The last time I saw Irving Howe was at Carnegie Hall. We bumped into each other during the concert’s intermission. He was aglow. Isn’t it wonderful, Peter, he exclaimed, wonderful! The concert was Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.

That this insistently secular left-wing Jewish intellectual was so entranced and moved by a profoundly religious, explicitly Christian work still makes me shake my head with wonder, even if I associate this last meeting with Howe’s unexpected death at age seventy-two, about eighteen months later, in May 1993.

I met Irving Howe a quarter-century earlier because of a piece I wrote in this magazine. It was something of a rejoinder accompanying an article that I myself had urged Commonweal to publish. The other article, “Bankruptcy of the Liberals” (January 7, 1966), was the text of a passionate speech that Carl Oglesby, then president of Students for a Democratic Society, had delivered at a November 27, 1965, antiwar march that drew over twenty-five thousand people to the Washington Monument.

Instead of predictable rhetoric that might have pleased, though more likely bored, the broad coalition of antiwar marchers, Oglesby had delivered a biting critique of the anti-Communist doctrine that routinely set America against virtually every revolutionary impulse around the world, that also conveniently served American economic interests, and that had been forged and maintained as much by liberals as conservatives. Commonweal’s editors decided that Oglesby’s uncomfortable message (the Washington march had been initiated, after all, by the very respectable liberal group SANE) deserved another platform, even if we had some misgivings about it: exaggerations about liberalism, romanticizing of revolution, credulity about the adversary in Vietnam.

My article expressed some of those misgivings, and Howe sent me a complimentary note. It was my invitation into the world of Dissent, the journal he had cofounded and edited since 1954 as a radical alternative to established liberalism and one grounded in the search for a democratic form of socialism.

I was aware of being recruited into the middle of a conflict that had pitted the generation of veteran anti-Stalinist leftist intellectuals around Dissent against the younger generation of New Left activists who played leading roles in the civil-rights and antiwar movements of those years. It was a bitter division, part political, part generational, part personal; and it looms large in any number of the interviews, many previously unpublished, that have been collected in Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe.

Irving no doubt sensed from my Commonweal article that I was a potential ally in this battle, maybe even a defector from my own age group. Politically I had come of age with the New Left. Intellectually I was gripped by the moral drama that shaped Howe’s generation, the drama beginning after World War I with the rise of left- and right-wing totalitarian movements and continuing through the years of death camps and gulags to the Cold War, decolonization, and McCarthyism. My heroes were the politically engaged thinkers who had conducted themselves through these struggles with some degree of moral clarity and integrity.

So I trundled this double consciousness off to Upper West Side Manhattan apartments and sat against a wall or on the floor listening to various luminaries of New York intellectual life. Not that anyone ever introduced himself; it seemed that socialists were either inordinately shy, like myself, or oblivious to social graces, or probably both. But one pieced together the accents, the viewpoints, the personal clues, with the masthead of Dissent—it was like doing a crossword puzzle—to determine who was a leading left-wing art critic, who was a European refugee and survivor of clandestine antifascist politics, who was a longtime labor leader or labor lawyer. The talk was heady, with references to Communist maneuvers in Italy or France, to clashes in Algeria or economic choices in India or Latin America, to the political implications of America’s mass culture, or to this or that failed doctrine of revolutionary stages or vanguard parties dragged out of the museum of lost utopias. I was primed to be impressed. But amid this display I also wondered about friends and former classmates who may have lacked credentials in Europe’s tragic history and left-wing dialectics but had lived, thanks to the Peace Corps, in villages in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Thailand, the Philippines, or the Andes. Would they be taken seriously here?

My ambivalence continued. A few years later, I recall reacting with near fury at being asked to sign an anti–Vietnam War protest issued from the Dissent group, so cautious and qualified was its language. Yet it was exactly the kind of statement I myself would have composed not long before. And Howe’s writings, with their mix of unreconstructed egalitarianism, disabused utopianism, and defense of high culture, never ceased to attract me.

