My Podhoretz Problem – And Ours

Part I

What makes the essay below stand out, for me, is its dishonesty.

I hadn’t ever written anything dishonest—not anything I knew was dishonest. I had written plenty of things that were embarrassing; things that, when I read them later, revealed my pretentiousness, or tediousness, or tendency to try too hard. As a reviewer and a biographer, I had written things that tread gently, particularly when I wished to spare someone’s feelings; but I thought of that as tact.

Norman Podhoretz made me lie.

I first became interested in him when I was working on my biography of Susan Sontag. When they were young, he and Sontag had briefly overlapped at Commentary  magazine. Later, he wrote about them both as the leading figures in the “third generation” of what he called the Family, the mainly Jewish dynasty that dominated intellectual life in New York in the twentieth century. As I dug into Sontag’s life, I became interested in the contrast between these two figures: she became a symbol of the radical left; he, of the reactionary right.

I was eager to hear his account of how their paths diverged. But it was not easy to talk to Podhoretz. Several times, through his publishers, he rebuffed my advances. I finally sent him my biography of Clarice Lispector, thinking that he might find it interesting. That seemed to do the trick; he invited me to his apartment.

I was excited. I had never met anyone quite like him. Where I grew up, the idea of a Jewish Republican seemed impossible. And as I grew older, the causes he supported seemed more and more reprehensible. But one pleasure of writing biographies is—dare I say—touristic. It is the opportunity to meet people one would never meet otherwise.

When I walked into his apartment, I was surprised, first of all, by the bookshelves. The room was lined with the same books that would be found in any other 80-something Jewish intellectual’s apartment. Here, though, the canon of English and American literature was hard to square with the pictures of George Bush leaning against them.

And when Podhoretz started to talk, I was astonished by his learnedness. Again, this was not something I associated with supporters of Sarah Palin. The things he said about the milieu in which he and Sontag had come of age fascinated me. He spoke of their generation’s changing relationship toward Communism, Judaism, liberalism, conservatism, Americanism; he spoke of his personal relationships to figures like Sontag, Mailer, and Ginsberg. I had been working on my book for a couple of years, and I had not heard this from anyone else.

I instantly wanted to read the succès de scandale to which he alluded several times: Making It. He told me how it had destroyed his relationship with the intellectual world, and how people in New York, for months, had spoken of little else. When I left, I ordered an old copy online, and I raced through it, riveted by its combination of brilliance (about other people) and cluelessness (about himself).

As soon as I finished it, I contacted Edwin Frank, the publisher of New York Review Classics. He must reissue it, I said. This was prankish of me. The New York Review of Books was the citadel from which Podhoretz had been exiled—partly as a result of this very same book.

Edwin was bemused. But once he read it, he agreed.

“Not a good book, but a phenomenon,” he wrote me.

“Exactly,” I said.

*

I agreed to contribute an introduction: the essay that follows. It was hard to write. As a liberal Democrat, I did not want to make a case for a person whose positions, from support of Israeli settlements to his full-throated enthusiasm for the Iraq War, were so opposite to my own—so stupid.

But Podhoretz was not stupid. If only for historical reasons, his positions deserved a hearing. Neo-conservatism was one of the most consequential political movements of his generation—and, as the conflicts in the Middle East demonstrated, of mine. How had it come about?

I tried to acknowledge the differences between us in the beginning of the essay. I was trying to be a good sport. In this book, Podhoretz writes at length about class; and I realised, while writing about it, that my attempt at sportsmanship betrays my own class background. Much of my upbringing concerned learning how to be polite.

Still, I hoped the conflict I felt when writing about him would not be visible to others—especially not to him. I was not writing a review, where I was free to say what I thought; I was writing a preface to his book, which meant that he would have to sign off on it. I tried to explain why I thought the book deserved to be read, while suggesting my interest in the book was not an endorsement of its author.

