April 26, 2017
May 1, 2017 Issue
“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals
With “Making It,” Norman Podhoretz attempted to craft a sociology of his set—and ended up ostracized from it.
He should have known the book was loaded. Norman Podhoretz started writing “Making It” in 1964. He was thirty-four years old and the editor of Commentary. His idea was to write a book about how people in his world, literary intellectuals, were secretly motivated by a desire for success—money, power, and fame—and were also secretly ashamed of it. He offered himself as Exhibit A. By confessing to his own ambition, he would make it safe for others to confess to theirs, and thereby enjoy without guilt the worldly goods their strivings had brought them. As he put it, he would do for ambition what D. H. Lawrence had done for sex. He would make the case for Mammon.
Podhoretz was a young man, but he had been in the business for a while. He had published his first piece in Commentary when he was twenty-three, his first piece in Partisan Review when he was twenty-four, and his first piece in The New Yorker when he was twenty-six. He had even published a piece in Scrutiny, the British quarterly edited by F. R. Leavis, a critical Gorgon few could hope to please, when he was just twenty-one. He had been named editor of Commentary at twenty-nine. He was invited to cocktail parties with all the smart people. He hung around with Norman Mailer. Jackie Kennedy was a friend.
Those pieces were all book reviews, actually, and Commentary was a nonprofit monthly, owned by the American Jewish Committee, with a circulation of around forty thousand. But Podhoretz assumed—as, in our own cases, we all tend to assume—that since his accomplishments were supremely gratifying to him, they must rank high in the world’s estimation as well. He suspected—he was certain—that others were envious of his precocity and success, and he was writing the book to explain why he had no reason to pretend humility.
When he finished, he showed the manuscript to mentors, colleagues, and friends. Almost all of them advised him not to publish it. Lionel Trilling told him that it would take ten years for his reputation to recover. Diana Trilling told him that the book was “crudely boastful” and humorless. Daniel Bell told him that it lacked “irony and self-distancing” (cardinal virtues in New York intellectual life back then), and recommended adding three or four pages at the end in which he took it back. His close friend Jason Epstein, an editor at Random House, begged him to throw it out. “If I were God,” Epstein is supposed to have said, “I’d drown it in the river.”
Those who read the manuscript felt little compunction about sharing their reactions with others, and the word of mouth quickly became toxic. Friends of Podhoretz’s started wondering if he had lost his mind. Nearly a year before the book came out, Edmund Wilson noted in his diary that it was one of “the principal subjects of conversation” in New York. “Everyone I saw who had read it thought that it was awful,” he wrote.
Podhoretz’s publisher, Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, refused to promote the book. Podhoretz’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, said she would no longer represent it. Podhoretz withdrew the book from FSG (handing back the advance) and retained a new agent, Candida Donadio, who managed to sell it to Random House. (Epstein was not involved in the acquisition; it was enthusiastically approved by the head of the company, Bennett Cerf, no stranger to chutzpah.) “Making It” came out at the very end of 1967; a reprint has just been issued by New York Review Books. Trilling was wrong about one thing: ten years was not enough.
With a couple of exceptions, it wasn’t the reviews that hurt the most. The one in the Times was quite positive; the reviewer, Frederic Raphael, called the book “frank and honest . . . a warning and a model.” What hurt the most was the parties. “Parties,” Podhoretz had explained in the book, “always served as a barometer of the progress of my career.” Friends took note, and the invitations stopped coming. Podhoretz underwent what amounted to a ritual shunning. He might as well have worn a scarlet “A,” for “ambition.”
The experience was crushing, and he never got over it. “When I talked to Norman, it was almost as if the whole thing had happened yesterday afternoon,” a reporter for the Times wrote, four years after the book’s publication. “None of the sores had scabbed over.” Four years after that, Podhoretz still sounded dazed. “I was raised intellectually to believe there was something admirable in taking risks . . . but the people who raised me, in effect, punished me whenever I did what I was raised to do,” he complained to another interviewer. “I’ve never quite understood why.”
