Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Rough Beast |
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Rough Beast

Irving Howe’s Decline of the New is marked by serious internal contradictions, but it is not really flawed by them: the wounds are honourable. Irving Howe has stuck by his socialist principles over a long stretch of modern American history, a period in which he has seen most of his contemporaries among the ‘family’ of New York intellectuals make their separate accommodations with capitalism, with brutalized democracy and with success. He edited Dissent through hard, bad years; and for his own magazine or for any other magazine in which he published, he provided contributions which had then, and retain now, a distinctively solid ring of integrity. The oldest of the essays in this book (the one on Silone) dates from 1957 and was first collected in his book Politics and the Novel — once published in this country by the New Left Review and recommended for perusal in the days when the New Left still perused.

The new book (which also contains the bulk of an intermediate volume, A World More Attractive) continues the lost fight that the older book began: a fight for socialist principles in a country in which socialism could never be institutionalized, but which could conceivably be ameliorated by a dedicated analytical and polemical pursuit of those principles. It was a stable and rewarding position for a writer to adopt, provided he was a courageous writer, which Howe certainly was, and is. Just because it was hopeless in the field of immediate practicality didn’t make it irrelevant in the long run and the critical spin-off produced such classics of evaluation as the essay (included here) on Dreiser. But there was a joker in the deck: the long run shortened. The wished-for radical awakening actually arrived — and in the eyes of Irving Howe it turned out to be a monster. The continuity of the new radicalism was not with the old Left, but with barbarism. Suddenly he was fighting on two fronts. It is the sort of situation in which intellectuals tend to panic. Howe didn’t, and it’s the fact that he didn’t which gives the newer parts of this book their dignity, and retroactively bestows on the older parts an intense illumination. Irving Howe is a hard character and this is a good book in a way that a lot of flashier New York intellectual products are not. Most of what is in it is tested against everything the author ever stood for, and the author is the kind of man who, when talking to himself, can get a word in edgeways.

All that said, the contradictions must still be faced. They show up most vividly in the long (and from the documentary standpoint invaluable) historico-critical disquisition called ‘The New York Intellectuals’. The stellar names and all their constellations are mapped through recent history: Rahv, Phillips, Hook, Burnham, Corey, Macdonald, Kazin, Rosenberg, Trilling, Arendt, Greenberg, Goodman, Abel, Shapiro, Chiaromonte, McCarthy, Fiedler and many more. The theme is the turning-away from Stalinism, a process whose various results Howe describes in a series of brilliant summaries. The essay is an absolutely reliable document of the successive trends down to quite recent times: its triumph is to draw group portraits that are not cartoons, and its governing tone is one of approval for the complex states of mind these rejections led to —even though something had been lost, and the turning-away was from the fruitful kinds of commitment as well as the fruitless. A specimen conclusion:

Later in the Forties and Fifties, most of the New York intellectuals would abandon the effort to find a renewed basis for socialist politics —to their serious discredit, I believe. Some would vulgarise anti-Stalinism into a politics barely distinguishable from reaction. Yet for almost all New York intellectuals the radical years proved a decisive moment in their lives. And for a few, the decisive moment.

For Howe the lasting, and limiting, contribution of the old guard is one of style — the ‘brilliant’ style. Howe can admire this brilliance without being persuaded by it: in more ways than one, he would not be capable of Mary McCarthy’s powerfully silly essay on Orwell, and his own placidly sensible essay is here to prove it. He represents the continuance of a purer, more contemplative spirit, based on confidence in his complex historical position rather than on self-confidence. But when the new, apparently simplistic radicalism arrives, the complex historical position is injured in its dignity, and Howe’s reaction to events, for such a long time subtle and forbearing, at last lapses into coarseness. He sees the new opposition as an indivisible monolith; he attributes to it a collective psyche; not only can it do nothing right, but nothing good can come of it. There’s no suggestion that the new thing might develop complexities of its own. Howe’s conclusions come pat in a language become glib:

For if the psychology of unobstructed need is taken as a sufficient guide to life, it all but eliminates any need for complexity — or rather, the need for complexity comes to be seen as a mode of false consciousness, an evasion of true feelings, a psychic bureaucraticism in which to trap the pure and strong. If good sex signifies good feeling; good feeling, good being; good being, good action; and good action, a healthy polity, then we have come the long way round, past the Reichian way or the Lawrentian way, to an Emersonian romanticism minus Emerson’s complicatedness of vision. The world snaps back into a system of burgeoning potentialities, waiting for free spirits to attach themselves to the richness of natural object and symbol — except that now the orgasmic black-out is to replace the Oversoul as the current through which pure transcendent energies flow.

Howe is right to regard those clerks as treasonable who have fallen for the ahistorical cultural assumptions of the new radicalism: what he is saying, which cannot be argued with, is that intellectuals ought to remain intellectuals. But the main force of passages like this is directed against the new radicalism as a political whole, and the contradiction is obvious: if he thought the ‘polity’ was healthy before, why did he fight it? And if he thought it was unhealthy, what kind of opposition to it did he expect to emerge?

The very fact that he is involved in this dilemma is proof of Howe’s worth. The fact that he does not see it clearly is proof that there is a time in these things and nobody can stay alert for ever. But Howe stayed alert a long time and the older essays in this impressive book go to show it.

(Listener, 1971)


London was the place to review books about the New York intellectuals. Later on I started reviewing them in New York and found myself in a shooting war. The exchange of fire between the New York Review of Books and the Commentary camps was particularly vicious, necessitating a low profile to cross the road. Most of these enmities went back to before World War II. There were whole books devoted just to who stood where. It was a study in itself, so I am pleased to have done some good guessing long before I knew any of the people involved. Ideally, I suppose, that should always be the way, but reality dictates that you can’t be in literary journalism long without meeting everyone, whereupon the challenge becomes to maintain social commerce while still writing objective reports. This has always been harder to manage in New York than in London. In New York, where literary people imagine their opinions to be at the heart of the political process, it is rare for people to disagree over ideology without becoming personal enemies. Irving Howe was rare in being able to talk about his opponents as if they had not forfeited their humanity by differing from him. John Gregory Dunne (in his fine collection Crooning: a model of the genre) made the statement about Howe that mattered: he had a civilized voice.