Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Irving Howe has been since the 1940’s a prominent figure in American intellectual life as a literary critic, editor and anthologist, historian, and spokesman for Democratic Socialism. The subtitle of his book, An Intellectual Autobiography, alerts the reader to the work’s focus. Indeed, A Margin of Hope is scanty on the personal side of Howe’s life. His mother is briefly described as the stereotypical Jewish mother: “Strong, humorless, enclosing.” His father receives more attention but mostly as the symbol of Howe’s own ambivalent feelings toward the Eastern European immigrant world of his childhood. Not even their names are given. Howe alludes several times to his wife, but he fails to explain that he was married more than once. There is nothing about his two children. Perhaps most surprising is his failure to deal at length with his own writings. Some of his more important works are noted but without much in the way of explication. The work is primarily an account of the evolution of Howe’s attitudes and beliefs.
The first four chapters—making up approximately 30 percent of the text—deal with Howe’s formative years. Although he never says so, he was born in New York City on June 11, 1920, the son of David and Nettie (nee Goldman) Howe. What appears to have been the most important influence on his childhood was the family’s Depression-era fall from lower-middle to working class with the bankruptcy of his father’s...
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A Margin of Hope (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
To escape the totalitarian gaze of Big Brother, the hero of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) rents an upper room in an obscure proletarian neighborhood. In this private haven, Winston Smith savors relics from an authentic past (not the mutable past defined by the Party), revels in the liberating power of unpoliticized sexuality, and contemplates an exquisite piece of coral enclosed in a globe of lead crystal. Room, relationship, and glass all awaken in Winston a vision of “the Golden Country.” Here nature runs clean and free, the antique past mingles richly with the present, mechanism and urban giganticism are banished, the rowdy vitality of traditional folk culture is everywhere in evidence. The Golden Country has no politics; not even the “participatory democracy” of classical Athens is evoked. Recoiling from massive and omnipresent psychocentric tyranny, Winston naturally seeks comfort in a fully apolitical, private utopia.
In the last chapter of his intellectual autobiography, A Margin of Hope, Irving Howe confesses to an uncritical, passionate love for ballet. He feels guilty about it and imagines Leo Tolstoy sitting beside him in the theater, chastizing him for succumbing to the arch frivolity of “this elegant prancing.” Like his research on Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, this enchantment with ballet is a quest for “the Golden Country,” for a world set far apart from politics—but who is the Big...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
America. CXLVII, February 5, 1982, p. 97.
Atlas, James. “An Insurgent of the Mind,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (October 31, 1982), p. 1.
Decter, Midge. “Socialism and Its Irresponsibilities: The Case of Irving Howe,” in Commentary. LXXIV (December, 1982), pp. 25-32.
Gornick, Vivian. “A Life of the Mind,” in The Nation. CCXXXVI (January 1, 1983), pp. 20-22.
Human Events. XLII, October 23, 1982, p. 9.
Lewis, R.W.B. “A Liberal Spirit,” in The New Republic. XXXII (November 1, 1982), pp. 32-34, 36.
National Review. XXXIV, October 1, 1982, p. 1226.
The New York Review of Books. XXX, February 3, 1983, p. 5.
Progressive. XLVII, February, 1983, p. 57.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 24, 1982, p. 68.
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