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Mister P. Goes To Town: A review of Making It by Norman Podhoretz

By Jackson Arn.

Review of Making it by Norman Podhoretz

Norman Podhoretz, Making It (NYRB Classics, 2017)

When an American politician uses the word “intellectual” in a sentence, it’s usually no more than a few syllables away from the word “elite”. The life of the mind, at least according to the echo chamber, is nearly la dolce vita: you grow up in a wealthy home, study a “useless” major in college, never worry about money, and generally steer clear of the common man from cradle to grave. Politicians seem not to realize that people in intellectual fields, no less than in their own, are always moving up or down.

Norman Podhoretz, the critic, pundit, and cantankerous neoconservative who turned 87 earlier this year, probably came closer to starting from nothing than any living American intellectual. His rise from poverty to cultural capital is the subject of his memoir Making It, published in 1967 when he was only 37, and reissued for its fiftieth anniversary. A self-described Brownsville slum kid, Podhoretz won a Pulitzer Scholarship to Columbia University at the age of sixteen and, four years later, a Kellett Fellowship from Cambridge. The list of his mentors, practically a who’s who of great postwar men of letters, includes Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, and F. R. Leavis, each of whom, he claims, recognized his brilliance and rewarded him with glowing praise and perfect grades. The amount of information about Podhoretz’s grades contained in Making It is alarmingly large—I’ll return to this in a moment.

After earning an MA from Cambridge, Podhoretz returned to the United States, where he began writing for some of the most prestigious journals and magazines of the era—Commentary, edited by Elliott Cohen, Partisan Review, edited by Philip Rahv, The New Yorker, edited by William Shawn. He served in the army for two years, but then joined the staff of Commentary and became its editor at the age of thirty. For the first half of the sixties, Podhoretz shaped his magazine into a mainstay of the Washington establishment, publishing notable pieces by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Paul Goodman, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag. This was an era when American intellectuals—not just economists, but philosophers, historians, and literary critics—still had some control over what D.C. policymakers believed; when Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley debated the future of the Democratic party before an audience of millions; when Ralph Ellison and John Kenneth Galbraith rubbed shoulders with Jackie Kennedy and Frank Sinatra at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. For possibly the last time in American history, public intellectuals had a shot at becoming bona fide power players, and their rivalries were all the nastier for it. 

Making It is being reprinted by The New York Review of Books—the publication founded by Podhorertz’s onetime friend and longtime rival, Jason Epstein. This isn’t as ironic as it might seem. The New York Intellectuals of the fifties and sixties—the group Podhoretz, borrowing from Murray Kempton, calls The Family—thrived on grudges and soured friendships. William Phillips, a loyal Family member, once told Podhoretz, “All we ever do is attack one another.” Phillips was right, but he missed the bigger point. There was always something oddly cooperative, even affectionate, about the Family’s infighting. To savage a writer’s latest piece in Commentary was a veiled sign of respect, and to provoke criticism from Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, and the Trillings was a badge of no little honor.

Nobody understood this better than Norman Podhoretz. At the age of twenty-three, he wrote a largely negative review of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March for The New Yorker. A few weeks later, he recalls proudly in Making It, a close friend of Bellow staggered up to him at a party and hissed, “We’ll get you for that review if it takes ten years.” Another one of Podhoretz’s favorite stories was about the night Lauren Bacall rejected him. At a cocktail party, he kept trying to get Bacall’s attention. Finally, she became so fed up that she told him, “Butt out.” Podhoretz was so delighted with the put-down that he went around the room telling anybody who’d listen—if his friends are to be believed, he’s still bragging about it half a century later. Getting turned down wasn’t the point of the story. The point was that he’d been at the same party as Lauren Bacall. Podhoretz would later pen another memoir, Ex-Friends (the third of four), based on the principle that it’s better to be disliked by big shots like Allen Ginsberg and Lillian Hellman than it is to be a nobody.

