Alexander, professor of English at the University of Washington, has written an utterly absorbing intellectual biography of Irving Howe (1920-1993 ), one of the preeminent American liberal intellectuals of the twentieth century. Drawing primarily on Howe's published record and incorporating his own self-critical autobiographical reflections, the author adroitly and with nuanced sensitivity chronicles the evolution of Howe's thought. A great admirer of Howe's prickly intellectual passion, independence, and acuity, Alexander brilliantly conveys his subject's robust, often polemical, engagement with people, trends, and ideas.
Alexander's account of Howe's views of Israel is especially revealing. Having dropped all Jewish allegiances as an adolescent, Howe later reclaimed his ethnic Jewishness via a secular, socialist Yiddish culture, which had the all-important panache of universalism. Because Jewish nationalism could not claim to be universalist, Howe had a tenuous and tepid relationship with Israel. Emotionally disengaged from the drama of 1948, he came to support Israel after 1967—not because he believed in the national right of the Jewish people to sovereignty in its ancestral land, but because the state seemed to conform to his notion of democratic, progressive, socialist ideals. Upon the election of Likud in 1977 and the eruption of the intifada in 1989—for which he held Israel singularly responsible—Howe, much to Alexander's chagrin, became a strident critic of the state. Alexander's differences with Howe on Israel notwithstanding, this fair-minded, probing study is required reading for understanding a key figure at the vanguard of the Jewish left in the United States.