September 1, 2014
Norman Podhoretz in Black and White
Posted on Aug 20, 2010
Podhoretz went on to graduate study at Cambridge but eschewed the academy’s simultaneous offer of security and imprisonment and became an independent critic. He had been far from welcomed at Cambridge by Leavis, but his decision was not primarily a response to Leavis’ version of Little Englandism. Podhoretz was in a hurry, and the climb up the academic ladder did not appeal to him.
The Jewish ascent in the United States, in any event, followed that of other groups. Many persons we now think of as exemplars of the cultural and social domination of a white Protestant elite often had to fight their way out of small towns to reach metropolitan heights. What is unique, if anything, is Podhoretz’s insistence, sedulously echoed by his biographer, that his success proved the virtue of American civilization. Suppose the nation actually needed the energies and talents of those it half-welcomed to, half-grudgingly ceded, elite status? Podhoretz for a while was very friendly with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Jews were not alone, in the era of the Kennedys, in surmounting barriers.
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
With the election of John Kennedy in 1960 as our first Catholic president, the offspring of new immigrants who had figured so prominently in Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s governments took command. The educated elites experienced a sense of greatly enlarged possibilities, their allies in the trade unions were determined to profit from their return to power, and American culture struck many of us as more open than we had been prepared to admit. Kennedy himself was—rhetoric apart—a cautious incrementalist in major domestic matters and a determined proponent of American hegemony in foreign policy. By the time he was murdered in 1963, he had more resolve about questions of race, and more reflectiveness about the Cold War. Jeffers hurries past Podhoretz’s editorial mobilization of those who sought just that shift of emphasis in the politics of the nation.
The biographer’s evident discomfort with Podhoretz as political and social critic is surprising. After all, Podhoretz himself has written for five decades of his change of mind. The text provides ample evidence of what bothered him. One event does not quite receive the attention it merits: the mixed reception of “Making It.” I thought the book very good on the New York literary milieu and its honesty about ambition. I recall Podhoretz’s distress at the publisher who having commissioned the book, refused it, at the sententious advice of Trilling not to publish it, at hostile reviews by others. I found Trilling’s fastidiousness absurd: He praised ambition in 19th century English novels, found it distasteful in a student of his from Brooklyn. In the end, the indignation of the critics reinforced Podhoretz’s tendency to think of himself as isolated, his antipathy to other intellectuals. He saw arguments with others as proof of his own virtue.
By 1968, indeed, he had broken decisively with the New Left. He found the tactics and what there was of strategy of the movements for social change mistaken, and aligned himself with the leadership of the AFL-CIO in rejecting them. He abjured the cultural and political separatism, as he saw it, of many of the African-American and feminist leaders. The rejection by much of the student movement of high culture offended him, and he joined with the liberals who dismissed it as adolescent if not infantile self-indulgence. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was no longer a matter of critical distance from imperial power, but became ignoble capitulation to illusions about communism. His criticism changed rapidly from the common sense of an old progressive to the overwrought anxiety of a threatened deacon of the established order.
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