If “Making It” can make it there

This past Friday the New York Times published a long profile of former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. I wrote the following review/essay about Norman Podhoretz and his 1967 autobiographical book Making It for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which posted it on Sunday. On Monday New York Review of Books founding editor (with Barbara Epstein, then wife of Podhoretz’s friend Jason Epstein) Robert Silvers died in Manhattan; Silvers is the unnamed NYRB editor at the heart of the story with which this piece opens. It is that story, told by Thomas Jeffers in his excellent biography of Podhoretz, that prompted me to return to Making It and write this piece. I am grateful for the permission of City Journal’s editors to repost it on Power Line today:

Released in 1967, Making It was the first of several autobiographical books by long-time Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. The book’s republication after 50 years rights a literary injustice. The brief introduction by critic Terry Teachout adds a grace note to what is in essence a 50th anniversary edition.

When it first appeared, Making It met with a publishing equivalent of a lynch mob. It included Podhoretz’s friends and fellow members of the New York literary/intellectual establishment, famously dubbed the “Family” by Murray Kempton. They found Podhoretz guilty of crimes against taste and discretion. For his part, Podhoretz forthrightly declared that he sought wealth and fame with the book; he harvested mostly condemnation. Though he has taken up the reaction to the book briefly in subsequent autobiographical reflections, he still finds the experience painful to discuss in print.

The New York Review of Books—under whose auspices the NYRB Classics series appears—set out to demolish 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 notes), who delivered the desired pan.

Podhoretz couldn’t say that he hadn’t been warned. His friend Jason Epstein had counseled him against publishing the book, as had his college teacher and mentor Lionel Trilling. Podhoretz had warded off his own forebodings to proceed. Jeffers quotes Podhoretz’s letter to critic Frank Kermode referring to the book as “suicidal.”

Rereading the book today, I find it difficult to explain the contemporary reaction. I’m not the only one. As Jeffers observed in 2010, “Today, one reads Making It wondering what the fuss was about.” In the fullness of time, Making It is taking its place in the great tradition of American autobiography, along with such classics as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Two Years Before the Mast, and The Education of Henry Adams (a book of which Podhoretz is not a fan).

Indeed, Making It might have been titled The Education of Norman Podhoretz. The author traces his education from public school in the tough and impoverished Brownsville section of Brooklyn to college as a scholarship student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Columbia set his “brain on fire.” He became the star student of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling and other prominent members of Columbia’s dazzling faculty. At Columbia, Podhoretz won a Kellett Fellowship and Fulbright Scholarship to support his study for three years at Cambridge University with F.R. Leavis, the leading literary critic of the age. In 1951, Podhoretz made his debut, so to speak, with a review of Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination in Leavis’s journal Scrutiny.

When Podhoretz immersed himself in the work of Henry Adams for a 1983 essay, published in the New Criterion and later collected in his 1986 book, The Bloody Crossroads, he was struck by “the ferocity of his [Adams’s] ambition.” Podhoretz wrote: “What he wanted above all else was success, and he wanted it in its usual forms: power, money, status, acclaim.” This was the theme Podhoretz had taken as his own in Making It. In 1967, sex was no longer “the dirty little secret” D.H. Lawrence had ascribed to the Victorians; it was out in the open. Podhoretz’s self-examination sought to expose the real dirty little secret of the intellectuals: the thirst for power, money, status, and acclaim. “This book,” Podhoretz explains in the preface, “represents an effort to explain why it should have taken someone like myself so long to arrive at such elementary discoveries.”

I take this declaration at face value, but most of Making It reads like straight autobiography. The confessional approach allowed Podhoretz to find his true voice, seamlessly mixing life, politics, history, and culture “in the impossibly difficult art of exposition” (as he sums up the education he received writing for Commentary founding editor Elliot Cohen early in his career).

