In a review of Irving Howe’s recently-published collected essays, A Voice Still Heard, Frank Foer appends that label to the critic and longtime editor of Dissent. Foer goes on to assert that Howe was “our most thrilling dissident, a socialist with conservative cultural sympathies, a scything polemicist capable of the most tender, patient literary explication”:
Howe had a heroic conception of the intellectual, and from an early age, he thrust himself into the growing world of little magazines. In his 20s, after his discharge from the Army, he worked as an intern, to use an anachronistic term, for Dwight Macdonald and Hannah Arendt. Both of these early patrons came to somewhat annoy him, but he paid close attention to their methods. Even as he became one of the greatest practicing critics in the country, he was also the sharpest, most observant student of his fellow intellectuals. They were truly his great subject. … Howe wrote about other writers with anthropological detachment, followed by blazing expressions of his disappointment with them. Namely, he flayed them for failing to do the most elemental part of their job, holding society to account.
David Marcus examines the way Howe “considered his literary and political inclinations to be one in the same, two sides—utopian and ironic, committed and critical—of the same intellectual vocation”:
[Lionel] Trilling remarked in this period that this choice between commitment and literary complexity was a “dark and bloody crossroads.” For Howe it was precisely by remaining between politics and literature that one became an intellectual.
Trilling insisted on the “moral obligation to be intelligent”; Howe insisted there was a moral obligation to apply such intelligence to politics. To rub social needs against utopian desires, the demand for political action against the supple ambiguities of the literary imagination—this was the task of the intellectual; its friction generated sparks.
This was not a new position. Figures like Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson also articulated such a vision in the 1930s and ’40s: that radicalism was a total stance, political and literary, engaged with discovering not only new images of the world but new social structures. As the French Surrealist, Andre Breton, put it in an address around this time: “‘Transform the world,’ said Marx. ‘Change life,’ said Rimbaud. These two are … one and the same.” But for many intellectuals in the early 1950s it was beginning to appear as if they should not be one and the same. Marx and Rimbaud, Trotsky and Proust, the rigors of politics and the spirited sense of possibility in literature—these were increasingly seen as separate fields of intellectual activity.
To sample Howe’s writing, check out this famous 1969 essay of his, “The New York Intellectuals.”
(A photo of Howe at the University of Michigan in 1967, via Wikimedia Commons)