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.
Increasingly nationalist and staunchly pro-modernist in the early Cold War’s staunchly nationalist and increasingly pro-modernist climate, Partisan Review and its Family were poised to make inroads into the mainstream whether they hated it or not. To be fair, the ones who hated it were still allowed to make their case by Rahv and Phillips (who didn’t). The first PR issue of 1954 led off with a jeremiad titled “This Age of Conformity”:
Gradually we make our peace with the world, and not by anything as exciting as a secret pact; nowadays Lucifer is a very patient and reasonable fellow with a gift for indulging one’s most legitimate desires; and we learn, if we learn anything at all, that betrayal may consist in a chain of small compromises, even while we also learn that in this age one cannot survive without compromise. What is most alarming is not that a number of intellectuals have abandoned the posture of iconoclasm: let the Zeitgeist give them a jog and they will again be radical, all too radical. What is most alarming is that the whole idea of the intellectual vocation—the idea of a life dedicated to values that cannot possibly be realized by a commercial civilization—has gradually lost its allure. And it is this, rather than the abandonment of a particular program, that constitutes our rout.
Intellectuals, Irving Howe announced—and of course by “intellectuals” he meant the New York Intellectuals, no others mattered—had by slow degrees ceded their initiative to an establishment which, though now willing to pay handsomely for the utility of gifted minds, had no need whatsoever for the autonomous ideals their most incisive writing had proposed and pursued. Drawing on examples from contemporary sociology, politics and literary theory, his thesis would only have been strengthened further had he known that Partisan Review was paying him with money secretly provided by the CIA. And it would find its most striking illustration in the future career of the Family’s newest member. Scrolling down the issue’s table of contents, past “This Age of Conformity” and a chapter from Mary McCarthy’s The Group, past Hannah Arendt on “Tradition and the Modern Age” (“Our tradition of political thought has its definite beginning in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle”) and Marianne Moore’s inspired translations of La Fontaine, past a review introducing Robert Musil to an American audience and Delmore Schwartz’s swooning over Augie March, one discovers the PR debut of Norman Podhoretz, making quick work of an anthology of literature from the South.
Both after its original release and its 2017 republication by New York Review Books, Making It has been sorely taxed for its narcissism, for a concentration on the details of its author’s career so incessant as to be suffocating.1 I found it mostly easy going, but we all have our limits; I bet that even the unlucky few with similar career experiences will find Podhoretz’s account of editing at Commentary while being tyrannized by a substitute editor-in-chief—“in an impossibly difficult position in trying to run a magazine over which he both did and did not possess authority”—hard to endure.
But ultimately such attacks are pointless. Keep in mind that you are dealing with a fellow book reviewer, and a formidably talented one at that; admit the possibility that, as Podhoretz concedes regarding Augie March, “he knows all your arguments and uses them against himself.” You may say he’s a careerist, but he’s not the only one. If he seems (and really is) a bit too pleased to attend Family parties and a bit too eager to conform to its standards, for decades the Family has fielded invitations from America’s elite institutions and, grumble though some members had and would, conformed to the reality of American power.
Podhoretz is not the deepest thinker: that would require principles of one’s own. But he is a broad observer, and astute within his range. His forays into Family history are concise and insightful, distinguishing and linking its three generations with enviable precision. His portrait of Commentary editor Elliot Cohen is sensitive, even tragic (Cohen goes mad, dies); his explication of Cohen’s grand project for his magazine—bridging Jews and mainstream America through the medium of upper-middlebrow politics and culture writing—is elegant and sympathetic. He doesn’t merely flaunt his accolades; he explains, convincingly, their significance in social history.
Though utterly inconsequential now, a Jew being asked to write for the New Yorker once carried a significance far more than individual. It was the harbinger of a growing hospitality toward Jews (provided, of course, that they were well-groomed) from a WASP high society where anti-Semitism once went hand in hand with a reflexive hostility to modernism. Likewise, it’s more than a point of personal pride when Commentary, now under Podhoretz’s capable control after a prolonged power struggle, replaces Partisan Reviewas the Family’s center of gravity, or when its circulation soars to unprecedented heights in spite of the increasing intellectual complexity of the Family writings he solicits for it; both are proof that the marginality of Jews and intellectuals is becoming, more and more, a rhetorical device rather than a social reality.
