No melodramatic incidents. No domestic revelations. No pat psychological transformation either. Yet, without any of the...


A MARGIN OF HOPE: An Intellectual Autobiography

No melodramatic incidents. No domestic revelations. No pat psychological transformation either. Yet, without any of the elements that usually give an autobiography shapely excitement, Howe has managed to produce a truly riveting memoir--an unpretentious, self-scouring Life-of-the-Mind that finds genuine drama in intellectual shadings, in the disorderly, side-by-side development of heart and brain. Jewishness, socialism, literature: these are the three ever-interplayed forces here--as skinny young Irving, a rotten public speaker from a Bronx-immigrant family, becomes a passionate young 1930s socialist . . . and spends the next decade watching a Movement fizzle into a ""sect"": with humor, but also with undimmed anti-Stalinist fervor, he offers the most warmly textured portrait yet of the everyday nature of the pre-1950s US ""left."" (Those Vassar gifts, for instance: ""the combination of upper-class coolness and Stalinist politics was too much. . . ."") And throughout, from eye-opening WW II service in Alaska to academia to N.Y. literary life, Howe finds both nostalgia and shame in each stand taken, each piece written, each alliance or feud. Writing for Time (""that den of the devil""), for Partisan Review (""while I witnessed the fall, I'm not sure there was ever a garden""). Preferring unfashionable Edmund Wilson to the ""New Criticism."" Finally deciding, by the 1950s, that he did want to be a critic . . . but finding that huge energy was needed elsewhere--to make the right response to McCarthyism. Being tempted by Lionel Trilling's pure-literary vision--which, however, ""provided a rationale for an increasingly relaxed and conservatized liberalism."" So this tension between literature and politics never lets up for a moment here. But, accepting his inner divisions (like those of much-admired Norman Thomas), Howe is able to ""reconquer"" his Jewishness--translating Yiddish writers, finding ""the firmest moral norms I would ever encounter"" in the World of Our Fathers. He's able to embrace a wide, zestfully drawn array of colleagues. And he continues to see politics as a central human activity, though ""it can drain the spirit and thicken the mind"": the contemptuous 1960s New Left infuriated him; the 1980s seem to bring a peculiar, Dickensian ""sordidness""; but Howe still contemplates ""a utopia for the sober, a utopia for skeptics. . . ."" Affectionately ironic, Talmudically restless, tender yet tough-minded: an incomparable blend of street-corner charm and knotty intellectual history--which can be read with pleasure even if you don't know the SWP from the YCL or Dissent from Commentary.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1982