Big Pod

Richard Poirier

  • Ex-Friends by Norman Podhoretz
    Free Press, 256 pp, US $25.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 684 85594 1

This book is ostensibly about six literary figures with whom Norman Podhoretz, for 35 years the editor-in-chief of Commentary, was closely involved from the early Fifties until the early Seventies: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Lillian Hellman and Norman Mailer. It was in the early years of this same period, the first five years of the Sixties, that what was often called the Family, a closely allied group of mostly New York intellectuals who published largely in Partisan Review and Commentary, came to prominence in the United States and when, as a consequence, it began also to disperse. Its members found themselves invited to write for other and much higher paying national magazines like the New Yorker, Esquire, Vogue, even Playboy. As a result, the Family’s cohesiveness was gradually disappearing as the national prestige of some of its members was markedly increasing. This was the world that Podhoretz entered in the late Fifties when he came onto the New York literary scene as a writer and editor.

Ex-Friends isn’t primarily about ex-friends, even assuming that all of them were his friends to begin with. Instead, it can best be understood as yet another of Podhoretz’s celebrations of himself and his illustrious career, from his time as an undergraduate at Columbia, class of 1950, with grades of A-plus from Lionel Trilling and Fred Dupee, continuing at Clare College, Cambridge, where he got a First in English and an invitation from F. R. Leavis, a figure he came to admire more even than he admired Trilling, to write for Scrutiny. Not long after that and still in his early twenties, he began appearing in Partisan Review and Commentary, and soon enough in the New Yorker. He retired from his long, extraordinarily successful editorship of Commentary in 1995, to become its editor-at-large and to continue writing books, of which Ex-Friends is his seventh.

Some of the material will already be familiar to readers of Making It (1967) and Breaking Ranks (1979), two of his best books. He is a skilful anecdotist, with a sharp eye for social conduct and a good sense of timing. So that even when he is telling us something he has told us before, the account is always freshened by embellishments of detail and enhancements of tone, by new feelings about old material. At the same time, however, his frequent rehearsal of personal encounters, of public and private debates, raises the question of just what it is that Podhoretz finds so compelling and so satisfying about his own career and achievements. Oddly, nothing about them puzzles him in any way.

Podhoretz has known himself a marked man since his early teens. The brightest boy in one of the impoverished, largely Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, he was acknowledged by teachers, parents and fellow students as the best and the brightest, the one for whom there were great expectations in a neighbourhood where expectations of any kind were in short supply. The only son – there was also a daughter who is barely mentioned – of hard-working, supportive, Yiddish and English-speaking parents, growing up in a tough but precariously self-respecting community which would later become a black ghetto, Podhoretz was the star pupil in the local high school, where white students felt threatened by gangs of teenaged blacks. In his 1963 essay ‘My Negro Problem – and Ours’, this early experience of feeling, as a white boy, that it is he, not the black kids, who belongs to the persecuted minority, is offered as a justification for his argument that the white man’s fear, envy and hatred of blacks, a hatred amply reciprocated, is so ingrained as to be ineradicable, short of the impossible solution that it disappear through miscegenation. As a teenager he found some measure of protection, and no end of personal satisfaction, when he was admitted to the most prestigious neighbourhood gang of whites, who proudly and ostentatiously displayed on the back of their red jackets the insignia of the Spartan Athletic Club. Since he wasn’t ever to be much of an athlete, his admission was all the more convincing evidence that he had been accepted by the tougher kids as one of their own despite the intellectual distinctions that might more easily have marginalised him as one of the élite effete. And he’d managed this, had succeeded in identifying himself as both an intellectual star and an ordinary guy, without needing to compromise himself in either role.

Long before he made it at Columbia or at Cambridge, longer still before he began to rise to a position of prominence among the New York literary intellectuals, Podhoretz had thus proved to his own lasting satisfaction that he need never become alienated from the impoverished, lower-class East European, Jewish neighbourhood where he grew up.

The boy was father to the man, and a pattern had been set which has become more stridently pronounced in his thinking ever since. He wants insistently to persuade his readers of his importance as a high-powered intellectual but he wants, too, to give a determining credit for his success to home truths, truths embodied not in ideas or theories only, but in his own, always challenging social and ethnic background. This requires him to resist the lures of intellectual gentility, while his experience of the constraints and physical challenges of growing up in a working-class neighbourhood has allowed him to be quite unembarrassed by his desire for worldly success and power, along with the luxuries that may come with them.

It is in his dress rather than his language – Podhoretz’s writing is almost always elegantly phrased and supple, closer to Henry James than to Damon Runyon – that he likes to announce his lower-class affiliations. There is a pattern of such sartorial signals, running from childhood to maturity.

In Ex-Friends, he is proud to report a sartorial victory for his class during an exchange of words with Jacqueline Kennedy in the hall of the spectacularly grand Manhattan apartment to which she moved after her husband’s assassination. They had become friendly in the course of earlier meetings, once at a state dinner in the White House and another time, while she was still First Lady, at one of George Plimpton’s gatherings on the Upper East Side. Now, arriving with his wife for the first party she’d invited him to in her new home, Podhoretz distinguished himself from her obsequious admirers both by his dress and even more emphatically by his rejoinder to her mocking comments about it:

I arrived from the West Side in what Jackie considered improper attire, and as she ran her big eyes up and down from my head to my toes, she smiled sweetly and said, ‘Oh, you’ve scooted across the park from the West Side in your little brown suit and your big brown shoes.’ To which the Brooklyn boy still alive in me replied: ‘Fuck you, Jackie’ ... And so we became even faster friends than we already were.

Who would expect anything different?

There is something very revealing about his decision to tell this story in that section of Ex-Friends devoted to Norman Mailer, very much his buddy when the episode occurred. Far more explicitly than Podhoretz, Mailer had always been a theorist of the function of obscenity in American culture, and therefore in his own speech and writing. In The Armies of the Night, for example, he describes the huge Vietnam protest march on the Pentagon when he was one of the leaders of a contingent of mostly New York writers and intellectuals. As the protestors face off with the National Guard he discovers that his loyalty is divided between his intellectual commitment to his fellow protestors, many of them college kids of draft age, and his instinctive respect and affection for the young, often Southern, and distinctly non-collegiate soldiers of the same age, blocking the way. ‘Average pals and buddies,’ Mailer calls them, ‘“real” American teenagers’, They bring to mind his own days as a soldier in World War Two, when he was part of a citizens’ army that was ‘redolent of “obscenity” ’, an army quite unlike the ‘army’ of protestors with whom he now marches, an ‘army’ ‘dominated by “concepts” ’. And for a moment he imagines a truly national union of the two. He confesses that he ‘never felt more like an American than when he was naturally obscene – all the gifts of the American language came out in the happy play of obscenity against concept, which enabled one to go back to concept again’.

Podhoretz is being too demure when he tries to persuade the readers of Ex-Friends that he had come to accept the fact that ‘my ambition’ for greatness was ‘not remotely a match’ for Mailer’s. He entertains at least the possibility that as a writer and the editor of arguably the most influential intellectual journal in America – Partisan Review had ceded any claims of that sort to the New York Review of Books, which allowed itself, Podhoretz charges, to ‘become a spokesman for the radical movement of the Sixties’ – he as much as anyone qualifies as leader and spokesperson of a new American consensus. It is to be guided in its policies by a dedication to those values that Podhoretz discovered were his own during the formative years in Brooklyn. They include devotion to family, loyalty to one’s own kind, marital fidelity, the validity of one’s own experiences, an unembarrassed ambition to make it, and a patriotic militancy in defence of the country that had given him the opportunity to fulfil his ambitions.

Podhoretz, for whom the problem of vocation was at the time especially vexing, had decided that his ambition, unstated though it was, was to help foster this American consensus. He admired Commentary’s film critic, Robert Warshow, for once saying, ‘A man watches a movie and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man’ – ordinary in his reaction however exceptional his talents for analysis. Podhoretz is in effect saying, without at first becoming an absolutist about it, that to exert any influence on the course of events, intellectuals must sometimes voluntarily abridge one of the special privileges long considered necessary to the conduct of intellectual speculation: the free invention of alternatives even while recognising that many of them require courses of action that are clearly impossible. In other words, while intellectuals in the academy or in speculative journals are not required to come up with workable solutions even when a solution is urgently required, to retreat into endless and ineffectual theorising is irresponsible and marginalising.

Over the past thirty years Podhoretz has mostly purged his writing of any such equivocation – along with the flexibilities of tone that it encourages – and attacks evidence of equivocation in the writings of others as downright ‘immoral’. In the chapter of Ex-Friends reserved for the Trillings, for example, he repeats an attack made first in 1982, in his book Why We Were in Vietnam, on two editors of Dissent: the political theorist Michael Walzer and the literary and social critic Irving Howe. Though the attack on these two occurs in the Trilling chapter, it has no direct connection with any strains in his relationship with the Trillings. He had known in the early Seventies that both of them felt he was moving too far to the right, a suspicion confirmed when he became a devoted supporter of Ronald Reagan and willingly accepted the label of neo-conservative. But out of reverence for Lionel, his old mentor, Podhoretz tended to focus his annoyance on the often more obsessed, outspoken Diana. He had always treated her, he confesses, ‘as though she were a little crazy’, a suspicion which becomes notoriously easy to confirm, once it takes hold.

The diatribe against Howe and Walzer may to some degree be a redirection of the annoyance with Mrs Trilling that he has just been expressing: ‘All she seemed to care about was refuting the people who had accused anti-Communists like her of lending aid and comfort to McCarthyism in the 1950s, and her way of doing this was to accuse anti-Communists like me of the same crime in relation to those forces that she regarded as McCarthyism’s present-day legatees.’

Anyone who feels a bit lost in this terminological breathing exercise, knowing that Podhoretz can reduce anything to a diagrammatic clarity when he wants to, will suspect that the sentence is meant as a parody of intellectualist garbling and that its purpose is to make a transition to his related troubles with the prose of Howe and Walzer:

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