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:

In the world of ideas it is possible to keep one’s political skirts clean. One can favour this and oppose that even when in the real world the ‘that’ follows inexorably from the ‘this’; or one can support an end while refusing to back the only available means for getting to it. This is why intellectuals are so often drawn to ‘the third way’ or ‘the third force’ – that is, some currently non-existent or utopian future alternative to the choices that are actually on offer in the here and now.

A vivid illustration came during the Vietnam War (about which I was to write a book in 1982), when certain people took the position that they were against both Saigon and Hanoi. What then were they for? The answer given in a piece written jointly by Irving Howe and the political theorist Michael Walzer, the editors of Dissent, after the war was over was that they had ‘hoped for the emergence of a Vietnamese “third force” capable of rallying the people in a progressive direction by enacting land reforms and defending civil liberties’. But since, as they themselves admitted, there was very little chance that this would happen, to have thrown their energies into opposing the American effort was tantamount to working for the Communist victory they said (in all sincerity) they did not want. Nothing daunted by this contradiction, they still awarded themselves moral congratulations on having been against the evils on both sides of the war ... Yet considering the actual alternatives that existed, what did the urging of ‘a relatively complex argument’ avail other than to make those who urged it feel pleased with themselves? If, as I added in my book, it served any purpose at all for the people of South Vietnam, it was to help deliver them over to the ‘blinding simplicities’ of the totalitarianism whose hideous workings Howe and Walzer were now happy to denounce and protest against, even though there was no one in Hanoi or Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City) to listen or to hear.

I myself was no different from Howe or Walzer in my stance on the Vietnam War while it was going on, but I drew an entirely different lesson from the horrors that ensued when it was over. This lesson was that refusing to choose between the only alternatives before one because neither was perfect or pretty, or because one could envisage some future possibility that might or might not ever be realised but that was nevertheless uniquely worthy of one’s support in the present, was not to act morally but to evade one’s moral responsibility. And there was for me a corollary to this lesson, which was that one ought to join the side one was now on instead of engaging in a futile struggle to change the side one used to be on.

These sentences are a good illustration of how Podhoretz has chosen to style himself, to carry himself in the expression of political and cultural differences over the past twenty-five years. A hint of sanctimoniousness, coupled with a brawlingly prejudiced representation of an opponent’s position, leading to a crescendo of self-inflation under cover of which he disengages himself once and for all from his adversaries – it is just this sort of posturing that can disenchant even those who might otherwise share his opinions. He attacks and belittles Howe and Walzer because, faced with a choice between what Podhoretz says are the only tenable positions – for or against American intervention – they fastidiously avoided making a firm commitment to either, but consoled themselves with a third alternative even while recognising it as politically unworkable. This, Podhoretz alleges, was morally irresponsible. He is forgetting his own careful arguments in the past that, in a free society, an intellectual or a philosopher ought not to be entirely confined in his thinking to the possibilities that life seems to have allowed him, much less to those still more limiting possibilities made available by some political system or other. It is only by speculating about other possibilities, however impracticable they seem to be, that individuals and communities may come to a better understanding of the fact that realities are often the creation of political systems before they turn out to be entrapments.

In any case, Podhoretz’s withholding of sympathy for the dilemma faced by Howe and Walzer is a bit curious, given that he, no less than they, admits to having opposed the war while it was going on. His position, before the war ended, wasn’t in any important respect different from theirs. Only with the war’s end, and the horrors that ensued in Vietnam (and Cambodia), did he decide that he had been wrong. As he argues at length in Why We Were in Vietnam, the American intervention, defeated though it was, and in part because of the restraints imposed on it by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, was in retrospect an essential and noble demonstration to the world, and especially to the Communists, that America was determined even under the most daunting circumstances to fight against any expansion anywhere of Communist domination. Howe and Walzer had failed, it is true, to understand this necessity – if it was one – during the Vietnam War. So, too, had Podhoretz, however, and despite his resolve to turn a new leaf, he no less than they had been guilty of ‘evading moral responsibility’, as he has subsequently come to understand it. What, then, does all this huffing and puffing add up to? No more, it turns out, than the complaint that Howe and Walzer still manage to ‘feel pleased with themselves’ and don’t consequently pledge never again to exercise their freedom of choice should another Vietnam come along. It’s all wind up and no delivery, unless one counts the weak pitch to himself in the final sentences and his scoreless hit: his muddled and flustered expression of resolve that hereafter he, and everyone else, must ‘join the side one was now on instead of engaging in a futile struggle to change the side one used to be on’.