A number of the famous people who’ve shown up in Podhoretz’s memoirs have insisted that they never had fallings-out with Podhoretz because they’d never been all that close to begin with. It appears that Hannah Arendt, the subject of a lengthy chapter of Ex-Friends, thought of him as a casual acquaintance and probably met him no more than a couple times. Even F. R. Leavis, who invited the twenty-one year-old Podhoretz to write for his journal, Scrutiny, never regarded Podhoretz as a first-rate critic. A few years later, he turned down an article Podhoretz had written on Disraeli, complete with one of the greatest rejection letters in the history of the English language: “We couldn’t print anything that did so little more than a hundred or two readers of Scrutiny could do impromptu.” This put-down, at least, Podhoretz does not repeat in Making It.

Bragging extravagantly about accomplishments that are, at least in the long term, fairly un-extravagant—getting turned down by a movie star, writing an essay of a few thousand words about someone else’s novel—may have been the young Podhoretz’s greatest talent. It’s certainly one of Making It’s defining characteristics. “The naïve expectation that others will take one’s own good fortunes as an occasion for rejoicing,” he writes of winning the prestigious Kellett Fellowship, “is, of course, characteristic of adored and indulged children.” He professes himself deeply hurt by the tide of envy that followed his winning the Kellett. Brought up by doting parents, he was too confident that his college friends would celebrate his success as enthusiastically as if it had been their own. But the frustrating thing about Making It isn’t Podhoretz’s ambition, or even his self-satisfaction. It’s his ability to be so satisfied for so long about so little. Earning straight A-pluses from Columbia in the era before grade inflation is a staggering accomplishment. Celebrating it at such length, ten years after the fact, suggests a wunderkind who’s failed to grow up.

As a story about going from rags to intellectual riches, Making It fascinates intrinsically: in his own way, Podhoretz achieved as much for himself as Pip, Julien Sorel, Meister Wilhelm, and all the other social climbers from his undergraduate reading list. Or maybe the better comparison is with the hero of a Greek tragedy, whose greatest strength is also the source of his downfall. Podhoretz’s downfall took the form of a slow, steady decline, not a sudden, Oedipal peripeteia. Yet it stemmed from his idiosyncratic definition of success, one which served him well at Columbia and Cambridge but eventually caused his career to plateau and then, very gradually, decline. Understanding this definition of success—why it shocked his contemporaries and how it paved the way for public intellectualism in the 21st century—is reason enough to return to Making It half a century later.

*

After Podhoretz had finished Making It, he sent it off to his Columbia professor, Lionel Trilling. Trilling—like most of the other Family members who read the manuscript—advised Podhoretz to throw it away. Trilling was worried that his former student had been too frank about his hunger for worldly acclaim. It made no difference how good the writer was: anyone who admitted so casually to craving attention, envy, and a high salary would be scorned out of their profession.

In all likelihood, neither Trilling nor Podhoretz realized how perfectly their disagreement summed up the state of the American intelligentsia. This was almost precisely what Thomas Kuhn had meant when he coined the term “paradigm shift” a few years earlier: Trilling, in many ways the leading Family figure, voicing the status quo view of success, and Podhoretz introducing a new interpretation of the concept, no more or less “true” than Trilling’s, but better suited for the realities of the time. By the late sixties, writers and academics were appearing on talk shows and giving interviews for LIFE and Time. But many of their peers still found such behavior unworthy of the life of the mind. “Norman Mailer got into a lot of trouble with his intellectual friends,” David Brooks wrote in Bobos in Paradise, “when his novel The Naked and the Dead became a bestseller. Its commercial success was taken as prima facie evidence that there was something wrong with it.” Such reactions weren’t uncommon among midcentury thinkers: partly, it must be assumed, because they were envious but also because they took their roles as educators seriously. Trilling saw the intellectual as an impartial observer of American society; the self-sufficiency of the ivory tower, far from being a source of embarrassment, was an essential part of doing his job well.

While Trilling and other members of the Family wandered through the desert, trying not to surrender to temptation, Podhoretz wondered why any thinker would resist money or acclaim:

There are other forms of worldly currency, such as attention, admiration, and fame, for which men have always written, and there cannot have been many men in history who have written in total disregard of these things […] More than that, even, the narcissism which is an invariable and indispensible element of his very being as a writer is bound to leave him with an unusually strong appetite for success, and as many forms of it as he can get. So long, however, as his aim in the act of writing is to find the key to the quality of organic coherence locked within the reaches of his mind—and this, to put it with maximum plainness, is what “giving his all” really means—he must be deemed a serious writer, whether he is writing “for” money, sex, invitations to parties, or any other unseemly objective.