Podhoretz saw through this, of course. He was offended by the opening paragraphs, and angrily rejected the preface.

*

There was a possibility that I could revise it, make it more agreeable. But by that point, Podhoretz’s candidate, Trump, had been elected, and I could no longer mask my disdain for his supporters. I could not water it down any more than I already had, I told Edwin. I was sorry to put him in a difficult position, but I knew that the piece was already dishonest enough.

My sin was not against Podhoretz, but against the historical record. Because I witnessed something astonishing in Podhoretz’s living room. It was something I had not felt free, in my original essay, to mention.

I was not astonished by certain things that made him seem unpleasant or, occasionally, unhinged. He insistently mentioned “homosexuals”, never gays, as if referring to Semites rather than Jews. He spoke sneeringly of the Palestinians—not of individuals, but of the entire people. He brought up a conspiracy theory involving Saul Alinsky that, he suggested, explained Barack Obama’s hatred of America. He mentioned several people who were obsessed with him, including Allen Ginsberg. Without my having asked, he confessed to an extramarital affair.

(The name was famous; he begged me not to print it. I won’t. Less because I promised I wouldn’t—the good sport—than because I suspect he was dropping names.)

He was a conservative. And he was ancient. So I hadn’t expected to agree with him about politics. But the real surprise came when I asked about Sontag’s reaction to the Vietnam War.

Why, I asked, was it not enough for Sontag to oppose the war, as so many people had? Why had she used the occasion to wish hellfire and damnation upon her own country? I myself was on the left, I said, and opposed many government policies, but was perfectly capable of distinguishing between bad politicians and the American people themselves.

In the middle of that question—when I said that I was on the left—Podhoretz changed, though perhaps changed is not really the right word.

Flipped?

Flashed.

The static electricity that filled the room won’t appear in the transcript, but it was only invisible in the way that sexual attraction is invisible, or the internet is invisible. It was impossible to miss.

He mentioned that Sontag told him she was afraid of him because he drank so much. He had not had a drink in 40 years, he told me. But the edgy alcoholic personality was unmistakable. I understood why Sontag was afraid.

*

If I had felt able to write honestly about him—that encounter, that book—I would have written that I loved meeting him. I would have confessed that this surprised me—but that though I liked him in the forbearing way you like a cranky uncle, I sincerely liked him, and admired his intelligence. When I left his apartment, I was excited to read him. And I genuinely liked Making It.

But if I had not been trying to write something of which he would approve, I would have said that the human story at the centre of Making It became poignant because it was never acknowledged. I would have said that I was moved by how he repackaged his insecurity as bravado; and by how, when I met him almost half a century later, his pain at his book’s rejection was still palpable. Making It, after all, is about someone who longs to be loved.

And then I would have written about that alcoholic rage.

It seemed to solve the great mystery in the book, one I couldn’t get out of my mind. How could the man in its pages, who loved poetry, who was so aware of the injustices of class, end up supporting Donald Trump?

This was not a move from youthful radicalism to middle-aged moderation—a path that many travelled, including Sontag. No one from their world became a Republican. There is a reason why so few intellectuals are Republicans, and that is because the Republican Party is the heir to the anti-intellectual tradition in American life. It is the party of know-nothingism, of religious fanaticism, of people who don’t “believe in” global warming and evolution. The Republicans were dedicated to whipping up hatred (“social issues”) in the service of oligarchy (“tax relief”).

How could the protagonist of Making It find himself among such people?

*

In Making It, Podhoretz writes that education separated him, irrevocably, from his family. But the ticket from Brooklyn to Manhattan involved more than acquiring an appreciation of Cézanne. It displaced him—made him a foreigner, a stranger—gave him a nervousness, a feeling of fraudulence, a nagging fear of exposure.

