Culture

Norman Podhoretz, Still a Dazzling Success

Podhoretz in a 2013 interview (Image: Hoover Institution via YouTube)
His memoir, 50 years on, remains one of the liveliest and most important books on our national obsession: ‘making it.’

‘Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly wrote in 1938, “they first call promising.” If that is true, Norman Podhoretz is that rarest of Greek myths: a mortal who evades the designs of the gods. For his writerly career is ending as it began: with acclaim. The New York Review of Books’ Classics series has just reissued Podhoretz’s Making It, to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary.

Making It is the story of how Podhoretz, a “filthy little slum child” from a Jewish enclave in Brooklyn, became a literary sensation in Manhattan — the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan being “one of the longest journeys in the world,” Podhoretz writes in the famous opening sentence — and a member of the exclusive New York intellectual circle that included Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, and a number of (equally noteworthy) others. But as Podhoretz himself admits, the book is “not an autobiography in the usual sense,” nor is it an unqualified “success story.”

As Podhoretz observes, success is a confused matter in America. “On the one hand,” he writes, “our culture teaches us to shape our lives in accordance with the hunger for worldly things; on the other hand, it spitefully contrives to make us ashamed of the presence of those hungers in ourselves and to deprive us as far as possible of any pleasure in their satisfaction.” Here is the double-edged sword of the Protestant work ethic. The purpose of Making It, then, is “to describe certain fine-print conditions that are attached to the successful accomplishment of what the sociologists call ‘upward mobility’ in so heterogeneous a society as our own.”

Podhoretz is a self-professed glutton for literary eminence. He was, he says, “driven by an ambition for fame which . . . was self-acknowledged, unashamed, and altogether uninhibited.” Among the unwritten clauses in his vocational contract is a sensitivity regarding class. Although he does not realize it at the time, his first introduction to the many strata into which American society is divided comes courtesy of a high-school teacher who takes upon herself the burden of equipping him for a life beyond Brooklyn. Mrs. K “was saying that because I was a talented boy, a better class of people stood ready to admit me into their ranks,” he writes. “But only on one condition: I had to signify by my general deportment that I acknowledged them as superior to the class of people among whom I was born. That was the bargain — take it or leave it.”

The same bargain dictates the conduct of that intellectual set that Podhoretz calls “the family” — a label he chooses because “these were people who by virtue of their tastes, ideas, and general concerns found themselves stuck with one another against the rest of the world whether they liked it or not (and most did not), preoccupied with one another to the point of obsession, and intense in their attachments and hostilities as only a family is capable of being.” Podhoretz outlines a “family tree” of three generations: a founding generation that included Trilling, Sidney Hook, and Philip Rahv; a second generation, a decade or so younger, that included McCarthy, Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol; and Podhoretz’s own, third, generation, born a decade later still.

This was heady company, to which Podhoretz was granted entree in his early twenties, having glided through undergraduate studies at Columbia University and graduate studies at Clare College, Cambridge. Invited to contribute to the family’s main organ, the tiny, influential, and staunchly “highbrow” Partisan Review — and also, in an unheard-of straddling of literary worlds, to the “middlebrow” New Yorker — he elicited admiration, envy, and, finally, invitations to the dinners and cocktail parties where “family” members drank copiously, gossiped (invariably about one another), and fought (often bitterly) about issues literary, political, and otherwise.

But if the family’s influence was significant, it was in no small part because of an intense feeling of alienation: “They did not feel that they belonged to America or that America belonged to them.” It is for this reason that the family’s prose style, although full of “verve, vitality, wit, texture, and brilliance,” also tended to be “overly assertive or overly lyrical or overly refined or overly clever.” This feeling had any number of causes: their Jewishness, their status as immigrants or the children of immigrants, their leftist politics, their aesthetic sensibilities, etc. But it ensured that the family was acutely sensitive to the costs of social advancement in post-war America, the most obvious of which was the tradeoff Mrs. K had demanded of Podhoretz: In exchange for a place among a “better class of people,” become a “facsimile WASP.”

Readers who know Podhoretz from his tenure at Commentary magazine (a post he took up in 1960, at the age of 30, and resigned only in 1995) might be startled to find in Making It a different Podhoretz, politically, than the one with whom they grew up. In his frustration with the excesses of the radicals of the 1960s, one glimpses the conservative who is on the horizon, but in 1967, Podhoretz was still a man of the Left. (Any notion of an intellectually robust conservatism seems to have been beyond the bounds of Podhoretz’s consciousness in that era.) Yet if there is no version of a “family” today, it is in part because the country is politically balanced between conservatism and liberalism, both broadly understood, and that is due in no small part to Podhoretz and the neoconservatism that would become the hallmark of Commentary in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is much more that could be said about Making It. As a work of history, it chronicles the moment between World War II and the radicalism of the late ’60s and ’70s — the moment when the tensions intrinsic to America’s pluralistic promise begin to emerge into popular consciousness. As a work of sociology, it’s surely one of the most important books any American has produced on what William James called “the bitch-goddess SUCCESS,” the national worship of whom “is our national disease.” As a meditation on writing, there are digressions that an aspirant to the craft would do well to consider.

But Podhoretz began his literary career as a critic of novels, in the tradition of the great Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis, and since much of Making It is devoted to the question of critical judgment, it is in the Podhoretzian tradition to make at least some pronouncement on Making It as a work of literature, since it is. Here goes: This is not a book distracted by humility. It’s sure-footed and knife-sharp. (Only a supremely self-confident author would conclude by comparing himself favorably to Norman Mailer.) Podhoretz knew he was good, and he was not afraid to say it; his anxiety, like that of any successful writer, came from not knowing precisely how good.

After 50 years and multiple readings, Making It continues to dazzle. That’s pretty damn good.

Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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