Moving On Up

Making It Norman Podhoretz. HarperCollins (paper). Paperback.

When Making It was first published in 1967, it ripped through the airless parlor of American letters like a great belch. The man responsible, the literary critic Norman Podhoretz, sat smirking with relish at the revolting thing he'd just done. At the time, he was the editor of Commentary, the magazine that, along with Partisan Review, had published many of the midcentury writers who came to be known as the New York Intellectuals, so he'd had a private view of their jousting egos and venomous political squabbles. Making It pried all this open. It electrified the previously staid public reputations of Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt—"the family," as Podhoretz called them. And like all families, this one was shot through with acrid resentments and a neurotically impacted sense of pride. "These were people who by virtue of their tastes, ideas, and general concerns," Podhoretz wrote, "found themselves stuck with one another against the rest of the world whether they liked it or not (and most did not)."

It's no shock that alienation—that stance "against the rest of the world"—would be the ultimate virtue for these highbrow, leftist, (mostly) Jewish writers orienting themselves toward the twin poles of modernism and Marx. These were people born on the margins; they had helped make alienation something to cling to and prize. It offered a rebuke to the banalities of the middlebrow and the hypocrisies of the middle class. But Making It was a book about how to become famous, how to move past alienation, reject rejection, and achieve that most succulent oxymoron: literary celebrity. Ambition, Podhoretz claimed, was to the New York Intellectuals what sex was to the Victorians. It was the family's "dirty little secret," the worldly lust that throbbed beneath the erudite carapace. Intellectuals, then (and this was Podhoretz's unforgivable provocation), were just like the rest of us: panting, groping creatures with a hunger to be lauded and envied and paraded around. They loved to be exhibited and hated to be exposed.

Podhoretz would expose them. His memoir, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, scampers along, taking devilish pleasure in its violation of taboo. The Rahvs, if we didn't already know, were heavy drinkers; so was Elizabeth Hardwick. Saul Bellow was a rabid, prideful lunatic, Hannah Arendt could be cruel and pompous, and Edmund Wilson was too fustily Anglo-Saxon to truly be welcomed as one of the family. (He was lacking in the alienation department.) Podhoretz, of course, emerges as the book's true subject. Free of the shame that hinders his cohort, he is our Ulysses, braving the choppy waves of literary pretension, guided only by his wits. "Let me introduce myself," he begins. "I am a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure." Money, power, fame—words rarely uttered aloud by the luftmenschenof the Upper West Side—were, it turned out, preferable to poverty, weakness, and obscurity. Making It is a kind of bildungsroman of the tweedy set, as our hero charts his ascendance through the warped strata of the American class system, going from preposterously smart Brooklyn kid to respected critic and public intellectual.

To join the ranks of the intelligentsia, he first has to capitulate to its creed. He encounters it as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 1940s, where he's Trilling's star student. His classmates are appalled by his open ambition, his gauche, striving brilliance: "I responded with puzzlement to the discovery first forced upon me in college that something which might be called a gospel of anti-success, or even a cult of failure, held as powerful a sway over the spoken attitudes, if not always the behavior, of educated Americans." To his surprise, he finds (after getting a Fulbright) that this isn't quite the case at dowdy old Cambridge, where class distinctions are so ossified, the social structure so frigidly immovable, that little can be gained—or lost—by manners. It's there that he kneels at the feet of legendary critic F. R. Leavis and publishes his first essay in Leavis's journal, Scrutiny. But when Podhoretz returns to New York and starts writing for Commentary and Partisan Review, he turns out to be eerily adept at the psychic contortion the family demands. Ambition is vile, he learns, so if you've got it, conceal it—even from yourself.

Norman Podhoretz at the Commentary offices, early 1960s. Gert Berliner.

