Making It 
by Norman Podhoretz.
NYRB, 368 pp., £13.98, May 2017, 978 1 68137 080 4
Show More
Show More

In December​ 1963, the literary critic, essayist and lyrical memoirist Alfred Kazin filed a field report from an after party for a Commentary magazine symposium ‘on the Negro’. (Symposia on the Negro were popular in the 1960s, helping to keep white liberal panellists occupied and furrowed until the ferocious later phase of Black Power made them all squirm.) Kazin had been unable to attend the symposium itself but, never one to miss a party, popped into the reception being thrown by Commentary’s editor-in-chief Norman Podhoretz and his wife, the writer and editor Midge Decter, one of the power couples of the Upper West Side intelligentsia – the junior version of Lionel and Diana Trilling. Kazin, a Commentary contributor going back to 1945, found himself in a bobbing sea of familiar faces but left in a sour funk, fed up with that old gang of his, the unseemliness of it all:

The party is deductible, it is given by the corporation for the customers, and the ‘host’ and ‘hostess’ act as if the chief end of the party were to give themselves a kick. Struck by the oafishness of Norman Pod. drunkenly clowning in the entrance to the elevator. That lovely, blond girl (wife of the publisher of the NY Review?) looked really offended, and I couldn’t blame her.

It should be noted that the party was held two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, such boozy antics somewhat dissonant in what was for most Americans a joyless holiday season. Yet what appears to have peeved Kazin was something closer to home: the crass spectacle of chums and colleagues gloating over their ascendant glory. ‘Basically, the Commentary party is a collection of Jewish intellectuals who have made it,’ he wrote. And no one was busting his buttons more than the man at the top of Commentary’s masthead. That evening proved to be a preview of coming attractions, an ethos in embryo.

Four years later, Norman Podhoretz published a memoir entitled, yes, Making It, a book that would live in notoriety, which at least beats total obscurity. It was, and is, that rarity, a thesis-driven memoir. Its thesis was that success had replaced sex as the Lawrentian ‘dirty little secret’ of American life in the 1960s, and nowhere was that dirty secret more deeply closeted than in the birdcage bosoms of his fellow critics, professors and public intellectuals with their snooty, puritan pretensions. They scorned vulgar go-getters. ‘The hunger for worldly success was regarded as low, ignoble, ugly: something to be concealed from others and preferably even from oneself, something to be ashamed of and guilty about,’ Podhoretz pontificated. He wasn’t the first to examine ‘making it’ as the hidden motor and nagging scold of the high-minded. In 1959 the critic and provocateur Seymour Krim published a confessional entitled, you guessed it, ‘Making It!’, where he owns up to being eaten alive by a needy appetite for acclaim and a first-class upgrade. ‘Throughout the jumping metropolis of New York one sees vertical fanaticism, the Thor-type upward thrust of the entire being … the man or woman who is High Inside, hummingly self-aware … watching out for number one with a hundred new-born eyes.’ Krim was a downtown cat scrounging for glossy bylines who hadn’t made it and never would (one of his later essays was entitled ‘For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business’), whereas Podhoretz was an uptown macher who had achieved High Inside altitude at a youngish age. From such personal narratives are book deals made. A winner’s tale is always an easier sell.

In Making It, Podhoretz spun his local-boy-makes-good story as a Brooklyn lad who apprenticed under Trilling, F.R. Leavis and the polemical fight club of Partisan Review into a living endorsement of the American Dream, taking a victory lap around his precocious career as a hotshot critic, magazine editor and merchant of ideas (what we would call today, if we hadn’t any shame, a thought leader). Putting extra pep into Podhoretz’s trot is the beaming knowledge that his success transcends that of mere mortal scribblers and red pencillers. To borrow from a popular song of the period, the 1967 edition Podhoretz is ‘in with the in-crowd’ (Jackie Kennedy, Lillian Hellman, George Plimpton); he goes where the in-crowd goes, knows what the in-crowd knows. Podhoretz was even invited to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball of 1966, the party of the century. There could have been no greater confirmation of his having ‘arrived’.

