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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...

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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 student body between the independent anti-Stalinist radicals and the Communist Party loyalists. After his graduation in 1940, he was editor of the Shachtman group’s weekly, Labor Action, until he was drafted a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He spent most of the war shuffling papers at a remote base in Alaska, where he had ample leisure time for extensive reading. As he relates, “Enforced isolation and steady reading, together brought about a slow intellectual change. I remained passionately caught up with politics, but increasingly it became an abstract passion.”

The next four chapters—making up approximately 40 percent of the text—deal with the narrow span of the decade following the end of the war. Those were the critical years of transition in Howe’s life. In chapter 5 (appropriately titled “Into the World”), he tells of his gradual withdrawal from active involvement in the Shachtman group to try his hand as a free-lance intellectual; his work as Dwight Macdonald’s assistant on Politics until that magazine’s end in 1947; his four years as a part-time book reviewer for Time; and his entry into the circle of largely Jewish New York intellectuals centered on the Partisan Review. A separate chapter (“Literary Life: New York”) details his experiences as a junior member of that formidably influential coterie before its fragmentation. Chapter 7 (“Loose-Fish, Still Flapping”) recalls his association while living in Princeton, New Jersey, with the avant-garde writers around critic R.P. Blackmur (the poets John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz and novelist Saul Bellow), followed by his own appointment in 1953 to the English department of the newly founded Brandeis University.

Although Howe largely slides over the details in A Margin of Hope, those were probably his most productive years as a literary critic. His more important book-length works were Sherwood Anderson (1951), William Faulkner: A Critical Study (1952), and Politics and the Novel (1957). Politics, however, continued to engage his emotions most forcefully; at fifty pages, chapter 8, “Ideas in Conflict,” is the book’s longest. The American Communist Party: A Critical History, 1919-1957 (1957)—coauthored with sociologist Lewis Coser—was a pioneering study that has remained an important source for later students. Howe’s own intellectual trajectory was from Marxism to a vaguely defined Democratic Socialism. Nevertheless, there was simultaneously a strong feeling of hostility toward those intellectuals whom he believed had sold out by becoming apologists for American capitalism. Looking for a middle way between an outmoded and discredited Marxism and establishmentarian conformism, he was the moving force behind the founding in 1953 of Dissent as a journal of independent radical opinion to wage “polemical battle against our rightward-moving friends, especially those who had been less than lionhearted in standing up to McCarthyism.”

In the early 1950’s, Howe began to pursue what would remain one of his major interests in the years that followed: the preservation of at least the memory of the once-vibrant but dying Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe and New York City’s Lower East Side. That effort—recounted in chapter 9 (“Jewish Quandaries”)— resulted in a series of translations that Howe edited in collaboration with the Yiddish poet Elizier Greenberg and culminated in his authorship of the best-selling World of Our Fathers (1976). In 1961, Howe left Brandeis, during an apparent mid-life crisis, for what proved to be an unhappy two years at Stanford University before he returned to New York to teach at the Hunter College branch of the City University of New York. Yet the dominating preoccupation of his life in the 1960’s—the subject of chapter 10 (“The Best and the Worst”)—was how the bright promise of a revitalized reform impulse turned sour as the New Left succumbed to a mindless fanaticism.

The 1970’s appear to him almost a void. “It’s as if,” he writes, “the years had simply dropped out of one’s life and all that remains are bits and pieces of recollection.” The “Fragments of a Decade” that stick in his mind are the rise of the feminist movement (with which he is warily sympathetic), his newfound enthusiasm for the ballet, and his father’s death. He feels only revulsion for the “sordidness” of the era of Ronald Reagan: “It’s as if the spirit of the old robber barons had been triumphantly resurrected, as if the most calloused notions of Social Darwinism were back with us, as if the celebrations of greed we associate with the late nineteenth century were reenacted a century later.”

A Margin of Hope

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2818

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 hundred books. The United States Army was his “graduate school,” his entrepôt into the world of criticism and literary studies in which he earned his livelihood for forty years.

