By Norman Birnbaum
“Norman Podhoretz: A Biography,” a new book on the editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, by an extremely admiring author, Marquette University professor of English Thomas Jeffers, depicts him as both prophet and martyr. His prophetic status resides in his unequivocal defense of the values expressed in the traditionalism of the conservative minority of American Jewry and its indissoluble attachment to Israel. The U.S., and its Americanized Jewish majority, cannot be counted upon. Eternal vigilance is required if its truly Jewish citizens (and those gentiles insightful and noble enough to rally to their cause) are to keep both Jewry and the U.S. from falling to inner demons. These include, variously, vacuous sentimentalism, multiculturalism, tolerance of homosexuality, pacifism, compulsive egalitarianism, feminism and militant secularism.
Podhoretz is deemed a prophet for having waged this battle, some youthful wavering apart. He is, however, a martyr since he has been constantly damned for it by those who lack his belief in the redemptive qualities of the U.S. Above all, a Jewish majority addicted to “liberalism” persists in a spiritually shallow and morally self-defeating attachment to an American version of Western European social democracy. To make matters worse, that Jewish majority mistakenly believes it is following Jewish teaching. In fact, Podhoretz has insisted for more than 40 years, it is untrue to Judaism, endangering Israel—and undermining the foundations of its prosperity and security in the U.S.
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge University Press, 408 pages
Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
By Benjamin Balint
PublicAffairs, 304 pages
The author of this contemporary morality tale is obviously in agreement with his subject on every conflict-laden issue mentioned in the text. (On homosexuality, Jeffers and Podhoretz make Justice Antonin Scalia sound rather nuanced.) Ordinarily, a minimum of critical distance is useful to biographers, but Jeffers’ depiction of Podhoretz’s life and works is unwaveringly loyal. The volume may be understood as a family chronicle, written by a distant acquaintance anxious to be numbered among its friends.
Podhoretz once used the term “family” to describe the New York intellectuals of the ’50s and ’60s, a group he joined as a very young man. Much of the readability of his first memoir (he has been repeating and occasionally adding to it ever since), “Making It” (1968), is in the description of the group. They were the editors and major contributors to Commentary and Partisan Review. Jeffers himself is fascinated by the sheer aggressiveness of the group, collectively and individually, takes it as evidence of the group’s moral authenticity and excuses its excesses as spiritual collateral damage. He praises Podhoretz for his capacity to give as good as he gets.
The biography portrays Podhoretz as indeed struggling with large issues: his Jewish identity and his relationship with the U.S., the substance of American history, the nation’s role in the world. A long series of significant public events comprises the outer narrative: postwar prosperity and the integration of the white ethnic groups in the new American consensus; the serial crises of the Cold War; American social criticism and its consequences in the New Left; problems of class, gender, race; and the development of a new Republicanism with notable Jewish intellectual support.
The Podhoretz of the text is, however, not merely an unusually articulate participant in public argument. He is Superman rather than Everyman, emerging triumphant from the inner and outer travails that have reduced the rest of us to exhaustion if not bewilderment. Professor Jeffers makes it clear that whatever else Podhoretz may have acquired on his long journey from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he has inexorably shed his doubts.
Biographers frequently dwell on ambivalence, ambiguity, complexity, inner turbulence and the reversals of fate. Very little of that marks this text. As chapter succeeds chapter, its protagonist surmounts inner and outer obstacles to his own personal integration and social success with increasing ease, all the while devoting himself to the education of his people and his nation. Podhoretz began his career as a student of Lionel Trilling and then of his University of Cambridge contemporary, F.R. Leavis. Each was much more moralist than aesthetic formalist, and their student took their lessons so seriously that his writings became increasingly one-dimensional, even stentorian. The colors of Commentary under his influence gradually were reduced to two: black and white.
The book is a mirror rather like the distorting type in a funhouse, the very exaggerations of which tell us much. One has to bring to it a minimum of critical distance. My own reading is aided by the fact that at one point I knew Podhoretz quite well. We have had somewhat similar life experiences. I am mentioned only once, and very incidentally, in the text, but I also knew any number of the major and minor protagonists who people it. Briefly, I first met Podhoretz during visits to New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when I was teaching in the United Kingdom. Commentary published articles I wrote, as did Partisan Review. By the time I returned permanently to the U.S., in 1966, he was firmly established as Commentary’s editor, an important figure in the nation’s cultural and political scene. My return to the United States was difficult, inwardly and outwardly. In those years, I had good reason to be grateful for Podhoretz’s friendship and support. I regret that political differences impelled him (not without help from Midge Decter, his wife) to terminate our connection.
Podhoretz was born in Brooklyn in 1930 into the Yiddish-speaking Jewish working class. He grew up in a rough neighborhood marked by ethnic and racial tensions. He was able to take care of himself on the streets, not always true of those who, as he did, excelled at school. His own ambition, the encouragement of a teacher at his public high school, and the hopes of his family enabled him to win a scholarship to Columbia College. Simultaneously, he studied part time at the Jewish Theological Seminary. That was certainly not typical of the Jewish students then profiting from the postwar lowering of the anti-Semitic barriers that had kept many out of elite colleges. The entire postwar generation of Jewish students moved up into business and finance, the cultural industry, the professions and politics. University careers had strong attractions for many of us. We could (or so we thought) continue to live by our wits, enjoy some economic security, and profit from the pronounced influence and prestige of the established private institutions or the surging public ones.