In daydream moments in between the usual author agonising, Podhoretz may have anticipated the publication of Making It as a climactic solo bringing down the curtain on act one of his career and a springboard for his next move. The book was certainly stagecrafted that way. If so, he misjudged the composition of the audience and the sales appeal of his candour. Numerous interventionists attempted to save him from himself. His agent didn’t want to handle the book. His original publisher rejected the manuscript. His friend and fellow editor Jason Epstein advised him to throw it in the river. Even Lionel Trilling, seldom stirred to intervene in the affairs of mortals, urged him not to publish the book, and Gandalf is never wrong. But Podhoretz persevered, stuck his chin out, and boy did he get creamed. He was pelted with reviews that were not only scathing but mocking, jeering (‘a career expressed as a matchless 360 page ejaculation’ – New Leader); like Carrie at her prom, Podhoretz found himself in the swirling fly-eye of ridicule. Not all the reviews were disparaging, but the positive notices weren’t as tart and well written, their praise couched in conventional reviewerese, and so the spitballers carried the day. For a man with no sense of humour about himself this was the worst possible fate. Podhoretz was traumatised, as any sensitive brute would be, and felt socially stigmatised. He was no longer in with the in-crowd, the hovering embarrassment of failure demoting him from the A-list into nebulous terrain.

Most heinous of all was the backstabbing betrayal by his friend and idol Norman Mailer, whose collection Advertisements for Myself (1959) provided the inspiration and model for Making It. Few authors had spilled their guts as grandiloquently as Mailer had in Advertisements, especially in the italicised interchapters, where he introduced us to the personal demons prodding his appetites and anxieties with hot pokers. The two Normans had much in common. Both were Brooklyn boys; both Jewish; both were ladled with mother-love as sons, Mailer fussed over as ‘the little king’ and Podhoretz doted on by the women in his family as destiny’s darling, cooing over ‘the blue of my eyes, at the thick curliness of my hair, at the streak of grey on its side (proof, they said, echoing an ancient superstition, that I was among the elect)’. In Mailer, Podhoretz found a blue-eyed soul brother, the gladiator stud muffin he aspired to be. ‘On the rare occasions when I was invited to one of [the Podhoretzes’] parties when they lived on the Upper West Side,’ the art critic Hilton Kramer recalled, ‘to see the look on Norman’s face the moment Norman Mailer arrived was to me a profound embarrassment.’ But Podhoretz was more than a fan boy. He was also a dependable, standup guy. It was Podhoretz whom he leaned on for support and counsel in the hungover days following the awful night he stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife at the bitter conclusion of a party punctuated with scuffles and screaming matches. Unlike Mailer, Podhoretz wasn’t in the meaty thick of the action. He had a wife, kids, a day job, a heavy load of administrative work, a bourgeois structure. His doubts, fears and typewriter dramas were more standard issue: he wasn’t popping benzedrine and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day while staring down the barrel of a rewrite deadline, as Mailer had done with The Deer Park, pushing liver and kidneys to the limit. Mailer, more important, had been a national sensation and magnet for attention ever since the publication of The Naked and the Dead in 1948. However swollen his hat size, Podhoretz remained an East Coast coterie egghead.

With Making It, Podhoretz was stepping up into Mailer’s heavyweight division, only to get KO’d by the champ himself – sucker-punched. Mailer read the book in galley and told Podhoretz he liked it. It was Podhoretz’s hope after the volley of abuse from nearly every quarter that Mailer would ride to the cavalry rescue. But when Mailer’s essay on Making It, ‘Up the Family Tree’, appeared in the spring 1968 issue of Partisan Review (grisly particulars to follow), it was an ‘Et tu, Brute?’ moment – ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ (Carry on Cleo) – that eventually severed their friendship and sent Podhoretz into a year-long depression to lick his wounds. He would keep licking them for decades, nursing his grievances into a fine kettle of vendettas. Meanwhile, Making It would go down in legend and out of print, a sunken landmark of sorts.