By the mid-1950’s, Howe had fully established himself in the New York intellectual scene. His reviews, critical articles, polemics, and books secured for him a teaching position at newly founded Brandeis University. By 1961, when he left New York for what would be a two-year stay as professor of English at Stanford University, he had published books on the United Auto Workers and Walter Reuther, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, the political novel, and the American Communist Party. Perhaps more important, he was the editor of Dissent, the cultural voice of democratic socialism in the United States. Politically, Howe had repudiated Marxist-Trotskyist ideology, although his Socialist advocacy continued to draw inspiration from a Marxist analytic framework.

Parallel to these activities, Howe was engaged in an effort which has since come to bear a rich fruit for American letters: the translation of Yiddish literature into American English. Working first with Eliezer Greenberg, Howe brought to public view a rich series of anthologies and collections of poetry and fiction. He is one of the “discoverers” of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has since earned the Nobel Prize for Literature. The culmination of Howe’s Yiddish research was his much-lauded World of Our Fathers (1976), an account of the struggles of Eastern European Jews to fashion a new existence for themselves in the bewildering world of early twentieth century America.

That Irving Howe importantly sustains an interlocking series of American cultural institutions—one is tempted to say “establishments”—is evident. Academia continues to enjoy his presence, as he now holds a professorship at City University of New York. He is a major interpreter of the Jewish experience in America; a public television series based on World of Our Fathers has been produced. To Howe’s legacy of literary criticism there will soon be added books on Orwell and Rudyard Kipling. Although he now shares the editorship of Dissent with political theorist Michael Walzer, Howe’s dedication to this thirty-year-old organ of Left-liberalism and democratic socialism remains untempered. Howe recently edited Beyond the Welfare State (1982), a collection of writings by such Dissent stalwarts as Michael Harrington, Robert Heilbroner, Philip Green, and Kenneth Arrow.

The source of coherence for Howe’s disparate activities is geographic. Preeminently, he is a New York City figure. All his ventures outside its confines have been notably brief (Princeton, Stanford, Israel) and always undertaken with an eye trained on the New York scene. Niched firmly in the dense, tradition-ridden, polemical, and marvelously sophisticated world of the Manhattan intelligentsia, Howe’s natural home—either as speaker or object of attack—is between the covers of The Nation, Partisan Review, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Commentary, and of course Dissent. Not surprisingly then, his intellectual autobiography provides an unusually vivid portrait of the forces, personalities, and issues which have shaped this milieu in the postwar era.

So riveted on the New York intellectual scene is A Margin of Hope that some would question its pretensions to autobiography. Howe says nothing about his early childhood. While his father’s death is treated in the book’s final chapter, one learns little about the man’s character; his mother is hardly mentioned. Indeed, although Howe intimates that he has remained excessively dependent on women throughout his life, he can barely manage a single sentence about them. One would assume from reading the book that Howe’s only marriage failed in the early 1960’s. Actually, he has been married three times. About his daughter Nina, a clinical psychologist, he says nothing. One learns of his son Nicholas’ existence in a passing reference in the book’s final chapter. It is as if Howe’s real parents were Max Shachtman and Philip Rahv or Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling—the looming figures on the Leftist literary horizon in New York. By this reading, Howe’s true children are the likes of Michael Walzer and John Rawls, who have been vitally touched by Howe’s teaching and writing.

Howe’s omissions might be justified by noting that he intends the book to be an intellectual autobiography only, but from the start, it is far richer than that. “In the Movement” and “Life in a Sect,” the first two chapters, not only trace the development of Howe’s Trotskyist faith but also depict vividly the scenery, characters, and concrete action of these years in which Howe “lived at so high, so intense a pitch.” Similarly, “Literary Life: New York” and “Loose-Fish, Still Flapping” invite the reader to consider much more than Howe’s evolving ideas and positions. The entire socioeconomic reality of the New York intelligentsia (especially its Jewish component) is Howe’s concern.

One learns that Harold Rosenberg, the great art critic, once supported himself by a job at the Advertising Council, where he created Smokey the Bear. Howe recounts the bitter dispute that erupted when Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948), containing explicit pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic material, received the Bollingen Award in 1949. There are portraiture studies of Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Richard Blackmur, Hannah Arendt, and C. Wright Mills. In discussing the ideas and influence of the New Critics, Howe is also concerned to show how the personalities and sensibilities of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren meshed with those of the New York critics. Here he observes interestingly that a certain similarity of situation bound the Southerners to their New York counterparts: “both groups were semioutsiders starting to break into the central spaces of American culture, yet unwilling to succumb to its slackness, its small optimisms.”

