Alice Walker and the Ghost of Irving Howe

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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.

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  • Steve

    I have always thought that Alice Walker looks like and would make a good maid. Anyone know if she can cook?

    • Edwin S.

      Racist insult degrades the conversation.

  • Walt

    Ms. Walker is the typical 'progressive' trying to pass herself off as an intellectual. Her opinions are not based on available facts, but on tribal 'lore'. Blacks (as well as progressives) have always hated the Jewish, whether out of envy, jealousy, ignorance, etc. I have no clue – but it is there and prolific.

    While that aspect of black society is certainly disheartening, to listen/read about the opinions of a black pseudo intellectual decry the murders, maimings, atrocities, et al committed by the Israeli's foreign policy decisions is bat guano at best.

    If she wants to deal objectively in 'tribal' gotcha, why doesn't she direct her attention in cleaning up her own mess like the thousands of Black-on-black murders each year, or the 1-in-7 black pregnancies that end in abortion, etc. At least in that case she might be doing she knows a bit about and something for which we could be proud of her.

    Presently, her pathetic lack of knowledge re the Jewish or Israel are almost criminal!

    • A. Keen Observer

      Excellent post and thank you for stating what needs to be said about the historical and ongoing hatred of Jews by blacks. It is of epic proportions. I used to wonder why and then I read on the internet the average IQs of various groups, racial and otherwise: blacks = 80, Jews = 120.

      Re black genocide on blacks: Yes, that is exactly what it is.

      However, her remarks, I believe, are not almost criminal — they are indeed criminal.

      Thanks again!

  • Robin

    The real problem with literary studies is that it allows minds today to interact with the minds from the past. A mental dialogue of ideas that no intrusive bureaucrat can intervene to stop. It nurtures. It defies. It reminds us of the best of human originality and allows one individual to interact with another.

    Both John Dewey and Karl Marx refused to accept rational thought. There could be physical activity which we see today in the emphasis on learning tasks and projects and community experiences. You can communicate beliefs or feelings to others.

    But the idea of an individual mental world of internal dialogues lays at the heart of the unacceptable concept of the individual. And today we are being shoved back into the Soviet idea that everything the individual is or knows is a result of his social interactions with others coupled with his physical environment.

    Keats and Milton and Hume and Locke–all too glaringly magnificent minds that arose apart from the rubbing off from interacting with others. No longer acceptable to encounter such individuals or celebrate accomplishments everyone is not capable of achieving.

    Bomb in the mind–well said given all the current emphasis on emotion being preferable to rational thought.

  • tagalog

    Where did Toni Morrison get the figure of sixty million or more? Where does that come from? Assuming sixty million is something more than an overheated, red-hot, smoking hashish fantasy, who is responsible for those deaths? How many are attributable to Muslims?

    • ebonystone

      Sixty million is the figure usually attributed to the Moslem slave trade out of Africa, but somehow I don't think Morrison is refering to that. She undoubtedly considers Moslems to be fellow "people of color", and thus innocent of any nasty things. No, she's just drastically inflating the number of Africans taken in the Atlantic slave trade — the accepted figure is more like twelve million, about 1/5 her number.
      And the idea of any equivalence to the Holocaust is ludicrous; it was 12 million taken alive as slaves to the Americas, NOT 12 million killed. Slaves were an expensive investment, and slave-traders were not in the habit of killing their valuable "livestock".
      The real Holocaust comparison must be with the Moslem slave trade. The Moslem traders routinely made eunuchs (not just castrati) out of the African boys they had taken as slaves. The operations were performed under terribly unhygienic conditions, and the fatality rate was fantastic — most boys did not survive.
      Also, why does Morrison not aim some of her bile at the African kings and slavers who made a handsome income selling their fellow Africans to both Europeans and Moslems?

      • Questions

        If you read Hugh Thomas' classic book, "A History of Slavery," only about 5 percent of all African black slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere were bound for the American colonies and early republic. Most were destined for the Caribbean, Central America or South America. Alice Walker should do some better picking of reading material.

