a dress factory. His mother was an operator in the dress trade.
Howe attended City College of New York and graduated in 1940, alongside Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol; by the summer of 1940, he had changed his name to Howe for political (as distinct from official) purposes. While at school, he was constantly debating socialism, Stalinism, fascism, and the meaning of Judaism. He served in the US Army during World War II. Upon his return, he began writing literary and cultural criticism for the influential Partisan Review and became a frequent essayist for Commentary, politics, The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. In 1954, Howe helped found the intellectual quarterly Dissent, which he edited until his death in 1993. In the 1950s Howe taught English and Yiddish literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He used the Howe and Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Stories as the text for a course on the Yiddish story, when few were spreading knowledge or appreciation of the works in American colleges and universities.
Since his City College days, Howe was committed to left-wing politics. He was a committed democratic socialist throughout his life. He was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and then Max Shachtman's Workers Party. In 1948, he joined the Independent Socialist League and he was a key leader. He left it in the early 1950s.
At the request of his friend, Michael Harrington, he helped cofound the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the early 1970s. DSOC merged into the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, with Howe a vice-chair.
He was a vociferous opponent of both Soviet totalitarianism and McCarthyism, called into question standard Marxist doctrine, and came into conflict with the New Left after he criticized their unmitigated radicalism. Later in life, his politics gravitated toward more pragmatic democratic socialism and foreign policy, a position still represented in Dissent. Throughout his life he was attacked and challenged due to his socialist beliefs.
He had a few famous run-ins with people. In the 1960s while at Stanford University, he was verbally attacked by a young radical socialist, who claimed that Howe was no longer committed to the revolution and that he had become status quo. Howe turned to the student and said, "You know what you're going to be? You're going to be a dentist."
Known for literary criticism as well social and political activism, Howe wrote critical biographies on Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, a booklength examination of the relation of politics to fiction, and theoretical essays on Modernism, the nature of fiction, and social Darwinism. He was also among the first to re-examine the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson and lead the way to establishing Robinson's reputation as one of the 20th century's great poets. His writing portrayed his dislike of capitalist America.
He wrote many influential books throughout his career, such as the Decline of the New, The World Of Our Fathers, Politics and the Novel and his autobiography A Margin of Hope. He also wrote a biography of Leon Trotsky, who was one of his childhood heroes.
Howe's exhaustive, multidisciplinary history of Eastern European Jews in America, World of Our Fathers, is considered a classic of social analysis and general scholarship. Howe explores the socialist Jewish New York from which he came. He examines the dynamic of Eastern European Jews and the culture that they created in America. World of Our Fathers won the 1977 National Book Award in History. He also edited and translated many Yiddish stories and commissioned the first English translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer for the Partisan Review. He also wrote Socialism and America. In 1987, Howe was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
He died in New York. According to the Sinai Hospital, the cause of death was cardiovascular disease.
He had strong political views that he would ferociously defend. Morris Dickstein, a professor at Queens College referred to Howe as a "counterpuncher who tended to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy of the moment, whether left or right, though he himself was certainly a man of the left."
Leon Wieseltier, who was the literary editor of The New Republic, said of Howe: "He lived in three worlds, literary, political and Jewish, and he watched all of them change almost beyond recognition."
Howe had two children, Nina and Nicholas (1953-2006), with his second wife, Thalia Phillies, a classicist.
He is survived by his third wife, Ilona Howe.
Books and pamphlets
- Smash the profiteers: vote for security and a living wage, New York, N.Y. : Workers Party Campaign Committee, 1946.
- Don't pay more rent!, Long Island City, N.Y. : Published by Workers Party Publications for the Workers Party of the United States 1947.
- The UAW and Walter Reuther, with B. J. Widick. New York, Random House, 1949.
- Sherwood Anderson, New York, Sloane, 1951.
- William Faulkner, a critical study, New York, Random House, 1952.
- The American Communist Party, a critical history, 1919-1957, with Lewis Coser with the assistance of Julius Jacobson. Boston, Beacon Press, 1957.
- Politics and the novel, New York, Horizon Press, 1957.
- The Jewish Labor Movement in America: two views., with Israel Knox New York, Jewish Labor Committee, 1957.
- Edith Wharton, a collection of critical essays, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall 1962
- Poverty : views from the left, with Jeremy Larner New York : Apollo, 1962.
- A world more attractive; a view of modern literature and politics., New York, Horizon Press, 1963.
- Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Washington, DC : Voice of America, 1964. American novel series #14.
- New styles in "leftism.", New York, League for Industrial Democracy, 1965.
- On the nature of communism and relations with communists, New York, League for Industrial Democracy, 1966.
- Steady work; essays in the politics of democratic radicalism, 1953-1966., New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
- Thomas Hardy, New York, Macmillan, 1967.
- The idea of the modern in literature and the arts, New York, Horizon Press, 1967.
- Literary modernism., Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Publications, 1967.
