Even then, he knew.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a tribune of the socialist movement," recalled literary and social critic Irving Howe, in town yesterday to speak at a forum organized by supporters of the Peace Now movement in Israel. "Something like Norman Thomas. But I didn't have those gifts. I wasn't as good a speaker."
So he turned to the typewriter, writing and editing political and literary studies. Now, at age 60, Howe has become an elder statesman of democratic socialism in the U.S., which often take him away from his typewriter.
He's fidgeting in a small, sparsely furnished room at the Tabard Inn on N Street. There's no desk, but he's safely away from the "carbolic" odor of the plastic and glass hotels he detests. Tugging at his socks and sandals, Howe reflects on the life of a graying eminence.
"One of the curses of my life is the growth of obligations, each of which has its own validity but the sum of which can drive one crazy."
Today, at least, the frustrated intellectual defers to the activist. Best-selling author Irving Howe -- his "World of Our Fathers," a social history of Jewish immigrant culture, rode the lists month after month -- has come to draw more people to the evening's discussion of Peace Now at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville. Back in New York, he helped organize the general American committee aiding Peace Now.
"The virtue of Peace Now," he says, explaining his support," is that it proposes certain immediate measures -- it doesn't propose a long-range solution." Howe lists them as "a cessation of all settlements," an "announcement" by Israel that it is willing to "cede the West Bank under proper security guarantees," and a readiness "to negotiate with any Palestinian body that recognizes Israel and ceases terrorism."
Howe thinks the Israeli government would encourage moderate Palestinian leaders to offer signs of accepting Israel by adopting such measures.
Last night, at the Rockville meeting, some disagreed.
Israeli-like heat of over 90 degrees -- and some American heat generated by concerned local Jews -- met Howe and Mordecai Bar-On, former chief of education of the Israeli Defense Forces. Several members of the audience objected to the requirement of written questions, but the panel went on as planned.
Bar-On, mopping his brow, emphatically recounted the history of the movement, stressing its "moderate nature," and reminding the audience of the tradition "of the Zionist movement to have a dialogue with the Diaspora." t
Howe tried to alleviate tension in the room with a brief observation in Yiddish, after which he stated his reasons for backing Peace Now.
Then he spoke, as he had in the afternoon, of what most disturbed him: the endorsement of violence by Jewish extremists, especially against other Jews, a violation, he said, of the cherished Jewish rejection of force.
"It is sometimes said that these people are taking the law into their own hands," intoned Howe. "That is not true. They are taking lawlessness into their hands."
The objections came quickly, centering around Peace Now's inability to name a moderate Palestinian leader ready to talk. Both Howe and Bar-On replied that the point was to create such leaders. One written question implied that Arab money supported Howe.
He denounced the innuendo as an example of the increase of intolerance in Jewish debate. Yet all the political heat didn't wilt his literary instinct. He told a story in Yiddish and English about trying to write a letter large enough for a deaf man to read and understand. His accuser, he said, was such a man.
Earlier, in the afternoon, Howe had bristled slightly at the suggestion that his political opinions might be discounted by public policy types wary of "literary intellectuals."
"A lot of lawyers, despite their jargon, are very fuzzy-minded -- often there's only the appearance of precision," he said. "There may be such attitudes, but we return them 'with interest.'"
Howe has no apologies for his literary background. His love of books took him from a working-class family in the Bronx, through public schools in New York, and finally all the way to a Distinguished Professorship at City University of New York, despite the lack of a Ph.D. Howe credits his 18-month Army tour in Alaska during World War II with making him a scholar. During that "frigid sabbatical," he read roughly 400 books. He thinks only a heart attack would slow him down enough to repeat the feat.
Asked what kind of reputation precedes him among his enemies, Howe says "intellectually rigid," or "not scholarly enough, spread out too far, journalistic." He blames part of that on academic revenge for his years of baiting professors as "pedants and dullards," but admits the "spread out too far" view hits home.
"There's a Yiddish proverb -- you don't have to dance at every wedding," he chuckles, conceding he may have danced at too many. Still, he has enjoyed himself doing it. After 26 years of editing the journal Dissent, he considers his greatest achievement, apart from "World of Our Fathers," his attempt to "keep the idea of democratic socialism in America alive during hard times."
The regrets of such a full life are comparatively few.
"Where you lose out," says the eternal booklover, "is in that large, indiscriminate, promiscuous reading that Samuel Johnson said is the mark of a literate man. Just the luxury of picking up a book because it captures your attention. You lose that."