A Margin of Hope Critical Essays

Irving Howe


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)