In 1979, he published a second memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” and devoted several pages to the reception of “Making It.” In 1999, now retired as the editor of Commentary, he published a third memoir, called “Ex-Friends,” and devoted many more pages to the subject. “Making It” was the pivotal episode in Podhoretz’s career.
It also appeared at a pivotal moment in American intellectual life. Intended, naïvely or not, as a celebration of a little-magazine world created largely by the children of immigrants, some of whom had, by 1967, risen triumphantly to a place at the national table—“Jews were culturally all the rage in America,” as Podhoretz put it in the book—“Making It” marked a fissure that would never be healed. It was the end of more than Podhoretz’s social life.
Podhoretz told his story as a combination of Exodus and “Saturday Night Fever”: gifted youth escapes an ethnic cul-de-sac in the outer boroughs and makes it to cosmopolitan Manhattan. In Podhoretz’s case, the promised land was a big apartment on West End Avenue. He called crossing the East River “one of the longest journeys in the world,” and he believed, correctly, that his story was also, more or less, the story of many of the people he hoped would admire the book—people like Bell, the Trillings, and the writers and editors at places like Dissent, The New Leader, Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books. What he did not imagine was that his version might not be one they wished to be identified with.
As Thomas Jeffers tells us in a scholarly and sympathetic biography, “Norman Podhoretz,” published in 2010, Podhoretz grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn that was then equal parts Italians, Jews, and African-Americans recently arrived from the South. Podhoretz’s parents were immigrants from Galicia; his father, Julius, spoke Yiddish and drove a horse-drawn milk truck. Podhoretz went to P.S. 28, where, one day, a teacher asked him what he was doing. “I goink op de stez,” he explained, and was immediately placed in a remedial-speech class. His assimilation had begun.
Little Norman was a natural student—“everyone knew I was the smartest kid in the class,” he says in “Making It”—but he also had an active street life as a member of a “social athletic club” (i.e., gang) called the Cherokees, whose red satin jacket he wore everywhere. (In the book, he is boyishly proud of this part of his past.) At Brooklyn’s Boys High School, where Mailer had also been a student, he was plucked out by a teacher he calls, in “Making It,” Mrs. K. Her real name was Mrs. Haft, and she took on Norman as a Pygmalion project. Her goal was to gentrify him sufficiently to win him a scholarship to Harvard. One of the best bits in “Making It” is Podhoretz’s description of Mrs. K’s disastrous attempt to introduce her teen-age protégé to genteel manners by taking him to lunch in a (non-kosher) restaurant in Manhattan, where he is confronted with some sort of dish involving duck.
Podhoretz did get into Harvard (as did Mailer, who went there), but he also won a Pulitzer scholarship, which was awarded to graduates of New York public schools and covered the costs of attending Columbia. He entered the college at the age of sixteen (commuting from Brooklyn) and took the required great-books course, Literature Humanities. “Possessed,” as he explains, “by something like total recall and a great gift for intellectual mimicry,” he quickly became a star student in Columbia’s famous English Department.
There he attached himself to Trilling, whose major book, “The Liberal Imagination,” came out in 1950, the year Podhoretz graduated. He took away from his Columbia education the belief that being a serious literary critic meant holding in contempt the things that belong to Caesar. “It was at Columbia,” he writes, “that I was introduced to the ethos—destined to grow more and more powerful in the ensuing years—in which success was replacing sex as the major ‘dirty little secret’ of the age.”
Podhoretz was awarded a Kellett, a postgraduate fellowship that, at Columbia, is almost as prestigious as the Rhodes. John Hollander, who graduated from Columbia in the same year, later said that Podhoretz had had his eye on the Kellett even as a freshman. Podhoretz was amazed by his classmates’ reaction. “It was the first time I had ever experienced the poisoning of success by envy,” he says in “Making It.”
