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The Book of Norman

By: Benjamin Balint
June 12, 2017

enjamin Balint has a Norman Podhoretz problem. He appears not to have been able to decide if Podhoretz is a good or bad hombre.” Such was the verdict of longtime Commentary contributor Joseph Epstein, in an incisive 5,000-word review of my book, Running Commentary (2010). “What Balint cannot quite make up his mind about is whether Podhoretz is a main-chancer looking to promote himself through his magazine or, instead, a man of high principle devoted to his country, to fellow Jews, and to staving off barbarians who, often during the years of his editorship of Commentary between 1960 and 1995, seemed not at but well inside the gates.” Mr. Epstein had long since made up his mind in favor of the latter view.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Making It’s publication, the New York Review Books has just reissued the first of Podhoretz’s four memoirs—the sequels being Breaking Ranks (1979); Ex-Friends (1999); and My Love Affair with America (2000). The occasion not only compels a reassessment of the book and its author, now 87 years old, but also presents me with a chance to offer Mr. Epstein a reply.

Equal parts memoir and polemic, Making It is not a success story tranquilly recollected, but, according to its author, “a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package.” It is a study in careerism, in the unabashed pursuit of ambition and esteem, and in the contradictions inherent in that pursuit. Podhoretz writes:

On the one hand, our culture teaches us to shape our lives in accordance with the hunger for worldly things; on the other hand, it spitefully contrives to make us ashamed of the presence of those hungers in ourselves and to deprive us as far as possible of any pleasure in their satisfaction. Nothing, I believe, defines the spiritual character of American life more saliently than this contradiction…. I may perhaps lay claim to a particularly good vantage point from which to report on how the two warring American attitudes toward the pursuit of success are likely to reveal themselves concretely in the details of an individual career.

Podhoretz focuses on those elites who frown on brash ambitiousness as something tasteless and tawdry: “People capable of the most brutal honesty in other areas would at the mention of the word success suddenly lift their eyes up to the heavens and begin chanting the most horrendous pieties imaginable.” In response to their hypocrisy, he recounts his appetite for fame and money, for power and position, for “the perquisites of rank,” as he says—the chief aims and rewards of worldly ambition.

Podhoretz opens his account in Brownsville, Brooklyn. As a son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants (a “filthy little slum child”), but also “a boy of literary bent” driven by “the vulgar desire to rise above the class into which I was born,” he was preoccupied with gaining approval and embraced the role of teacher’s pet. Winning a Columbia College (class of 1950) scholarship, he sat at the feet of Lionel Trilling, the first Jew in the English department. Here the young man discovered the “life of the mind,” and what Trilling called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” As a Fulbright Scholar and a Kellett Fellow, he attended Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied with the combative British literary critic F.R. Leavis, founding editor of Scrutiny. “Studied” is perhaps too neutral a word: the disciple learned “how to respond in terms of [Leavis’s] temperament, to think in terms of his categories, to judge in terms of his values.”

After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army—“a world built to all my weaknesses and not a single one of my strengths”—Podhoretz gained entree to the New Yorker and the Partisan Review, the highbrow journal founded in 1934 that married Marxism to literary modernism.

Partisan Review was the arbiter and embodiment of intellectual sophistication, and the New Yorker was the arbiter and embodiment of worldly sophistication. I was therefore presumed, even by people who had never read a word I had written, to be uniquely endowed with both—and the more so as I had with such rapidity and apparent ease moved into the pages of both magazines.

In early 1960, aged thirty, the “young man from the provinces” (Trilling’s phrase )—or in this case from the outer boroughs—took over Commentary’s editorship. Recalling this experience gives rise to some of the memoir’s best passages:

It was as though I had been editing manuscripts all my life in the Commentary way; it was as though the peculiar pleasure of getting inside someone else’s mind, and yet managing to keep a firm enough hold on one’s critical sense to prevent oneself from being swallowed up by that other mind once inside, had been a lifetime craving of my soul which had at long last found its object and been satisfied.

