EDITOR’S NOTE: This review by Charles R. Kesler appeared in the March 8, 2004, issue of National Review. (You can access NR’s archives anytime here.)
In the old days, traditionalists and libertarians supposedly divided the American Right between them. Then along came the neoconservatives. Not only did the neocons assert that something new could be conservative, but they implied that the new species was an advance over the old. For a movement that had never held Darwin in high esteem, American conservatism suddenly seemed poised to evolve.
It was political art, not natural selection, however, that produced the vigorous hybrid of Reaganite conservatism. Rather than supplanting everyone else, the neocons contributed their distinctive, and manifold, virtues to the blend. And among the chief contributors was Norman Podhoretz, who in nine books and in his 35 years as editor of Commentary powerfully shaped the neoconservative “tendency,” as he prefers to call it.
In this excellent new collection of his writings, Podhoretz, who wonders whether he’s been around long enough to be called a “paleoneoconservative,” reminds us of the distance that he, and we, have come. Elegantly edited and introduced by Thomas L. Jeffers, who teaches American and English literature at Marquette, The Norman Podhoretz Reader spans five decades of his writings and exhibits his great gifts as a literary stylist and political controversialist. Not incidentally, it illuminates his personal odyssey from liberal to radical to neoconservative to conservative.
Through all his wanderings, Podhoretz was an anti-Communist. This distinguishes him from those neocons who went through a youthful flirtation with Communism, often of the Trotskyite variety. He attributes his immunity to the good luck of being born too late (1930) to have entertained illusions about the USSR, and to the profound example of his mentor at Columbia, Lionel Trilling, who defended liberalism against totalitarianism. The rejection of totalitarianism would be another constant in Podhoretz’s career, even when he turned toward radicalism at the end of the 1950s.
Of this radicalism Jeffers provides only scattered examples. Other than some hindsight glimpses (from Breaking Ranks, Podhoretz’s 1979 “political memoir”), the only radicalism on display here is a few discouraging words about America: in the famous 1963 article “My Negro Problem–and Ours” and in essays on Saul Bellow’s novels and Huckleberry Finn.
Perhaps that’s for the best, inasmuch as his radicalism involved taking a lot of writers seriously whom it would be hard for anyone, including Podhoretz, to take seriously today–e.g., Paul Goodman and Norman O. Brown. From the selections included here, Podhoretz’s radicalism was as much literary-intellectual as political, anyway, springing from what he calls “the religion of art” and thus sparing him the sins of those who truly longed to make a religion of politics.
Besides, how bad could the country be that allowed someone as bright and hard-working as he to rise? That was the theme of Making It, his 1967 account of his climb up the greasy pole of New York intellectual life. The opening sentence of the first chapter said it all: “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” In Manhattan he rubbed shoulders with Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, and other horribles, and as much as he (and his wife, Midge Decter) enjoyed the show, Podhoretz seems to have regarded it with a very cool eye. His literary standards were high, and, with rare exceptions, he didn’t think his friends’ books were as good as they should be, which is to say, as good as his friends thought they were. Thus, in the very process of making it, Podhoretz began to break ranks.
His rethinking led him to neoconservatism. Indeed, he became one of the two most influential neocons of all. The other, ten years his senior, was Irving Kristol. Each edited a magazine (in Kristol’s case, The Public Interest, founded in 1965) that would begin to publish a set of writers and academics who would define the neoconservative tendency.
Kristol and Podhoretz had both studied with Trilling, but Podhoretz’s other mentor was the literary scholar F. R. Leavis, with whom he spent three years of graduate study at Cambridge. By contrast, Kristol learned much from Sidney Hook, Leo Strauss, and Strauss’s student Martin Diamond. Kristol planted his journal firmly in the social sciences, albeit as chastened by pragmatism and Straussianism. This was social science liberated from dogmatic progressivism and keenly aware of the limitations of reason in politics. Although Commentary would publish many of the same circle of social scientists, its focus was different: more literary, religious, and political (including geopolitical), in keeping with Podhoretz’s interests and those of the magazine’s publisher, the American Jewish Committee.
Neocons of all sorts, but especially those who had had a brush with radicalism, give the impression of being once burned, twice shy. Having dabbled with abstract theory of the utopian sort, they recoiled into various kinds of anti-Romantic empiricism. In his most distinctive writings, Podhoretz drew his data not from the social sciences but from his own life. He specialized in what he sometimes called the “auto-case history,” testing a theory or problem against his own experience, whether growing up in Brooklyn or reading Lolita. This remarkable moral realism, on display in Making It and Breaking Ranks, thus colored his literary criticism as well.
In fact, one of this book’s delights is its inclusion of many examples of Podhoretz’s literary analysis–of Bellow, Simone de Beauvoir, and Hannah Arendt, among others. His criticisms are pungent, sensible, and shrewd, even as Trilling’s were, but Podhoretz draws from deeper moral wells. Jeffers is right to call “exceptionally prescient” the 1958 essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” which demonstrated the incipient nihilism of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the larger cultural movement that Norman Mailer had hailed as a “revolution backward toward being.” Still, it’s a stretch to claim, as Jeffers does, that “Podhoretz has consistently defended a belief in the primacy of natural law.” Like most neoconservatives, Podhoretz is wary of such rational ultimates, preferring to rest the case for democracy on its effects rather than its truth.
To be sure, he believes that there is an objective difference between good and evil, and to that extent he is at least an implicit natural-law thinker. But the principles he favors are either commonsensical or drawn from great literature or theology. Not for nothing is his latest book The Prophets.
Podhoretz’s achievements as an editor are immense and not easily captured in an anthology, though Jeffers includes “In Defense of Editing,” a gem that Podhoretz wrote for Harper’s in 1965. Podhoretz turned Commentary into an indispensable journal, a crucible in which Reaganite arguments, especially on foreign policy, were annealed and honed. In its pages in 1996 he pronounced a “eulogy” for neoconservatism, because its goals–resistance to Communism and the counterculture–had either been accomplished or been adopted by mainstream conservatism. Yet his own “love affair with America,” to use his disarming phrase, continued. Any American who reads The Norman Podhoretz Reader will not let that love go unrequited.
– Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is editor of the Claremont Review of Books.
(Free Press, 496 pp., $35)