Critic's Notebook (Harvest Book)

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9780156002578: Critic's Notebook (Harvest Book)

This collection of accessible, idiosyncratic essays explores such enduring literary concepts as character, style, tone, and genre. All have their origin in Howe's passion, moral striving, and abiding faith in the common reader. Edited and with an Introduction by Nicholas Howe.

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About the Author:

Irving Howe (June 11, 1920 – May 5, 1993), was an American literary and social critic. He was born as Irving Horenstein in The Bronx, New York, as a son of immigrants who ran a small grocery store that went out of business during the Great Depression. He never publicly explained his name change from "Horenstein" to "Howe."


Like many New York Intellectuals, Howe attended City College and graduated in 1940, alongside Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Upon his return, he began writing literary and cultural criticism for the influential Partisan Review and became a frequent essayist for Commentary, Politics, The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. In 1954, Howe helped found the intellectual quarterly Dissent, which he edited until his death in 1993. In the 1950's Howe taught English and Yiddish literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. He used the Howe and Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Stories as the text for a course on the Yiddish story at a time when few were spreading knowledge or appreciation of these works in American colleges and universities.

Since his CCNY days, Howe was committed to left-wing politics. He was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and then Max Shachtman's Workers Party, where Shactman made Howe his understudy. After 1948, he joined the Independent Socialist League, where he was a central leader. He left the ISL in the early 1950s. As the request of his friend Michael Harrington, he helped co-found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the early 1970s. DSOC merged into the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, with Howe as a vice-chair. He was a vociferous opponent of both Soviet totalitarianism and McCarthyism, called into question standard Marxist doctrine, and came into conflict with the New Left after criticizing their unmitigated radicalism. Later in life, his politics gravitated toward more pragmatic democratic socialism and foreign policy, a position still represented in the idiosyncratic political and social arguments of Dissent.

Known for literary criticism as well social and political activism, Howe wrote seminal studies on Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, politics and the novel, and a sweeping cultural history of Eastern European Jews in America entitled World of Our Fathers. He also edited and translated many Yiddish stories, and commissioned the first English translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer for the Partisan Review. He also wrote A Margin of Hope, his autobiography, and Socialism and America.

A biography of Howe, entitled Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, was published by Gerald Sorin.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Working on a miniaturized scale, Howe (The American Newness, 1986, etc.) masterfully surveys the literary field in this posthumous collection of essays. The author planned to amass a book from what he called shtiklakh (Yiddish for ``morsels'') of old-fashioned literary criticism on a variety of subjects; he completed enough of them for his son to arrange in this volume. Fittingly, some of the best pieces briefly explore minute topics: the anecdote, ``gratuitous details,'' the fly in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The longer, thematic essays range with natural confidence from such traditional aesthetic issues as characterization in Fielding and Sterne to curiosities like the uses of obscurity from Moll Flanders to The Good Soldier, but these disquisitions all contain the same pleasantly modest inquisitiveness. While some approach literary giants such as Dickens and George Eliot with reflective familiarity, others boost novelists with reputations in decline, including Arnold Bennett and Sir Walter Scott, from the perspective of a veteran reader aware of their shortcomings but entertained nonetheless. As much selected shorts of literary appreciation as they are criticism, the pieces have a distinctly personal flavor, whether discussing changes in reading mores or the fading pleasure experienced in rereading books one once enjoyed. Howe occasionally airs his irritation with current academic political fashions and theory but never raises his conversational tone. Sometimes his personal fondnesses crowd out his scholarly nature, most egregiously in his examination of late Dickens through the lens of Dostoevsky, both favorites of his; the Victorian's literary and personal dark side is badly misrepresented by the comparison. Still, the obvious pleasure Howe takes in his literary rambles makes the reader wish he had been able to write as planned on Great Expectations and on picnics in the works of Jane Austen and E.M. Forster. A delightful potpourri in which Howe displays an essayist's ease, a critic's incisiveness, and, when necessary, an academic's scholarship. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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