To mark​ the fiftieth anniversary of Making It, NYRB Classics has revived Podhoretz’s battle-scarred memoir with an innocuous new introduction by Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic at large, who isn’t about to jeopardise his post by saying anything too jazzy or impolitic here. Given the long history of gangland strife between Commentary and the New York Review of Books, it’s gracious of its reprint house to include Making It in its classics line. It’s more of a curiosity today than a classic, too lacking in novelistic redolence and vivid characterisation, too pocked with deadwood phrases of punditry (‘it would seem’, ‘which is to say’, ‘to be sure’), to rank with Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Willie Morris’s North toward Home, and other urban romances of the ardent outsider whose eyes are on the prize. Still, it’s handy to have it back in print after its long stay in limbo, for documentary purposes. It gives virgin readers an opportunity to see what all the original fuss was about, what provoked a normally cool customer such as Wilfrid Sheed to bring down the hammer (‘The book could simply be titled America 1967; slickness, shallowness, and the flight from pain and death and art – all in one package’), and to decide if Making It was the victim of a vicious gang-up because it exposed the prissy hypocrisies of highbrows, its reception a mob rub-out. It also has something going for it now that it didn’t have then: nostalgia. It’s a time capsule from the Mad Men 1960s, when rents were cheap, upward mobility was easier, magazines were thick and sassy, parties hung with a haze of smoke that spilled out into the streets and fire escapes, and the Sexual Revolution in its early frisky phase thrummed. Hedonism hadn’t yet slid into sleazedom and the culture wasn’t uniformly outfitted with ironic smirks.

Panning the skyline, Making It evokes a city and an era that are misty monochrome memories of the way we were: ‘One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan – or at least from certain neighbourhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.’ Today it’s only a long journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan when the subway service is dragging. The tribal differences between the boroughs have dissolved. To be a Brooklyn native in the new millennium is to belong to the bearded heart of bourgeois hipsterville surrounded by local landmarks from Lena Dunham’s Girls, enlightened by Martin Amis sightings. Back then, baby, Brooklyn was badass and more than a trifle déclassé. To come from Brooklyn – ‘I was fiercely patriotic about Brownsville (the spawning ground of so many famous athletes and gangsters)’ – meant that you had something extra to prove, that your ego sported a pair of brass knuckles to hold its own and compensate for class insecurity. This underdog cockiness persisted for decades, serving as the driver of John Travolta’s sidewalk strut in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, where disco prince Tony Manero eventually tires of Bay Ridge Brooklyn and his mooky friends as the magic spires of Manhattan beckon. A product of the jukebox era, Podhoretz belonged to an older school of neighbourhood punk, dressing like a juvenile delinquent auditioning for the Jets or the Sharks, but beneath that greaser exterior burned a bookworm yearning for learning. A teacher called Mrs K. practises a unique form of tough love on her promising pupil, sneering at him as if he were a chimney-sweep (‘a filthy little slum child’, she calls him), but taking him to museums and buying him a suit for his Harvard interview. It isn’t Harvard he attends, but Columbia, where he refines the knack of pleasing and parroting his elders. ‘Utterly open, limitlessly impressionable, possessed of something like total recall and a great gift for intellectual mimicry, I also succeeded, and without conscious intent, in writing papers for each of my professors in a different style – one which invariably resembled his own.’ He receives an A+ in Lionel Trilling’s course on the English Romantics, literary criticism’s closest thing to a baptism of the holy spirit.

From Columbia, Podhoretz, destined for distinction in the finest dojos of literary training, continues his studies at Cambridge, where the fearsome F.R. Leavis and his wife, Queenie, reign with a far scalier hand over their student disciples than the Trillings, Lionel being far more steeped in ambiguity, dialectical subtleties and flickering equivocations (Diana was another story) than the cocksure Leavises. Every Saturday on their lawn the Leavises conduct an informal seminar in which to evaluate literature and vent their grievances, deploring T.S. Eliot as a simpering turncoat and accusing the ‘metropolitan weeklies’ of conspiring to keep Leavis’s reputation on the down-low. Although the Leavis approach to literature, politics and criticism is temperamentally and operatively different from the Trillings’, young Podhoretz, nimbly adaptable to any suck-up opportunity for advancement, activates his overachiever superpower. ‘I became a Leavisian – not, perhaps, the most ardent of his young epigoni at Cambridge, but, in all truth, the others being a singularly dreary and humourless lot, the most adept.’ The best con men are often said to be excellent mimics, so perhaps we should be grateful that Podhoretz didn’t choose a more criminal calling.

