A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Biography
In what is left of the old community of New York intellectuals, we find writers trying to reconstruct and validate their pasts, while retaliating for old injuries and making conflicting claims about the intellectual disputes of the last few decades. Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks and William Barrett’s The Truants both deal very differently with some of the events and literary figures that Irving Howe describes in A Margin of Hope. At a time when this community has never been more bitterly split, Howe’s “intellectual autobiography” provides valuable insights into how it fell apart, if not much hope for bringing about future amity.
That Howe is now able to regard his own contentious past with a certain bemused detachment inspires trust in his treatment of the intellectual dogfights and sectarian struggles of those argumentative years. If not precisely self-effacing, his tone is pervaded by ingratiating self-criticism. He makes it clear, for example, that he and his Trotskyist friends at City College in the 1930s were so concentrated on the evils of Stalinism and capitalism that they did not see clearly the threat of Nazism as World War II was about to break out. Without losing his appetite for argument, he is able to look back coolly on his own motives, and to arrive at a relative understanding of the motives of his contemporaries.
These contemporaries include such New York intellectuals as Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz, Paul Goodman, Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Hannah Arendt, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Schapiro, most of whom Howe recalls not only perceptively but with affection, drawing their portraits against the background of the magazines with which they were associated: Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent. Howe’s account here seems to me considerably more comprehensive and generous than that of other recent writers—one has only to compare the sense of troubled comradeship in his recollections of Philip Rahv with Barrett’s hidden vindictiveness or his measured view of Trilling with Podhoretz’s vengeful tone of injured rejection—partly, I suspect, because he looks at the intellectual landscape from an unwavering socialist perspective.
I am surprised to find myself saying this because, to me and others of my generation, Howe’s socialism always seemed his grayest feature. Since Marxism was usually less appealing to those of us who were children of the Forties than to the older writers of the Thirties, many of my contemporaries were possessed more by the hope of altering the nature of the imagination than by the hope of changing the social system, which is to say our radicalism tended to be more cultural than political. For this reason, Howe was regarded, no doubt unfairly, as one of that sober squad who, no matter what ideological side they took, were too intent on social engineering to respond to the anarchic impulses of modern art. In discussing his doubts about Action painting and his differences with the New Critics, and also in his remarks about Lionel Trilling’s ambiguous response …