The price of admission is still high for these chosen few, but it is no longer beyond their means. And who doesn’t want to be accepted by one’s social betters? Irving Howe can thunder against the corruption of the intellectuals (and, implicitly, the assimilation of the Jews); but once a trail is blazed between excluded brilliance and insider power, well, brace for traffic. It’s been hard, having read “This Age of Conformity” after Making It, not to recall the image of young Norman, dragged to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan by Mrs. K., refusing to eat the food set out before him. His dissent is temporary; the acculturation he dissents from, permanent. Just look at Norman Podhoretz, says Norman Podhoretz—what he’s become!
III. Polite Fictions
In its strenuous celebration of American openness and opportunity, with its mock-heroic bragging sometimes shot through with half-articulate regrets, Making It resembles perhaps no other book so much as the very novel Podhoretz had made his Family reputation by deflating. Some awareness of this resonance peeks through near the end. Having aired out the author of Augie March’s thin-skinned, paranoiac wrath several chapters ago, Podhoretz finds himself thinking through Bellovian terms in the wake of a bout of manic ecstasy.
Like a healthy four-year-old child who still inhabits that state—the memory of which, according to Freud, is the source of the legend of Eden—I was in total command of all my energies at every moment, uninhibited in the use of them, unwearying in their exercise. I could drink all night without getting drunk and still wake up after only two or three hours of sleep without being in the least tired. My senses had never been so alert, my brain never so alive, my spirits never so high. I loved everyone, and everyone loved me. I did not blame them; I even loved myself.
Contracted at a millionaire-sponsored junket for the rich and famous at Paradise Island in the Bahamas, the high seems to have thrust him past all alienation. Like some latter-day initiate of the Assassins, having tasted once from the garden of heavenly delights, he is determined to live in its radiance forever. “Should I go around, like Henderson the Rain King, announcing ‘I want! I want! I want!’ to everyone I met?” Then the bill for the mania comes due. Depressed mentally and seriously ill physically, the protagonist realizes that “it was time, as Saul Bellow said, to stop Becoming and to start Being. Being oneself, of course.”
Yet the irony is that he isn’t anyone, not quite. As both editor and writer, his gift is for assimilation, making others’ talents and ideas his own: he applies himself to authors, takes on their traits as best he can. Just as he reproduced his teachers’ styles in his college papers, the manner of his book reviews is Trilling’s, his approach in them Leavis’s; it’s a house style, not quite distinctive in itself. He couldn’t do everyone: “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” the viral article about his racial hatred that made Podhoretz infamous in 1963, is a gruesome, botched attempt to replicate the candor and intelligence of James Baldwin’s essays. But he could do a lot, and in some cases even improve on the original. As Podhoretz explains near the end, Norman Mailer is the primary inspiration for Making It. Mailer doesn’t agonize about his alienation. He stamps his way across the social landscape and apologizes for nothing, least of all for lusting after success. Not only is Making It as insolent as any Mailer production, its insolence is enhanced by the chastity of its prose, the delicate locutions carrying a palpable echo of British, or at least Anglophile, reticence.
Viewed a certain way, the book has it all: Old World grace and American ostentation, confessional openness and Family claustrophobia, memoir’s intimacy and the social novel’s scope, selflessness and vanity, all united in the figure of the narrator, at once the symbol of personal success and the affirmation of general abundance. The only thing missing from Making It, from this perspective, is failure, which no one wants to be around in any case. And yet it turns out there’s no failure like success. Podhoretz’s judgment on The Adventures of Augie March, that its strident positivity masks an essential incoherence, applies doubly to his own memoir. A vast and horrifying void inhabits his book, a stinging despair and intractable resentment far exceeding the dimensions of the author’s self.
