Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302

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.

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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.

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