The book offers the enthralling coming-of-age story of Podhoretz’s rise to success in the heavily Jewish world of New York intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s—the lost world of Kempton’s “Family.” The Family was born in part from the break of Partisan Review—the legendary intellectual review whose founding editors were Philip Rahv and William Phillips—with the Communist Party. The Partisan Review crowd married a commitment to left-wing anti-Stalinist politics with a devotion to modernist art and literature. Podhoretz joined the Family as a precocious member of its third and final generation. At just 30 in 1960, he was named Cohen’s successor as editor of Commentary, the magazine then sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. Podhoretz widened the audience for a highbrow magazine of general interest on matters cultural and political. Commentary became a publication of great influence, and Podhoretz emerged as an editor and essayist whose opinion mattered. Podhoretz would take up the Family and the lost world that it represented again in Breaking Ranks (1979) and Ex-Friends (1999), but one of the intrinsic pleasures of Making It is how it conveys the author’s joy in the discovery of his calling as an editor and as a writer, a subject from which his later autobiographical works have moved on.

Visiting Making It for the first time, or returning to it after many years, readers will find it evocative of another lost world, too—that of the Yiddish-speaking, Eastern-European immigrant Jews, which included Podhoretz’s literal family. He himself grew up speaking both Yiddish and heavily accented English. In the first chapter of Making It, Podhoretz describes the unforgettable Mrs. K., the high school English teacher “who took it upon herself to polish me to as high a sheen as she could manage and I would permit.”

Podhoretz’s sense of humor in the book is by turns wry and mordant. When he sees his nascent career interrupted by an involuntary two-year stint in the army, he experiences in his own way the dislocation that Elvis Presley felt when Uncle Sam called. Having found a foothold as an editorial assistant at Commentary in 1953, Podhoretz had begun to make substantial headway on the upward path that he so energetically pursued. Yet despite the career detour, Podhoretz found unexpected satisfactions in the army. He formed friendships with “back-country Southern boys, real rednecks, with whom, to my liberal surprise, I always seemed to get along very well.” Speaking for himself, Podhoretz found that he admired their bravery and unstinting loyalty, once they had decided to befriend him:

Though I understood very well why I admired such Southern boys, I was puzzled as to what they saw in me, and my curiosity drove me once to ask one of them why he liked me. “Because,” he answered in a thick Mississippi drawl, “you talk so good”—a remark which not only did much to restore my confidence in the validity of my own “element,” but also made me regret the jeer I had directed in Partisan Review a year earlier at the contention that Southerners have a more sensitive feel for the language than other Americans.

Later, when Podhoretz’s career is interrupted again, he accepts the opportunity offered by Jason Epstein to go into publishing part-time as an editor of a new line of children’s books:

To my surprise we did actually manage to raise a large amount of money on the very terms he had outlined [favorable to Epstein and Podhoretz], and we incorporated ourselves in the plush offices of a very fancy New York law firm as the Looking Glass Library. Having spent my childhood mainly reading comic books and a few collections of fairy tales, I now had to become familiar with the vast literature for children which has been produced since the nineteenth century, and to that end I spent three full days a week squeezed into one of the little chairs in the Children’s Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, avoiding as best I could the suspicious glances of parents and librarians alike. There I discovered that children’s books, with very few exceptions, really are for children. I also came home one day with a very high fever which the doctor said he would have diagnosed as roseola if not for the fact that it was a children’s disease that adults hardly ever contracted. This adult, however, apparently had, which was the only thing besides a fairly pleasant temporary living he was ever to get out of the Looking Glass Library.

Making It was Podhoretz’s second book, following an earlier collection of his essays, Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing. That book was received mostly warmly, but Podhoretz notes that “it became the occasion for some people to present me with the first installments of the bill for all those glorious years when everyone had been on my side.” Podhoretz chided himself: “I should have anticipated that this would happen, for I had seen it happen enough to others before me, but I was too hungry by now to have perspective.”

Podhoretz paid several further installments of the bill upon the original publication of Making It. The certification of the book as a classic 50 years later by New York Review Books—and its publisher, the New York Review of Boo­­ks, no less—suggests that the balance owing has tipped back in favor of Podhoretz.

Responses

-->