He went to Cambridge. He loved it, especially the perks that students there then enjoyed. “There are few things in the world easier to get used to than having lots of space to live in and being called ‘Sir,’ ” he writes. It was at Cambridge that he sought out Leavis. “Soon he was inviting me . . . to the indoctrination sessions, thinly disguised as tea parties, which he and his wife Queenie, a famous critic in her own right, would hold on the lawn of their home every Saturday afternoon,” and it was not long before he scored his big Scrutiny assignment. It was to review “The Liberal Imagination.” In his piece, Podhoretz called Trilling “the most significant American critic now writing.” The “American” was a judicious sop to Leavis.
Podhoretz did some travelling while he was on the fellowship, and, after a visit to Israel, he wrote to Trilling to report his impressions. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis,” he confided. “They’re gratuitously surly and boorish. . . . They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” Trilling typed these words out and sent them to the editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen. Cohen had another editor, Irving Kristol, contact Podhoretz about writing a piece, and the connection was made.
This might not seem the obvious way to recommend a new writer to a magazine published by an organization dedicated to the welfare of Jews, and, in “Making It,” Podhoretz leaves out the part about his letter to Trilling. He possibly felt that it suggested a calculation a shade too subtle. For in fact, as Benjamin Balint explains in his history of the magazine, “Running Commentary” (2010), the people around Commentary and the A.J.C. in those days were cool to Zionism. (By the time “Making It” came out, of course, this had changed.)
It is easy to believe that Podhoretz would not have characterized Israeli Jews in quite those terms if he had not guessed that his observations would meet Trilling’s preconceptions, and if he had not also guessed that a bright young diaspora Jew comfortable in America and skeptical of Zionism might be just the kind of writer Commentary was looking for. If so, he guessed right. His first piece was a review of Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Natural.”
Podhoretz had thoughts about continuing at Cambridge for a Ph.D., and even went back, but an article he submitted to Leavis on Benjamin Disraeli was returned with a classic rejection (mentioned, though not quoted, in “Making It”). “We couldn’t print anything that did so little more than a hundred or two readers of Scrutiny could do impromptu,” Leavis told him. Podhoretz read this, not inaccurately, as “You don’t belong,” and he returned to the United States, where he was duly drafted. He served two years. (Interestingly, in the light of his later views, he is completely contemptuous of military life and culture in “Making It.”) When he was discharged, in December, 1955, he started working as an editor at Commentary.
Elliot Cohen was hospitalized with severe depression, and the magazine was being run by two men referred to in “Making It” only as The Boss. In real life, they were the art critic Clement Greenberg and his brother Martin. The Greenbergs belittled and abused Podhoretz. He had a hard time managing his resentment, and, by 1958, he was out. He got involved in a couple of short-lived publishing ventures with Epstein that didn’t pay off. The New Yorker had dropped him, without explanation, but he had become known as a fearless young critic—“I came to be held by some in almost priestly regard” is his description—and he was able to survive as a freelancer. Then, in 1959, Cohen committed suicide, and the A.J.C. offered Podhoretz the job.
Friends advised him not to accept, some of them making disparaging remarks about the magazine which he unwisely printed, with attribution, in “Making It.” But Podhoretz had few doubts; this was what he had been waiting for. “I’m . . . exhilarated by the possibilities that may now open up for me, and by the power (which is something you can understand as my high-minded friends can’t), and by the money (my income will be more than doubled),” he wrote to the English novelist C. P. Snow, Balint reports.
Podhoretz had spent a decade observing the little-magazine business; he knew what worked and what didn’t; and he transformed Commentary. He fired most of the staff, expanded the letters section (which, for readers of intellectual journalism, can be as addictive as crossword puzzles or cartoons), stopped publishing poetry, and got rid of the remnants of Yiddishkeit. As one contributor put it, he removed the mezuzahs from all the doors. He made Commentary what Cohen and the Greenbergs had tried but failed to make it: a magazine for every educated reader, run by Jews.
