The return of “Making It”

John Leland interviews and profiles former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz in today’s New York Times. Leland’s article is “Norman Podhoretz still picks fights and drops names.” It’s an informative profile that looks back on a long career spent at or near the top of the New York intellectual and literary crowd. I would like to add this footnote to Leland’s profile.

Podhoretz came of age in the Age of Criticism, as John Crowe Ransom called it. Having distinguished himself as a star student of Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F.R. Leavis at Cambridge, Podhoretz quickly made a name as a critic and essayist in the fifties. Leland mentions that he made a splash in particular with a dissenting review of Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March.

Podhoretz never abandoned criticism entirely, but the center of gravity in his work shifted toward politics and culture. The Bloody Crossroads (1986) collects his essays combining his literary and political interests.

The Age of Criticism has yielded to the Age of Autobiography (and memoir). Podhoretz has made his own contribution in four autobiographical volumes. Three of these books form a trilogy in which Podhoretz presents himself as a case study: Making It (1967), Breaking Ranks (1979) and Ex-Friends (1999). The fourth of his autobiographical volumes is My Love Affair With America (2000). Each of these books makes an invaluable contribution to the history of our times.

In Making It Podhoretz chronicled his rise in the world of New York intellectuals. Although Frederic Raphael’s review in the New York Times made for an honorable exception, the book was trashed upon its publication in late 1967. I read the book as a literarily inclined teenager in 1968. Meeting Midge Decter (Mrs. Podhoretz) at a small get-together with her old friends in St. Paul in the fall of 1968 — Midge and my mom had been high school friends and my mom let me tag along with her — I was vaguely aware that something bad had happened to the book. When I asked Midge about the book, she shrugged and sighed: “Oh, it’s water under the bridge.”

Because his interests lie elsewhere Leland fails to note that Making It will be restored to print next month in an attractive paperback edition with an introduction by Terry Teachout. It is to appear in the NYRB Classics series published by New York Review Books. Thereby hangs a tale. Over the past few months I have been reading and rereading a review copy of the new edition of Making It for a column I wrote this week that should be posted some time soon.

The book surely went over my head after the first chapter when I read it in 1968. This time around, however, I found myself in awe. Podhoretz was operating at the height of his very great powers in the book. In the fullness of time Making It can now take its place in the great tradition of American autobiography. In this respect it only took 50 years for the sagacious Mrs. Podhoretz to be proved wrong.


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