An OUTSIDER (especially if a solitary Wasp) tends to
think of New York Jewish intellectuals as a nest of hornets, technically social but ferocious. What these books reveal is that New York really has been a nest for them, protective and nurturing. The native New Yorkers in Creators and Disturbers and in Irving Howe's autobiography not only had no sense of belonging to an ethnic minority -- in many parts of the city, goyim were so rare as to be curiosities -- but, in strong contrast to most intellectuals elsewhere in America, they were not isolated by their special gifts and interests. Their immigrant parents encouraged them, their schools put them in advanced classes, teachers and librarians helped them; by the time they reached their teens, they were part of like-minded peer groups, often deeply engaged in radical politics. Some New Yorkers, both native and immigrant, feel that the city is a truer Jewish homeland than Israel: "I'm an unhyphenated Jew, with my roots in my shoes, and I feel most comfortable in New York because there are more Jews here than in Israel"; "Israel's no homeland for me. I've got a homeland. The Jew is not somebody from Judea, not any more. Two thousand years have made the Jew an international being."
The editors of Creators and Disturbers sidestep all questions of definition ("Jewish," "Intellectuals"); as to "of New York," they divide their intellectuals into three categories: immigrants from Europe, native New Yorkers, and transplants from elsewhere in the United States. As to their choice of these particular intellectuals, they say only that the book is "not celebrity-centered" and that the omission of the great physicist I. Rabi, who was "unavailable," is "the kind of gap we hope to fill in subsequent volumes." This way of putting it seems disingenuous: the book contains, in fact, few top-rank Jewish intellectuals, and it is hard to believe that they were excluded because some of them are celebrities. There are not only no scientists or mathematicians, but no poets, and few of the fiction writers or critics who have dominated the literary scene.
According to the title page, the book consists of "reminiscences" "drawn from conversations with" the editors. The pieces are, however, presented as if they were essays written in the first person by the subjects. (They are clearly not literal transcripts, since they are said to be based on "interviews conducted in depth and over an extended period"; quotation marks are not used; only in one or two cases are the interviewer's questions indicated.) The pieces, then, appear as essays by the subjects, though they were actually written by the interviewers. This is the way ghostwriters produce books by celebrities, though here even the obligatory "as told to" is omitted.
After voicing these complaints, I am glad to say that the book is nevertheless immensely readable and full of fascinating information. The subjects are all good talkers. Perhaps the best is I.B. Singer, the great Yiddish fiction writer and journalist, whose interview begins the book. Singer promptly separates himself from the tradition of Yiddish writing, which was, he says, sentimental and social: Yiddish writers "constantly fought for what they thought was a just world. They scolded the rich and praised the poor. I never felt that this was my function in literature. I was interested in specific stories and individual, exceptional people." Singer is the only person interviewed who was neither surprised nor shocked by the Holocaust, because "the whole history of humanity is one big holocaust, with some short interruptions." "Even before the Hitler destruction I had the feeling that human life is one big slaughter. That was my feeling. Not just as a Jew. As a human being." He believes in God, but not in His goodness or mercy; and he is conscious of the relation between his own pessimism and his humor: "The humorist sees mostly how easy it is to hypnotize people, to make fools of them, and how many fools God has created who don't even need to be hypnotized."
Starting with Singer makes everything else seem downhill, both because none of the other subjects is comparable in literary stature (Grace Paley is rather disappointing, and though Ted Solotaroff is good, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe can only summarize what they say better in their own autobiographies) and because they naturally operate on the sociological-historical level that Singer has disdained. On that level, it is worth nothing that Singer, at 78, is one of only two of the seven immigrant subjects still surviving, so that the first section already has a clear historical value. The interviews in the rest of the book cover everything from labor unions to psychoanalysis, from music (jazz, pop, and classical) to the various branches of Judaism, from architecture to education and the world of publishing.
While it is obviously impossible here to summarize this wealth of material, a few recurrent themes may be mentioned. First is the basic difference between German Jews, who, both before and after the days of the famous refugees from Hitler, were mostly gifted, well educated, and successful in America as in Germany; from Brandeis to Kissinger and Weinberger, their primary goal was assimilation, and hence they were politically moderate or conservative and usually anti-Zionist or indifferent; and the Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia. These were usually Orthodox and Zionist, anti-assimilationist, and politically radical -- at least to start with.
A second theme is why these Jewish intellectuals stay in New York, in spite of the physical and, many say, cultural deterioration of the city, its crime and unpleasantness. Perhaps the chief reason is that it is the world's largest Jewish city: "Here I have the Jews, so here I am at home, and I never was at home before." Schools and libraries are often mentioned, and other obvious cultural advantages.
The Holocaust naturally bulks large in almost every interview. As the editors put it, the "liberalism or radicalism and humanitarianism of Jewish intellectuals, with their antecedents in the Enlightenment, barred them from anticipating Hitler's handiwork." The immigrant Henry Pachter puts it more specifically: "As a Marxist of course I too had to believe that the banks were powerful enough to tell Hitler to let the Jews alone." And Alfred Kazin, a Socialist, found that "the Holocaust made me believe more and more in certain ideas of human nature which I had been loath to accept." Marxism "could never explain the Holocaust, or why the Nazis went out of their way, even to their military disadvantage, to capture and destroy Jews." On the other hand, for religious Jews the Holocaust "challenged the whole idea of God" and drove them into looking for new categories. Every person interviewed has strong opinions about Hannah Arendt, whose books on the origins of totalitarianism (1951) and the Eichmann trial (1963), as well as her own position as a superior representative of high German culture, provoked powerful reactions.
