A Margin of Hope has three major themes. The one that paradoxically receives the least attention in terms of space is his role as a literary critic. Howe—at least after his break with Marxism—eschewed any formal methodological framework. Although expressing a personal fondness for such individual New Critics as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, he faults the New Criticism’s narrow focus upon the text for its ignoring the social and historical context out of which a literary work emerged. In the final analysis, he remained a moralist “for whom criticism mattered because it could serve as open-ended humanist discourse.”
Howe’s moralism underlay what became his ambivalence toward literary modernism. In the 1930’s, he had postulated an affinity between radical politics and avant-garde culture because of their shared hostility to bourgeois values. The award in 1949 of the Bollingen Prize for poetry to Ezra Pound, however, led him to have second thoughts. The controversy not only underlined how many of the giants of literary modernism had taken the reactionary side politically but also forced Howe to question what had been modernism’s most cherished tenet, the principle of art for art’s sake. In his later years, the primary focus of Howe’s own literary interest shifted from the modernist authors to the Emersonian tradition in nineteenth century American literature.
The second theme is Howe’s struggle to come to terms...
(The entire section is 1000 words.)
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