Podhoretz is at his best when he forgoes political debate of this sort and where in his recollections he is able to get close to and stay close in a personal way to those few ex-friends with whom he actually achieved some degree of intimacy and affection. Unfortunately, this happened almost exclusively with Mailer and Hellman. And significantly enough, it is these two famously seductive and lively personalities, who were long known to hold political beliefs antithetical to his own, even if the gap was smaller in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when he first befriended them.

Allen Ginsberg, the subject of his first chapter, never counted as a friend, even in the early Fifties when both were at Columbia, where Ginsberg was a few classes ahead of him. Ginsberg was then writing poetry influenced by earlier English poetry, mostly of the 17th century, and editing a college literary magazine where Podhoretz published a poem of his own. All their subsequent encounters consisted for the most part of arguments about Podhoretz’s published attacks in the later Fifties on the Beats and everything they stood for. In one of the most interestingly detailed and effectively dramatised scenes in the chapter, Podhoretz tells of a Saturday night in 1958 when, sitting at home with no plans, casually dressed and unshaven, he received a call from Ginsberg, or rather from Kerouac’s girlfriend on behalf of Ginsberg and Kerouac, inviting him to Ginsberg’s apartment in Greenwich Village for a talk. A Columbia drop-out, Kerouac was once caught in bed with Ginsberg in a college dormitory, leading to Ginsberg’s suspension for a year. Podhoretz, by 1958 a junior editor of Commentary, had recently written a scathing attack in the New Republic on the ethos of the Beat generation, concentrating on Ginsberg and Kerouac, who had identified themselves, in Podhoretz’s words, as leaders of a ‘revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul’. Besides dope addiction, the Beats, Podhoretz complained, had made homosexuality one of the features of their rebellion.

Knowing he was in for a tense and unpleasant evening, which he couldn’t avoid without appearing cowardly, he was determined to dress in a way that wouldn’t indicate any concession to the sartorial fashions of the Beats. He shaved and wore a jacket and tie. Once again he was using clothing to announce the man he knew himself to be. After declining to join Ginsberg and the others in smoking pot, Podhoretz managed to stand his ground until three in the morning, while Ginsberg ‘harangued me for my stupid failure to recognise Kerouac’s genius and his’. All the while Kerouac, who seemed more handsome to Podhoretz than he had looked even in his photographs, was mostly silent. Kerouac, Podhoretz was to conclude, was likeable and charming, however repellent he had found him in print.

What seems especially to haunt Podhoretz about the evening was Ginsberg’s final shot as Podhoretz was leaving the apartment: ‘We’ll get you through your children.’ He means, obviously, that he and the Beats will ultimately convert these children to their ways of thinking. And most ominously included in their ways of thinking, so far as Podhoretz was concerned, was the beatification of homosexuality and a proselytising zeal on its behalf. Ginsberg’s threat hit Podhoretz – the ever-growing list of whose children and grandchildren is proudly displayed in the successive dedications of his various books – where he lives, and helps explain why several pages of the chapter are given over to another paranoid attack on homosexual practices and, particularly, on the gay rights movement.

In his most recent encyclical on this subject, ‘How the Gay Rights Movement Won’ (Commentary, November 1996), Podhoretz sees the movement as a political threat, insisting as it does on the extension to gays of all the legal rights long since granted to heterosexuals. Even more ominously, it is a cultural threat against what Podhoretz regards as ‘the fundamental realities of life’. Hence his conclusion that ‘the terrible distortions and agitations’ of gay activists are ‘of great moment not just to the proportionately small number of practising homosexuals, but to all the rest of us as well’.

Besides Ginsberg, Columbia brought a number of others into his life, all of them more friendly than Ginsberg ever proved to be. There were, for example, the soon-to-be-distinguished poet and scholar John Hollander, the critic Steven Marcus, and Jason Epstein, destined to become a force in New York publishing. None of these was to figure in his career with the importance of Lionel Trilling. The two first met when, in his senior year, Podhoretz enrolled in Trilling’s seminar on 19th-century English poetry, and their close, essentially teacher-student relationship, with all the tensions that can go with it, was to last until Trilling’s death in 1975. When, a year after graduating from Columbia, Podhoretz was asked by Leavis to review The Liberal Imagination, he set out to show that Trilling was America’s Matthew Arnold. All the same, he became convinced that literary criticism would never again be thought of as the great synoptic subject, and that no one in the future would achieve the fame and centrality granted to Trilling in America and Leavis in England.