I entered his orbit again after 1973 when I became a founding member of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, for a while even a quiet member of the steering committee. Despite doubts about such organizational efforts, Howe gave generously of his time to DSOC’s activities. Around this time he rigorously edited an article of mine for Dissent on (I can scarcely believe it!) health-care reform, and was heard to say ironically approving things about me, such as “Steinfels is a real American,” meaning evidently that I hailed from the other side of the Hudson, had been spared an apprenticeship in left-wing faction fights, and even had some affinity for American religiosity. To my surprise, a comment like this turns up on page 300 of this book.

An unforgettable incident from this period was an impromptu debate between Howe and the philosopher Alasdair Mac-Intyre, an invited speaker at a DSOC gathering. Irving challenged Alasdair at the question period. The issue, as I recall—and I could very well be mistaken—was MacIntyre’s argument that a philosophy of history was a necessary safeguard against the authoritarian impulse to “force” history à la Leninism. Irving, burnt by his own doctrinaire experience as a young Trotskyist, saw this in exactly the opposite light: a philosophy of history was the basis for precisely such authoritarian confidence. But where the substance of the exchange is now vague in my memory, the performance stands out. It was like watching fireworks. Irving would fire off a glittering shower of wit, illustration, and argument. Alasdair would more than answer in kind. Back and forth the pyrotechnics went, while my brain registered “oohs” and “ahs” just like crowds on the Fourth of July.

Politics and the Intellectual follows upon two books edited by John Rodden that appeared five years ago—Irving Howe and the Critics: Celebrations and Attacks (University of Nebraska Press) and The Worlds of Irving Howe: The Critical Legacy (Paradigm Publishers). All three collections constitute an essential resource for anyone with a scholar’s interest in the man often said to have succeeded Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling as the nation’s most eminent public intellectual, a single figure bestriding literature, politics, and cultural criticism. In Howe’s case that span embraced the canon of Western fiction, the saga of Jewish immigration, the legacy of Yiddish literature, the history of labor and left-wing movements, and all the political and cultural battles from the Cold War to neoconservatism by way of McCarthyism, feminism, and multiculturalism. To say nothing of the fact that this graduate of Depression-era poverty in the east Bronx relished ballet as the great art, and Balanchine as the great genius, of our age.

But Politics and the Intellectual is more a book to be mined than read. As a comprehensive collection of interviews, it is inevitably repetitive. Interviewers naturally ask about Howe’s major political and intellectual battles and he naturally responds with what become overly familiar accounts. Each interview is preceded by the editors’ extended explanations of the context, again magnifying the repetition. It is not Howe’s fault, and certainly not the editors’ intention, that this structure can make him sound like an old man repeating the same stories over and over.

The fact that some of the interviews were public and some were private (that is, by Todd Gitlin, Maurice Isserman, and other scholars who were interviewing him in connection with books on the 1960s and the American Left) creates jarring though intriguing differences in tone. Most of us speak differently face to face—we stop, start, back up, and let thoughts wander or trail off—than when speaking to a live audience or for publication. Howe is at his articulate best, for example, in a public interview conducted by the poet Grace Schulman at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. But even that best is marvelously bettered by the excerpts he reads in the course of that evening from his 1982 autobiography, A Margin of Hope, a masterpiece of tone and voice in marrying the personal and the political.

The personal, yes, in the sense of Irving’s Yiddish-speaking, working-class origins and his own expanding experience and sensibility, but not the personal, as both admirers and critics of that wonderful book have pointed out, in terms of his adult family life. This he kept so much at a distance from his public roles that it is a bit shocking to find snapshots of him here with a young granddaughter.

And it is a pleasure to read the wise and gentle afterword by his daughter Nina Howe, grateful though saddened to rediscover in these interviews her father’s inspiring voice. For me, Howe’s voice is inseparable from his round and expressive face—the mischievously boyish grin when he had just skewered some high-flying case of political fraudulence, or the gleam in his eye when I last saw him at Carnegie Hall.

Published in the 2011-01-14 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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