Like all new paradigms, the sentiment Podhoretz expresses here is as uncontroversial today as it was inconceivable before its time came. Today, the term “ivory tower” is almost exclusively pejorative. Undergraduates at elite universities enroll in sought-after seminars with the grudging understanding that their famous professors will miss some classes to promote their latest books on television. When Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time in 2010, people debated whether or not he deserved the caption, “Great American Novelist”, but nobody bothered to accuse him of selling out. The notion of having to apologize for wanting “attention, admiration, and fame” seems almost as much of a relic of the American education system’s shameful past as segregation.

Norman Podhoretz

Podhoretz published Making It at the height of the Vietnam War, just as the New Left was challenging the most commonly accepted ideas about what an intellectual should do. Earlier that same year, the linguist Noam Chomsky published a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books called “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, in which he argued that a generation of political scientists and technocrats had helped con the American people into supporting an unjust war in Vietnam. Universities actively supported America’s hawkish foreign policy, whether their professors were aware of it or not—by subsidizing military research (and then, in some cases, lying about it) and by supplying barbarism with the authority of an academic study. The moral, political, and economic neutrality that had been the premise of Trilling’s entire body of work had always been an illusion.

In reinterpreting the intellectual’s role, the New Left paved the way for a golden age of professors as political activists in the mode of Edward Said, Allan Bloom, or Howard Zinn. But it also made the world safe for worldly ambitions, even when these ambitions had little, if anything, to do with politics. If, as Chomsky argued, the university had never been a neutral place, then there was no clear alternative to living one’s life “in the world at large”, or, to use a counterculture cliché, being engagé. And if everyone, intellectuals or otherwise, was living in the same world and playing by the same rules, then one could hardly help but pursue worldly ends—the same worldly ends that the Family scolded Podhoretz for coveting. Fifty years later, Chomsky and Podhorertz’s visions of the American intellectual, seemingly different in every way, have grown into one. The few living academics and critics who are household names have found ways to make it and be, or at least appear, politically responsible.

If the notion that intellectual neutrality is an illusion seems unrelated to the notion of worldly ambition, consider two prominent celebrity-intellectuals of the twenty-first century: Slavoj Žižek and Cornel West. Their careers would have mortified Trilling: West made a cameo in The Matrix trilogy and appears regularly on Real Time with Bill Maher; Žižek starred in a documentary about himself, and in 2003 he wrote ad copy for the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. Both men have been celebrated and vilified for their politics. West’s brand of Socialism attracted the ire of nearly everyone on the Left, so much so that Jacobin published an article called ‘Everybody Hates Cornel West’. One of the most persuasive critiques of West, written by Michael Eric Dyson for The New Republic in 2015, suggested that he’d betrayed the legacy of media-savvy black activism by using “the studio” as a tool of self-promotion. Žižek’s speeches and writings on the Occupy Wall Street Movement led many activists to accuse him of advocating a form of political quietism, whereby the Left would wait, organize, and effectively lose its momentum while Wall Street regrouped. At its core, the activist backlash to West and Žižek is the same: thanks to their income and celebrity, both men have the luxury of advocating political positions that at times seem abstracted from the immediate needs of the American people. At their nastiest, critics accuse Žižek and West of profiting from the political turmoil of the late aughts, repackaging their old, half-baked ideas for new deluded customers.

To justify their self-promotion, and their political activism, West and Žižek offer an identical response: the Academy has failed to function as a site of intellectual neutrality. Instead of erasing capitalism, racism, and the other ills in society at large, it has aped them. No intellectual could be faulted for escaping the ivory tower, pursuing their own political agenda, and becoming a wealthy celebrity in the process—if anything, West and Žižek seem to argue, it’s the true intellectual’s personal duty to do so. “If I were asked to choose,” Žižek said after writing for A&F, “between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals.”

