Remembering Irving Howe

Remembering Irving Howe

Some time ago, in an impatient review of Fiddler on the Roof, Irving wrote that the people who, one by one, made up Yiddish civilization in Eastern Europe were to be mourned—not with sentimental homage—but rather with “dignified silence.” We younger men and women who loved Irving, and claimed him, cannot write of his death without feeling somewhat preempted by that show of impatience. If anything was sacred to him, it was the mystery and density of a good man’s life. How do you eulogize a person you imagine poised to pounce on the slightest oversimplification?

You remember, I suppose, that certain things were sacred to him. Just after A Margin of Hope was published, I found Irving exasperated because a neoconservative critic had mocked him for a socialist position that had, in the words of the critic, become a “religion” for him. “The annoying thing is that the observation is, in a way, right,” Irving told me (his anger turned to exasperation when it collided with his sense of irony); “but I don’t think this man can appreciate any longer how he is right.” It was not that Dissent’s politics reflected any canon, certainly not any faith in the course of history. Rather, it was that the socialist ideal, with all of its nuances and limits, had to be grounded in the desire to do right by another person. This desire was, Irving lamented, “mysterious.” You could not argue Bounderby into wanting Stephen Blackpool’s welfare.

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