Podhoretz understood how magazine writing works—his account in “Making It” of what it is like to write a magazine piece, and not only for magazines like Commentary, is the best that I have ever read—and he was a talented editor. He turned down the seminal document of the New Left, the Port Huron Statement, but he serialized Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd,” which is now almost unreadable but which at the time was received as an important diagnosis of contemporary life. Podhoretz’s own politics were liberal. He loved Kennedy; he opposed the war in Vietnam. He was in synch with the highbrow readership of the day.
He was invited to be co-editor, with Jason Epstein’s wife, Barbara, of The New York Review of Books when it was launched, in 1963, but he told them the salary was too low. (“Thank God,” Barbara later said.) He continued to write, and he was disappointed when critical praise for a collection of his pieces, “Doings and Undoings,” published in 1964, was not unmitigated. “I had been dreaming that the appearance of the book would become the occasion for a general proclamation of my appointment to the office of ‘leading young critic in America,’ ” he admits in “Making It”; “instead it became the occasion for several people to present me with the first installments of the bill for all those glorious years when everyone had been on my side.” But the nineteen-sixties was a boom time for magazines, and Commentary thrived. By 1968, its circulation was up to sixty-four thousand. That was the year the bomb went off.
There are two ways to understand the reaction to “Making It.” One has to do with the politics (small “p”), and the other has to do with the merits. Politically, Podhoretz did an unfathomably stupid thing. The reason that people like Jason Epstein and Lionel Trilling argued so strenuously against publishing the book—Diana Trilling reported taking Podhoretz and his wife out to dinner on a trip to Berlin in 1967 to make one final plea—was not, or not only, that they were concerned for the reputation of their friend and protégé. It was that their own names appear all through it.
It seems not to have dawned on Podhoretz that he was not only writing about himself; he was telling stories about people he worked and socialized with. People do not like to read about themselves in someone else’s book, and this goes double for writers. Writers are control freaks engaged in what is, among other things, a business of self-presentation. If they are in a story, they want to be the ones to tell that story. No one would have understood this better than Podhoretz, but somehow it failed to register when he was showing his book around.
Even worse, at the same time that he was confessing to his own ambition, he was implicitly accusing his friends and colleagues of hiding theirs. In the brief acknowledgments section, Podhoretz thanks Lionel Trilling, who, he says, “has taught me more than he or I ever realized—though not, I fear, precisely what he would have wanted me to learn.” This reads pretty clearly as a suggestion that Trilling, too, was a suck-up who wrote literary criticism in the hope of getting invited to a party with Jackie Kennedy. You can see why Trilling was not eager for Podhoretz’s memoir to see the light of day.
And not only Trilling. “Making It” is a book about what Podhoretz, borrowing the term from Murray Kempton, calls the Family—the writers and editors, mostly but not exclusively Jewish, who dominated the New York intellectual scene in the decades after the war. It is as their proud product that Podhoretz presents himself, and he obviously hoped to retain the approval of these people, as he had done so often in the past, by daring to write something they were afraid to write. He believed that they would admire his courage, recognize the justice of his account, forgive any indiscretions he may have committed, and, freed at last from a stifling hypocrisy, embrace him and the book. Many writers have tried this kind of thing. It never works.
On the merits, the idea that English professors, magazine writers, and intellectuals generally are consciously competing for various types of worldly recognition, and that success in those lines of work requires some awareness of the contours of the playing field, is noncontroversial today. As with members of any profession—rock stars, concert pianists, Olympic athletes, even politicians—there is an implicitly observed and tacitly enforced distinction between what counts as success and what counts as selling out. (In no profession does owning an apartment on West End Avenue constitute selling out.) There is a sociology of intellectual life. Podhoretz’s mistake was to overgeneralize from his own experience.
This is often the flaw in his writing. His most talked-about early piece, “My Negro Problem––and Ours,” published in 1963, an essay about coming to terms with “the hatred I still feel for Negroes,” is based entirely on observations of the young African-American men he encountered as a teen-ager on the streets of Brooklyn or, later, on the sidewalks of the Upper West Side. From these experiences, he is able to conclude that African-Americans are characterized by “superior physical grace and beauty . . . They are on the kind of terms with their own bodies that I should like to be on with mine.” As usual, the root of the problem is envy. The solution? Intermarriage: “I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.”