Recall that Podhoretz’s gift for mimicry is more than superficial. He can reproduce complex modes of hermeneutic exposition; he can channel the intelligence of the author he reviews, the house style of a famously learned and forbidding intellectual circle, the zeitgeist itself. What his adolescent hero Keats first named for authors he possesses as a critic—his negative capability, as a reader, is keen indeed. And, like anyone whose heart goes out to the world so trustingly, he has a corresponding need for positive ideals. Reality is perishable, society seethes with betrayal: without the flare of something incorruptible and otherworldly to offer guidance, consolation and encouragement, such natures either die of disappointment or harden into monstrous bitterness. No one loves the Family like Podhoretz does. He idealizes them, and they, flattered by his worship and impressed by his skill, are willing to entrust him with all they have: respect, invitations, essays, gossip, success.
But they can’t grant him what they no longer have, and what they no longer have, by the time he joins them, is their ideals of a different world. “Among the other casualties of World War II would be their revolutionary socialism,” Podhoretz notes, a little wistfully, in his Family history; eight years later, they can’t even form a united front against McCarthyism, or resist being kept by the CIA. They can quibble and cavil about it, they can balance and preen, but the world they want to live in is the one they live in already, that really existing America which they can now, at last, claim as their own. The posture of the alienated opposition persists, but their actual alienation and opposition are things of the past.
So the Family’s biggest baby, following their cue, is doomed to float forward and upward. Cradled by the best the postwar pseudo-paradise can grant, he nurses the suspicion that something vital is lacking. He’s a book reviewer trained to seek out historical context, steeped in the belief that the surest signs of greatness in an era are its works of art, but he finds even the contemporary authors he admires inferior to the founders of modernism (their remains now pickled for mainstream consumption). Reviewing Doings and Undoings, the book of collected reviews Podhoretz published in 1964, Richard Poirier (in Partisan Review) perceived the stress in Podhoretz’s sensibility wrought by a muddled striving after higher ideals and a sharper outline of the real:
His predilection for “issues” that can be associated with a book or an event is a genuinely urgent and honorable search for possible connections among items that otherwise contribute, in their proliferation, to a kind of disengaged hopelessness that seems to lurk in Podhoretz’s bravado. Podhoretz obviously wishes there were a New York group defined by ideological commitments rather than by a common vocabulary in which to talk about the lack of commitments; he wishes there were something so alive and so characteristic of himself and his contemporaries that those younger could respond to it as a generation, even negatively. Who could wish otherwise or deny him the functioning power that comes from even the illusion that such things do significantly exist?
Podhoretz, Poirier went on perceptively, is “a man struggling to define some representative significance for himself, even as he argues against many of the convenient definitions and habits with which his experience and his associations have endowed him.” Not entirely consciously, probably not even half-consciously, Making Itmarks an intensification of Podhoretz’s struggle to discover those superior values that Family and country have failed to provide.
Slowly, steadily, experimentally, Podhoretz raises the stakes. If the rhetoric of “alienation” is itself the cause of his spiritual malaise, he will do away with it and see what happens next. He will speak openly, happily, about success. Reducing himself to his career triumphs, he will venture the hypothesis that he (and his Family) has written primarily for worldly success; by doing so, he effectively dares book reviewers (especially his Family) to prove him wrong by spelling out what unworldly principle still overrules mere vanity. And if the lust for success really was all there was to writers, wouldn’t he become even more successful—the most successful, the ultimate in success—for having been the first to reveal it?