We can imagine his insecurity at a party full of fancy people, his fatigue after a long day of high culture. We can see him taking the edge off with a Chardonnay or a whisky, and then working up the nerve to write this book. We can feel his horror and embarrassment when that bold, flawed book was rejected in his new milieu. After painstakingly replacing the self he acquired from family and class, he would need a crutch when the people to whom he had assimilated started laughing at him.

Up to this point, the story of the frustrated parvenu was common enough. (Vide infra Epstein: “Balzac should have written it, about someone else.”)

What made the story different was Podhoretz’s response. He reinvented himself a second time. For his adoptive family—the Family—he was dispensable. New York never suffered from an undersupply of leftist Jewish intellectuals.

But how different it was on the right! Conservatives had no one like him, and loved him. For a person like the author of Making It, this love was impossible to forego. For its sake, he cheered on racism, nationalism, and homophobia; he helped launch wars with lies.

*

The intelligence I saw in Podhoretz’s apartment was real. The anger I saw was even more real. It was such a specific brand of anger: a low-voltage buzz set off by a hair trigger. For anyone who has ever been around it, this anger was easy to identify. It was not just anger but alcoholic anger.

Without it, it is hard to imagine how such a sophisticated person could have lent his services to so many evil men and causes. Without understanding how alcoholism perverts personality—makes people angry and mean—it is impossible to understand where that anger came from.

Our modern understanding of addiction and depression is amazingly recent. Most of it dates from the period after the publication of Making It. The misunderstandings were different from the moralism that condemned people who suffered from these addictions and depression. They were different from the well-known stories of doctors who gave speed to plump teenagers, or told stressed patients to chill with a Marlboro.

The misunderstandings had to do with the very existence of certain disorders that today we take for granted, many of which were only discovered in the 1970s or 80s. The first book about adult children of alcoholics—people like Susan Sontag—was published in 1978, by a small press in a small town in Florida. It would be years before its ideas entered the mainstream of psychology and psychotherapy.

Since then, psychologists have deepened their understanding of these ailments. Biographers increasingly examine the effects of drugs and alcohol on individual lives. But it is only very recently that this understanding has been expanded to study the impact of addiction on society: to how, by shaping individuals, drugs and alcohol have shaped history.

Yet history is full of instances of how, in people of great talent or power, individual problems become everybody’s problems. Is it reductive to attribute neo-conservatism to Norman Podhoretz’s drinking problem? Maybe. But drugs are reductive. They reduce people; they reduce personality. Or does this give his ideas too much credit? Maybe. But history is moved by ideas; Podhoretz was a man of ideas. Without his anger, without his ideas, would Republicanism have become what it became?

*

This brings me to my greatest dishonesty.

It starts with a problem familiar to anyone who has tried to love an addict. If one accepts that addiction is a disease, then one confronts the question of where the person stops and the disease begins.

Put another way: if you have asshole disease, does that mean it’s okay for you to be an asshole?

In Podhoretz’s case, the answer is easy. He doubled down on assholery: that long list of shameful causes to which he has lent his intellectual contribution. That is why I shouldn’t have tried so hard to understand, situate, relativise him.

First, because this was a courtesy he so often failed to extend to others; and second, because my wish to understand him—even to appreciate him—reflects a weakness of my own class background.

The cardinal rule, in my generation and country, is to ignore differences: of race, nationality, religion, sexuality, class. We pride ourselves on seeing others for “who they really are”. (Who they really are, in this reading, is unrelated to most of the central aspects of their lives.) We smile politely, and hear people out, and never interrupt, and try not to judge.

It is not just financial security that allows us this view. We derive our idea of tolerance, ultimately, from literature—from those books on Podhoretz’s shelves. Literature awakens empathy, and allows us to see people, especially people unlike ourselves, as individuals.

So we listen, and don’t interrupt.

But this could go too far. It was one thing to listen, or attribute anger to an ugly disease. But why was I, a gay man, trying to make nice with someone who had opposed spending on AIDS research because it would allow gay men “to resume buggering each other with complete medical impunity”?

