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Writer Irving Howe, Dead at 72, Chronicled Lives of Immigrants

May 6, 1993
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Irving Howe, the eminent Jewish writer and editor who chronicled Jewish immigrant life and championed left-wing and workers’ causes, died of heart failure Wednesday in New York.

Howe, who was 72, had been ailing for some time, said longtime friend Gus Tyler, the assistant president of the Ladies Garment Workers Union and a columnist for the Forward newspaper. He had undergone bypass surgery last year.

Howe, who authored “World of Our Fathers” and wrote “How We Lived” — both with Kenneth Libo — was editor of Dissent magazine, chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America and a frequent critic and op-ed writer.

“World of Our Fathers,” a social and cultural history of the Eastern European Jewish experience in America, won the National Book Award in 1976 and became a best-seller.

Howe was a product of Yiddish life on the streets of New York and brought that sensibility to everything he wrote and did. Most of all, his colleagues pointed to his contribution as someone who brought Yiddish literature to the mainstream. And he was a man who never forgot where he came from.

Howe was “a very sophisticated man and master of the English language who wrote English in the ‘mammeloschen’ (mother tongue),” said Tyler, who knew Howe since the 1930s.

“What I liked about Irving through all the years was that although he was a master of the English language, he carefully avoided all pomp and circumstance. He did not use his literary skills to show off the big words that he knew.

“He wrote as if he was speaking to his grandmother. To me that’s a great virtue,” said Tyler. “He always communicated very simply and to the point — no pretence, no cant.

“If I were to draw a cartoon it would be Irving speaking to a simple person in the shtetl and trying to explain the complexities of the world.”

TAUGHT ‘IMPORTANCE OF BEING A GOOD JEW’

Libo, who knew Howe for 30 years, first met him as a graduate student at the City University of New York.

“In a Henry James seminar he asked for volunteers for a new book he was just starting, and I raised my hand and entered into a very long, rich and valuable relationship,” Libo re-called.

“I think the most important thing that I learned from Irving was the importance of being a good Jew. And I would say that he certainly set a magnificent example for this in many ways.

“He was a person who was a walking definition of what it means to be a mensch,” said Libo. “And what he did was to reconcile, magnificently, Judaism and America, just as magnificently as, in my view, Maimonides reconciled Aristotle with Sephardic Judaism.”

Born on New York’s Lower East Side on June 11, 1920, Howe was the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.

A graduate of the City College of New York, he taught at Brandeis and Stanford universities and was professor emeritus of English at the City University Graduate Center.

Howe was involved in the Jewish Labor Committee and wrote about the significance of the Jewish labor movement in America.

Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine and a longtime intellectual opponent of Howe’s, first met him in 1954, when Podhoretz was in the army at Fort Devens, Mass., and Howe was teaching at Brandeis, in Waltham, Mass.

‘WE HAD OUR UPS AND DOWNS’

Podhoretz called Howe and the latter invited him over. The two formed a heated, never boring relationship in which they sparred politically and even did not speak for perhaps 10 years.

“We had our ups and downs,” said Podhoretz.

“He was of course instrumental in getting some of the classics of Yiddish literature into English and also helped to spread the knowledge and fame of Yiddish literature through his critical writings, through the anthologies he edited.”

Podhoretz said Howe’s “most significant contribution was in the sponsoring, spread and elucidation of Yiddish literature.”

No funeral was planned for Howe, but a memorial service would be held sometime in the near future, said Jo-Anne Mort, a colleague of Howe’s who is communications director of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and a member of the editorial board of Dissent.

Howe, said Mort, “was a monumental figure who had a passionate commitment to democratic socialism and obviously came out of a Jewish tradition that had both beliefs at its core.”

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