New Podhoretz Reader Puts His Famed Volte-Face in Perspective
Since disclosures of interest are expected from reviewers these days no less than from politicians and financial analysts, I’ll make mine at the start. For the last three-and-a-half decades I have written frequently for Commentary, a monthly magazine that was as closely associated with Podhoretz for over a generation as was The New Yorker with William Shawn or The National Review with William Buckley. I am not impartial about Podhoretz. I haven’t always agreed with him (although I’ve often concluded in hindsight that I should have), and I’ve sometimes wished he had run Commentary with a more flexible and less doctrinaire hand, but his contribution to the battle for intellectual sanity in 20th-century America has been, in my opinion, a heroic one.
Norman Podhoretz’s career has come to represent — as though in a contemporary morality play — intellectual virtue or vice, depending on your point of view. It is the story of a boy from a Jewish immigrant family, born in 1930, who grew up in Brooklyn, attended Columbia University, where he studied English literature with Lionel Trilling, and won a prestigious scholarship to Cambridge University in England; returned to America, served in the army, and threw himself into the heady New York literary and intellectual scene of the 1950s, becoming one of its bright young stars; assumed the editorship of Commentary in the early years of the Vietnam opinion, a heroic one.
Norman Podhoretz’s career has come to represent — as though in a contemporary morality play — intellectual virtue or vice, depending on your point of view. It is the story of a boy from a Jewish immigrant family, born in 1930, who grew up in Brooklyn, attended Columbia University, where he studied English literature with Lionel Trilling, and won a prestigious scholarship to Cambridge University in England; returned to America, served in the army, and threw himself into the heady New York literary and intellectual scene of the 1950s, becoming one of its bright young stars; assumed the editorship of Commentary in the early years of the Vietnam
War and moved the magazine to the left in the spirit of the times while enlisting such anti-establishment celebrities as Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman and James Baldwin as contributors; and then famously, in the late 1960s, reversed editorial course, tacked sharply to the right, and published his best-selling “Making It,” whose depiction of the New York intellectuals as an ingrown coterie governed by self-interest and ambition like any group of corporate executives was taken by many of them to be as heinous a betrayal as were his increasingly conservative political views.
Even now — perhaps especially now, in the fourth year of the Bush administration — it is no small heresy in American intellectual life to defend such propositions as that the war in Vietnam was morally justified; that “middle-class values” are generally superior to those of their critics; that the counterculture of the 1960s was a national disaster; that feminism, multiculturalism and the gay rights movement have done as much harm as good; that a society without deep religious beliefs is a society that has lost its moral moorings; that American-style capitalism remains socially and economically the most promising system on earth; that an aggressive American military posture abroad is the world’s best hope; and that strong support for Israel is a litmus test of one’s grasp of international realities. Back in the days of the Nixon administration, positions like these placed you beyond the intellectual — i.e., liberal and leftward — pale. They made you a “neoconservative,” and it was as embattled voices for neoconservatism slowly began to gain ground and respectability that Podhoretz and Commentary emerged as significant factors in American life. I don’t know whether Ronald Reagan really read Commentary every month while in office, as legend had it, but the very rumor says something about the magazine’s influence during the 1980s, a decade in which its circulation peaked at nearly 60,000 subscribers — including not a few high figures in government.
Podhoretz’s career, which has continued to produce new essays and books since his retirement from Commentary, can now be viewed as though at a retrospective exhibit in the 496 pages of “The Norman Podhoretz Reader.” Ably edited by Thomas L. Jeffers, who has also written the accompanying “catalogue,” the book walks one in chronological sequence through a half-century of Podhoretz’s writings.
It is therefore no surprise to reconfirm that the entries in this new book exhibit an impressive incisiveness and range. It is a surprise, however, to find that the fabled “before” and “after” — the legendary shift from the pre-late-1960’s Podhoretz to the post-late-1960’s Podhoretz, and from Podhoretz the critic of middle-class America to Podhoretz its neoconservative champion — is barely visible. The Norman Podhoretz of Jeffers’s anthology appears to have steered, from the start, a far steadier course than the Norman Podhoretz that American intellectual life remembers.
Has Jeffers’s selected his material tendentiously and weeded out early essays that their author might today be embarrassed by? I suspect instead that Norman Podhoretz the thinker and Norman Podhoretz the editor were simply far less coordinated in the 1950s and 1960s than they became afterward, and that the Podhoretz of the famous volte-face was the editor only. As an editor, certainly, he opened Commentary’s pages to some fairly radical and sometimes wild and woolly minds — besides Mailer and the anarchistically inclined Goodman, one might mention contributors like Leslie Fiedler, whose 1960 book “Love and Death in the American Novel” was flung into the world of American literary criticism like a hand grenade, or that post-Freudian prophet of polymorphic sexuality, Norman O. Brown. These were prestigious and provocative writers, and any editor wishing to be au courant and exciting would have been happy to publish them.
Yet what Podhoretz himself was writing in those years was something else. While Goodman was spinning his utopian fantasies and Brown was penning his dithyrambs to Eros, Podhoretz was taking Saul Bellow’s much-praised “The Adventures of Augie March” to task for “its frantic and feverish pitch” and lambasting that vade mecum of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” for its “primitivism” and “anti-intellectual solipsism”; and even as he was publishing Baldwin on black nationalism and the anti-Zionist Hannah Arendt on revolutionary ideologies, he was recommending the racial assimilation of the American Negro and angrily attacking Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” for its “habit of judging the Jews by one standard and everyone else by another.” Almost everywhere in these early essays one sees a buttoned-down sobriety and an uncompromisingly highbrow approach to culture that anticipate the political conservatism of later years. And one must keep in mind that “Making It,” published in 1968, must have already been a work in progress several years earlier, which dates Podhoretz’s inner break with the “New York intellectuals” to an earlier period than is commonly ascribed to it.
Indeed, the excerpt from “Making It” in “The Norman Podhoretz Reader,” which deals with Podhoretz’s adolescent relationship with a prissy high-school English teacher who — recognizing his talent but shocked by his uncouthness — tried to make a “gentleman” of him, shows how far back some of these attitudes go. There is in this young Brownsville roughneck a close sense of social observation, a keen awareness of the subtle degrees of mannerism, speech and class that determine social hierarchies and make them inevitable; a determination to rise in the world coupled with an understanding of the fact that this means working hard and meeting standards; and at the same time, a deep sense of loyalty to his Jewish and immigrant roots that will permit him to ascend the social ladder without snobbishness, deracination or the confusion of worth with birth. Mrs. K., the teacher, comically brahmin yet admirably dedicated to the principle of individual merit, is Podhoretz’s introduction to an American society that, while socially stratified like any other, is unique in its openness and social mobility.
There was a time, about 1990, as the Soviet empire came crashing down, in part because of American policies recommended for years by a magazine like Commentary, when neoconservatism seemed to have won the field; to this period dates an essay of Podhoretz’s, entitled “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” in which he speaks of the movement’s losing its distinctiveness and vanishing because, as happened with the counterculture of the 1960s, its basic values had become widely accepted. I am not so sure he would still agree with this. A year after the overthrow of one of the most hideous totalitarian regimes in history, the intellectual mockery of America’s striving for victory in the Cold War is back again in the form of intellectual mockery of the American intervention in Iraq, the fashionable notion among the cultivated being once again that tyranny and evil are best fought by not fighting them too hard. These things are cyclical. The Norman Podhoretzes will never cease to be needed.