I. Made Men
In retrospect, it was peculiar but not surprising that the Jewish-American novel peaked early—halfway through the beginning, to be precise. Fittingly enough, the midpoint of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) finds its hero at a crossroads: newly married to a daughter of the Chicago elite, Augie’s elder brother Simon has been pushing him to follow suit, and Augie, for his part, seems not unopposed to the idea of courting Simon’s wife’s cousin Lucy. Wearing a tuxedo purchased for him by Simon and driving the car Simon lends him, Augie squires Lucy through the glittering circuit of social gatherings reserved for the class that runs things. As the season grows cold, he warms to the idea of marrying a pretty rich girl who loves him. But after Augie is seen taking his waitress friend and pregnant neighbor Mimi to get an abortion (and then delays a date with Lucy when there are complications to the procedure) the thread of the romance is cut.
Throughout this sequence Bellow’s powers as an artist of the novel are fully and thrillingly engaged. The capacity for physical description that never abandoned him shines with special brilliance as he catalogs the sumptuous settings of Simon’s wedding. Figures major and minor are firmly outlined, endowed with generous intelligence and intelligent spite. Augie’s amorphous character is forced to define itself through commitment and confrontation; likewise, his vague romanticism is tested and toughened by exposure to the philosophies of life espoused, in striking monologues, by Simon, Mimi and his neighbor Kayo, a curious idealist. Augie’s moral crisis is quietly and keenly linked to social conditions—of class and ethnicity, to be sure, but of gender especially. Wandering through the hospital while the doctors attend to Mimi,
I passed through to another division where the labor rooms were, separate cubicles, and in them saw women struggling, outlandish pain and hugebellied distortion, one powerful face that bore down into its creases and issued a voice great and songlike in which she cursed her husband obscenely for his pleasure that had got her into this; and others, calling on saints and mothers, incontinent, dragging at the bars of their beds, weeping, or with faces of terror or narcotized eyes. It all stunned me.
“Labor” metaphors are always labored, but for the moment Bellow’s talent can work miracles. Disavowed by Simon and shunned by Lucy’s clan, his protagonist returns to the student milieu he knows best where, through Mimi’s intervention, he falls into a job as an organizer for the CIO. The chambermaids in a city hotel are being ill-served by their existing union. Their dues go nowhere; sold out to their bosses, their pay remains depressed. To this defiant congregation of proletarian women, black and sub-white joined as one—his current lover, a maid named Sophie, is Greek—Augie offers a better deal. His career climaxes in a brawl between the maids and thugs hired by the corrupt union’s representative.
Though even here Augie lacks the taste for condemnation that politics require, his narrative presence is freighted with political undertones and historical force. The reader is left no room to doubt the reality of a 1930s Chicago where brutal inequalities coexisted with the possibility of social mobility for arrivistes like Simon, clever enough to find the levers of power and ruthless enough to work them—and the potential for violent action on the part of the metropolis’s most exploited strata.
Bellow’s novel occupied a moment where the vector of history and the art of fiction, pitched to extremes, could define themselves best by defining each other. Yet the enormous tensions of this period registered little in the contemporary reviews of Augie March: admiring commentators tended to take the novel’s historical context so much for granted that they failed to interrogate it closely. The reasons for shortsightedness were themselves historical and aesthetic. Augie March’s later chapters would reflect the postwar present in their unseemly hurry to dispose of the realities of the prewar past. Not even the author himself seemed greatly invested in revisiting the unvarnished deprivations and frozen antagonisms of the Thirties, much less in speculating as to how they had helped give rise to striking scenes—scenes equal to the best in American, if not world, literature—at the heart of a book that was, otherwise, largely, disappointing.
It was at this point, in the glaring, still unvoiced gap between a book’s real and perceived values, that Norman Podhoretz’s first big public intervention would occur. Commissioned by Commentary at the fresh age of 23, the aspiring critic produced a 2,500-word review that dissented from the chorus of fulsome praise that had greeted Bellow’s novel. Where others saw a gleeful break from the constricting vise of modernist alienation, Podhoretz saw only the effort; where they heard a full-bodied, triumphant affirmation of American values, he sensed a void behind the boisterous positivity. In ensuring that Augie March struck a figure larger than life, Bellow had rendered him less than human; striving to encompass everything, he had signified nothing. “It is no disgrace,” his review concludes with a prominent sniff, “to have failed in a pioneer attempt.”