Returning to New York, Podhoretz makes two fateful visits: one to the modest vacation bungalow of the Trillings in Westport, Connecticut, accepted into their confidences; the other to the offices of Commentary magazine, the vessel he would eventually navigate and convert from liberal anti-communism and social progressivism into a neoconservative battle-cruiser. Funded by the American Jewish Committee, Commentary was edited by Elliot Cohen, perhaps the most interesting character in the book (the only one of true pathos), who wryly informs Podhoretz that the chief dif between Commentary and Partisan Review is that Commentary admits to being a Jewish magazine, PR doesn’t. Commentary’s cubicles are occupied by, among others, the art critic Clement Greenberg, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol (the future godfather of neoconservatism) and the cultural observer Robert Warshow, whose essays on the movie Western and gangster films would become anthology classics and whose personal mystique resembled James Agee’s without the all-night jags. When Warshow asks Podhoretz out to lunch, ‘I felt as a girl with a secret infatuation must feel when the boy she’s been mooning over asks her for a date.’ It was a compact beehive of brain industry and Podhoretz fitted right in. The cloisters of academe, the sacred hush of the library stacks, couldn’t compete with the heady thrill of being initiated and inducted into the fold. ‘I had become a New York literary intellectual,’ he writes; in mafia lingo, a made man.

He starts to notch a name for himself as a reviewer who doesn’t kiss up to the consensus. His pan of Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March, which was being acclaimed as the breakthrough postwar Jewish-American novel, a virtuoso marriage of vernacular and rollicking picaresque, enrages Bellow’s posse – ‘We’ll get you for that review if it takes ten years,’ John Berryman drunkenly threatens – and puts him on the radar of editors on the look-out. He’s invited to write reviews for the New Yorker, whose editor, William Shawn, was as Jamesian a figure as Lionel Trilling, a mandarin of almost excruciating courtesy and subtle indirection, riddled with phobias. Podhoretz prided himself, as well he might, on being the only young man to write for both Partisan Review and the New Yorker, making him a member of two exclusive societies – double bragging rights. He didn’t fully fathom the larger reach of Eustace Tilley’s monocle until his review of Nelson’s Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side ‘transformed’ him ‘overnight into a minor literary celebrity’, able to get the best booth at any luncheonette.

Podhoretz’s irresistible climb to the top is rudely interrupted by a letter from Uncle Sam, a dreaded draft notice – the Korean War casts its cold shadow – that yanks him out of civilian life and shoves him into the factory farm of basic training, plucking every feather he’s preened in civilian life from his pudgy frame and reducing him to a shivering chicken in a coop. When I first read Making It in my own early gunslinger days, I skipped the military chapter, wanting to hop ahead to the gossipy goodies. This was a mistake. The military chapter is the most impassioned in the book, a season in hell that taught him first-hand the shock treatment of dehumanisation that ‘in a mere instant’ robbed the recruit

not only of everything you had but of everything you were … I had finally found a world in which I knew how to move about with a bit of skill and grace, and they had seized me by the throat early one dark winter morning, and hurled me into a world which in every detail seemed to have been constructed for the express purpose of rendering me inept: a world built to all my weaknesses and not a single one of my strengths.

He’s singled out as an example to new arrivals not to get any fancy airs. ‘You see that guy there,’ the sergeant would say, pointing at Podhoretz. ‘He got about ten degrees from all kinds of fancy colleges all over the place, but when I say “Shit!” he shits.’ They didn’t talk this way at the New Yorker. Raging and powerful as these pages are in Making It, Podhoretz isn’t sensitised into sympathising and empathising with the dehumanisation dealt out to others, entire groups of people (blacks, gays, the poor), and not for one hazing season of basic training but for their entire lives. Never mind them, he’s infuriated that it’s happening to him, and once he’s out of uniform he forgets what it was like to be the underdog, identifying entirely with the top brass. He even forgets his comparisons of basic training to concentration camps and Chinese brainwashing once he evolves into an interventionist hawk with missiles strapped to both wings.

