Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 grocery store and the accompanying move from the West to the East Bronx. His father became a presser in the garment industry, his mother an operator. Although the family had its financial problems, there was still sufficient money to allow Howe to attend De Witt Clinton High School and then City College of New York. Howe was a precociously bookish youngster who cultivated “both a heightened social awareness and an adolescent cultural snobbism.”

Although a loyal union member, his father was dismayed by Howe’s left-wing political activism, first as a member of the Socialist Party’s youth wing, the Young People’s Socialist League, then as an adherent of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, and finally, as a member of the splinter Trotskyist group headed by Max Shachtman. As Howe himself admits, he has difficulty in explaining why he became a Socialist. The conscious motive appears to have been the belief that “things had gone profoundly wrong.” Even more important, however, was the way a political sect, such as the Trotskyists, with a comprehensive worldview offered the security of a defined sense of place, order, and coherence. “The movement,” he recalls, “gave me something I would never find again and have since come to regard with deep suspicion, almost as a sign of moral derangement: it gave my life a ‘complete meaning,’ a ‘whole purpose.’”

Howe found the classroom side of City College disappointing. More educationally valuable to him was his involvement in the debates that raged within the...

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A Margin of Hope

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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 Brother from whose eyes Howe seeks relief? There is not one, but many: the imagination of a possible Stalinist tyranny in America (brought into being by the likes of Tom Hayden in whom, in the early 1960’s, “one could already see the beginnings of a commissar”); the equally abhorrent face of American Fascism as defined by Joseph McCarthy; the visages of Weathermen terrorists, shrill feminist ideologues, sectarian Maoists and elitist Leninists of all types. Like the Orwell he so much admires, Howe has fought against these various instantiations of Big Brother. Like Orwell, Howe has grown a bit weary of endlessly defending his conservative socialism from attacks by Right and Left. As Socialists willingly permit Orwell and Winston Smith their private space and vision, so will they perhaps not begrudge Howe his ballet.

Since Howe has embraced Orwell as one of his models (along with Norman Thomas, Ignazio Silone, and Max Shachtman) it is not surprising that their ideas and careers are so similar, yet the completeness of this similarity is genuinely remarkable. Both are moderate Socialists, committed to a life of Socialist letters. Both polemicize against the totalitarian Left to such an extent that, though remaining Socialists, they can licitly be identified as Conservatives. (It is certainly a fine irony that Orwell should have provided the American Right with its most cherished symbol—Big Brother.) Howe, like Orwell, struggled mightily to find, claim, and justify his identity as Socialist litterateur—though he did not see fit to change his name as a way of proclaiming that identity. (“George Orwell,” it will be recalled, was the pseudonym of Eric Blair.) Both men took up spiritual residence outside their inherited religious tradition, but they were simultaneously drawn to these traditions—Orwell to Christianity and Howe to Judaism.

It is Howe’s Jewishness, however, that most clearly sets him apart from his English mentor. Orwell always bore the stamp of his “shabby genteel” colonial upbringing and his Eton education. For Howe, the molding force was the immigrant Jewish community of the East Bronx. An only child of Ukrainian-born, Yiddish-speaking parents, he saw his family descend from the lower-middle class to the jobless proletariat in the early years of the Depression. Eventually both parents found work in the dress trade, joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and participated in the great (and successful) strike of 1933. While in high school, Howe fell in with Socialist sons of ILGWU officials and began working in the Socialist Party.

At this point, the predominantly Jewish character of Howe’s milieu began to change. He encountered Norman Thomas and the heritage of indigenous American radicalism. In 1936, several hundred Trotskyists entered the Party, eventually causing a split in the ranks. Led by James Burnham, James P. Cannon, and Max Shachtman (with directives coming from “the Old Man” himself in Mexico), the Trotskyists led a sizable number of former Socialists into the Socialist Workers Party—a sect trying to become a mass political party. Howe went with this anti-Stalinist faction—“for two or three years,” he reports, “I was an almost total believer.” By then in college at City College, New York, he devoted little time to his studies. His energies went into meetings, demonstrations, the study of Marxist doctrine, and debates about the history of Trotsky’s struggles with Stalin and his minions: “our main task in life seemed at times to be ’the taking of positions.’ In the radical world a ’position’ is a very serious matter, accorded a value similar to that which mystics give to revelation.” The center of Howe’s world became Alcove 1, along the edge of City College’s lunchroom. “Here gathered Trotskyist, Socialist, Lovestonite students with their books, pamphlets, ragged overcoats and cheese sandwiches.” Day and night, the sectarian positions were debated and refined: on the New Deal, the Spanish Civil War, the French Popular Front, applications of the concept of surplus value, the idea of permanent revolution. In Alcove 2, the more powerful and fanatical Young Communist League headquartered itself. As Howe recalls it, the battle for the heart and mind of the campus (twenty thousand) waged by Alcoves 1 and 2 was both a rigorous training in sectarian political combat and a high farce. He likens it to the education of seminarians before their encounter with the flawed reality of the Church.

Trotsky, a skillful literary critic himself, encouraged his disciples to embrace the high literary heritage of the West as well as the great Modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Howe, always responsive to literature, began increasingly to be drawn to literary investigations. At the same time, a split with the Trotskyist ranks occurred, with Howe leading the more liberal, “social democratic” faithful into the Independent Socialist League. By then he had been graduated with a degree in English, and in 1941 he became the editor of Labor Action, commencing a long and distinguished career in political journalism. A draft notice soon brought one of the happiest periods in Howe’s life to an end. Ironically, in his four years in the military, Howe would not be permitted to take up arms against Fascism. During a long, lonely posting to Alaska, he found the leisure to read more than four...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.