Further Commentary

by Saul Rosenberg
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge University Press, 393 pages, $35
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John Gross, the English literary critic, was once in a magazine office in New York when the secretary called across the room to him: “John, there’s a Mr. Podhoretz on the phone for you.” As Gross recalled, “I felt every pair of eyes drilling into me, as though she’d said, ‘There’s a Mr. Himmler on the phone for you.’”

This anecdote, retold by Thomas Jeffers in his Norman Podhoretz: A Biography, nicely sums up what many people feel about “Mr. Podhoretz.” He is hated by liberals for his turn to the right at the end of the sixties, and particularly loathed for his energetic support of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the Iraq War. So it is good someone should remind us, as Jeffers admiringly does, that Podhoretz is a first-class intellectual of enormous culture and considerable humanity.

Norman Podhoretz ’50CC, a maker of friends, ex-friends, and enemies. / Photo: © David Howells / CorbisPodhoretz ’50CC was a first-generation American prodigy, an acute reader initially of literature and then politics, whose aggressive intellect took him from beat-up Brownsville through a glittering student career at Columbia College and Cambridge University to the editorship of Commentary at age 30. He edited the monthly from 1960 to 1995 into a publication The Economist once mused might be “the best magazine in the world.” In the last 25 years of his tenure, Podhoretz helped found and lead the neoconservative revolution that insisted, against some popular and much elite opinion, that America was, for all its faults, a clear force for good in the world. So if Podhoretz’s name still evokes a special kind of horror on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, it is precisely because he saw the counterculture whose more serious causes he supported (the ending of the Vietnam War and an insistence on racial justice at home) mutating into the virulence of identity politics and a generalized anti-Americanism — and set off in the opposite direction.

This intellectual reversal was the result of years of growing disquiet with the Left’s increasing radicalism. That, and an extraordinary metaphysical awakening Podhoretz experienced while walking in the snow outside his small Delaware County farmhouse — something one wishes Jeffers had dissected more thoroughly.

Podhoretz found his vocation in an unflagging espousal of “duty and responsibility against rights and entitlements.” Commentary, which Podhoretz had originally moved to the left, now took a frankly conservative stand against the liberal groups and positions of the day. Its editor never looked back, except to wave a final good-bye in 2000 in Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.
Podhoretz, born into the Depression in 1930, began making enemies in earnest at the age of 37 with the publication of Making It. That 1967 memoir, with its blunt message that intellectuals were as interested in fame and success as any Hollywood starlet, was widely received as both vulgar and overconfident.

As Jeffers demonstrates in a lucid account of Podhoretz’s early life and career, if Podhoretz was proud of making it so quickly, he had certainly earned it. He was a prize pupil of Lionel Trilling and a respected one of F. R. Leavis, two almost mythical figures in the pantheon of literary criticism.

Podhoretz’s first engagement with the professional world was also as a literary critic. In early demonstrations of the independence, intelligence, literary acuity, and occasional humor that marked his writing, he offered astute accounts of contemporary writers that did not hesitate to differ from the conventional wisdom. (Podhoretz’s judgements were sometimes hard. Who today would suggest that Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was in part “forced” or that Seize the Day should have ended in an act of murder rather than mourning — a shiv rather than a shiva, as his close ex-friend Norman Mailer might have put it?)

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