Only such a crazed and lofty impulse, I think, can account for why Podhoretz, decorated veteran of the book-review wars and seasoned observer of the market for literary reputations,2 despite his original publisher refusing to publish it and despite being warned by all his friends who read it in manuscript that he should seal it away, still pushed so vigorously to see his memoir released. Blinded by a peculiar combination of altruism, naïveté, amour propre and a hunger for some higher cause—this is a sixties author, after all—he failed to recognize a few plain facts that would destroy him. No one likes a showoff; no one will praise a showoff. The very Family traits his book had celebrated, its Jewishness, exclusivity, style, brains, cosmopolitanism and status-consciousness—in short, its New York attitude—continued to inspire ferocious, close to frothing, resentment in a book world where affirmative action kept favoring dullard WASPs. Last and anything but least, every power rests upon a central secret, and no power can smile to see that secret spilled. Short on superficial gossip, Making It paces, with a sleepwalker’s chilling precision, around the prospect that America’s leading intellectuals of literature, culture and politics, with the author at their head, had achieved no integrity beyond self-satisfaction, arrived at no ideal beyond self-sustenance. To reveal as much would be to announce that, in the absence of those higher commitments which define the intellectual vocation, the New York Intellectuals were as real as the emperor’s new clothes. For this mortal indiscretion he would have to pay.
It was bad enough that the reviews from the out-crowd dodos were largely vicious and uncomprehending; but that could be put down, with some justice, to the spite of jealous losers. What caved his spirit in was the Family response. Perhaps the mild, myopic pan (intriguing in theory, egregiously “lifeless” in practice) in the New York Review of Books could be borne, even though the reviewer, the sociologist Edgar Z. Freidenberg, had been—and would surely no longer be—one of his writers at Commentary. But the Family in private was a different tale; trembling from exposure’s panic, shrieking with betrayal’s wrath, they couldn’t stop cursing the book and its author. A conclusion was reached. Though the book could never be unpublished, the author, insofar as he was in their power, could be unmade: what Making It recorded, life now played in reverse. The party invitations vanished, the friendships dissolved, the gossip was withheld, the respect withdrawn: he was no longer one of them. Having taken pains to put himself forth as a paragon, he discovered that in doing so he had set himself up as an ideal scapegoat.
When the killing blow came, they made sure everyone could hear it. Arriving in the wake of all the other reviews, Partisan Review’s coverage of Making It was determined to make up in volume what it lacked in promptness. Norman Mailer set about his task with flagrant, brutish jolliness. Glorying in his nihilistic reach and relish, in language dense and deafening as an artillery barrage, the master thrashed the disciple for his perceived want of courage. To hell with little Norman’s wimpy, polished, diplomatic style, big Norman beats his chest: this is how you take the Family down. The New York Intellectuals, Mailer rumbles, aren’t just a cultural establishment of spineless, grasping poseurs—they’ve been spineless, grasping poseurs all along.
This Establishment once ogre-ish, fearful, arid, poisonous, proud, insular, scholarly, slavish, tyrannical and cold, was now hip, slick, mercurial, Camp, evasive, treacherous, Pop, militant and chic—yet wonder of wonders it was the same Establishment, same not because the people were similar (so many had gone, so many were new) but because its essential presentation of itself to the world was the same. The Establishment had begun as a put-on, and it was continuing as a put-on.
A clean kill this was not. Bits of brain clung to the upholstery; the mingled smells of blood and shit were everywhere. Publishing Mailer’s review was not, as publishing Irving Howe’s essay on conformity fourteen years ago had been, the sign of a magazine confident enough in its direction to tolerate contradiction. While Howe disagreed, Mailer cared nothing for agreement either way; his aim was to discredit, and to publish such galling insults as he leveled was to grant them validity. Hiring this self-obsessed barbarian to perform the hit on Podhoretz was poetically apt; but it was also a silent confession that the Family, that vaunted hive of book reviewers, could no more present a defense of itself than any other establishment of the time. It’s telling that, in that issue (Spring 1968), Mailer’s review is sandwiched between a baffled symposium on Black Power and Susan Sontag’s arid, apolitical, formalist analysis of Jean-Luc Godard: as if to underline that the Sixties, with their flair for dishonor, had come for Partisan Reviewand left it disarrayed, undone.
