Politics & Policy

Podhoretz v. the Nihilists

He understood the “bohemian know-nothings” very early.

Norman Podhoretz, who turned 84 on January 16, is usually considered nowadays a commentator on American political, foreign, and religious affairs; with the late Irving Kristol and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he has been a key figure in the neoconservative intellectual movement of the last 40 years. As editor-in-chief from 1960 to 1995 of the New York monthly Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee, he presided over and helped bring about the movement of Jews from the margins to the very center of American cultural and intellectual life. He is certainly one of the most significant figures in the life of the mind in America since World War II.

But Podhoretz’s early career was that of a literary critic, educated at Columbia and Cambridge Universities, where he was the protégé and disciple of two of the greatest nondenominational literary critics and moralists of the 20th century: Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. “Nondenominational” is an appropriate word because Trilling and Leavis were in some sense neoconservative traditionalists, but, unlike their great contemporaries T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, they were not religiously committed or orthodox writers. Though the young Podhoretz studied simultaneously at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and spoke Hebrew, he was not religiously observant. This was to change in later life.

A poor Jewish kid from the very mean streets of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the young Podhoretz had nothing genteel about him; he was brilliant, aggressive, and competitive. He had great early success as a leftish literary critic writing for prominent American and English journals in the 1950s and ’60s. He was sympathetic to radicalism and the avant-garde: He was an early admirer and for some time a close friend of Norman Mailer, and he helped make the reputations of other radical writers such as the African-American James Baldwin, Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd), and the sexual-liberationist Norman O. Brown (Life against Death). Podhoretz’s editing efforts throughout the ’60s steered the traditionalist Commentary steadily leftward and met with great success in intellectual and academic circles in New York and throughout the nation. The magazine became vastly influential.

The subsequent story, with its major turns in the road, is enormously instructive and has been told in Podhoretz’s own volumes of memoirs and in Thomas L. Jeffers’s fine Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Despite Podhoretz’s early critical radicalism, there were other factors that retarded and ultimately reversed his leftward movement: poor but pious parents, the Jewish Seminary influence, the traditionalism of the Columbia great-books curriculum, the personal influence of Trilling, the three years in England under the notoriously demanding, imposing, non-Marxist, even puritanical moralist Leavis, a voluntary spell in the U.S. Army in Germany in the mid-1950s, and marriage to a divorced woman with two small children. Even in his leftist days, Podhoretz refused to adopt the abusive employment of the word “bourgeois.”

Perhaps Podhoretz’s most prescient and profound early critical insight was his sharp analysis and negative estimate of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the “Beat” movement in poetry and prose. He published it as “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” in the avant-garde but mandarin and anti-Communist Partisan Review in 1958 and reprinted it in his essay collection Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing (1964). Ginsberg and Kerouac had been ahead of Podhoretz at Columbia, and he knew them, even finding the handsome, athletic, but personally unassuming Kerouac an appealing personality. But he thought both of them were appallingly bad, anti-intellectual writers, and he said so. Having been the student of the nonreligious moralist critics Trilling and Leavis, both of them advocates to some degree of modernist writers such as Freud, Lawrence, and Joyce, Podhoretz nevertheless found in the raw, spontaneous, willfully anarchic and pornographic sensibility of the Beats something toxic, primitive, and unbelievable. He was eventually to see the same antinomian, nihilistic extremism as inseparable from the personality and writing of the initially far more mainstream Norman Mailer.

As New York City — and college campuses everywhere — from the late ’60s on turned into what the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called a “Coney Island of the Mind,” the New Yorker Podhoretz — a son, a husband, a father to a growing family, a man with a “bourgeois” job and career — experienced deepening revulsion at the radical sexual, social, political, and literary extremism of the “know-nothing bohemians.” Their aesthetic/ethical style of “upward psychopathic mobility” was a demotic, demonic mix of the nativist narcissism of Walt Whitman (the “barbaric yawp” of “Song of Myself”) and the exotic literary/behavioral immoralism of the French “flowers of evil” — the criminal-as-hero, atheistic/existentialist lineage from Sade through Stendhal and Flaubert to the “accursed ones” (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine), to the rich rentier-pervert André Gide, to the Dadaists and Surrealists, to Sartre and the criminal-pimp-homosexual “Saint,” Jean Genet. A close student of modern literature since the French Revolution, the residually Jewish Podhoretz was the beneficiary and bearer of the earnest moralism of Trilling and Leavis, and of a high academic humanist education in the tradition of the great Matthew Arnold (1822–1888): a privileged education that was also a kind of trust.