He literally wanted me to die.

My response was to keep listening, smiling, being polite: acting as if ideas don’t matter. This was the attitude we had seen in a media heavily staffed by people of my background. There, facts—even uncontroversial statistics about the economic output or temperatures—needed to be “balanced” with the propaganda of Podhoretz’s friends. This false equivalency allowed a liar like Donald Trump to blather, mostly unchallenged, on television, all the way to the White House.

So there must be an end to understanding. I needed to learn how to say that Norman Podhoretz was a cruel and disgusting person who fully deserved his ex-friends’ contempt. I should have said that his education and sophistication did not make the support he lends to Republican causes “interesting.” Rather, his intelligence aggravates the offense, and reveals his essential vulgarity. I needed to learn from the great critics who saw their task as hygienic, preventing the infiltration of bad ideas into society: what T. S. Eliot called “the correction of taste”. I should never have become involved with publishing—with “normalising”—Norman Podhoretz. I should have taken ideas seriously enough not to present his with a sardonic smile.

And so, in atonement for that dishonesty, I submit my original essay. I haven’t touched it, even though two words near the end reveal that it was written before the election: when I hoped that the movement for which Podhoretz had offered so much ballast had finally run its wretched course. They date it to a time when I mistakenly thought that this old man could be consigned to that most morally vague category: “interesting.”

It was arrogance that made me write those words. It was a belief that my class had so unquestionably triumphed that I could entertain myself by reading, and by encouraging others to read, about the silly contortions of the also-rans.

I thought I should be polite.

I thought I should listen.

I shouldn’t have.

Part II

Unless you inhabit the farthest fringe of the Republican Party, you will have to forget a lot in order to read this book. You will have to forget that its author “would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama”; that he has “no sympathy—none—for the Palestinians”; and that, even in the wake of the Iraqi calamity, he urged the Bush Administration to extend the campaign to Iran. In other words, you will have to forget everything you think you know about the man Harold Bloom once called Podhorrors.

Actually, don’t. Later, once Podhoretz set up shop as a right-wing eminence, his support of Palin would become a foregone conclusion. But the caricature of the Halloween reactionary is part of what makes this portrait of him as a young man such a revelation. By 37, he had travelled an unimaginable distance: the theme of this book. To remember where the next half-century would take him makes the book more astonishing still. It is hard to imagine that this man would end up supporting Donald Trump.

So much in Making It is hard to imagine today—starting with an author photograph which, on the first edition, showed Podhoretz with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. But to dismiss it as a period piece is as short-sighted as to dismiss Podhoretz as a reactionary. Few books illustrate as well the dangers of the apparently uncontroversial idea that we ought to be able to rise to a place commensurate with our talents. This is the founding ideology of our country: no less than the American dream itself.

What did that dream mean for the son of a Galician milkman in a scummy part of Brooklyn? “I and everyone I knew were stamped as inferior: we were in the lower class.” The brutally insistent italics mark his distance from Horatio Alger—although, as in Alger’s novels, Podhoretz describes the pleasures earned by luck and pluck, and revels in a success that someone of his background had no reason to expect. But he is at his best when describing how the person who remakes himself ends up at home nowhere: alienated.

“My editor at the New Yorker once asked me in the driest possible way whether they had special typewriters in the Partisan Review office with entire words like ‘alienation’ stamped on each key.” But Podhoretz’s alienation was not their intellectual Weltschmertz. He soon realised that for a slum kid to have literary aspirations and rise to the Ivy League meant estrangement from the self: “Sons who grow up into literary success are transformed almost beyond recognition and distanced almost beyond a mother’s reach.”

“A taste for the poetry of Keats and the painting of Cézanne and the music of Mozart” meant nothing less than matricide. “It appals me to think what an immense transformation I had to work on myself in order to become what I have become,” he writes. His awareness of the immensity of the transformation did not stop him from trying to understand it. He was not yet 40 when he wrote this book, but if in some ways it would have been better if he had waited a few years, in other ways it would have been worse. Here, rawness is all.

