Irving Howe

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Irving Howe
Howe during his year as writer in residence at University of Michigan, 1967-1968
Howe during his year as writer in residence at University of Michigan, 1967-1968
BornIrving Horenstein
(1920-06-11)June 11, 1920
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
DiedMay 5, 1993(1993-05-05) (aged 72)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
OccupationWriter, public intellectual

Irving Howe (/h/; June 11, 1920 – May 5, 1993) was an American literary and social critic and a prominent figure of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Early years[edit]

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.[1] His father became a peddler and eventually a presser in a dress factory. His mother was an operator in the dress trade.[2]

Howe attended City College of New York and graduated in 1940,[2] 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.[3] 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 CIA-backed 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.[2] 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.

Political career[edit]

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, joining it in the 1930s when it was under the influence of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, remaining with YPSL when it became the youth organization of Max Shachtman's Workers Party in 1940, which he served in a leading capacity, for a time as the editor of its paper, Labor Action; he continued his activism with this political trend when it morphed into the Independent Socialist League 1949, but left this milieu later in the mid 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.

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 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."[2]


Known for literary criticism as well as 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 Decline of the New, 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 they created in America. World of our Fathers won the 1977 National Book Award in History[4] and the National Jewish Book Award in the History category.[5]

He also edited and translated many Yiddish stories and commissioned the first English translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer for the Partisan Review.[2] In that regard, he was critical of Philip Roth's early works, Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint, as philistine and vulgar caricatures of Jewish life that pandered to the worst anti-semitic stereotypes.

In 1987, Howe was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.


He died in New York of cardiovascular disease.[2]


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."[2]

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."[2]

And Richard Rorty, American philosopher of note, dedicated his well-known work, Achieving Our Country (1999), to Howe's memory.

He appeared as himself in Woody Allen's mockumentary Zelig.

Howe had two children, Nina and Nicholas (1953-2006), with his second wife, Thalia Phillies, a classicist.[6]

He is survived by his third wife, Ilona Howe.







Articles and introductions[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Merry-Go-Round of Love and selected stories by Luigi Pirandello, trans. Frances Keene and Lily Duplaix, with a foreword by Irving Howe, New York, The New American Library of World Literature, 1964.
  • Jude the obscure by Thomas Hardy; edited with an introduction by Irving Howe, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • Twenty-five years of Dissent: an American tradition compiled and with an introd. by Irving Howe, New York : Methuen, 1979.
  • 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.


  1. ^ Rodden, John and Goffman, Ethan (2010). "Chronology". Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations With Irving Howe. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press. ISBN 9781557535511. Pg. xv.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Bernstein, Richard (May 6, 1993). "Irving Howe, 72, Critic, Editor and Socialist, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-27.
  3. ^ Edward Alexander, Irving Howe - Socialist, Critic, Jew (Indiana University Press, 1998; ISBN 0253113210), p. 10.
  4. ^ "National Book Awards – 1977". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  5. ^ "Past Winners". Jewish Book Council. Retrieved 2022-07-01.
  6. ^ "In Memoriam: Nicholas Howe". University of California. 2006. Archived from the original on 2011-11-11. Retrieved 2013-01-12.

Further reading[edit]


  • Rodden, John. “Remembering Irving Howe.” Salmagundi, No. 148/149, Fall 2005, pp. 243–257.


Primary sources[edit]

Interviews during the previous fifteen years.
Memoir by his research assistant.
Essays and reviews written by his critics.

External links[edit]