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...

(The entire section is 1231 words.)