Upon re-entry into civilian life, Podhoretz returns to a cratered Commentary. Warshow has died of a heart attack at the age of 37 and Cohen, sunk into depression, is admitted into Payne Whitney, leaving a power vacuum at the magazine. (He would later commit suicide.) In Cohen’s absence, a dual editorship assumes de facto control of the magazine with Podhoretz forced into a subordinate role that he rightly feels he has outgrown; he must now jockey for the top spot or suffer the death of a thousand paper cuts. The soap opera struggle over the control and future of Commentary may cause most readers’ attentions to flag. Mine certainly did. The problem with relating office politics is that such Kabuki drama is of interest only to those inside the office. Outside the office, Making It perks up again as Podhoretz picks up where he left off as the wonderboy of the name-dropping circuit. At a fateful party at the Trillings’ he meets Lillian Hellman and Norman Mailer, ‘and so the circle of parties, carrying me further and further into the heart of “Manhattan”, began.’ He is invited for the first time to philosopher-doyenne Hannah Arendt’s New Year’s Eve party, attends a small dinner party at Mary McCarthy’s ‘meticulously furnished apartment’, and receives his ‘first summons’ to a posh Park Avenue salon stocked with ‘titled European ladies’ and similar barracuda. He doesn’t divulge any gossip or glean any Tom Wolfe-ish observations from these outings, too concerned with keeping tabs on his own progress to tilt the spotlight elsewhere. One of the best-known passages in Making It is its account of the status update running like a stock ticker through the minds of the inhabitants of this snowglobe world. ‘Did so-and-so have dinner at Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment last night? Up five points. Was so-and-so not invited by the Lowells to meet the latest visiting Russian poet? Down one-eighth. Did Partisan Review neglect to ask so-and-so to participate in a symposium? Down two.’

Setbacks that would have sparked downturns in the market for others don’t leave a dent on Podhoretz’s chart. Dropped from the good graces of the New Yorker for reasons unexplained, he turns it to his advantage by milking it for jaunty sympathy, noticing to his ‘great relief that more people seemed to hold it against the New Yorker than against me’. Commissioned to write a book about American postwar fiction, an Axel’s Castle for the atomic age, he ploughs through a couple of dutiful chapters before bogging down and meeting a writer’s block that has his name on it. Unable to execute his panorama of postwar prose, he packs the project in and assembles his first collection of essays and reviews (it was either that or return the publisher’s advance), calling his debut Doings and Undoings. The columnist Michael Kinsley once observed that Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person, and Podhoretz was an old critic’s version of a young critic, publishing in the proper publications and bemoaning hairy barbarians like the Beats (‘The Know-Nothing Bohemians’, included in Doings and Undoings), never championing a single unpopular, out-of-fashion author who wasn’t already part of the modernist canon. Protective of its cub, Partisan Review runs a judicious appreciation by Richard Poirier (one of Mailer’s early academic champions), but no chorus rises to proclaim Podhoretz the bold young successor to Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Stanley Edgar Hyman and Mary McCarthy in the Quality Lit Crit Biz. He is needled as a symptomatic New York intellectual specimen by Benjamin DeMott in the New York Review and cuffed around roughly by Hudson Review’s Marvin Mudrick, who complains that, apart from the essay on Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem (which avoids ponderous throat-clearing for a blast of ‘Voltairean indignation’), ‘the same voice drones on in the same doomful, humourless, cosmopolite-social-historical-tragical tone through the vicissitudes of these occasional pieces.’ Wounded, chagrined, deflated, and seething with paranoia, Podhoretz adopts a Leavisian stance towards his detractors, regarding any reviewer less than ecstatic as an enemy and concocting conspiracy theories as to why X or Y turned rat bastard. Paranoia is its own species of adrenaline. Yet when he works up the courage to peek at his market report following the underperformance of Doings and Undoings he is gratified to learn that ‘after much active trading my stock had registered an impressive gain.’