Years later, Mailer would wonder whether his review had been responsible for the change that would soon take place in his friend. As usual, he was overstating his effect: it was Family abandonment that did it, nothing more and nothing less. He had risen in their esteem by resembling them; he would fall by daring to say that they resembled him, that he was, with all his uncanny and amoral candor, their culmination. He was right, of course. Hit dogs holler, and the New York Intellectuals’ howls of outrage were extreme and protracted: for once in the Sixties, they were protesting too much. He may even have been righter than he knew: the Family started to dissolve almost immediately after his expulsion from it, as if it couldn’t exist without him.
And he would end up being right in a different way entirely. Lost, like everyone, at the end of the Sixties, Podhoretz pulls himself through his work as writer and editor; staving off inaction with alcoholism, fending off depression not at all. Taking refuge in his Delaware County farmhouse (his real estate, at least, had not abandoned him), he experiences a mystical vision:
I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.
Family, ascension, connections, big pictures. He is seeing the world in the same terms that he always has. But with his former Family dead, he will have to find a new one. He interprets his vision as a confirmation of the truth of Judaism. When he gets back to New York he is a new man; his quest for an ideal has concluded with an unequivocal embrace of the state of Israel. It was once said of Keats that he was slain by a bad review; Podhoretz’s bad reviews haven’t killed him, but they have killed off the Keatsian half of his personality. His focus shifts from literature to politics, his politics from liberal to hard right. The man who as a boy hated blacks and took pride in gaining entry to the toughest gang in his neighborhood that wasn’t black will now cheer on the most brutal gang of all, imperial America’s army and police, in its unceasing quest to stamp out dark-skinned insolence across the globe.
Decades passed; people died. But Norman Podhoretz is still alive. Retired from editing and writing, he lives on the Upper East Side with his wife. The last survivor of the New York Intellectuals is an iron advocate for Benjamin Netanyahu and, with him, Donald Trump; though his current age is 88, he may yet live to see another one of his beloved wars against the Muslim world. It is difficult to describe what his role has been over the years: certainly more than a handmaiden, certainly less than a shot-caller. A bellwether, most likely. Whose career exemplifies more clearly the earthly rewards of joining with imperial power, and whose desiccated mind more thoroughly demonstrates its intellectual cost? But then a bleak, suspicious corollary necessarily emerges—how many other blasted minds, on the lower frequencies, might he continue to speak for?
IV. The Intellectual Vitiation
Fascinating and repellent as it is, the tale of Norman Podhoretz and his ill-fated memoir of success would not deserve to be retold in this economy were there not powerful evidence that, in the half-century between its publication and republication, in spite of Podhoretz sequestering himself and his magazine within the frosty panic rooms of neoconservatism, the essential social processes and cultural logic of the world of liberal literary intellectuals outlined in Making It have churned on. As their original socialism yielded to the liberal hegemony of the quarter-century following 1945, the Family ascended into the American establishment: in turning away from the left, they had moved up. For their inheritors, making their way in a post-sixties conjuncture dominated by Nixon and Reagan, the equation still held, albeit on a different stretch of the ideological spectrum. Now safely ensconced within official citadels, they could prolong their rise by adjusting their policy prescriptions toward the right, or they could, by maintaining their liberal ideals, establish an opposition wing within the establishment.
In either case, their voices would carry. The New York Intellectuals may have been bought out in the Fifties and early Sixties, but they had hardly sold themselves cheaply. If the moderation of their politics had made the bargain possible, the prestige they had amassed over the course of an uncompromising campaign for superior intelligence and taste ensured that the reward for surrender would be colossal. Along with Edmund Wilson, they would become the founding fathers and mothers of a bright new world of national belles lettres: their writings and their legends would become the touchstones of America’s establishment of modern culture, a lavishly financed complex of foundations, publications, awards committees and humanities departments capable of maintaining, for the first time in history, equal standing with its venerable counterparts in Western Europe. Podhoretz arrived too late for this founding, but he got there early all the same: he was not an architect, but the first to marvel at the finished building—and the first to worry about the blueprint’s implications for himself.