As a personal reflection, “My Negro Problem” is compelling. As a take on the problem of race in the United States, it is ridiculous. For Podhoretz, though, as he confesses in “Making It,” the real significance of the essay was that, by publishing it, he was putting the reputation he had struggled to achieve on the line—and his reputation only got better! (Goodman, however, did tell him he needed to see a therapist.) He called the essay “certainly the best piece of writing I had ever done.” Something like this was his hope for “Making It”: that it would be received as “my ambition problem—and ours.”
The reaction to the book changed Podhoretz’s life. He started looking for academic positions, and he began drinking when he was at home alone, almost a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, his stepdaughter later told Jeffers. He had a contract to write a book on the nineteen-sixties—he had hated the Beats, and he regarded the counterculture as the legacy of the Beats—and he went to Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where he had written much of “Making It,” to work on it. Writers’ colonies are not where you ideally want to be if you have a drinking problem. One day, a fellow-colonist, the critic Kenneth Burke, told Podhoretz that he needed to straighten out. So Podhoretz got in his car and drove, a little under the influence, to a farmhouse he had bought in Delaware County, and it was there, in the early spring of 1970, that he had a vision.
As he told the story to Jeffers, he had finished his writing for the day. He was walking outside, carrying a Martini and feeling content, when it happened. “I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.” Not quite Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” but strangely close. The vision lasted thirty seconds, and when it was over Podhoretz realized what the diagram was telling him: “Judaism was true.” He did not mean the ethical teachings of Judaism; he meant Judaic law. He vowed to change his life.
To all appearances, he did. He stopped drinking, he began interrogating friends about their spiritual condition, and he transformed Commentary again, this time into the scourge of left-wing permissivism and progressivism. The magazine attacked feminism; it attacked homosexuality; it attacked affirmative action. In 1972, Podhoretz wrote a column that effectively announced the new editorial policy. Its title was “Is It Good for the Jews?” He did not mean it ironically. It was exactly the mentality that Cohen and his successors, including Podhoretz I, had been trying to get away from.
Old friends stopped speaking to Podhoretz and old contributors dropped away. They were replaced by a new stable of hawks and neoconservatives: Joseph Epstein, Edward Luttwak, Michael Ledeen, William Bennett, Elliott Abrams (who married one of Podhoretz’s stepdaughters). Podhoretz adopted a new test of his own importance: the celebrity of the people he was no longer speaking to. “It’s important to have enemies,” he once told Cynthia Ozick, “because everything depends on the kind of enemies you have.” (Ozick was a little taken aback.)
In 1972, Podhoretz voted for Richard Nixon in the Presidential election. He voted for Jimmy Carter four years later, but called it “the worst political mistake of my life.” Ronald Reagan was his political messiah, and he believed that Commentary had something to do with his election. “People like us made Reagan’s victory,” he proclaimed in 1983. By 1990, subscriptions were down to twenty-nine thousand, and the magazine was obliged to raise money in order to keep going. It was legally separated from the A.J.C. in 2007.
Podhoretz developed his own interpretation of the reaction to “Making It”: he decided that he was praising the pleasures of success in America, and that his critics were America haters. This doesn’t correspond to what most of the reviewers actually said, but the book did appear at a politically fractious moment, during the height of agitation against the war in Vietnam. Although Podhoretz had been an early opponent of the war, he feared and despised the main active ingredient in the antiwar movement, the New Left.
The New Left was a problem for the Family. The Family was Old Left turned liberal anti-Communist. The New Left was cavalier about Communism, it was hostile to liberalism, and it was hugely disrespectful of the engine of social mobility that had carried so many members of the Family out of Egypt, the university. And the identity-based movements that emerged after 1965—the women’s movement and black separatist movements like the Panthers—seemed to threaten a crucial value for diaspora Jews, cosmopolitanism. After 1965, if you were a white, male, anti-Communist, and integrationist liberal, Jew or Gentile, whose side were you on? The question split what used to be called the liberal left, and that political-intellectual coalition has never been put back together. The fact that the Podhoretzes stopped being invited to Manhattan cocktail parties was not the cause of the split. But it was a symptom.