Another decade might have made him less willing to brag about his brilliance and achievements, his ambition and vanity, with the jaw-dropping frankness that makes Making It so fun to read. Another decade might likewise have sanded down his awareness of class, and blurred the anthropological eye he brought to the new crowd he joined. An earlier critic called them the Family, but it was left to Podhoretz to christen them a Jewish family, and to trace their genealogy from the European ghetto to the American mainstream.

Podhoretz anointed himself the first-born son of that family’s third generation. Like the first-born daughter, Susan Sontag, he aspired to an aristocracy whose writ, in their youth, obtained far beyond the provinces where, in crumbling mansions, its threadbare descendants now linger. “The physical sciences apart, literary criticism in those days was probably the most vital intellectual activity in America, and the most vital branch of literature itself.” Those days were already long gone in 1967, when Podhoretz wrote.

And now? Half a century later? The question is so sadly rhetorical that one cringes to type it. But among the virtues of Making It is the alternative view it offers of American literary history. Who, now, has heard of—much less read—Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Blackmur, Clement Greenberg, Allen Tate? Once devoured by every serious reader in America, most Family eminences are completely forgotten today, their works only surfacing in used bookstores whenever, somewhere on the Upper West Side, an elderly professor expires.

To read Making It is to want to head to those stores, shell out a couple of bucks, and dust off some of those witnesses to “the most vital intellectual activity in America”. For their individual merits, to be sure, but also for the collective view that Podhoretz describes. By the time he crossed the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the Family’s traditional idea of society was already a relic—something to which one paid lip service, but only as one would genuflect before the façade of a church that had been abandoned by its own clergy.

Podhoretz determined to take the wrecking ball to this façade. With Oedipal arrogance and mischievous glee, he determined to reveal the Family’s hypocrisy, to show how their high ideas of literature and culture clashed with the realities of life in America. “Making a living in the academic world has more in common with making a living in the business world than a superficial glance at either would reveal,” he wrote. This was heresy: the tackiness, the unworthiness of the money-grubbers was a central Family dogma.

Yet establishing a contrast between shining art and filthy mammon put young people in an impossible position. Success equalled corruption, but they emerged from college unprepared for the only world that all but the most talented—not to mention lucky—could ever hope to inhabit. They were educated to despise themselves and the way they would have to earn a living. There is unbearable heartbreak in the lives Podhoretz sketches in Making It, of these men—we assume most were men—who had been educated

just as I myself had been, by liberal arts courses in college, by the most advanced literature, and by the prevailing assumptions of what Trilling calls “the Second Environment” to be as unhappy as possible in the only jobs their training fitted them to perform. Their number was and is legion all along Madison Avenue, and every year thousands upon thousands of them would pour forth from the colleges with their B.A.s in English and a pair of starry eyes destined to grow bloodshot before long from three martinis at lunch and another three before taking the IRT or the New York Central at five.

Podhoretz believed they had been betrayed by a needless rivalry: between success (“making it”) and what might be called spiritual authenticity, the higher vision of life they acquired, in school, from literature. He saw a truce emerging, resting “upon the perception that those ancient American enemies, commerce and culture, were on the way to being reconciled by social and economic changes.” And he himself decided, with this book, to point out the contradictions between liberal arts education and reality of the business world.

This was a needed correction. Failure was no more laudable than success was reprehensible. But the disdainful eye the Family cocked at success came from a belief in themselves as a prophylactic against everything rotten in American life, and a calling to protect the culture “from Kitsch, from middlebrowism, from commercialism, from mass culture, from academicism, from populism, from liberalism, from Stalinism”. To aspire to success was to abandon that sacred commitment, and to become exactly like everybody else.