Better to be aloof! Better to adopt the sighing aspect of stately disinterest. This attitude, which went so much against the instincts of our scrappy arriviste, would not prevail forever. The manners of the late-'50s literati were already being blasted and shifted by eruptions in the social landscape: the (vexed) arrival of middle-class Jews at mainstream acceptance, the revving engines of the counterculture, and the intensification of the Cold War. That last would have traumatic political consequences for the family, whose members were forced to rattle between two positions: anti-Communism and anti-anti-Communism. McCarthyism, at that point terrorizing the intelligentsia, was excused by some of the family's most strident former Marxists (Sidney Hook chief among them). These people who'd once been embedded in the American Communist Party were so horrified by its Stalinist orthodoxy and clenched control that they accepted the tyranny that was apparently necessary to stamp it out. For a brief period, Podhoretz himself tilted toward the latter camp, a fact that he laments in this book. But the error is revealing. It foretells a vicious rift. The time had come for a branch of the family (once marginalized Jews and unkempt bohemians) to slough off their alienation and align themselves with America—with its values, its riches, and its rampaging military might.

So the drumbeat behind Making It, the thing that grounds and propels it, is Podhoretz's political development. (Evolution is not quite the word.) Today, of course, he's best known as an early advocate of neoconservatism, the intellectual tendency that emerged from the '60s Left and would reach its most triumphant expression in the foreign policy of George W. Bush. Neocons take their founding father to be Irving Kristol, erstwhile member of the family (and onetime Trotskyist), who, as the editor of the Public Interest, openly reviled the excesses of the '60s generation and, with a magisterial harrumph, pledged himself against everything that seemed to track dirt across the white, vacuumed carpet of the public sphere. Black power was a horror; feminism spelled doom. And crucially, the United States had a duty to patrol and discipline the planet, blotting out its ideological adversaries in Vietnam. (A second generation of neocons would apply that principle to Iraq.) Here was a striking new role for the intellectuals of the family: not challenging power—in fact, not even apologizing for it—but affirming it with all the brio and vitriol that had once been used to incite revolt. (Podhoretz followed Making It with two other memoirs, Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends.) These were scholars, literary critics, men of letters: For decades, they would flatter their rightist comrades by slathering their biases with a kind of bookish polish.

Making It, though, was written when Podhoretz was still a liberal. (He had already passed through and renounced his radical phase.) To read his memoir half a century later is therefore to inspect it, hunt for clues, try to root out the hatching reactionary. What light do these cultural attitudes, literary tastes, and minuscule distinctions in manners and mores shed on, say, Podhoretz's later call to bomb Iran? Might his contempt for the curlicues of etiquette help make sense of his eventual support for Sarah Palin? Podhoretz meant to expose what he saw as the baroque involutions and life-denying silliness of the intellectual. In doing so he began to champion hierarchy, competition, and dominance—a shift in sensibility that would later freeze into a politics. And for all his impatience with the rebellious, self-congratulatory gestures and excesses of the '60s—a feeling that soaks the latter half of Making It—Podhoretz fancies himself a renegade. He revels in the moral prestige of truth-telling mutiny. His prose is spritely and sharp; he cackles at his own insouciance. Yet his is a reactionary iconoclasm, like some bad reading of Nietzsche that's determined to cast leftist critique not as the struggle for justice but as sniveling ressentiment.

A telling anecdote appears in the last chapter. After a bitter fight with James Baldwin (who sold "Letter from a Region in My Mind" to the New Yorker although it had been commissioned by Commentary), Podhoretz condemns him histrionically to anyone who will listen. But the family seems to have a limitless, smiling patience for Baldwin—he is, after all, a Negro. His rudeness is to be forgiven. Podhoretz is livid, bursting with hatred for what he takes to be the cynical scruples of the Left. In a face-to-face confrontation with Baldwin, he fumes at the idea that he, a Jew, should feel any sympathy for the Negroes—especially after having grown up with them in Brooklyn, where they terrorized him as a kid. "My Negro Problem—and Ours," the 1963 essay that sprang weed-like from this encounter, was soon published in Commentary, and it is one of the strangest, most tortured writings on race I've ever read: driven by a furious, misguided intelligence and the laughable conceit that Podhoretz, as someone who really knew Negroes, was well placed to poke holes in the shallow compassion that prevailed among his milieu. Naturally he was castigated by the press—and naturally that made him very famous. The whole incident is recounted in Making It with a giddy naughtiness, a taunting puerility, and an evident conviction that male petulance is what it will take to critique and redeem our political order. Little surprise, then, that the book ends with a toast to Norman Mailer—or that last September, Podhoretz endorsed Donald Trump.

Tobi Haslett's work has appeared in n+1, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He is a doctoral student in English at Yale University.