  • tagalog

    "No designated killees" is code for "random murder." This is not simply non-thought; it is deliberate masking of the real meaning of what one is trying to say, and suggests not only non-thought, but a willing ignorance of what one means. You see this commonly, but more and more these days as you talk to people who will say anything and then when their attention is called to the significance and consequences of what they have said, say the opposite as if that's what they meant all along.

  • cheese_burger

    From the article:

    "Suicide bombing—and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs—is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism"

    My comment:

    Someone should take this mook stupid blob of protoplasm out behind the barn, to be thrashed mercilessly, for offending sane people with both its ideology, and its grammar!

  • BS77

    There is more apartheid in most large urban areas of the US than in Israel. Walker , like most leftists, disregards facts….choosing to embrace lies, fiction and propaganda. Israel is a very diverse nation…yes, it does try to protect itself from terror attacks (last week Hamas fired over 150 rockets into southern Israel), but Israel is the most pluralistic and democratic nation in the Middle East….got that, Walker?

  • Guy

    Actually, Israel is the only state in the Middle East that is NOT an apartheid regime, which is why little Alice wants to see it exterminated.

  • clarespark

    Even before the lit crit assault on canonical English and American literature, the guns were drawn against anyone who supported independent thought. Herman Melville was one victim of the progressive offensive. Too "Hebraic"? See…. "Herman Melville: Dead White Male." His fate at the hands of leading left-liberals show that you don't have to be Jewish to incur the wrath of reactionaries.

    • Sage on the Stage

      Correct; you don't have to be Jewish to incur the anger of reactionaries; but at the same time, there has long been a fairly virulent strain of anti-semitism in American literature. Look at Theodore Dreiser and T.S. Eliot.

      • clarespark

        I could name many more American writers in the canon who have negative images of Jewish characters. So what does it prove? There is more antisemitism than most want to recognize. Melville as Captain Ahab was deemed "a Jew" or "Hebraic" because he challenged traditional authority. Melville himself could be nasty with respect to Jews, especially when they were associated with modernity and capitalism. The point is that black writers have been elevated for reasons that were politically motivated, and many of these share in the general association of Jews with the money power and the determination to control the world.

        • Sage on the Stage

          I wasn't trying to PROVE anything by my comment; and I understood your point quite well. I'm sure you are fairly expert in the field of literature; I've read your blog a few times. However, I have found that many commenters on this site are quite argumentative.

          • clarespark

            Thanks Sage for your elucidation, and for reading my blogs. Peace.

  • ratonis

    I tried to read "The Color Purple" a few years ago, and could only get through about half of it. It was the worst written, most thumpingly boring thing I've ever tried to read, this side of "The Celestine Prophecy."

    It does seem, sometime, that mediocre black writers are applauded all out of proportion to their quality for the same reason that audiences applaud children for singing badly in church. It is the need to feel morally superior through patronizing or "encouraging" the efforts of the immature. The same applies to black artists (e.g. Faith Ringgold), or even doctoral candidates like Martin Luther King (whose plagiarisms were overlooked or justified through contorted apologetics and race-rooted intellectual dishonesty).

    • tagalog

      I'm a bit more cynical than that. I think that mediocre black writers are celebrated by blacks solely because of race, although there may be some element of endorsing some black fantasy, often about whites conspiring against blacks. I think that whites celebrate mediocre black works of art, books et al. because a certain class of whites (1) needs to think its approval of black artists is necessary, and (2) there are few or no good black artists, so whites celebrate the mediocre ones so as to be able to say they support black artistry on the theory if whites support mediocre black artists today, tomorrow better black artists will come forth to bask in white approval.

  • Ghostwriter

    I encountered some of that when I was in high school and college. We weren't allow to wonder what the writer meant himself or just enjoy the darn book. We had to go through a lot of nonsense stuff instead of letting us enjoying it on it's merits.

  • gary fouse

    The old German drinking song…

    "Alice! Who the F— is Alice?"

  • Arnon Segel

    Alice Walker looks like my maid