The standards to which they aspired, and which they enforced, were oppressively Olympian. Many were blocked by a feeling that “they must either be Marx or Freud or not be anything at all between the covers of a book.” This was beyond the capacity of most people, who needed to pay the rent. “These kids would simply be left with nothing whatever to do and would inevitably be conscripted into the system as they grew older and punished to boot with a lower annual wage for having once temporarily dropped out.”

Far better, Podhoretz thought, to say that literary success was no more impure than any other success—acquired by work and talent, schmoozing and scheming. This was a shocking thing to say. “It was part of the religion of that world”—of the Family—“that you are indifferent to worldly success,” Podhoretz later said. “You are supposed to be above it and supposed to be contemptuous of it because this philistine bourgeois society would only reward people if they had sold out or had corrupted, compromised their work.”

Today, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it is amazing that Podhoretz’s attitude toward success, however prankishly expressed, was ever controversial. It is even harder to believe that Making It could have been considered so toxic that it catalysed one of the most consequential rifts in American intellectual history. For the past couple of weeks,” Newsweek wrote, “a new subject has replaced Vietnam as the main topic of conversation at New York dinner parties.” That subject was Podhoretz’s book.

People—including many of Podhoretz’s friends—hated it. “He has written a book of no literary distinction whatever, pockmarked by clichés and little mock modesties and a woefully pedestrian tone,” wrote Wilfred Sheed in the Atlantic. “The book could simply be titled ‘America, 1967,’ slickness, shallowness, and the flight from pain and death and art—all in one package.” More succinctly, and more devastatingly, Jason Epstein, who had once been Podhoretz’s best friend, said: “Balzac should have written it, about somebody else.”

The venom would have devastated any writer. But for this writer—who freely confessed his need to be loved, his feeling of slum kid outsiderdom, his pride at fulfilling his “vulgar desire to rise above the class into which I was born”—being sneered at by those he had come to consider his peers was devastating. In order to join the Family, he had turned his back on his family. He had become “a fully acculturated citizen of a country as foreign to [his origins] as China.” And now the new family, the adoptive family, was mocking him.

“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who want to be loved and those who want to be feared,” he said. “I want to be loved, but I sometimes seem to go out of my way to make that difficult, if not impossible.” It may be reductive to trace Podhoretz’s journey Trumpwards from the wound of Making It. But his need for approval was real—as real as the need for a truce between commerce and culture, or for a correction to the ideological overexuberances of the Sixties, such as the enthusiasm for Cuba or North Vietnam.

Did that correction need to extend, decades later, to invading Iraq, expanding Israeli settlements, or embracing Donald Trump? Could even a bit of the old idealism have survived? Podhoretz himself directed his idealism elsewhere; and on the right he was greeted with the enthusiasm churches reserve for unlikely converts. And then the conservative movement ended in the same way that the socialist left ended in the Sixties and Seventies: with internecine warfare, ideological extremism, and electoral irrelevance.

Perhaps a utopian culture towering high above climbing and money-grubbing was doomed. Perhaps, as Podhoretz maintains, it never actually existed. But the vision of it did. And for the uncomfortably gentrified writers and artists of today, Making It recalls the possibility of measuring success with standards other than those that obtain in the business world. It recalls, as well, the idea that commerce and culture might need to be opposed. It recalls a world in which criticism was a calling, and books were worth fighting over.

To liberals, it may seem ironic that such possibilities might be suggested by the writings of Norman Podhoretz. But who better to suggest the possibilities in our lives than someone who has embraced, and then discarded, so many potential selves? Americans have always believed that the stamps of class, culture, and politics are more eradicable than they seem. We can make of ourselves anything we want. That, at least, is the American dream, and the American menace. Here, anything can happen—and usually does.

This essay appears in JQ Summer 2017. Subscribe to read more. 

Featured photo: Commentary‘s editors, from left, Theodore Solotaroff, Marion Magid and Norman Podhoretz in 1966.(Gert Berliner)

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