The older generations of the Family were settling into their new careers as certified sages, but the works that qualified them for such eminence had not been composed with that objective in mind, for the simple reason that the certifying establishment had yet to exist. They had been composed at a time when, as Alfred Kazin wrote in On Native Grounds, “The world seems to be waiting, waiting for its new order; everything we do, everything we believe in this moment of climacteric, can help to shape the future toward which men are moving in such agony today.” Depression’s brutal clarity and the dream of total revolution, the stir of total war and the nightmare of extermination: their urgency pushed young, brilliant critics to their imaginative limits, and infused their correspondences of history and art with uncommon daring.
They had been Jewish intellectuals in America in an epoch where to be Jewish, intellectual or American was to be sorely threatened, and if they arrived at authority in the postwar era, one could at least argue that they had won their power honorably by risking the unknown. It was the absence of this honor, the absence of even its possibility, which would haunt their inheritors, from Podhoretz on, educated in a world where the privileges of Jews, intellectuals and Americans could be taken more and more for granted. If these latecomers had the comforts and security of knowing that there were careers to be made inside the cultural institutions, of having paths laid out for them before their journey commenced, they would always lack the fresh exhilaration and inspired focus of real emergency, the fear of knowing oneself literate and an outsider in menacing times.
The heroic age ended, the latecomers, as critics or creative talents, were condemned to be eternal acolytes, essential mediocrities; on the other hand, provided they had the requisite talents—networking, trendspotting, editorial discernment—a career of enormous success could be theirs. Would that, only that, be enough? In Making It Podhoretz acted as if it was, all the while hoping to provoke an explanation why it wasn’t: the book quakes with the implosions of postwar liberalism, troubled by the intuition that its best, in that best of all possible worlds, will not do. In the lives of two others in similar positions—more or less insecure, more or less gifted, more or less durable, but both like him Jewish-American chief editors of a major intellectual magazine—the answers to his question of success ring out in different tones. Taken together, they constitute a social history of the new class of the postwar liberal intellectual: its hollowing affirmation, its fading honor, its flamboyant decay.
Robert Silvers was too busy owning success to crave it. A third-generation upper-middle-class Jew raised in suburban Long Island, he seemed always to have known how to move through elite WASP society as if one of their own. Status anxiety was alien to Silvers: all the stories about him testify to the imposing solidity of his character, an absolute assurance of being that verged on the monstrous. He was a man who always knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was to be an editor—purely an editor. Writing was inherently unnerving, and he was determined to keep his nerve. To not write was to be a better editor: not just because he would have more time to edit, but because it eliminated any competitive tension.
If he was there for the writer, it helped that there were so many great writers near him. Born in the Twenties and Thirties, his (and Podhoretz’s) generation of authors grew up alongside modernism and reaped the benefits of mass expansion of higher education and the entrenchment of New Criticism in the academy; as the first citizens of a fully matured American literary culture and the last generation whose childhood memories were ruled by books instead of television, their aptitude for language would prove unequaled. Among the most learned of this learned cohort, Silvers took it upon himself to deepen and extend the schooling of incoming generations of readers: the central project of the New York Review of Books, which he co-founded in 1963 and edited until his death in 2017, was to shape the opinions of a vast new audience of academics, college graduates, and college students.
What Silvers and his co-editor Barbara Epstein sought to produce were informed citizens, responsible liberals with genuine taste who could organize democratically to reform domestic injustice and restrain imperial aggression. Epstein’s focus on art and literature formed an ideal complement to Silvers’s concentration on politics and history: in their balanced partnership lay the makings of the motion, though not quite movement, needed to move culture and society forward as one. This vision of advancement would survive the Sixties that birthed it, but the prospects of its realization waned with each passing year, for liberalism was no longer an activity to be advanced but a legacy to be defended. As the right surged into power and prominence the NYRB found that it could no longer afford to think boldly; its still considerable intellectual resources were devoted, more and more, to parrying reactionary thrusts.
With admirable consistency Silvers and Epstein would resist the nation’s rightward drift: they and their magazine would remain what they were. It is to their great credit that the NYRB has supported so few foreign wars. If its backing of the first Gulf War could have suggested that its record of steadfast anti-interventionism would not outlive the Cold War, the dedication of its efforts to dampen the hysteria running up to the second proved that the end of history had ultimately failed to loosen the magazine’s commitment to principles forged during the slaughters of Vietnam.
