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A review of Norman Podhoretz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers
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Walking in the woods near his country house one night in January 1970, Norman Podhoretz had an epiphany. Against the evening sky, he later recalled, he saw “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.” Podhoretz compared his vision to a verse by the seventeenth-century English poet Henry Vaughan that began, “I saw eternity the other night.”
Just turned forty, Podhoretz was completing his first decade as the editor of the prestigious liberal monthly Commentary. By all appearances, he was still a liberal Democrat and a secularist, not exactly the type to undergo a quasi-religious experience. Though educated in the essential Hebrew and Jewish texts, he was not particularly drawn to synagogue Judaism or to political Zionism. But now, according to his own testimony, he recognized that Judaism was “true” and that it provided a profound moral guide for life—not the ritualistic Judaism of the Talmud, but civilizational Judaism and the structure of natural law as revealed in the Bible. Somewhat ruefully, Podhoretz also concluded that there was no lasting value to the radical doctrines he had flirted with throughout most of the 1960s.
This is just one of many fascinating episodes, political and personal, to be found in the lively new biography of Podhoretz by Thomas Jeffers, a professor of literature at Marquette University. As background to that visionary moment in upstate New York, Jeffers shows that throughout that winter of 1969–1970 Podhoretz was gripped by a sense of turmoil and unusual self-doubt. He was still smarting from the near-unanimous negative reviews (some mocking the author personally) that his book Making It had received two years earlier. The most hurtful notices were written by erstwhile friends such as Norman Mailer, who had read the book in galleys, praised it in a private letter to Podhoretz, and written a twenty-six page put-down of the book in Partisan Review.
In this winter of his discontent, Podhoretz also found himself blocked on his next book project, a cultural and political history of the 1960s. More unsettling still were the nagging second thoughts he was having about the fashionable radicalism he had promoted in the pages of his own magazine. The infatuation of liberal New York intellectuals with the New Left had gone over the top, Podhoretz could now see clearly. But breaking completely with the Left and renouncing his own indulgent liberalism, he also realized, would inevitably mean another unpleasant confrontation with many of his remaining friends.
Jeffers believes that Podhoretz’s spiritual awakening pushed him finally to make that total political break with the Left and shows how it led to one of the most dramatic moments in U.S. and Jewish-American history of the last half-century. Using Commentary as a wedge, Podhoretz went on the political offensive against the New Left and the 1960s counterculture. He started out with no blueprint or long-term plan of action, but within a few years he managed to reinvent Commentary as the main literary and political force shaping the counter-countercultural movement that eventually came to be known as neoconservatism.
I always assumed that Podhoretz had already revealed everything there was to know about this break and the impact it had on his social relationships. After all, he put it all on the line in two brutally honest memoirs—Breaking Ranks (1979) and Ex-Friends (1999), plus an addendum or two in My Love Affair with America (2000). But Jeffers’s biography also succeeds in painting Podhoretz’s political apostasy as part of a larger cultural canvas. In some respects it’s a classic American-Jewish immigrant narrative, a real life story that could have been the raw material for a Saul Bellow novel in two parts: the first called The Adventures of Norman Podhoretz, about an ambitious young man from the tough streets of Brooklyn making it in the city of bright lights across the river, and, second, Mr. Podhoretz’s Planet, about the protagonist’s discovery of the darker side of the glittering but insular 1960s literary world confined to a few square miles of the island of Manhattan.
In the beginning, before the nasty political warfare began, there was just the very young Norman Podhoretz and “the Family.” Not his biological family, but rather that group of New York intellectuals, most of them Jewish ex-Marxists, who remained leftist in politics, modernist in literary tastes, and, more often than not, reviewed each other’s books in highbrow magazines such as Partisan Review, The New Leader, and Commentary. Podhoretz was, without question, the Family’s wunderkind; the adjectives used to describe him were “precocious,” “gifted,” and “brash.”
Podhoretz’s parents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in America poor and remained so throughout their lives. During the Depression, Norman’s father drove a horse-drawn wagon, delivering milk door-to-door. Podhoretz grew up street-smart in the tough neighborhood of Brownsville, graduated at the age of sixteen at the top of his class at Boys’ High School, and landed a generous scholarship to Columbia University. Within two years he was the prize student of one of Columbia’s most famous professors, the literary critic Lionel Trilling. With Trilling’s support, Podhoretz won the prestigious Kellett fellowship to Cambridge University, where he soon came under the tutelage of England’s preeminent literary critic, F. R. Leavis. A year after arriving at Cambridge, Podhoretz was invited to contribute to Scrutiny, the famous quarterly edited by Leavis—which he did with a review of Trilling’s new book of essays, The Liberal Imagination.
