Thursday, July 11, 2013

`Perhaps Even Pleasure in Difference'

Like Guy Davenport and V.S. Pritchett a little later, Irving Howe (1921-1993) was one of my surrogate teachers, a virtual mentor when I needed one most – that is, when I was young and book-hungry but rudderless. I sought guides to literature but was shy and suspicious. I deferred to reliable critics and reviewers, when I found them, as others read Consumer Reports. Howe was no self-preening macher. If he spoke well of George Gissing, Sholom Aleichem, Yiddish poetry, György Konrád or Daniel Deronda, I would read the books and weigh my judgment, earnest and callow, against his, seasoned and worldly. He was trustworthy, unbiased in his enthusiasms, or at least honest about his biases, and he could be spectacularly wrong, as he was about Portnoy’s Complaint. He wasn’t a snob born to privilege. He went to City College. His father was a presser in a dress factory. Mine was an ironworker, born the same year as Howe. We turned bookish for some of the same reasons.

I thought of him again as I read a passage in Robert Walser’s Thirty Poems (Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2012), translated by Christopher Middleton:  “…in comfort most refined I was / reading books, of which the content / made me the happiest inhabitant of / the star they call this earth.” Howe always addressed content without denigrating style. Books have never stopped making me happy, in part because of Howe, whose own writing style was flinty and direct, sometimes aphoristic without being self-consciously pretty. I sense that if Howe is much remembered today, twenty years after his death, it’s as the founding editor of Dissent and author of World of Our Fathers, a bestseller in 1976 and winner of the National Book Award for history. The truest way to honor a writer, and perhaps to share your admiration for his work, is to read him again. What follows is a Howe sampler, good passages I’ve collected over the years. Here he is on Laurence Sterne (a most unHowean writer, but Howe, like most of the best critics, periodically surprises with his loves): 

Tristram Shandy, in all its artful chaos, invites at least some readers, usually those raised on realism, to `reconstruct’ the book as a conventional narrative. But if you allow this rebuilt `shadow’ novel to obliterate the ordered jumble which is the actual book, you lose its wit and point.” (“Four Instances of Characterization,” A Critic’s Notebook, 1993) 

On Henry James, The American Scene and James’ famous “later style”: 

“For all its baroque complications, it must be taken as a spoken style and, in a special way, a style of oratory. Not the oratory of the public speaker, which is utterly alien to James; but the oratory of a formidable and acknowledged literary man addressing a group of friends in a drawing room, speaking with rounded intricacy so as to give pleasure—for his are the kinds of friends that can take pleasure—in syntax as performance.” (“Henry James and the American Scene,” Decline of the New, 1970) 

From an essay on Edwin Arlington Robinson: 

“It is an advantage for a writer to have come into relation with a great tradition of thought, even if only in its stages of decay, and it can be a still greater advantage to struggle with the problem of salvaging elements of wisdom from that decayed tradition. For while a culture in decomposition may limit the scope of its writers and keep them from the highest achievement, it offers special opportunities for moral drama to those who can maintain their bearing. The traps of such a moment are obvious: nostalgia, on the one extreme, and sensationalism, on the other.” (“A Grave and Solitary Voice,” The Critical Point, 1973) 

On John Williams and his novel Stoner: 

“What makes Stoner an impressive novel is the contained intensity author and character share, not so much in behalf of teaching as a vocation, but in regard to the idea—the sacramental character—of work. By the end of his life Stoner has done little as a scholar: a single book, unread and by no means a neglected masterpiece. But if the idea of tradition is more than a consoling fancy, it is men like Stoner who in their very failure and waste form the substance from which tradition is composed.” (“A Fine Novel of Academic Life,” Celebrations and Attacks, 1979) 

On his friend and colleague J.V. Cunningham:   

“Between Cunningham and me there was an enormous gap in experience, temperament, ideas. Yet we worked easily together, amused and pleased that we could. Being professional himself, he honored me with the presumption that I too could become professional. I learned, by being with him, the value of scraping against a mind utterly unlike one’s own, so that finally there could emerge between our two minds a conditional peace, perhaps even pleasure in difference.” (A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1982)

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