Experience on the streets of Brooklyn and in the U.S. Army in postwar Germany, plus a six-week visit to Israel in 1951, had acquainted him with, or reminded him of, the tragedy of 20th-century life and history, from which one could not opt out in a “yellow submarine” of adolescent or aesthetic self-indulgence or simplistic political rage. As Podhoretz’s Chicago Jewish contemporary Saul Bellow, also the child of Eastern European immigrants and brought up during the Depression, was to put it in his novel Herzog (1964): “A merely aesthetic critique of modern history? After the wars and mass killings? You are too intelligent for this! You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.”

In The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (1971), the literary critic Quentin Anderson was to trace the American genealogy of the antinomian bacillus of radical aesthetic “self-expression” and immoralist nihilism to Emerson, Thoreau, and the relentless, bombastic self-promoter Walt Whitman, a prophet of the sexual-social “liberation” resurrected and intensified by Ginsberg, the Beats, and Mailer. Podhoretz reluctantly met with Ginsberg and Kerouac in Greenwich Village at Ginsberg’s request in 1958 after the publication of “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Podhoretz recorded this meeting, and the history of his previous and subsequent relations with Ginsberg, in “At War with Allen Ginsberg,” printed as the first chapter of his superb memoir Ex-Friends (2000). Also containing a chapter entitled “A Foul-Weather Friend to Norman Mailer,” Ex-Friends is a document of significant cultural and literary importance for anyone who would really understand our modern American — and now world-wide — “culture wars.” After several unpleasant hours of intense argument in the Greenwich Village meeting, the angry libertine Ginsberg shouted at the departing and unconverted Podhoretz, “We’ll get you through your children!”

Podhoretz saw the sexual-libertarian Pied Piper Ginsberg, then and for the rest of their lives, as the personification and promoter of an anti-cultural, immoral rage, narcissism, primitivism, and toxic, pan-sexual promiscuity that were lethal not only to the American republic but to the very ideal, and limited reality, of civilization itself: an ideal based on self-restraint, discipline, hard work, maturity, reciprocity, decency, and personal fidelity. Influenced by the Arnoldians Trilling and Leavis, Podhoretz came to appreciate a formulation of the mature George Orwell — himself initially a left-winger who saw value in the writing of the barbaric sexual predator Henry Miller. Podhoretz quoted the painfully earned Natural Law wisdom and uncommon common sense about “common decency” of the mature Orwell against both the aesthetes and the Marxists of the ’30s: “The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive.”

But it was the alleged insincerity and inauthenticity of “the normal decent person” in America that Ginsberg, the other Beats, and Norman Mailer (most prominently and influentially among many other “advanced” intellectuals, writers, and artists) vehemently asserted and assaulted. They made hatred of such an ideal central to their behavioral, literary, and artistic styles and methods. Saul Bellow’s protagonist in his great novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) observes the same hatred of civilization, of moderation, of dignity, of decency, all around him in the swinging, radical New York City of the ’60s: “there is no ethical life and everything is poured . . . barbarously and recklessly into personal gesture.” Traditional “ideas of conduct” — Orwell’s “common decency” — “seemed discredited.” In an exchange with the aged, battered, but civilized Jewish immigrant Sammler, his “liberated” niece says, “I thought everybody was born human.” Sammler replies: “It’s not a natural gift at all. Only the capacity is natural.”

In defending the possibility of being “a normal decent person” against both Marxists/New Leftists (for whom “Amerika” was hopelessly corrupt) and the nihilistic aesthetes (for whom American life was utterly repressive, repressed, and vapid), Podhoretz broke with the political and cultural Lefts (often represented by the same persons) and found himself, like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, avowing religious intuitions, values, and traditions. He also found himself defending the possibilities of life in a republican, democratic, constitutional polity that had achieved unique, extraordinarily high levels of relative peace, freedom, order, and prosperity — even considering the Depression and discrimination against blacks, Jews, and various groups of immigrants — in a century whose other major ideologies and states had signally failed to do so.