In the summer of 1951, Podhoretz took a break from his studies to travel in Greece and Israel. He wrote a long letter to Trilling offering his impressions. Of Israel, the twenty-one year old reported
I became very depressed over a demoralized population, and finally went away a sadder and wiser man, with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth and a sense of having been strangely dispossessed. I felt more at home in Athens! They are, despite their really extraordinary achievements, a very unattractive people, the Israelis.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Zionist project, but Trilling passed the letter on to Elliot Cohen, the founding editor of Commentary, the high-toned monthly magazine launched in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Trilling suggested that his young protégé be asked to write for the magazine. (In fact, Trilling had been Cohen’s protégé in the 1930s.) And so it was that Podhoretz launched his career as a literary and cultural critic with a review in Commentary of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. He followed that up by panning Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. (Bellow never really forgave the cheeky young man.) The audacity of that review created a stir within the Family and led to assignments from Partisan Review and
After a two-year stint in the U.S. Armed Forces, Podhoretz went to work for Commentary as one of Elliot Cohen’s junior editors. Like almost all the members of the Family, Podhoretz was reflexively anti-Communist. But he had little interest in politics in general—in part because he accepted the fashionable idea that the great political and ideological debates of the 1930s had been settled. His true passion was the Republic of Letters and he continued to hone his craft as a critic with a series of New Yorker reviews on important contemporary writers, such as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, William Golding, and C. P. Snow. (Some of his colleagues thought he might eventually eclipse the New Yorker’s legendary critic Edmund Wilson.)
In 1959, the brilliant but troubled Cohen unexpectedly committed suicide. After a six-month search, the AJC’s publication committee offered the editor’s job to Podhoretz at the then-munificent salary of $17,000 and the promise of a “free hand” to shake up the magazine. The Committee elders were undoubtedly aware that choosing a writer under thirty, however precocious, to run their prized publication was a high-risk venture. They could not have imagined that over the next quarter-century this headstrong young man would boost Commentary’s reputation and readership and also lead the magazine through a turbulent, history-making, intellectual rollercoaster ride.
Almost immediately, Podhoretz began consciously moving Commentary politically and culturally to the left. It was the dawn of a new, hopeful decade in America. A noble civil-rights movement was forming and demanded attention. There was the prospective election of a young president promising radical reform to get the country moving again. On the campuses, the young were stirring after a decade of political quietude. Even the ideological certitudes of anti-Communism and the grim necessity of fighting the Cold War were now subject to necessary revision as a supposedly reformist leadership emerged in the Soviet Union. Podhoretz sensed that the country was on the cusp of big cultural and political changes, and he wanted Commentary to be at the center of the action.
Even as he had interviewed for the editor’s position, Podhoretz hid doubts that this was the right career move for him. It meant giving up his first intellectual love and ambition—his quest to be a serious (and seriously respected) literary critic. And what was he really getting in return? One of his good friends, the publisher Jason Epstein, warned him not to take the job, that Commentary was “finished, played out.” But as he put his own literary pursuits on hold, Podhoretz saw that he could reinvigorate the magazine as a cultural and political force. He got rid of the old editorial staff and manuscripts held over from the Cohen regime and went out looking for younger, risk-taking, non-academic writers in touch with the emerging zeitgeist of the 1960s.
In his first three issues, Podhoretz signaled his intention by serializing Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, which then went on to become a bestseller. Although it was one of the most overrated books of the 1960s, at the time, Goodman’s inchoate blend of anarchism, pacifism, and utopian socialism, attached to his romantic plan for a liberatory education, perfectly foreshadowed the coming sexual and cultural revolutions. Some of the staid old contributors to Commentary, as well as many middle-of-the-road readers, were puzzled. They hadn’t seen anything yet. Podhoretz followed up by introducing his readers to writers such as Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, the young Susan Sontag, and the radical Columbia University historian Staughton Lynd, who argued that the Cold War was more the fault of the conservative American political establishment than Joe Stalin. As Jeffers reminds us, Podhoretz’s new Commentary also rallied intellectual opposition to the Vietnam War, though it stopped short of joining the New Left in rooting for an American defeat.
The turn to the left was certainly good for the bottom line, and Commentary’s paid circulation tripled within five years. Contrary to Jason Epstein’s prediction, the magazine also reclaimed its reputation as a “hot book,” while its new young editor achieved instant celebrity in Gotham’s literary salons and some of its saloons.