The New York intellectual community Podhoretz grew up in was compulsively internecine. Its members were like cats in a bag. They thrived on—they got off on—the narcissism of small differences. People at a magazine with a circulation of ten thousand were more interested in what people at a magazine with a circulation of twenty thousand were saying about Communism than they were in what the President of the United States was saying about it. Life with the Family was like a Thanksgiving dinner from hell. This is why little magazines are little.
In this tiny cosmos, Podhoretz was therefore in the awkward position of being reviewed by people he knew in magazines run by people he knew. Two reviews of “Making It” were especially galling. One was in The New York Review of Books. The reviewer was Edgar Z. Friedenberg, a sociologist, whose piece was not exactly a strike at the jugular; it was mainly focussed on sounding dismissive. Podhoretz was annoyed by it because he had reason to believe that he had “discovered” Friedenberg for Commentary, and now his own writer was condescending to him in someone else’s pages.
Podhoretz assumed that Jason Epstein was behind that review, and he made sure that Epstein’s (rather good) book on the trial of the Chicago Seven, “The Great Conspiracy Trial,” published in 1970, was solemnly lacerated in Commentary by a professor at Yale Law School. The New York Review became a regular punching bag at Commentary, and Podhoretz and Epstein began a feud that was soon made the subject of a long article in the Times Magazine and that is not over yet. (Both men are still with us. It’s amusing that the reprint of “Making It” is from the publishing arm of the Review.)
Podhoretz had better reason to resent the piece that ran in Partisan Review. Mailer was the critic. He had read some of the manuscript and had told Podhoretz how much he admired it, but the piece in Partisan Review was a put-down. Most of the reviews had already come out, and Mailer did his readers a favor by quoting several of the nastiest. (The New Leader had called the book “a career expressed as a matchless 360-page ejaculation,” a phrase Mailer liked so much he quoted it twice.) He summed the book up as “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.” It failed, Mailer said, because it didn’t go far enough. Podhoretz had pulled his punches. He should have called out the Family as a bunch of second-raters who were terrified of being exposed. But he was nice to everyone.
Podhoretz was right to rank this as a betrayal. He had known Mailer since 1957, when they met at a party at Lillian Hellman’s, and they had been close friends. He had stood by Mailer through many difficult times. In 1960, after Mailer stabbed and nearly killed his wife during a party in their apartment, Podhoretz was one of the first people he sought out, and he accompanied Mailer to the police station for booking.
Podhoretz had even paid homage to Mailer in the final pages of “Making It.” Mailer had already written a book like “Making It,” Podhoretz admitted; this was “Advertisements for Myself.” That book had come out in 1959, when Mailer was at a low point; it attacked, by name and with Mailer’s special gift for invective, several prominent book publishers and many of Mailer’s contemporaries; and it relaunched Mailer’s career. Podhoretz called it “one of the great works of confessional autobiography in American literature,” and concluded his book by saying he hoped that “Making It” would be appreciated as a similarly bold literary act.
By 1968, when Mailer wrote his review of “Making It,” his career was at its peak. He had just finished “The Armies of the Night,” which was published in May and which won him his first Pulitzer Prize. That book, a nonfiction account of Mailer’s participation in an antiwar march in Washington, was serialized in two magazines. The first half was published in Harper’s, where Mailer’s editor was Midge Decter, who happens to be Mrs. Norman Podhoretz. The second half was published in Commentary.
Many years later, Mailer was asked why he had turned on his friend. He said that he thought that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the promise of the pages he had read in manuscript. Then why hadn’t he recused himself? The reason, Mailer said, was that he was angry at Podhoretz for not inviting him to a party that Jackie Kennedy was expected to attend. Not the classiest excuse, but at least the punishment fit the crime. ♦