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Happy Birthday Irving Howe

On this day in history, June 11, 1920, Irving Howe was born.  To celebrate his birth I turned to the American National Biography which led me to an entry by Shirley Laird. The ANB offers portraits of more than 17,400 men and women – from all eras and walks of life – whose lives have shaped the nation. Learn about Irving Howe below.

Howe, Irving (11 June 1920-5 May 1993), literary critic and historian, was born in New York City, the son of David Howe and Nettie Goldman, grocery store operators and later garment workers. Irving Howe was married twice, first to Arien Hausknecht, with whom he had two children, and later to Ilana Wiener.

Howe became a socialist at fourteen, joining a faction led by Leon Trotsky. He graduated from City College of New York in 1940, claiming that he spent more time talking to fellow radicals than he spent in class. He completed a year and a half of graduate study at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the army in 1942; he served in Alaska for two or three years. When he returned to New York after the war, he began to publish articles in the Partisan Review, Commentary, and the Nation. In 1953 he founded Dissent, a political and literary journal that he edited for many years. In that year he became an associate professor of English at Brandeis University and also was appointed a Kenyon Review fellow. Leaving Brandeis in 1961, he spent 1961 to 1963 as a professor of English at Stanford University. From 1963 to 1970 he was professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he was named in 1970 Distinguished Professor of English.

Howe wrote or contributed to more than forty books, the most noteworthy of which are works of literary criticism. His first study, Sherwood Anderson (1952), was an analysis of Sherwood Anderson’s work and a rebuttal of Lionel Trilling’s assault on the realist movement in modern literature. Howe reveals himself a capable historian in his portrait of Anderson’s childhood in Ohio, and he is charitable in dealing with Anderson’s indistinctness and sentimentality. Howe’s next book, William Faulkner: A Critical Study (1952), provides a sensible and balanced preface to William Faulkner. Another high point of Howe’s literary career is Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study (1967), particularly his interpretation of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Howe’s political writing includes a wide variety of subjects: Politics and the Novel (1957); The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture (1973); Trotsky (1978); and The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson (1986). Based on three lectures on Ralph Waldo Emerson that Howe gave at Harvard University in 1985, The American Newness reflects his earlier optimism and pays tribute to some of his heroes such as Marx, Trotsky, and Ben-Gurion. One of Howe’s most enduring pieces is an essay published in Commentary in 1968, “The New York Intellectuals.” It is a history of Howe’s circle of associates in which he describes the radical experience, including nontraditional attitudes and Communist sympathies, and the immigrant Jewish experience.

Howe edited, along with Yiddish poet and translator Eliezer Greenberg, several important anthologies of Yiddish writing in English translation, including A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (1969) and World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to Americaand the Life They Found and Made (1976), the latter coauthored with Kenneth Libo. World of Our Fathers describes Eastern European Jewish society of the late 1800s and early 1900s in New York City; it realized an unusual popular success, and in 1977 Howe was awarded the National Book Award for it. Howe received the Longview Foundation prize for literary criticism, the Bollingen Award (1959-1960), the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1960), Guggenheim fellowships (1964-1965, 1971), the Jewish Heritage Award (1975), and the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1975-1976). He died in New York City.

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