Yet nothing, not the most superb editing nor a galaxy of luminous contributors drawn from nearly every corner of the Anglosphere, could alter the fact that the magazine, over time, slowly, was losing its grip on events. Culture began to seem less a complement to political education and more the consolation for political defeat—and a minor consolation at that. Books were mostly reviewed only as books; their role in defining larger currents went neglected. The rise of Lishian minimalism, French theory, John Ashbery’s poetry, Toni Morrison’s novels, Don DeLillo’s novels—all were met with a more or less respectful nod, then filed away in the archives. As print retreated from the cultural center, the NYRB retreated with it. The internet-empowered trinity of rap, video games and pornography that took over culture in the new millennium received the same response from it as television had in decades past—largely ignored, and never deeply analyzed.
Perhaps the magazine’s insularity could be chalked up to the coziness of the academy it depended on for its contributors and readers; perhaps its tepid interest derived from an excess of the leading New York virtue, being unimpressed. What could not be doubted was that the essays read, more and more, like lesson plans without a central lesson to impart. However the times moved, the New York Review of Books barely moved at all: its best and brightest days long past, in a dark age it resolved to go bad very slowly.
In 2017, Silvers’s death, the republication of Podhoretz’s memoir by the NYRB’s book imprint and Trump’s inauguration formed a grim triptych—a reminder, as if any were needed, of all that well-intentioned liberal thought and cultivation had failed to prevent. Success, for Silvers, had always meant being part of the establishment while holding fast to the best liberal values; the former’s power could achieve nothing without the latter’s moral intelligence. Yet here, at the crown of the establishment, was the most abysmal cluelessness, and the best and the brightest now lacked even the solace of contempt, for their wisdom had failed—completely—to see the disaster coming. After Epstein’s death in 2006, the NYRB had become nothing more than Silvers’s life; his own death marked the close of the rearguard campaign, directed by an able and tenacious general, entertaining no hope of reinforcement or rescue, that had defined the magazine’s existence since Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
Silvers had upheld what Podhoretz abandoned; what Podhoretz supported, Silvers opposed. Despite their differences these rivals remained united in the consistency with which they set forth their commitments. Yet there was an alternative to both men, a third way to proceed. In the tug-of-war between liberal and conservative one could stand with the former without pulling for it, and grin as one’s heels slid rightward in the mud; one could, while holding court within the precincts of liberal culture, savage its civic principles. Debuting in Podhoretz’s Commentary at the age of 21 and in Epstein and Silvers’s NYRB at the age of 23, Leon Wieseltier would, with some facility as a book reviewer and a real gift for social networking within the Jewish-American intellectual establishment, by 1983 become the New Republic’s literary editor and shadow editor-in-chief at the age of 31.
A boomer come of age after the Sixties and the Six-Day War, Wieseltier had arrived at Podhoretz’s distaste for New Deal liberalism without having had to suffer, as Podhoretz had, the spiritual blowout of liberal ascendancy in his own being. He had always known that liberalism was for losers, and he wanted to make it. It’s uncanny how the biographical details of Making Itmapped onto his own early life: Brooklyn son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, yeshiva education, star student at Columbia under Lionel Trilling, graduate studies in England on a Kellett Fellowship, rapid rise through the book-reviewing ranks, control of his own magazine. And invitations to all the best parties: 22 years younger, Podhoretz’s doppelgänger was an inferior critic, but in terms of sheer social success he far surpassed the original. If a scrupulously reported profile of him in Vanity Fair were to be believed, he had movie stars for lovers, senators and TV hosts for friends, and an ego inflated by quantities of cocaine so vast he regularly pawned dozens of review copies to finance their purchase.