What kept Podhoretz’s reputation airborne, able to withstand such turbulence? Position is power, he learned as the low man on the totem pole in the military, and now he had a position. After much shadowplay and stratego, he is named sole editor of Commentary in 1960, acquiring executive authority with a significant status upgrade. He discovers that he is adept at editing manuscripts, such a relief after the rock-quarry drudgery of writing, and even better at the entrepreneurial side of being editor in chief – at talent-wooing and scoring the coups that make the chattering classes click like castanets. He lands a big one right out of the box when he pounces on Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd after it was rejected up and down publishers’ row: Podhoretz spots it as a zeitgeist mover and serialises in Commentary to a rousing welcome. ‘The Goodman pieces, so fresh in outlook and so surprising to come upon in Commentary, were probably the single most important factor in the rapidity with which the “new Commentary” … was able to define itself.’ Heavy artillery pieces by such as Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, Leslie Fiedler and Irving Howe begin appearing more frequently on the cover of the magazine and circulation rises. ‘I was now a personage,’ Podhoretz announces, as if auditioning for a knighthood. He’s also out from under his writer’s block, cranking out regular articles for millionaire Huntington Hartford’s lavishly glossy Show magazine, proof that nothing dissolves writer’s block faster than a fat cheque.

A five-day convocation of artists and intellectuals hosted by Hartford at his Paradise Island resort off the coast of Nassau is the setting for Making It’s crowning epiphany, its conversion experience: Podhoretz’s ascension into the angelic realm of luxurious linen, white-coated servants and emerald views from the terrace. From the moment he sets foot on Paradise Island, Podhoretz is suffused by a bliss alien to the vast majority of highly evolved neurotics who have never enjoyed a tropical junket. ‘My senses had never been so alert, my brain never so alive, my spirits never so high. I loved everyone, and everyone loved me. I did not blame them; I even loved myself.’ Like Julie Andrews a-twirl he is enraptured: the hills are alive with the sound of moolah. ‘This was what it meant to be rich … to stretch one’s arms out idly by the side of a swimming pool and have two white-coated servants vie for the privilege of depositing a Bloody Mary into one’s hand, to sign cheques (which we had to do, though of course we would never have to pay them).’ And although Podhoretz may himself never become rich on a lordly scale, as long as a deep-pockets patron is picking up the tab, as long as the party is deductible, he intends to belly up to the banquet table and dig in. A Depression-era kid with a poverty mentality, ‘I had … been taking it for granted that the best of everything was not for the likes of me, that thinking rich and even thinking famous were dangerous habits of mind, and sinful ones as well.’ Enough of this internal poor-mouthing! From now on Podhoretz is going to emulate Mailer, who makes no apology for grabbing life by the golden buttocks and breaking every protocol of literary decorum that the tsk-tsking ‘prigs of the New Republic school of criticism’ hold dear. He fiddled with the notion of writing a book about Mailer, he confides:

Such a book, I thought, ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought in itself to constitute a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame and money all in one package, otherwise it would be unable to extricate itself from the toils of the dirty little secret. Writing a book like that would be a very dangerous thing to do, but some day, I told myself, I would like to try doing it.

I just have.

And so the book ends, with a clunk.