Thus, A Margin of Hope transcends the narrow category of intellectual autobiography. It offers cultural history and an analysis of the Zeitgeist; it is also a sustained apologia for Howe’s mature political philosophy. Socialist he remains, but the accents are all on liberty and democracy and the concrete traditions and structures which sustain them. Howe is now a conservative Socialist and a Socialist Conservative (in the Burkean sense). There is no Marxism in his claim that “the case for socialism must be made increasingly on moral grounds: democracy in the work place as fulfillment of political freedom; an end to extreme inequalities of socioeconomic condition; the vision of a humane society as one that requires a setting of cooperativeness and fraternity.” Howe’s analysis of the New Left is especially revealing. Its members neglected to study the failures of earlier radical movements in America, and so evolved into competing sectarian factions. Increasingly influenced by Marcusean notions (abhorrent to Howe), they became all too willing to withdraw tolerance and liberty from their “oppressor” opponents. Howe reads the Weathermen phenomenon as a recrudescence of Russian nihilism and a fulfillment of the implicit authoritarianism which entered SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in the mid-1960’s. Howe’s credo is nicely captured in these lines:My own idea of socialism rests on unbreakable liberal values, and if at any point a socialist proposal were to conflict with the fundamental values of liberalism, I would unhesitatingly opt for the latter. With liberty you can struggle for greater equality; equality without liberty is a new mode of enslavement.

From a strictly literary viewpoint, however, A Margin of Hope is less than fully satisfying. The quality of Howe’s prose varies according to his engagement with the incident or topic under consideration. When he writes of his father’s final months or of his own sojourn as editor-printer of Labor Action, a refreshing intensity transforms the book. One then realizes that the other material has been slightly tiresome, delivered too dispassionately. Joseph Sobran, in a predictably hostile review for the National Review, complains of the book’s boring, literary-society quality. Caustically he observes of Howe: “When he speaks of death, you aren’t quite sure whether he expects to be buried or remaindered.”

The problem here is partly one of Howe’s fuzzy intention. While the book is much more than an intellectual autobiography, it is not quite a fully realized “life and times.” Howe supplies enough purely autobiographical detail to arouse one’s interest, but he then withdraws under the cover of the adjective “intellectual.” At one point, he begins to recollect a shattering mid-life crisis (complete with divorce, psychotherapy, and self-imposed exile from New York), but he abruptly closes this line of narrative with a wise anecdote about his psychiatrist. He is concerned to portray key figures of the literary Left, yet these always end up as mere sketches. One wants to know about Howe’s sustaining relationships, about loves, fears, joys, and losses. Without such detail, the reader is left with the impression that what matters most to Howe are his acquaintanceships with the likes of Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Richard Hofstader. In the worst light, Howe’s book seems little more than the autobiography of a name-dropper.

It can be argued that the book’s flaws derive not so much from its ambiguous intention but from the intellectual poverty from which this ambiguity arises. Howe’s unifying theme is that of marginality. He adheres to a Socialist credo which has been banished to the borderlands of American intellectual life. No theist, he is a “partial Jew,” operating as a vague fellow-traveler at the edges of American Judaism. Neither New Critic nor Deconstructionist, Howe cultivates a side-garden of historical criticism. To his accusers, Howe is a symbol of failure of nerve. If socialism is too problematic, why not “convert” to a vigorous defense of capitalism (as have many of Howe’s old associates)? If the other religious options do not work, why not resolutely embrace that Judaism which sustained “the world of our fathers”? Midge Decter faults Howe for reducing himself to the defense of a mere “socialist ethic,” which is however less an ethic than a vague posture. “From this posture,” she writes, “no failure of policy ever need be confronted, no error need be confessed. Most of all, no choices need by made.” (Commentary, December, 1982). In the case of Howe’s autobiography, this failure to make (literary) choices is too much in evidence; it deprives the book of any claim to greatness.


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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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