- Student activism., Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
- Shoptalk : an instructor's manual for Classics of modern fiction : eight short novels editor, New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
- Beyond the new left, New York, McCall Pub. Co., 1970. ISBN 0-8415-0021-5
- Decline of the new, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970
- The critical point, on literature and culture, New York, Horizon Press, 1973
- World of our fathers; the journey of the East European Jews to America and the life they found and made , New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976
- New perspectives: the diaspora and Israel, with Matityahu Peled New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976
- Trotsky, London : Fontana Modern Masters, 1978
- Leon Trotsky, New York : Viking Press, 1978
- Celebrations and attacks : thirty years of literary and cultural commentary, New York : Horizon Press, 1979. ISBN 0-8180-1176-9
- The threat of conservatism with Gus Tyler and Peter Steinfels, New York, N.Y. : Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1980.
- The making of a critic, Bennington, Vt. : Bennington College, 1982. Ben Belitt lectureship series, #5.
- A Margin of Hope: An intellectual Autobiography, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. ISBN 0-15-157138-4.
- Socialism and America, San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
- The American newness: culture and politics in the age of Emerson, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986.
- American Jews and liberalism with Michael Walzer, Leonard Fein and Mitchell Cohen, New York, N.Y. : Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1986.
- The return of terrorism, Bronx, N.Y.: Lehman College of the City University of New York, 1989. Herbert H. Lehman memorial lecture Lehman College publications, #22.
- Selected writings, 1950-1990 San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
- A critic's notebook edited and introduced by Nicholas Howe, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.
- The end of Jewish secularism, New York: Hunter College of the City University of New York, 1995. Occasional papers in Jewish history and thought, #1.
Articles, introductions, translations
- The essence of Judaism, by Leo Baeck, translated by Howe and Victor Grubwieser, New York: Schocken Books 1948.
- A treasury of Yiddish stories, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York, Viking Press, 1954.
- Modern literary criticism: an anthology, editor, Boston, Beacon Press, 1958.
- "New York in the Thirties: Some Fragments of Memory," Dissent, vol. 8, no. 3 (Summer 1961), pp. 241–250.
- New Grub Street by George Gissing; edited and introduced by Irving Howe, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
- The basic writings of Trotsky edited and introduced by Irving Howe, New York, Random House, 1963.
- The Historical Novel by Georg Lukacs; preface by Irving Howe, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963
- Orwell's Nineteen eighty-four: text, sources, criticism editor, New York : Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963.
- An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; afterword by Irving Howe, New York : Signet Classic, 1964.
- Jude the obscure by Thomas Hardy; edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
- The radical papers editor, New York : Doubleday, 1966.
- Selected writings: stories, poems and essays. by Thomas Hardy; edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Publications, 1966.
- Selected short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, New York, Modern Library, 1966.
- The radical imagination; an anthology from Dissent Magazine editor, New York : New American Library, 1967.
- A Dissenter's guide to foreign policy editor, New York : Praeger, 1968.
- Classics of modern fiction; eight short novels editor, New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
- A treasury of Yiddish poetry, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
- Essential works of socialism editor, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
- The literature of America; nineteenth century editor, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1970.
- Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East editor with Carl Gershman, New York, Quadrangle Books, 1970.
- Voices from the Yiddish: essays, memoirs, diaries, editor with Eliezer Greenberg Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972.
- The seventies: problems and proposals, editor with Michael Harrington New York, Harper & Row, 1972.
- The world of the blue-collar worker editor, New York, Quadrangle Books, 1972.
- Yiddish stories, old and new, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York, Holiday House 1974
- The new conservatives: a critique from the left editor, New York, Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1974.
- Herzog by Saul Bellow text and criticism edited by Irving Howe, New York, Viking Press, 1976.
- Jewish-American stories, editor, New York : New American Library, 1977.
- Ashes out of hope: fiction by Soviet-Yiddish writers, editor with Eliezer Greenberg New York : Schocken Books, 1977.
- Literature as experience: an anthology editor with John Hollander and David Bromwich, New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
- The best of Sholem Aleichem edited by Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse, Washington: New Republic Book, 1979.
- Twenty-five years of Dissent: an American tradition compiled and with an introd. by Irving Howe, New York : Methuen, 1979.
- How we lived: a documentary history of immigrant Jews in America, 1880-1930 editor with Kenneth Libo, New York : R. Marek, 1979.
- The portable Kipling editor, New York, Viking Press, 1982
- Beyond the welfare state editor, New York : Schocken Books, 1982.
- Short shorts: an anthology of the shortest stories edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe with an introduction by Irving Howe, Boston, Mass: D.R. Godine, 1982
- 1984 revisited: totalitarianism in our century editor, New York : Harper & Row, 1983.
- Alternatives, proposals for America from the democratic left editor, New York : Pantheon Books, 1984.
- We lived there, too: in their own words and pictures—pioneer Jews and the westward movement of America, 1630-1930 editor with Kenneth Libo, New York : St. Martin's/Marek, 1984.
- The Penguin book of modern Yiddish verse edited by Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse and Chone Shmeruk New York, Viking Press, 1987
- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, introduction New York: Bantam, 1990.
- The castle by Franz Kafka, introduction London : David Campbell Publishers, 1992.
- Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, introduction London : David Campbell Publishers, 1992.