As Podhoretz​ was about to learn, there was room for only one Norman in the marquee, and it wasn’t him. There would be no buddy movies in their future. It was more than an assertion of alpha male dominance on Mailer’s part that prompted the Partisan Review piece. He was still fried over what he perceived as Podhoretz’s treachery in the court of Queen Jacqueline, the slain president’s incandescent widow. A year or so earlier, Podhoretz had thrown a dinner party for Jackie Kennedy and not only was Mailer singularly not invited, his literary nemesis William Styron had been asked in his stead to entertain her highness. The Jackie Effect had the power to madden literary men’s minds in the post-Camelot 1960s and in later years Mailer conceded that there may have been a sharp bit of payback involved. ‘I’m diabolical enough in my own small way that I could have set him up by telling him I was going to redress everything.’ He did offer a partial redressing – it wasn’t an all-out demolition job that Mailer delivered. His essay-meditation on Making It is one of those Maileresque extravaganzas where the weather pattern changes from paragraph to paragraph and the argument performs a reverse-ferret, bashing the naysaying reviewers as muckers, yahoos and ‘humpty-beaters’, strewing a rose petal path of compliments (‘a perfectly decent and honourable book very well written for much of its length’, ‘gifted with an agreeable variety of aperçus on matters such as status, class, privilege and clan’, ‘an interesting book, very interesting in its way’), and then, Podhoretz softened up for the kill, it’s clobbering time. Mailer’s primary indictment is of Podhoretz’s failure of nerve in vivisecting the inner workings of ‘that literary establishment of New York which Podhoretz calls The Family’. He finks out, practising a cautious politesse that is deadly to the book (‘Only Saul Bellow and [James] Baldwin are shown in any kind of unattractive light and then with care and preparation of context in order to strike no undue foul blow’), sapping its force, piddling away its momentum. Making It may have been intended as a tell-all, but what it delivered was a tepid modified limited hangout, to borrow a Watergate catchphrase. ‘Characters come in and out, observations are made, names file through [or as Sheed put it more comically, ‘the names come rumbling out like clowns from a circus car’], Podhoretz suffers, becomes an editor, thrives, we do not care.’

When the issue of Partisan Review billing Mailer’s review on the cover arrived at Podhoretz’s hotel room in Washington DC, where he was on a promotional tour, he was ‘flabbergasted, incredulous’. The review bore no relation to the encouraging sentiments Mailer had expressed when he read the galley. He accused Mailer of his own failure of nerve, of acting the role of bad-boy revolutionary while not crossing certain lines with the Establishment, preferring to side with the shunners. Mailer countered that, whatever his mixed motives, it was a second reading of the book that gave him second thoughts, not any navigational tacking to keep himself on the safe side of the druid elders. Lines of communication remained temporarily open between the Normans, but their beautiful bromance was over.

In retrospect, Mailer told the Paris Review, his chief regret was that he felt partly guilty about Podhoretz’s gnashing adoption of neoconservatism after being jilted:

Looking back on it, I was probably too cruel. He went into a depression and stayed there for about a year … just didn’t do much. Worked on his magazine and listened to music and hardly saw anyone. And by the end of that time, he’d moved over to the right. Podhoretz is nothing if not active and enterprising. So the moment he moved over to the right, it wasn’t enough to be on the right, he had to be far to the right. And so I feel that I’m responsible, to whatever degree, for helping to have shoved him over there.

But, once over there, Podhoretz set up camp to great strategic advantage, rechristening Commentary as the flagship of neoconservatism and pumping rhetorical Viagra into America’s military-foreign policy. He was an enemy of détente (first-term Reagan was considered soft on the Soviets), a champion of the Contras, an advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The armchair bombardier was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2004. He was editor for 35 years, the magazine steadfastly supported by the American Jewish Committee even after its circulation dropped and its contributors narrowed into the same old bag of ideologues and pontificators, a far cry from its eclectic prime. Even so, he and the magazine he headed changed history, though not for the better. Since retirement (Commentary’s current editor is his son, John, doing his valiant bit for nepotism), Podhoretz has only gone further right, so far right he might as well be in outer space. In 2010, he announced that he would rather have Sarah Palin occupying the Oval Office than Barack Obama, and in the last election he kinda-sorta endorsed Donald Trump, which one might chalk up to perverse dotage (from Trilling to Trump, what a spiral) if it weren’t part of a decades-long pattern of hitching his cart to the most opprobrious conservative showboat available. (He may have also retained an affinity for rich guys unashamed to live large. If the hospitality at Huntington Hartford’s luxury resort gave him a long rolling orgasm, imagine how much he might plotz at Mar-a-Lago.)