And yet even in his thirties, a self-confessed “childish desire for everyone to love me” never quite left him. “I could not bear the idea of not being great,” he admits. Podhoretz craved invitations to parties for Partisan Review, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and Random House; to Hannah Arendt’s New Year’s Eve soirees; to Mary McCarthy’s Upper East Side gatherings; to Park Avenue salons. These parties, where literary celebrities mixed with “beautifully begowned women,” he says, “served as a barometer of the progress of my career.”

Elsewhere in the book, Podhoretz shifts metaphors:

Every morning, a stock-market report on reputation comes out in New York. It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it. Did so-and-so have dinner at Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment last night? Up five points. Was so-and-so not invited by the Lowells to meet the latest visiting Russian poet? Down one-eighth. Did so-and-so’s book get nominated for the National Book Award? Up two and five-eighths. Did Partisan Review neglect to ask so-and-so to participate in a symposium? Down two.

Podhoretz published his first book Doings and Undoings in 1964, a collection of appraisals of the Beat Generation, covering “the Negro problem,” Saul Bellow (“perhaps the greatest virtuoso of language the novel has seen since Joyce”), Hannah Arendt, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and others. Doings and Undoings was his attempt “to be a critic of the contemporary rather than a browser among masterpieces or a reverent.” In Making It, he reports on the high hopes he had set on this collection of essays: “I had been dreaming that the appearance of the book would become the occasion for a general proclamation of my appointment to the office of ‘leading young critic in America.’”

Much to the horror of friends and mentors, when the expected appointment eluded him, Podhoretz set to work on Making It. Lionel Trilling warned him not to publish it. “It is a gigantic mistake. Put it away and do not let others see it.” Diana Trilling told him that the book was “crudely boastful.”

Reviewers proved no kinder. In Partisan Review, Norman Mailer called Making It “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.” The New Leader derided it as “a career expressed as a matchless 360-page ejaculation.” A reviewer for the New York Times remarked that Making It “is an act of calculated shamelessness,” and that its author “is the very opposite of Groucho Marx—eager to join almost any club that’s prepared to have him as a member.”

Podhoretz prized foremost his membership in “the family,” the left-wing anti-Stalinist New York intellectuals striving to cultivate a sense of at-homeness in America. He recognizes that the fractious “family” which admitted him “did not feel that they belonged to America or that America belonged to them.” He admits his citizenship in “a small community in New York which lived by its own laws and had as little commerce as it could manage with a hostile surrounding environment. As an intellectual I was as ghettoized as my ancestors in Eastern Europe had been as Jews.”

But that does not deter Podhoretz from telling of his climb to “the top of the greasy pole” (in Benjamin Disraeli’s phrase) as though he were a representative American. It used to be said that what is good for General Motors is good for the country. Making It, a book buoyed by “the spreading vogue of the New York Jewish intellectual,” assumes that what is true for Podhoretz (and his fellow Zeitgeist-chasers eager to get on the right side of History) is true for the country.

What of the current Zeitgeist, half a century later? “Ambition,” Podhoretz wrote in 1967, “seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” In the America of President Trump and reality TV, however, the “worship of the bitch-goddess success,” as William James called it, is anything but secret; it goes as unconcealed as self-celebration goes unrepressed. “The idea that the ambition for success was a corrupting force in American culture,” as Podhoretz puts it, now seems a quaint anachronism. As Thomas Jeffers writes in his biography of Podhoretz (2010), “today, one reads Making It wondering what the fuss was about.”

Coming full circle, one wonders now whether there are more modulations to Podhoretz than are dreamt of in Mr. Epstein’s impatient dichotomy. In Making It, Podhoretz is the server of a now-stale dish of self-importance and self-aggrandizement, peppered by name-dropping (the name-calling came later), and unseasoned by irony. At the same time, in his distinguished editorship of Commentary he is a man devoted to his country, to his fellow Jews, and to staving off the barbarians. Today, more than ever, there is no great discontinuity between the two.