And it was at the centre that he wanted to be. Trilling the mentor now became Trilling the career counsellor. Brief mention is made in Ex-Friends of an episode that took place in the summer of 1952 in a cottage rented by the Trillings in Westport, Connecticut. The longer account in Making It gives a better idea of the issues and especially the temperaments brought into play:

after a swim and several martinis, I began talking my head off about Cambridge, about Leavis, about Europe, and even, finally, about my secret uncertainties. My still inchoate but nevertheless clearly heretical sentiments about literature and my incipient rebellion against the academic life had been causing me a good deal of anxiety – was I turning into a ‘sellout’? – and I had feared that they might shock Trilling, who had, after all, followed the very course I was half-consciously proposing to desert on the ground – was it a rationalisation? – that there was something false in such a life for someone like me.

But again I had him wrong. Yes, of course, he said, he understood exactly what I meant, and proceeded – with a witchlike precision which the hesitant style of his speech and the diffidently soft quality of his voice left one unprepared for and somehow surprised by, even though one knew he was Lionel Trilling and one of the most intelligent men in the world, to tell me what it was I had been trying to say. When he had finished, he asked me what I really wanted to do with myself, what kind of power I was after, thus ensuring that if anyone was to be shocked that afternoon, it would be me. Power? Who ever said anything about power? What did I have to do with power, or it with me? ‘Don’t be silly,’ he said, ‘everyone wants power. The only question is what kind. What kind do you want?’ Well, I asked slyly, what kinds were there to choose from? Money, he said, was a form of power, so was fame, so was eminence in a given profession. Oh in that case, I replied, greatly relieved, the answer was fame, no doubt about it.

He would soon, in 1960, be offered a position absolutely, ideally suited to his wants and ambitions. The editorship of Commentary already carried with it considerable political and cultural influence. But these were very substantially augmented by the changes he quickly brought about in the magazine, by his success in expanding its readership, and by the growing recognition that it was becoming a truly national journal. Though it was a job he quite desperately wanted and needed, if only to guarantee, at last, a salary large enough to support his family, he nevertheless demanded – and received – as a condition of his acceptance complete editorial freedom with no requirement that he consult, much less obtain approval for his editorial decisions from the American Jewish Council, whose financial support was essential to the existence of the magazine. Under Podhoretz’s editorship, Commentary would strongly defend Jewish interests in the United States and in the world, as it hastened to do when faced with the emergence of anti-semitism on the radical left during the late Sixties, but Podhoretz had freed himself even from any obligation to publish more than a few pieces now and then on matters having to do with Jewish customs or writing or religious practice.

It was to be, more than ever before, a journal of political and cultural controversy in the broadest sense. At the same time Podhoretz took full advantage of the fact that a good part of Commentary’s influence, in New York state and in national politics, derived from the magazine’s close, influential ties to the largest, richest, most politically sophisticated Jewish community outside the state of Israel. Not only did New York Jews vote in large numbers for preferred candidates; they were also generous financial contributors at election time. Small wonder that Podhoretz was soon able to reminisce about state dinners at the White House, four-hour conversations with President Johnson, lunch with President Kennedy to discuss race relations in New York City, and consultations with his brother Robert Johnson, he concluded, was the most impressive of the three.

I suspect that the relationship between the Trillings and Podhoretz would not have remained so close had Podhoretz’s career taken a different direction. During the Sixties and Seventies their relationship seems to have consisted mostly of conversations about the political directions taken by Podhoretz in his writing and in his editorial decisions at Commentary. For that reason, the Trilling chapter is of interest mostly for its clarifications of Podhoretz’s political twists and turns. Podhoretz can be said to have originally modelled his anti-Communism on the Trillings’ and they were always alert for any signs of apostasy. He illustrates the complicated, often irritating results by recalling a conversation with Lionel Trilling in 1974:

Lionel told me one evening (using the Yiddish word for ‘soiled’ or ‘besmirched’) that Sidney Hook had beschmutzed his own name by going too far to the right in his recoil from Communism and that I was in danger of doing the same to myself in my war against the New Left ... Here, then, was a dramatic reversal of roles. Ten years earlier Lionel had cautioned me against going too far with the radical critique of American society and American foreign policy. A little later, I had in turn accused him of having been driven by a horror of Stalinism into extolling ‘the virtues of American society and the values of the middle-class spirit’ and thereby abdicating the intellectual’s proper role as a critic of society. Now it was he who was accusing me (not bluntly but in the language of friendly concern) of overreacting to the excesses of the new radicalism by becoming an uncritical participant in what had once been derided by his own leftist critics as ‘the American celebration’.

The recurrent, sometimes quite heated disagreements between them never reached breaking point, even when Trilling, along with nearly all their mutual friends in New York, disapproved of Making It. After reading it in manuscript, Trilling advised Podhoretz not to publish it. In the event it was widely criticised for being arrogant, brassy and vulgar, too proud of revealing that what the intellectuals really yearn for is broad public acclaim, financial success, and the perks, privileges and luxuries bestowed up to that time only on the high rollers in business, investment and entertainment. The book was always, in my view, persuasive and engaging; it has since been accepted as pretty close to the truth.

The chapter in Ex-Friends devoted to Hannah Arendt includes some memorable scenes, some measured and illuminating comments on her work, and accounts of their arguments, both in public and in private. Podhoretz proclaims himself the winner in each of these encounters. We are given to understand that this was no mean achievement. Just before what sounds like an agonisingly detailed exchange between the two of them, haggling over every line of his unfavourable review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, he reminds himself, and us, that he ‘was about to be challenged by one of the most formidable minds in the world’. Three hours later, he emerged by his own account without a scratch.

They first met and established a bond in 1957, when Podhoretz was still an associate editor of Commentary. At the age of 27 he was to resign from that position, thereby giving up a salary he couldn’t easily afford to give up, in protest against the magazine’s handling of an article of hers opposing the use of the National Guard to enforce the mandated integration of black and white high-school students in Little Rock, Arkansas. The dispatching of troops was as enthusiastically applauded by Arendt’s New York associates as it was by the editorial staff of Commentary, including Podhoretz himself. He was nevertheless impressed and fascinated by ‘the originality of her position and the hidden corners and generally ignored complexities it brought to light’.

These were the days when he still believed that the function of an intellectual magazine wasn’t simply to affirm the politics of its editors and readers. Her position was, indeed, a complicated one. In favour of integration and sympathetic to the cause of blacks and of all oppressed people, she was at the same time opposed to the decision ‘to force the issue of desegregation in the field of public education rather than in some other field of the campaign for Negro rights’. What struck Podhoretz ‘was not the abstract philosophical case she constructed but the moral indignation she expressed over the burden that was being placed on the children by the strategy of starting with the schools’.

Podhoretz’s costly efforts on her behalf ought to have assured some reciprocal loyalty and regard on her part. He had every right to suppose that it had. So he was surprised to find in her posthumously published correspondence that in letters to her dear friend Mary McCarthy – known to her New York associates as ‘our leading bitch intellectual’ – she gives the impression that she shares McCarthy’s resentful and dismissive view of Podhoretz. McCarthy’s grievance is traceable to a less than enthusiastic review Podhoretz had written of her work in a 1956 issue of Commentary, but Podhoretz would like to believe that Arendt had wanted only to give the impression that she agreed, as she did in so much else with her dearest Mary, that he was a kind of smart aleck. An unlikely reading, it seems to me. By all indications, including those given by Podhoretz himself, Arendt was more than willing to get into an argument about anything and anyone, even with her former lover and lifelong friend Martin Heidegger. Clearly, she was prepared to take on nearly everyone close to her in New York when her Eichmann book appeared in 1963.

Like most others he knew, Podhoretz found much to disapprove of in the book. Besides her many disparaging references to Zionism and her characterisation of Eichmann as an example of ‘the banality of evil’, Arendt argued that Jewish victims of the Holocaust were complicit in the sacrifice of many of their own in order, so they hoped, to save at least a few. They had, without knowing it, become accomplices. At the time he wrote his review, however, he was still happy to acknowledge the power of mind and the essential decency of motive even in arguments he found impermissible. The book, he says, ‘was even more original and more brilliant’ than her article on Little Rock and school integration. All the same, it was for that very reason necessary to expose and condemn its fallacies. It was, the title of his review announced, a book about the banality of evil but it was an example of the perversity of its own genius.

The split with Arendt wasn’t to happen till a bit later in the Sixties. By then she had moved distinctly to the left and to a still more outspoken anti-Americanism, at least as Podhoretz measures these things. A sign of that was her lavish praise of Mary McCarthy’s account, first printed in the New York Review of Books, of her visit to wartime Hanoi. ‘This still and beautiful pastoral of yours,’ she wrote to McCarthy, ‘is one of the very finest, most marvellous things you’ve done.’ Memorably a part of this ‘beautiful pastoral’ was McCarthy’s scornful description of some American prisoners of war, cleaned up and paraded before her by her North Vietnamese hosts. The American boys were uncouth and uncultured, she complained, capable of expressing interest only in how the Chicago Cubs were doing. (It might have occurred to her that prisoners in danger of being beaten and tortured might well be afraid to inquire into anything less innocuous.) Arendt, Podhoretz had begun to notice, was always ready to dismiss American culture and its traditions, as compared, that is, to those of her native Germany, though it was these same American traditions that guaranteed her a safe haven from her native Germany and the freedom to do her work without threat of censorship, imprisonment, or the still worse fate of other German Jews.

Like his association with Arendt, Podhoretz’s friendships with Lillian Hellman and Norman Mailer began in the later Fifties. In the decade roughly from 1958 to 1968, his political attitude was relaxed somewhat, as was the Trillings’, by hints of a thaw in the Cold War, thanks to Khrushchev’s coming to power and the publication of his secret speech condemning Stalin. An equally important factor in Podhoretz’s general loosening up were developments in his own life. Concentrating as he had since his teens on building a career and a family, and though his delight and pride in both continued to sustain him, he had begun to wonder whether he hadn’t closed himself off from some of the pleasures and adventures, social as well as intellectual, that were still available to someone not yet out of his twenties. It was just at this point that he met, first Hellman and, through her, Norman Mailer.

Arriving at a party given by the Trillings in 1957, he was surprised to see Hellman standing among the guests. How, he wondered, did such a notorious Stalinist get invited to an intimate Family gathering? As it turned out, she had assured the Trillings, who had been friends of hers in the Twenties before the horror of Stalinism began to reveal itself, that she was no longer a political person. And it was known that she had been severing some of her old left-wing connections. But Podhoretz had considered her disqualified on other grounds as well. Most of the guests would have thought of her as a commercial and therefore necessarily a middlebrow writer. No one could deny, however, that she was a clever, entertaining, remarkably charming woman, admired by any number of the distinguished people who could be found at the glittering evenings in her richly furnished house on East 82nd Street.

When Podhoretz introduced himself to her at the Trillings, he was a young, little-known and aspiring critic, especially pleased not only that she already knew who he was but had just been reading and admiring a piece he’d published on Nathanael West, or ‘Pep’, as she very casually referred to one of her numerous former lovers. Political and literary hesitations aside, Podhoretz was charmed, and a few days later he received the first of many invitations, sometimes to intimate dinners at home cooked by herself – the food he remembers, still sounding a bit like the poor boy from Brooklyn, was ‘as good as anything one had eaten anywhere’ – sometimes to one of her parties, occasionally to weekends at her summer home overlooking the harbour at Vineyardhaven. His wife Midge Decter, herself a writer on public issues, managed to get along with Hellman, not an easy task, as the wives of other young favourites discovered when she would start referring to them as ‘Madam’. She once gave Podhoretz the Vineyard house all to himself when he needed a quiet place to work. ‘It was heady,’ he writes, ‘it was exciting, and it was fun. But most fun of all – playful, mischievous, bitchy, earthy, and always up for a laugh – was Lillian herself. Though she was 52 to my 27, so well did we hit it off that we became fast friends almost immediately, and over the next ten years or so we spent a great deal of time together.’

Hellman always enjoyed the company of bright, attractive men a good deal younger than herself, and in this instance it was a young man clearly destined for a position from which he could help shape literary and political opinion in ways not unfavourable to her. With his conservative credentials he, too, could be one of her champions, should her loyalty or veracity be challenged again, as it had been during the McCarthy period. They managed to avoid political discussions that might reveal and aggravate their basic differences. Besides, it was no longer necessary, he thought, ‘to keep fighting the old battles’. And though she wasn’t the kind of writer he could take seriously, he promised himself that he would never say anything about her work in print. All the while he was willing to do something for her he’d never done and would never do for any other writer: he pretended to like the pieces of memoir she would occasionally show him in manuscript.

It was inevitable and predictable, more so than Podhoretz seems ready to concede, that two such energetic, stubbornly opinionated and outspoken people who essentially didn’t agree on matters central to the lives of each of them – politics and writing – would come to a parting of the ways. How could this be avoided when Podhoretz was editing a monthly journal of political and literary opinion in which he was obliged to sound off on nearly every issue and was solely responsible for editorial policies. Having led Commentary in a leftward direction during his first years as editor-in-chief, soon after he and Hellman became friends, he began to feel politically uneasy as early as 1962. He refused that year to print the so-called Port Huron statement, a founding manifesto of the New Left and the Students for Democratic Action, out of which the more amorphous radical ‘Movement’ of the Sixties was to emerge. The Movement soon gave voice to the strident anti-Americanism and anti-intellectualism given full expression at Berkeley and other university campuses, in protest against the war in Vietnam. Podhoretz’s decision to attack the Movement didn’t by itself much bother Hellman. An old-style Communist sympathiser, she regarded these arrivistes as both scruffy and politically illiterate, and the Movement, she felt, lacked an articulated, guiding ideology.

She allowed herself to take offence, however, at Podhoretz’s increasing tendency, in Commentary and elsewhere, to use the term ‘anti-American’, as applied to radical groups like the Weathermen, in a manner that made it synonymous with the term ‘un-American’, used in the Fifties to harass people like her and eventually to imprison and impoverish her lover, Dashiell Hammett. Podhoretz’s anti-anti-American attacks were therefore inferentially an attack on her, or so she decided.

Accordingly, she summoned him ‘for a talk’ – a phrase he took as a warning of trouble ahead. There were to be just the two of them for the dinner she cooked herself, stewed goose, as it turned out. He gives no hint of the tone or movement of their conversation, except to say that it never became impolite. Instead, we’re offered a press secretary’s briefing, as of a meeting whose results were foregone:

I was much relieved to discover that her only complaint concerned the charge of anti-Americanism. I was also surprised to discover that she saw no difference between this term and the term un-American, which, she reminded me with a quavering voice, had done so much damage to so many people, herself included, in the past. To this I replied that to me the distinction was obvious: the charge of ‘un-American’ had been used to rule out certain beliefs and activities as alien and therefore illegitimate whereas the position I called anti-American was one that denounced the entire American system itself as illegitimate and openly and frankly opposed everything the United States was doing everywhere in the world.

I got nowhere with her and she got nowhere with me, and though we both remained polite throughout the evening and parted with the usual hugs and kisses, I knew as I walked through the door that it was just about all over between us and that I might well never hear from her again.

Podhoretz’s pedantic distinction between the two terms is indeed ‘obvious’. It is equally obvious that Hellman isn’t concerned with his kind of dictionary definition. She’s talking about the public use and general understanding of the terms. During the McCarthy period in particular, they had frequently been used as if they were interchangeable. Podhoretz was surely aware of this; he’s simply not interested in mollifying her, suspecting that her determination to stage this argument is evidence of the inevitability of a breach and not the cause of it. They had been on sabbatical together, and each had long since got what was wanted from the other. Podhoretz is unwilling to acknowledge that for once he can’t come out of a failed relationship with rhetorical flags flying in salute to his own nobility of purpose.

The adventures of the two Normans as related by Podhoretz in the final chapter is a kind of picaresque complete with such comic adventures as Mailer’s failed attempts to stage an orgy for the instruction and pleasure of his pal, and fearful moments, as when Mailer stabs his second wife Adele, almost fatally, and turns immediately to Podhoretz begging to be saved from the insane asylum even if it means going to prison (Adele declined to press charges), or the visit by the two of them, arranged at Mailer’s insistence, to a Yom Kippur service at the synagogue of the Lubavitch sect, located just around the corner from where Mailer grew up.