Podhoretz’s lurch to the right served another strategic function. It allowed him to frame the downing of Making It as the initial penalty for the sin of Speaking Out, which he fashioned into a soapbox on which he would grandstand for evermore as the martyr-avenger of political correctness, defiantly violating liberal shibboleths and lecturing everybody else on their loss of courage and conviction. In a cover story for Harper’s magazine, he appropriated George Orwell as a neoconservative, doing his not very subtle best to make the association rub off on him as a kindred conscience and deodorant spray against the ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ of the age. He also reinvented himself as a family man upholding traditional values, even though, as Diana Trilling pointed out, ‘all this home-and-family line of his today postdates the debacle of Making It.’ At the time he was as feverish and consumed with sexual tumult as one would expect Norman Mailer’s wingman to be. The stern upholder of heterosexual norms was a later guise. Along with star-spangled kitsch such as My Love Affair with America and neocon tracts such as The Bloody Crossroads, The Present Danger and World War IV, Podhoretz fathered a pair of sequels to Making It, further investigations of the wonder of himself. This was not unforeseen. In the witty wind-up to his review of Making It in the New York Review, Edgar Z. Friedenberg mused: ‘We may surely hope that successive volumes will permit us to follow the career of this remarkable, still young man. And they may be more mellow; sometimes as we age, memory softens our perceptions of reality. In Podhoretz Returns and Son of Podhoretz, the monster may turn out to have a heart of gold.’

How shrewd of Friedenberg to perceive that Making It might be the first instalment of a Frankenstein trilogy. How mistaken he was in floating the prospect of mellow maturity. Podhoretz’s memory didn’t soften. He became a permanent sorehead. (Thirty years after Sheed’s putdown of Making It, Podhoretz accosted him at a party, called him a son of a bitch, then huffed off. ‘Welcome to the world of Norman Podhoretz,’ Sheed wrote, ‘where enemies are for ever.’) Quaking with hectoring tendentiousness and meretricious motive-mongering (the presumption that his foes are always under the thumb of venal impulses or gutless pandering), rewriting history to cast its crusty hero in the jagged light of the prophets, Podhoretz Returns and Son of Podhoretz – or, as they’re officially known, Breaking Ranks (1979) and Ex-Friends (1999) – read like bills of indictment written with a chisel. ‘The brutal simplifier! The brutal, little mind of Norman Podhoretz!’ Kazin jotted in his journal after spending a few foul hours with Breaking Ranks. By the time Podhoretz got to Ex-Friends, he was recycling anecdotes and digging up old grudges from the graveyard. With a weary sigh, John Leonard eulogised the dying quail of Podhoretz’s career for the Nation:

It’s an old story, and even my own, so let’s be brief. Once upon a time you were a Wunderkind, and now, oh so suddenly, you’re an old fart. And it turns out that a lot of people you thought were your friends really just wanted you to write something for them, or publish something they had written, or get them a foundation grant, and now they’ve gone to some other party for Susan Sontag. This is unfair, but no excuse for a Lear-like rage, a howling on the blasted heath.

Friends are fickle, enemies are for ever, and the face in the mirror every morning fades to parchment. Now, at the age of 87, Podhoretz is an even older fart, but one who can take grim satisfaction, if his mind inclines that way, at having outlived all of his enemies, detractors, disappointers, tormentors and rivals, of being able literally to have the last word. Kazin, Mailer, Hellman, Sheed, Leonard, McCarthy, Sontag, Gore Vidal, the whole Partisan Review crew, gone to dust. Even younger antagonists such as Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn predeceased him. Postwar Manhattan has receded into myth, the parties over, the status updates finished for good. Loved ones have also left, losses closer to home. Since the death of his daughter Rachel in 2013, the New York Times reported in a recent profile of Podhoretz, he and Midge, married for sixty years, seldom venture from their East Side apartment, his mobility severely hindered by spinal stenosis. A poignant tableau, but at least Making It was revived while he was still there to receive one last round of attention, one last chance to dish. As for Podhoretz’s eventual legacy, I can only think of Gladys George’s epitaph for Jimmy Cagney’s slain gangster at the fadeout of The Roaring Twenties: ‘He used to be a big shot.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 39 No. 12 · 15 June 2017

I visited Hannah Arendt shortly after the publication of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, the reissue of which James Wolcott writes about (LRB, 18 May). The book infuriated her. She said it was the only truly pornographic book she had ever read. Her anger at his reference to her New Year’s Eve party prompted her to cancel it as an annual event – she later resurrected it on a much smaller scale.

Jack Blum
Annapolis, Maryland

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences