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 with his father, or, to be more accurate, with his father as symbol of his own Jewishness. Like many of his generation, Howe had subordinated ethnic and religious loyalties to socialist universalism. His latent sense of Jewish identity was reawakened by the Holocaust. Nevertheless, defining what his Jewishness meant proved to be a difficult problem. He remained nonreligious, even antireligious. He did become—belatedly, as a result of the 1967 war—an admirer of the state of Israel, though far from an unconditional enthusiast. His personal solution to coming to terms with his past lay in his efforts to preserve the legacy of secular Yiddish culture. The climax of that effort was the romanticized account of the lives of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants in World of Our Fathers—a world that as portrayed by Howe appeared peopled almost entirely by sensitive radicals or at least nascent New Dealers.
The third, and most important, theme in A Margin of...
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Given Howe’s involvement in the controversies that had so bitterly divided American intellectuals over the preceding half century, the immediate critical reception to A Margin of Hope was strongly influenced by reviewers’ political attitudes. There were those who thought him too rigidly anti-Soviet, others who found him the opposite. There were those who regarded his Socialism as too moderate, too gradualist, too reasonable to effect fundamental changes in American society; others who denied that one could be simultaneously a socialist and a democrat. The consensus was that here was a decent and well-meaning man who had struggled bravely to make sense of the world.
A Margin of Hope will probably not be ranked among the great autobiographies. Howe was not one of the movers and shakers of his time. As he freely admits, his influence upon the course of history was nil. While the Partisan Review group did have a significant impact upon American cultural life, Howe was no more than a secondary figure even within that circle. He founded no school of literary criticism. He was not responsible for discovering any neglected genius. He belonged to the tradition of the independent man of letters that could be traced back to Samuel Johnson. Nevertheless, he was not the equal of such contemporary examples as George Orwell or Edmund Wilson in terms of insight or importance. Although his interests were more political than aesthetic, Howe was neither profound nor novel in his thinking about man and society. Indeed, there was a strongly bookish quality to the evolution of his ideas. He appeared to respond not so much directly to events as to others’ interpretations of those events. At most, his intellectual autobiography illuminates the thought processes of a narrow type: his generation of the intellectually inclined offspring of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.