The irony is that the contemporary intellectual, in fleeing the politicization of the university, has embraced an even heavier set of shackles: the obligations of money and celebrity. Chomsky, whose recent criticisms of Žižek have been well publicized, was trying to push academics to recognize the self-interest of the university system, and then use their training to fight, selflessly, for political causes. The American inheritors of the post-1967 intellectual tradition have taken this lesson further than Chomsky or Podhoretz ever intended. As far as Žižek is concerned, neutrality and selflessness are always illusions, not just in the case of the university system. Too often, contemporary intellectuals can seem like frauds, going through the motions of political activism while reserving most of their talents for their own selfish ends. Norman Podhoretz never tried to host a documentary. He never wrote for Madison Avenue, even though at the time it was beginning to recruit heavily from Columbia. By twenty-first century standards, his interpretation of worldly success seems charmingly modest.

*

It would have baffled him to hear it in 1967, but Podhoretz’s failure wasn’t that he was too ambitious—he probably wasn’t ambitious enough. As he correctly observed, all writers practice their craft with an eye on some worldly reward, be it money, fame, or respect. But not all worldly rewards are equal. There’s a difference between writing for the acclaim of the general public, writing for educated people who may or may not agree with you, and writing for a small group of intellectuals who share most of your tastes and opinions. The difference doesn’t only affect the difficulty of your writing—it also affects the liveliness and fruitfulness of your career.

At least at the time when he wrote Making It, Podhoretz believed that he practiced the second form of writing: “if the form and approach of my reviews were solidly in the family tradition,” he wrote, “their style was less allusive and more explanatory than family writing had traditionally been, and they were thus more accessible to readers outside the family.” This smacks of the narcissism of petty differences. Read fifty years later, his tone and cultural references fit snugly into the tradition of the New York Intellectuals. He wrote for the Family, in the Family style. A three thousand-word book review was enough to satisfy him, because he measured his literary success by the size of the reaction it got in the Family, not the scope of his work itself.

“James Joyce,” wrote Martin Amis, “could have been the most popular boy in the school, the cleverest, the kindest. He ended up with a more ambiguous distinction. He became the teacher’s pet.” Good grades whisked Podhoretz from Brownsville to Columbia: more than almost any of his contemporaries, his chances of living the life of the mind depended upon his ability to satisfy his teachers. There’s a whiff of the smug undergraduate in Making It, and not just in the chapters about Columbia and Cambridge: again and again, Podhoretz ridicules his colleagues for their beliefs and self-importance, and yet, like any student, his self-esteem largely depends on their approval. Even after Podhoretz broke with the Family and, along with Irving Kristol and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, veered toward neoconservatism, he continued trying to court the Family’s attention: he told stories about his ex-friends, wrote memoirs about them, and seemed to take pride in pushing their buttons, even when they claimed they’d always been indifferent to him.

Who can blame Podhoretz for missing his Family? The Liberal intellectual establishment of the forties and fifties had the power to grant immediate prestige to its adherents; for a young man interested in literature and philosophy, it was the most exclusive, and therefore best, club in the country. Podhoretz captures the alluring ritualism of the New York Intellectuals while describing a night of cocktails at Philip Rahv’s apartment, the occasion for which was to celebrate the publication of Podhoretz’s Augie March review. The night quickly turned into a full-blown initiation process:

I remember hearing my voice pronounce an incredulous, “You mean Alfred Kazin?” or “You mean Dwight Macdonald?” or “you mean Mary McCarthy?” as Rahv and a woman who was present treated me to my first horrified experience of true family-style gossip.

After one o’clock in the morning […] I made my dizzy way toward the subway station on Sixth Avenue where the bourbon and the gossip and everything else my stomach was still too young to digest came pouring out in great retching heaves. And yet in the very midst of all that misery, I knew that I had never been so happy in my life.

During the Reagan years, Podhoretz became an influential Washington policy adviser. But, if his memoirs are to be believed, he never found anything like the validation he got from the Family, a community of brilliant pundits with all the power of academia and New York publishing behind them. The neocons never succeeded in creating a comparable group for themselves—since the sixties, in fact, no American intellectual movement has. Long after breaking with his old friends, and long after the American intellectual has become unmoored from the Academy, Podhoretz remains nostalgic for the Family’s glory days. Between that and the idea of the intellectual as reality TV star, I’ll take nostalgia.

 

Jackson Arn

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Jackson Arn is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Afterimage, AsymptoteReverse Shot, and other publications. His essay ‘In Pursuit of Uselessness’ was awarded the Bunner Prize for critical writing at Columbia University. The first story he ever wrote was about aliens invading the Earth. They won.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017.