Alice Walker and the Ghost of Irving Howe

How the Left's "language of non-thought" killed literary studies.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/06/image-4.gif)The voice of Irving Howe is little heard these days in the corridors of university English departments or the pages of the literary journals. This would not have been a great surprise to him. After he gave a series of lectures in Seattle in 1977 entitled “Modern Jewish Literature,” the University of Washington Press (and I) tried to persuade him to publish them as a book. But he doggedly resisted, claiming there was no point in publishing a book that wasn’t really a book. Finally, he put an end to our efforts by writing an imaginary review of an imaginary book called A Few Jewish Voices, signed by the imaginary critic “Northrop Kazin.” It reads as follows:

This very thin collection of essays by a writer whose most recent book [World of Our Fathers] is anything but thin, leaves one with a mild sense of depression….There is little to be said against the individual pieces, about as little as there is to be said for the book as a whole….what we have here, in short, is a non-book, even if a rather good one….We all know the temptation of writers who achieve a bit of fame to feel that every word they have ever put to print must be immortalized in books….But one would have thought that a man of Mr. Howe’s good sense would have resisted the temptation.

This is full of Howe’s ineffable charm, moral poise, and security of values, all of which the present literary world sadly lacks.

Take, for example, the recent blast of fire and vitriol emanating from Alice Walker. Long a cheerleader for the genocidal Hamas organization, she decided to broaden her anti-Israel activity by publicly refusing to have her works translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher (who denies having made the offer). She eschews Hebrew altogether because she believes that Israel is a racist society, worse than the segregated Old South, worse than apartheid South Africa, a place akin to Gehenna and the pit of hell. She seems unaware that the Puritans once dreamed of establishing Hebrew as America’s national language, and that Harvard and Yale once required its study. Also, emulation often breeds competition: since Walker has always emulated novelist Toni Morrison in all things (bad writing included), she had to do something that would be similar to, yet more spectacular than, Morrison’s refusal to accept royalties from sales in Israel; and so she decided to prohibit Hebrew translation of her work altogether. She has not yet come up with an expression of Holocaust envy to equal Morrison’s spiteful dedication of Beloved to the memory of “Sixty Million or More.” (How dare the Jews, with their paltry six million dead, monopolize all that beautiful Holocaust suffering in which other groups would very much like to share?)

Walker’s unwillingness to bear the taint of Hebrew reminds me of an anecdote Saul Bellow liked to recount. He was visiting “the dean of Hebrew writers, S. J. Agnon,”  in his house in Jerusalem.  Agnon unnerved Bellow by asking if any of his books had been translated into Hebrew, and warned that, if he wanted his works to be “safe,” he had better get them translated into the eternal language.  Walker, of course, is supremely confident that her every word will be immortalized without the help of Hebrew, and has spurned this form of insurance against the ravages of time.

The episode also reminded me of a long-ago correspondence between Howe and the philosopher Sidney Hook touching on, among other things, the significance  of Alice Walker’s replacement of John Keats in the American literary curriculum.  In December 1988, Stanford University was in the midst of a curricular battle. The university’s radicals wanted to transform the traditional curriculum to make it more “relevant,” more conducive to the self-esteem of minority groups, less tainted by prejudices of gender, class, and race. Howe, a lifelong socialist, but a socialist tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement, saw in all this a total betrayal of the socialist ideal of making the classical heritage of mankind, so long denied to the working classes, their own.

Though Howe and Hook rarely agreed on anything—they had been fierce adversaries since the 1940s—Howe shared Hook’s anger over the proposed changes. “Those of us who have been or are teachers get these American kids for a short while; they come, most of them, poorly prepared from the high schools; we have a chance to expose them to a play by Sophocles, a few pages of Hume, an essay by Freud, a poem by Keats, whatever it is that’s distinguished and has survived through sheer power of mind and language–and our colleagues tell us that this is imperialistic or racist or sexist or whatever. The kids get short-changed and their parents, paying through the nose to send them to college, don’t seem to know the difference…Socialists have usually said that they wanted a better society so that the poor could get a chance to engage with the culture they had been deprived of. And now that there is an opportunity for this, our ‘radical’ friends prefer to teach them about the Trobriand Islands or to have them read Alice Walker (an atrocious writer).” Would minority students really gain in self-esteem by reading about themselves or their ancestors? Was there not something patronizing in suggesting that variety and multiplicity were suitable for middle-class white students, but not for minority students, whose literary regimen must be racially determined? And since when was the function of the humanities to inculcate self-esteem? For Howe, the substitution of Alice Walker for John Keats epitomized the debasement of public education.

Much earlier, in the late sixties, Howe had entered the culture struggle that called into question the value of literature itself. He savagely attacked people like Louis Kampf, the spokesman for “leftist” English professors who came to provide teachers and critics who never cared much for literature in the first place a rationale for their hostility to literary studies: they were both a result and an instrument of class oppression. Kampf and his acolytes believed that preferring Elizabeth Bishop to Judith Krantz was a sin of the same order as sanctioning the inequality of wealth.

The corpses of the sixties were resuscitated in the anti-traditionalist insurgents at Stanford (and most other “progressive” universities) in the eighties. They thought of themselves as leftists but in fact were animated by a mixture of American populist sentiment and French critical theorizing. “The populism,” Howe observed, “releases anti-elitist rhetoric, the theorizing releases highly elitist language…a stupefying verbal opacity” that arises from and further engenders nihilism, imbuing Raskolnikovs with bombs in their brains rather than axes in their hands. Fortunately for Howe, he did not live to see the specifically anti-American and anti-Israel expression of literary “theory,” as in this apologia for suicide bombing provided in June 2002 by Columbia University’s celebrated tribune of “international feminism,” Gayatri Spivak:

Suicide bombing—and the planes of 911 were living bombs—is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others….Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning…you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing…It is a response…to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.

This is what Howe’s good friend Lionel Trilling called the language of non-thought, employed to blur the distinction between suicide and murder, to obliterate the victims—”no designated killees”  here!—metaphysically as well as physically. It is what Howe, writing about the trend of literary studies at every level of American education throughout the eighties until his death in 1993, called “the explosive power of boredom.” His voice is much missed today.

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