At the age of twenty-six, Podhoretz had married Midge Decter, a recently divorced mother of two young girls and a gifted writer and editor in her own right. Despite their busy day jobs, Podhoretz and Decter became regulars on the Family’s social circuit. They dined out regularly with Jason Epstein, went to Hannah Arendt’s famous New Year’s Eve parties, and counted even the neo-Stalinist playwright Lillian Hellman among their friends. Podhoretz and Norman Mailer, the other Jewish literary Norman from the tough streets of Brooklyn, became fast friends and drinking buddies. So “in” were Podhoretz and Decter that when Jacqueline Kennedy moved to New York after her husband’s assassination and wanted to be introduced to the New York intellectual scene, the ex-White House staffer Richard Goodwin asked Norman and Midge to host a dinner party for “the widow” at their large Upper West Side apartment.
But the Family’s extended Camelot couldn’t last. By 1968, Podhoretz found himself shivering rather than celebrating over the faux revolutionary eruptions at Columbia University and the Chicago Democratic Convention. He was dismayed by the increasingly violent, anti-American rhetoric of the student New Left. He was even more outraged by the spectacle of the intellectually respectable New York Review of Books, founded by his old friend Jason Epstein, adorning its cover with a diagram for a Molotov cocktail and running a paean to black rioters burning down their own neighborhoods in cities all across America.
In the late 1960s, Commentary began fighting back against what seemed like momentary aberrations amongst the New York intellectuals. The magazine was still trying to save all that was best in left-liberalism and the Democratic Party’s internationalist and New Deal traditions from the New Left’s corrosive anti-Americanism. Podhoretz also rejected any suggestion that his magazine had turned politically “conservative.” If questioned about his politics, he called himself a “left-wing liberal.” It was not until the Democrats nominated George McGovern in 1972 that Podhoretz could bring himself to cast a vote for a Republican presidential candidate.
It was his January 1970 conversion experience that helped Podhoretz to observe, “I had not yet dropped the other shoe. I was still writing from the inside. . . . I was at a [political] way station, among the crowd of social democrats.” Podhoretz was not the only member of the Family to register principled opposition to the “radical chic” coddling of black revolutionaries by some of New York’s intellectual luminaries. Among those who spoke out and incurred the wrath of the younger 1960s radicals were liberals and social democrats such as Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. But Podhoretz alone had reluctantly concluded that it was now impossible to reconstruct a “decent Left” and that he had to summon the courage to go into opposition to the very idea of the left. It meant crossing a “red line” that even critical public intellectuals like Howe and Kazin would never allow themselves to contemplate. It meant uttering the words, “I am a conservative” or, even worse, “I am a Republican”—words that children from New York Jewish immigrant families were taught almost from the cradle were the moral equivalent of “forgetting Jerusalem.”
When Podhoretz finally crossed that red line by launching the second political reincarnation of Commentary, he guaranteed that he would become the target of a nasty and often personal counterattack from both the decent and not-so-decent left. Even steadfast old Commentary writers and allies such as Theodore Draper, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell (hardly known as liberals) could not forgive him for taking the magazine to the dark side of the political divide. The New York Times and other supposedly apolitical publications stopped asking him to review books. His own books were universally savaged in what seemed like a coordinated literary counter-
But what were the essential principles of Podhoretz’s new “political line” that could not be compromised, that made it worth losing practically all of his former friends? In my view, it was not the question of whether Podhoretz was a registered Democrat or Republican. It was, rather, the idea that the United States and its essential ally Israel were the two great beacons of freedom and decency in an increasingly dangerous world and that these two resilient democracies were worth defending—indeed, that all people calling themselves democrats with a small d should be defending. That was the rallying call behind many of the politically influential articles published by the new “neoconservative” Commentary, starting with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s classic 1975 essay “The United States in Opposition.” Shaped by Podhoretz, the article led directly to President Nixon’s appointment of Moynihan as America’s ambassador to the United Nations. Moynihan didn’t serve for very long, but he was there long enough to give his equally historic speech (written by Podhoretz) blasting the organization for its infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution.
There’s a wonderful irony in Podhoretz’s emergence as our leading defender of America and Israel. As he often joked, he grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where “there were no Americans,” only Jews and blacks and Italians and Irishmen. Nor did he evince much filial feeling for the emerging state of Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s. But by the 1970s it became clear that America and Israel were both being targeted for defeat by the most malignant ideologies in the world. Therefore it was a question of honor to defend these two countries with all the eloquence and political skill that Podhoretz could muster. This was the powerful core idea he brought to neoconservatism, to the “party of liberty.” That is why so many radical and even liberal American intellectuals will never forgive his apostasy. And it is also why I, as a former New Leftist who also came to see that it was a moral obligation to defend America and Israel, honor the writer who courageously blazed the trail.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 September 2010, on page 57
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