If Trilling had indulged what Irving Howe called the “pleasant fantasy” that wealth would come to kneel before the civilizing charm of intellectuals, the life lived by Trilling’s final protégé indicated the exact reverse: the thinkers, not the big shots, would prove themselves the more seduced. Liberalism was tired; neoconservatism, grim. Why not have fun—at someone else’s expense? Here was the original appeal of the neoliberal doctrine advertised for thirty years in Wieseltier’s New Republic. Its policy prescriptions were often very close to those of Commentary; what was distinctive was the language in which they were phrased. An undertone of giddy cannibalism animated its political approach: here, at last, was a liberal magazine prepared to mock the blacks and unions to their faces. Conductor of an insult symphony in constant session, Wieseltier blended vacuous moralizing with vicious dynamism to frightful effect.
So naturally the magazine’s innovations tended toward negation—though, to be fair, negation often proved lively. Whatever his issues with self-editing, in editing others Wieseltier had real talents. He understood that, like any other readers, the educated had a taste for the kinetic. Authority did not have to be laid down solely through tedious procedure; the power of the law could be demonstrated through sudden arrests and dramatic collisions. If COPS was on, why bother watching C-SPAN? The Books section of the New Republic soon developed a towering reputation as a more exciting and censorious agora than the NYRB. Its more notable reviewers would, on occasion, take time out to praise. Yet like a corporation whose years of fast, disruptive growth had passed, Wieseltier’s family of critics invested in securities already vouched for: modernist art, classical jazz, Wallace Stevens, realism in fiction. Such consecrations came and went, but the real appeal would always lie in the thrashing. For all the new developments passed serenely over by Epstein and Silvers, Wieseltier commissioned hits: Morrison’s Paradise was infantile, and DeLillo’s Underworld was wrong; rap was bad, and wasn’t even really meant for black people anyway; Judith Butler was very bad.
Here especially the link between the guardians at the front and the back of the book was evident: the key to power was not, as the NYRB held, to preserve it by minimizing risky deployments; it was best secured via a fearsome defense accompanied by a train of aggressive interventions. As the Soviet empire and the staid fearmongering associated with it collapsed in unison, the crowing neoliberals in the front of the magazine were already introducing readers to fresh opportunities to vent stateside frustrations on Muslim whipping boys abroad; meanwhile, in the Books section, there ran incessant strafings aimed at Edward Said’s “hating mind.”
You could say a lot about the New Republic, but what couldn’t be denied was that it got what it wanted. It wasn’t the biggest liberal magazine, but it had never aimed to be; what it sought was influence, and tremendous influence it possessed. By 2003 it had been, for a full generation, the trendiest publication in the capital of the world’s most powerful nation. Here, in this success on an unprecedented scale, was the endpoint of a ray originating over sixty years ago in New York, when an obscure congress of book reviewers with Yiddish-speaking parents sacrificed their revolutionary rhetoric to focus on the war with Hitler.
They had changed the system—and in culture created an entire vast secondary system of their own—and how the system had changed them! The oceanic efforts of the founders had trickled down into a spoon-deep pool reflecting every pose of the imperial Narcissus. The demon from Vienna, commanding the apocalyptic armies of a whole white continent and poised to flood all earth with genocide, had shriveled into the butcher from Tikrit, clinging to a middling fraction of the Middle East besieged by American sanctions and dissected by American no-fly zones, his slaughters matched or even exceeded by those of any number of American client states. Who could fail to see how Partisan Review’s conflicted martial benediction had swollen, over the course of a long chain of small and not-so-small compromises, into the New Republic’s suavely vehement hurrah for storming Baghdad?
Again the world seemed to be waiting, waiting for its new order. It was just that now the new order was no more than an endless present, an unsquanderable gift from an already-great America that one could unwrap time and time again with each new issue. Still, one problem remained—though the neoliberals, much like the neoconservatives, were far too high to see it at the time. A triumph of such magnitude had necessitated putting many others down and out. Should conditions, unfathomably, change, and that power over civilizing language on which their reputation rested slip from their grasp, what might all those barbarians make of the ones who had made it?
Art credit: Rhed Fawell