The hymns of praise that followed Irving’s death overlooked one of his most special qualities: his capacity to change and grow, at a time of life—his fifties and sixties—when most people stagnate or shrink. But we can’t appreciate his growth without facing some of his other qualities that needed to be outgrown. I want to focus on Irving in the late 1960s and early 1970s: before he grew, and after.
Before he outgrew, Irving acted out, and some of his most extravagant acting out was aimed at my generation. In 1965, he brought out an essay called “New Styles in Leftism,” an assault on the New Left. Before and after it ran in Dissent, he went on tour and gave it at colleges around the country (I heard it at Harvard in the spring, and at the New School in the fall). This talk drew big crowds and strong responses; talk reached the shouting level within a couple of minutes, and stayed that way for hours; people screamed at and denounced old allies, felt betrayed, discovered that they couldn’t work together after all. Irving claimed to be speaking on behalf of sober rationality, but in fact he was striking deep emotional chords and raising the temperature of political discourse to a frenzy. (Events soon drove the fever even higher, but he did more than his share to keep it up.) His essay is commonly and correctly listed as an opening salvo in the great American “Culture Wars” that still rage on today.