The chapter also offers a usefully detailed account of Podhoretz’s political misadventures when for a short spell he strayed from the conservative line on Sixties radicalism. It was then that he championed and helped secure the publication of two of the central texts of the Movement: Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, a book, as Podhoretz describes it in Breaking Ranks, that helped establish ‘a connection between the spiritual condition of the individual and the institutions by which that condition was shaped and formed, thereby providing the new radicalism with a political potential it had previously lacked’; and Norman O. Brown’s Life against Death, a dazzling revisionist study of Freud, demonstrating the consistency of Freudian analysis with Brown’s own vision of a life of ‘polymorphous perversity’, a life allowing for the free play of instinctual and sexual freedom.

When Podhoretz and Mailer first met, Podhoretz was close to finishing an essay on Mailer’s first three novels The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park. The best and most appreciative of any of the early essays on Mailer, it was to be published in a 1959 issue of Partisan Review and would later be part of Podhoretz’s first book, Doings and Undoings. Mailer felt that for the first time someone close to the centre of the Family had taken his work seriously; his gratitude was secured.

The closer he got to Mailer, the more Podhoretz came to admire his ‘ambition for greatness, and the naked frankness with which he expressed and pursued it without worrying about looking bad or actually making a fool of himself’. And even when, in Mailer’s essay ‘The White Negro’, he discovered some of the same pernicious ideas he had attacked in his essay on the Beats in ‘The Know-Nothing Bohemians’, he confesses that he was ‘fascinated’ by its ‘sheer moral brazenness’.

Nevertheless, Podhoretz’s feelings about Mailer and about his writing were conflicted from the very start. Again and again, but especially in Mailer’s essays, Podhoretz discovers, as he had in the writings of Hannah Arendt, a mixture of brilliance and perversity. And though for a time he shared some of Mailer’s left radicalism, he half-suspected that its all-encompassing formulations might amount, in Arthur Schlesinger’s words, only to ‘radical chatter’, no more relevant to the solution of problems, personal or political, than the ‘radical chatter’ of New York Stalinists, Trotskyites and socialists had been in the Thirties. Podhoretz’s sexual restlessness during the early Sixties made the hipster pursuit of immediate gratification superficially attractive, but the mindlessness that went with it only confirmed his devotion to home and family. Speaking in Breaking Ranks with an archness more characteristic of Gore Vidal, he remarks of Mailer and Brown that ‘whole centuries marched through their pages and gigantic generalisations were made; nothing small was here.’ And when Mailer offered examples of some of these generalisations, the results for Podhoretz proved to be horrendous, as when in ‘The White Negro’ he endows two teenage hoodlums’ senseless murder of a 50-year-old candy shop-keeper with hipster heroism. It was, Mailer said, an attack on the institution of private property: when ‘one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown.’ Diluted Genet, and yet it was precisely the outrageousness of such writing that induced Podhoretz to read Mailer’s first three novels, and then to write his adulatory essay ‘Norman Mailer: The Embattled Vision.’

After about 1965, long before their final break in 1979, relations between Podhoretz and Mailer began to fizzle, and for a variety of reasons. After Advertisements for Myself in 1959, Podhoretz found little to admire in Mailer’s work except for The Armies of the Night in 1968 and was openly scornful of much of it. He didn’t hide these disappointments from Mailer, which made him increasingly uncomfortable when in Mailer’s company. At the same time, Podhoretz and his wife were getting fed up with the way Mailer enacted his marital fights in front of them, complete with thrown plates and physical intimidations. For his part, Mailer would become so incensed by Podhoretz’s ridiculing of left orthodoxies and his declarations of faith in America that he would leave the dinner table altogether. Cordiality of a sort managed to survive all this; it survived even Mailer’s attack in the pages of Partisan Review on Podhoretz’s already beleaguered Making It, a book Mailer had privately assured Podhoretz he liked. What ended their relationship completely was Podhoretz’s answer to the review ten years later in Breaking Ranks. He explained the betrayal as a failure of courage, probably the most wounding charge anyone could level at Mailer. It was, Podhoretz explains, a craven effort by an insecure writer to curry favour with the Partisan Review crowd and the New York intellectual community. It was a ‘wink’ of complicity. Mailer didn’t speak to him for 15 years, and hasn’t spoken to him since in any manner that Podhoretz chooses to encourage.