''Is that really 'an intellectual autobiography' ?'' asked the undergraduate skeptic reading over my shoulder. I had to say that Irving Howe's latest volume is exactly what the subtitle proclaims. Even Smokey the Bear serves the intellectual context, as Howe recalls Smokey's invention by radical art critic Harold Rosenberg during a part-time job at the Advertising Council. (''The sheer deliciousness of it: this cuddly artifact of commercial folklore as the creature of our unyielding modernist!'') Personal details are rarely mentioned except in relation to Howe's analysis of how his thinking has evolved.
Thus he is forever outraged when intellectuals of the left or right attack unionism; he had seen what unions did for hard-working immigrants like his parents during the depression years. And in later years when radical college boys like him try to work with militant unionists he sees that ''shop workers they could become, but they couldn't assume the psychology of men and women who had no choice but to be shop workers.''
Here is the shaping of the anti-Stalinist, the socialist, the critic, the professor, who never got over the heady early days of political activism. Who realizes that those who still considered themselves socialists could not now look at the capitalist West and communist East and join the leftists who say a plague on both your houses. ''Not if in one house modest improvements could be made, while in the other men and women were systematically closed in cells.''
The best of the book lies in the earlier days:
* When the culture of New York was a ''culture of the word,'' with young people finding refreshment at the public library, men with free time gathering in cafeterias and parks to discuss politics, numerous daily papers flourishing.
* When a young Trotskyist learned the pitfalls of a political sect - the ''clammy encirclement through which a sect secures its converts,'' the ''brittle paste of doctrine'' that holds it together, the party line that becomes its ''most precious good.''
* When the Partisan Review intelligentsia appeared to Howe in not exactly the same way as to a more conservative alumnus, William Barrett, in his recent memoir, ''The Truants.''
Here, too, is the shaping or reshaping of the author's Jewishness. As he recalls his family roots, as he reflects on Yiddish authors, as he searches his and others' views on the century's horrors against Jews, the Irving Howe of the best-selling ''World of Our Fathers'' emerges. And so does the Irving Howe who recently wrote that the ''soul of Israel'' lies among ''those who want peace, not annexation'' - among the 400,000 Israelis he cites as demonstrating against Israeli authorities for allowing Phalangist gunmen to enter Palestinian camps and massacre helpless people.
One nugget in the ''Jewish Quandaries'' chapter turns out to be more pertinent than Howe may have known when he wrote it. It is his recollection of Norman Podhoretz almost two decades ago joining a debate over Hannah Arendt's 1963 book on the Eichmann trial, which suggested that Jews under Hitler had collaborated in their own destruction. Podhoretz argued against making inordinate demands on Jews to be better than other people. It almost seems a pre-echo of this year's highly publicized Podhoretz article in Commentary, which argues against a double standard for judging the Israelis in Lebanon.
Yes, some of the book is donnish play with or justification of intellectual positions, and not always strong ones. But it is fascinating to glimpse Brandeis , Stanford, Harvard, and the City College of New York through this committed professor's eyes. For anyone concerned with literary criticism, Howe offers a feast of experience and contemplation on ''a terrifying freedom: to make criticism into a reflection upon our most serious concerns, or to reduce criticism to undisciplined reverie, grandiose and wanton.'' Howe's own use of that freedom has made him one of the names to offer against charges that America has no serious critics. With ''A Margin of Hope'' he does another bit for the culture of the word.