The establishment of Israel, similarly, is an inescapable topic. Hans Morgenthau was an anti-Zionist and thought of Israel as a "nation of schnorrers" until the 1967 war, when his pride in Israel's triumph led him gradually to redefine his Jewish identity. Many others went through a similar process. On the other hand, the architect Percival Goodman disapproves of the Israelis' martial virtues and argues that "the big Israeli export . . . should be peace," and Pachter, considering Israel "the greatest misfortune that ever befell Jewry," nevertheless reluctantly accepts his identification with it: "I have to be responsible for Begin's mistakes."
Irving Howe's interview makes him appear almost paradigmatically typical of the New York Jewish intellectual. Child of immigrant Yiddish-speaking parents who were poor and got poorer, growing up in the Bronx where only the janitors were non-Jewish, he had excellent teachers and made the most of excellent libraries. At 14 he joined the Young People's Socialist League and began the political activities that were central to his life thereafter; by 16 or 17 he thought of himself as a Marxist. At CCNY he was a leader of the anti-Stalinists, moving toward Trotskyism; Partisan Review impressed him deeply, and after the war "it became clear to me that I belonged to a generation called the New York intellectuals," centering on this magazine. First made aware of his Jewishness in the Army, he returned to Yiddish literature after the war, editing, translating, and interpreting; he was instrumental in the "discovery" of I.B. Singer. Though not a Zionist, he took the Israeli side in the controversies over Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, which were "like a therapeutic session where you discover that, welling up within you, there is a great mass of feeling that . . . had been suppressed." His concern with Yiddishkeit culminated in his much-praised World of Our Fathers, 1977. Describing his disenchantment with political ideology at the end, he hopes that he is "more humane, tolerant, and broadminded."
These bare bones are fleshed out in Howe's fine "intellectual autobiography," A Margin of Hope, which reveals him as an individual (and in his own language, without intermediaries). It is not that Margin tells much about Howe's personal life; it is concerned with his ideas, and with his personal experiences only as they affect or are affected by those ideas. (There is, for example, hardly anything about his relations with women; even his parents are given minimal attention, and the archetypal rejection and eventual acceptance of the father that seems to be obligatory in all autobiographies is barely sketched in.) He attempts no novelistic characterizations or dramatized scenes, and I think he is wise not to. Howe's great gift as a critic is for lucid and readable exposition of ideas, enlivened by occasional flashes of wit or eloquence; and this gift is fully exploited here. He manages to write about himself at great length without sounding pretentious, defensive, or apologetic; his tone is thoughtful and candid, and his resources of self-knowledge are considerable. He does not seem concerned to make himself look good or to settle old scores; he is quite ready to say so when he thinks he was wrong, and he comes close to a recantation at the end, as we shall see.
Radical politics, the Young Peoples Socialist League and then the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, were Howe's Garden of Eden, his days of innocence and whole- hearted belief, with the kind of in-group bonding that other adolescents find in sports and social fraternities. "Never before, and surely never since, have I lived at so high, so intense a pitch, or been so absorbed in ideas beyond the smallness of self." This Marxist orientation prevented him from grasping the full horror of the Holocaust: "Marxism, by remaining fixed upon class analysis and social categories appropriate only to the bourgeois- democratic epoch, kept us from seeing the radically novel particulars of the Nazi regime." On the other hand, it facilitated his postwar entry into the circle of New York intellectuals centering around the quasi-Trotskyist Partisan Review. For Howe to call them the New York intellectuals seems unduly exclusive and proprietary; what are later ones to call themselves? And there had been other groups of intellectuals -- even intelligentsia, perhaps -- in other American cities. But Howe is probably right in calling these the first in New York, ansiderd his picture of their lives, aims, and activities is the best I have seen. His own aim was to be a social critic, with Edmund Wilson and George Orwell as models, and beyond this to be "one of those free-ranging speculative writers who grapple with the troubles of their time yet command some of the accumulated knowledge of the past." Putting it in colloquial and ethnic terms in his interview, he says, "We had . . . a mania for range; that's why when I say literary intellectual I mean something other than a critic . . . Behind this is a very profoundly Jewish impulse; namely, you've got to beat the goyim at their own game. So you have to dazzle them a little."
One of Howe's best qualities is that he is not doctrinaire. As he has grown older, he has come to appreciate the ideal of the gentleman, of being quiet and unassertive, and modest: "a life of the mind that can keep some distance from competitiveness and clamor." He becomes enchanted by ballet. And he becomes deeply aware of the limits of politics: "The notion that as soon as 'we' take power, all will be well; the notion that democracy, even in its most debased forms, is anything but a precious human conquest; the notion that social change will occur through the automatic workings of the economy, just like the opposite notion that history can be forced through the will of a sacrificial band -- none of these can be taken seriously by thoughtful people, none ever should have been." It is almost a recantation or palinode. Yet at the end he is still trying to make a case for socialism on moral grounds, while conceding that "if at any point a socialist proposal were to conflict with the fundamental values of liberalism, I would unhesitatingly opt for the latter." This nostalgic yearning for at least the vocabulary of his lost Eden is rather appealing, but it leads him into an unfortunately anticlimactic conclusion: an imaginary conversation which starts with the proposition "God died in the nineteenth century, utopia in the twentieth," and finds nothing definite to affirm.