The review would ultimately do little to puncture Augie’s robust reputation, but the perceptiveness that it displayed did much to advance Podhoretz’s own. “What clinched it for me,” he revealed in his 1967 memoir Making It, “was a long review of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.” In both cases “it” referred to his membership within an exclusive gang of book reviewers, art critics and political radicals, constituted primarily but not exclusively of second-generation Jews in America; though they would come to be memorialized as the New York Intellectuals, Podhoretz’s preferred term in his book is, simply, “the Family.” Headquartered at Partisan Review since the Thirties, the Family was coming into possession of a cultural authority far out of proportion to its narrow ranks. It would be a watershed moment in Podhoretz’s life to be numbered among them, and he knew it: his memoir is essentially an essay at plumbing the depths of that knowledge.
Uncommon, mostly justified, above all bold, his reading rippled over Family radar, with the novelist himself speeding the process. Notoriously allergic to dispraise, Bellow broke out in hives upon reading a leaked galley of the review: not only did he mail a furious two-page letter to the offices of Commentary, he cc’ed a dozen or more people—some, presumably, fellow Family members. Going further, Bellow propagated a paranoid fantasy that Lionel Trilling, Podhoretz’s former professor at Columbia and an on-the-record Augie advocate, had engineered the offending article. Bellow’s friends hate Podhoretz’s guts, those harboring private doubts about Augie’s validity thrill to find a confirmation of their own taste, and the young protagonist of Making It soon finds himself in Greenwich Village drunk on Philip Rahv’s bourbon, mortified by his first taste of Family gossip, and being asked to contribute to Partisan Review.
The impact of a book review is the product of three factors: the quality of the review; the importance of the book; how much the review exposes that the competition can’t. Young Podhoretz has shown himself formidable in each and all. He can’t yet hold his liquor (the bourbon ends up gracing the subway station at 14th Street or West 4th), but he has what it takes. Later in the same week the New Yorker calls. Dwight Macdonald spoke with them; they, too, would like him to review some books.
II. Seize the Day
Norman Podhoretz was four years old when Partisan Review released its first issue in 1934, and by the time the two were properly introduced each had undergone a drastic metamorphosis. The cleverness of Making It, and its risk, lies in its author’s insinuation that their changes were essentially the same. Born, like so many PR contributors, to working-class Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the Brooklyn slums, Podhoretz could only have arrived at the Ivy League and intellectual stature through a torturous modification of the habits natural to his original milieu. The early chapters of Making It recount his education at the hands of a highborn schoolteacher: a cultivated WASP sent down among the scrabbling masses, “Mrs. K.” expends much time, energy and money wringing the brutishness out of her prize pupil. Though the adolescent Podhoretz, incessantly scolded as a “filthy little slum child,” enamored of Keats and his street gang in equal measure, puts up fierce resistance, her tenacity prevails. By the time of his college interviews, both his grades and his manners are up to snuff; only the fact that he wasn’t offered an all-expenses scholarship keeps him from attending Harvard. Roaming the Columbia campus on a full ride, he wins over his professors with an unusual combination of brains, brashness and an uncanny ability to mimic their respective writing styles. By the time he realizes academia is not for him, he is halfway through a prestigious graduate fellowship at Cambridge University.
Meanwhile, Partisan Review was in the midst of a prolonged and fundamental self-revision. Founded by Rahv and William Phillips under the auspices of the Communist Party of the United States of America, its editors soon broke with Stalinist orthodoxy: appalled by news of the Moscow Trials and resenting demands to praise shoddy works of socialist realism, in 1937 the editors, using money raised through Dwight Macdonald (WASP, Yale), took the publication independent. The ensuing period saw PR defined by a conjunction of Trotskyism (or its close relative, left anarchism) in politics and an unabashed embrace of the major art and literature of European modernism. The outbreak of war with Nazi Germany would prompt a political revaluation. Though the magazine would continue to fight the good fight against America’s provincial culture, it called a ceasefire with the American state that proved to be, in the years after Hitler’s defeat, with the threat of their old nemesis Stalin resurgent, permanent.