Siding With the British Writers: Irving Howe’s Sarcastic Criticism of the Beatniks



by Menachem Feuer

Irving Howe’s criticism is consistently compelling. He is truly a brilliant critic and his writing is pedagogical in a deep sense. Howe writes like a Magid tells a story. Like a Socratic-Rabbinic sage of the Talmud, he ponders the questions he poses with each new sentence or thought (and there are many).

Howe lived in an era much different from our own, the post-World War two era. But as a Jew and a son of immigrants, he felt it and live through it in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was in the wake of destruction of Jewish life that his parents fled to America. And, over time, he, like many “New York Intellectuals” (like Irving Kristol and Alfred Kazin) thought of himself as an American and committed himself to American letters. In the 50s and 60s he was one of the most important literary and cultural critics on the American scene.

There is interesting criticism of the beatniks by Irving Howe that paints them in ways that Karl Marx would characterize the petty bourgeoisie. It is a trenchant claim against them. He compares the Beatniks to the English writers of the early 1960s and late 1950s. They are, together, at his time, “the most-discussed literary groups of the last few years.”(94 – A World More Attractive).

Howe comically notes, as if he is sharing a secret, that the English writers have “earned the scorn of a great number of American critics – notable, of course for aestheticism – who point out that it is not clear whether it is better or just a bigger share of material goods in contemporary England that these writers want”(95).

The punch line of the joke is that everything really might be economics. This is the possibility that Howe is playing around with. It is also the possibility that the consciousness of economics, in fiction, is, for Howe, the best of all. He sees this possibility at ripping up American criticism.

And what he does is to show that he, son of Jewish immigrant parents, sides with the English in this fight!

He argues the his main target is and must be the Beatnicks. In contrast to the English writers:

The young men in San Francisco seem largely a reflex of circumstances of mass society. They are suffering from psychic and social disturbance: and as far as that goes, they are right – there is much in American life to give one a pain. But they have no clear sense of why or how they are troubled, and some even of them seem opposed to a clear sense of anything. (95)

They are confused and don’t know why. They are foolish characters. Howe’s sentence say it clearly. Howe goes on to take a stand on this and say that the “angry men” of “England, even if their protests will prove to be entirely opportunistic and momentary, can say what it is that hurts”(95). But, says Howe, Kerouac can’t (96). They cannot pronounce that pain which is…social. It comes, says Howe, from mass society. All pain is economic.

But American, Beatnick writers cannot say it.

Howe makes fun of them at the end of his essay “Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction.” He does this by way of comparison to the English writers.

These (English)writers…illustrate the painful, though not inevitable, predicament of rebellion in a mass society: they are on the other side of the American hollow. In their (the Beatniks) contempt of mind, they are at one with the middle class that they scorn. In their incoherence of the feeling and statement, they mirror the incoherent society that clings to them like a mocking shadow. (95)

In other words, we should scorn and laugh at the beatniks and their “rejection of the mind” and its “social clarity.” This is why they are dialectical opposites of the English writers.

And he ends, like Voltaire, on a sarcastic note:

In their yearning to keep “cool,” they sing out an eternal fantasy of the shopkeeper. Feeling themselves lonely and estranged, they huddle together in gangs, creates a Brook Farm of Know-Nothings, and send back ecstatic reports to the squares: Having a Wonderful Time, Having Wonderful Kicks! But alas, all the while it is clear that they are terribly lost….and what is more pitiable, that they don’t even have the capacity for improvising vivid fantasies. (95).

I’ll end with that.

Piece crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction Studies,Shofar,MELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.