“Making It” in the NYRB

When it was published in 1967, Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It met with the publishing equivalent of a lynch mob. It included Podhoretz’s friends and fellow members of the New York literary/intellectual establishment. They found Podhoretz guilty of crimes against taste and discretion.

Among the lynch mob was the New York Review of Books. The NYRB set out to get the job done killing the book. Its first choice to review Making It, the prominent critic Hilton Kramer, disliked the book, and was afraid he may have been overly harsh in the draft he submitted. “When I sent it on to the New York Review,” Kramer subsequently told Podhoretz biographer Thomas Jeffers, he was amazed to hear that “the New York Review wasn’t interested in publishing a ‘valentine’ to Norman Podhoretz!” Seeking something tougher still, the editors called on sociologist Edgar Z. Friedenberg (“whom Podhoretz had discovered for Commentary in 1960,” Jeffers dryly noted). Friedenberg delivered the desired pan.

When Making It was restored to print last year in an attractive paperback edition — by the New York Review of Books, under its NYRB Classics imprint — I celebrated. NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank commented on my celebration: “Making It is a remarkable book–it has a great deal of character and it is of undeniable historical significance–and I’m pleased to publish it in the NYRB Classics series.”

Contrary to what I wrote at the time, Frank added: “It should be clear, however, that the NYRB publishing program does not in any sense exist ‘under the auspices’ of the New York Review of Books. The publishing program is editorially entirely separate from the paper, and none of the editors of the Review had anything to do with the decision to publish Podhoretz’s book.” (I greatly appreciate Frank’s literary judgment and service to literature, but I should add that Frank’s edition of the book states on the copyright page in caps: “THIS IS A NEW YORK REVIEW BOOK PUBLISHED BY THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.”)

So I celebrate again now that the New York Review of Books itself has published Janet Malcolm’s generous review/tribute to Making It. A shrewd observer notes that Malcolm is normally a killer. Her tribute goes further than she could reasonably have been expected to go. She is not easily pleased, yet she rightly lauds Podhoretz as a writer and a storyteller. She chides the original book’s contemporary reviewers: “Writing as lucid and vital as Podhoretz’s is not often encountered and should have been acknowledged.”

Despite her candid enthusiasm for Making It, Malcolm is unusually discreet in her review. Her review requires a little background and close reading for full enjoyment. She observes at the top of her tribute: “Making It was almost universally disliked when it came out in 1967. It struck a chord of hostility in the mid-twentieth-century literary world that was out of all proportion to the literary sins it may or may not have committed. The reviews were not just negative, but mean.” She makes no mention of the NYRB, of Hilton Kramer, or of Edgar Friedenberg.

Malcolm even admires the narrator of Making It. In another exercise of discretion, Malcolm treats the narrator as a literary construct, not to be confused with Podhoretz himself. She therefore praises Podhoretz as the protagonist of Making It while not necessarily approving of the man. In her concluding paragraph Malcolm can accordingly cough up the obligatory if perfunctory disapproval.

Make no mistake. Malcolm’s essay is perceptive. It helps to heighten our appreciation of a book I believe to be a classic of American autobiography. It makes a contribution in its own right to our understanding. Its appearance in the NYRB simply adds to the delight we can take in it. You don’t have to be Leo Strauss to understand Malcolm’s artistry, but Malcolm’s review deserves a close reading for more reasons than one and I recommend it unreservedly.

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