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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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