Something Juicy About Norman

It was in December that Natasha Lehrer made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. In addition to being the JQ’s longtime literary editor—whose legendary powers of persuasion are attested by the distinguished bylines in the current issue–Natasha is an old friend. So when she wrote to ask if I would review a “memoir by Norman Podhoretz, with an intro by Ben Moser,” I said I’d be delighted. Which was almost the truth. I’d been reading Moser’s essays for years with great pleasure—and had admired his biography of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector both as a book and as a work of literary resurrection.

About Podhoretz my feelings were more ambivalent. Though best known these days as the founding father of American neo-Conservatism—and the actual father of John Podhoretz, the current editor of Commentary and a columnist for the New York Post—Podhoretz pere, who is 87, was once a promising young literary man on the make. Indeed Making It, Podhoretz’s candid account of his own progress from the mean streets of Brooklyn’s Brownsville, via Columbia (where he studied with Lionel Trilling) and then, as a Kellett Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge (where he became a protégé of F.R. Leavis)—and of the way personal ambition fuelled not just his own journey, but that of his entire generation of New York Jewish intellectuals –served as both an inspiration and an admonition to succeeding generations of young men on the make.

An inspiration because, both in his own terms and those of the wider world, Podhoretz had indeed made it, becoming a fixture of the Reagan White House and a patron for policy intellectuals in Republican administrations, and an irritant to Democratic administrations. An admonition not just because the young Columbia graduate who earned his way into the inner circle by trashing the Beats became a critic who was tone deaf to every important American writer of his own generation apart from his friend—and quasi-rival—Norman Mailer, but because of the revulsion which greeted his confession in Making It. As Podhoretz tells it, the book made him the literary equivalent of a leper—though perhaps not for the reasons he thinks.

So I was dismayed, and disappointed, to discover when the new Podhoretz memoir arrived in the post, that it was actually a reissue of Making It—the same book I’d read with fascination, and fear, and loathing, 40 years earlier when, as a young man not without literary ambition, I had myself set off from Columbia to Clare College on the same Kellett Fellowship. Still, I told myself, there was the Moser introduction. Finding out what he made of the Pod-father would be some consolation.

Only the galley I’d been sent, though it featured Moser’s name on the cover, came without any introduction at all. And when I wrote to New York Review of Books I was told the book “no longer includes an introduction by Benjamin Moser. Instead it will have an introduction by Terry Teachout.” Teachout I knew to be a longtime Commentary contributor—not an incompetent critic, but hardly likely to say anything to ruffle Podhoretz’s feathers. Sure enough, Teachout describes it as “the stuff classic memoirs are made of… indispensible.”

Grasping for straws, I wrote back asking “am I missing some juicy story about Moser’s introduction?”—and was promptly assured by the publisher there was “nothing juicy to report.”

Only it turned out there was a very juicy story indeed—as Ben Moser replied when I wrote to him to ask what had happened. Moser described it to me—in response to an email from someone he’d never met, or corresponded with before—as “a very funny story.” And so it proved. Funny enough that writing my own review seemed superfluous. Instead, thanks to the editors of the Jewish Quarterly, you can read Moser’s story here, followed by the introduction that Norman Podhoretz doesn’t want you to read.

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