Initially ambivalent about his friendship with Norman Mailer, Podhoretz increasingly came to see him as “one of the founding fathers of the radical culture of the sixties,” and, writing in 2000, long after their breach, he said of himself that he had “spent the last thirty years and more trying to make up for and undo the damage I did in cooperation with Mailer” and people like him.

In his own movement back to a religious Judaism, Podhoretz became increasingly appreciative of writers such as William F. Buckley Jr., Richard John Neuhaus, and other Christians and moderates who had retained a global sense of the evils of Communism and the opposite local dangers of a radical, immoralist, egotistical libertinism, especially “the antinomian propaganda Ginsberg had done as much as anyone else to spread.” Partly made repentant, like so many French leftists and aesthetes in the late ’70s, by the noble life and work of Solzhenitsyn, Podhoretz increasingly saw Mailer as pathological: his “hip” existentialist nihilism an excuse for gross hedonism, promiscuity, infidelity, violence (especially toward women), and ludicrous, feckless, histrionic posturing. Though he helped keep Mailer out of jail and a mental hospital after he had stabbed and dangerously wounded one of his six wives, he found Mailer’s transgressive behavior and writing — especially his “wild promiscuity, both in and between marriages,” and his lyrical, sadistic, macho praise of anal rape — increasingly revolting and destructive. Yet “the more outrageously Mailer behaved, the more admiration he brought upon himself from the spreading radical culture of the 1960s.” 

And Podhoretz realized that Ginsberg and Mailer, with the active commercial collusion of Sixth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the radicalized academy, were making good on Ginsberg’s 1958 threat to get at normal people “through [their] children.” The acids of the increasingly vulgar “rock” culture, with massive audio-visual means, eroded family and religious, scholastic, and patriotic affiliations and traditions. The intelligibility, credibility, and value of the American republic of Hamilton (himself a poor immigrant), Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, and millions of immigrants were increasingly opaque and unavailable for transmission or imitation. The new, funky aesthetic of outrageous self-assertion had overshadowed, while assaulting and mocking, the old folk aesthetic that valued and depicted normal distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, worth and nihilism. The antinomian Brahmin Emerson had decisively triumphed over the ethically orthodox Hawthorne; the “barbaric yawp” of the bombastic braggart Whitman over the poetics and poetry of Emily Dickinson and Longfellow; slick, telegenic, amoral politicians over the sturdy Truman and Eisenhower. And Ginsberg and Mailer and their epigones were triumphing over the traditional high literature of the English language that had been so reverently valued by Trilling and Leavis at Columbia and Cambridge, along with what John Erskine, and Trilling following him, called “the moral obligation to be intelligent.”

A great culture even in its desuetude retains the capacity for self-renewal from its “saving remnant,” as Matthew Arnold wisely put it, adapting an ancient Hebraic concept. Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, the Mandelstams, and the other great dissident writers led such a renewal for Russia; Bernanos, Claudel, Mauriac, and Malraux in literature, Maritain, Gilson, and Raymond Aron in philosophy, and de Gaulle in politics for France; Silone in literature, Salvemini in history, and Sturzo and de Gasperi in politics for Italy; Czeslaw Milosz and Karol Wojtyla for Poland. In this kind of noble and enviable company Norman Podhoretz, like his contemporaries Saul Bellow and William F. Buckley Jr., has a well-deserved place.

— M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. His essay on Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, The Big Empty and a Silver Voice,” appeared in National Review, April 7, 2008. Ignatius Press recently published his new edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.







M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) has written for National Review since 1984 and has taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. His father, Adrien R. Aeschliman, saw frontline combat against the Japanese in 1944–45 in New Guinea and the Philippines in the 32nd Infantry Division, one of the most battle-hardened divisions of the U.S. Army in any theater of operations in World War II.


The Latest