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Norman Podhoretz’s War on the Haters and the Losers

Infatuated by his own greatness, the former 'Commentary' editor's memoir reveals the price of success.

David Howells/Corbis/Getty

Charles de Gaulle, a titan not prone to false modesty, wrote four volumes of memoirs. Norman Podhoretz—De Gaulle’s equal in self-regard, if not in achievement—has also given us four autobiographical tomes. The comparison between the liberator of Paris and the former editor of Commentary might seem a wild stretch, but the underlying argument of all of Podhoretz’s work is that his literary career (and the careers of his rivals) have a world-historical importance. And since Podhoretz remains feisty and self-obsessed as ever at the age of 87, he might yet overmaster de Gaulle in the field of self-celebration.

In Making It (1967)—the first, best, and most notorious of Podhoretz’s chronicles, which charts the hero’s rise to literary fame—you can see the scale of his ambition, as he observes the world around him. George Plimpton’s “return to New York” after several years in bohemian Paris, we’re told, “deserves a place in the social annals of the American literary intellectual as proportionately important in its own context as de Gaulle’s return to France in another.” The word “proportionately” suggests some modesty, but hardly enough. Plimpton established the Paris Review, a literary journal; De Gaulle established the Fifth Republic. As becomes clear in the course of the book, for Podhoretz the ratio of importance between statecraft and literary politicking is not far from one to one. 

In 1953, at the tender age of 23, Podhoretz was asked to write for The New Yorker. This is a happy event in any young writer’s career but for Podhoretz it meant much more. He tells us that his mentor, the sagacious literary critic Lionel Trilling, “regarded this invitation as an extraordinary event—a kind of confirmation, I think, of his ideas as to the nature of the changes which were obviously beginning to take place in the American cultural situation.” Podhoretz’s rather Hegelian theory is that there had been a divide in the literary world between commercial cultural journalism (The New Yorker) and high-brow intellectual writing (Partisan Review, which also solicited the services of the wunderkind). In the person of Podhoretz the thesis of The New Yorker and the antithesis of Partisan Review would find their ideal synthesis with a critic who was both journalistically fluid and a brainiac to boot. In Hegel’s term, Podhoretz was destined to be the Absolute Spirit who would bring literary history to an end.   

On its 50th anniversary, Making It has been brought back into print by New York Review Classics—a piquant publishing alliance given the fact that Podhoretz has viewed the New York Review of Books as a bitter political and intellectual rival for nearly half a century. Podhoretz had been close friends with Jason Epstein, one of the founders of the Review, but they split over politics in the early 1970s as Podhoretz became increasingly right-wing. The book’s reissue isn’t quite a sign that the old wounds have healed, but it does offer occasion for re-examining one of the most disputed books in the American canon. “Do not publish this book,” Lionel Trilling urged his former student, after reading the manuscript. “It is a gigantic mistake. Put it away and do not let others see it.” Wilfrid Sheed called it “a book of no literary distinction” in the Atlantic. The sociologist Edgar Z. Friedenberg deemed it “lifeless” in his review. 

These ungenerous evaluations were only half-right. Bluntly written, intellectually obtuse, and morally crass, Making It is a flawed book but also a brilliant one. The book it most closely resembles is William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris, a cringe-inducing and blinkered account of the essayist’s failed courtship of his housekeeper. Like Liber Amoris, Making It is a calamity that holds us fixed, indeed invites revisiting. Infatuated by his own greatness, Podhoretz unwittingly blurts out truths about himself that a more aware writer would have hidden, infusing Making It with the uniquely revelatory properties of true vulgarity.

Making It belongs to a time-honored American genre: the autobiography of the self-made man as he journeys from rags to riches. What distinguishes the book is its explicitness in spelling out the hidden costs of success. Born in 1930 in the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, the son of a milkman and a doting mother (whose Yiddish accent made her son “ashamed”), Podhoretz is alert to the fact that America offers people like him (the talented offspring of white immigrants) a “brutal bargain”: endless upper-ward mobility is open to them so long as they transform themselves into “facsimile WASPs.” The price of success is betrayal. To join the ruling class you have to start thinking like them, which means despising your roots.

MAKING IT by Norman Podhoretz
NYRB Classics, 272 pp., $17.95

Through the abrasive mentoring of an overbearing high school teacher, intent on rubbing out any trace of the “slum child” in him, Podhoretz learned that wearing the proper suit and knowing how to order a proper martini were as important as good grades. His elite education (Columbia and Cambridge, England) went hand in hand with cultural assimilation, the flipside of which was acquiring “a distaste for the surrounding in which I was bred, and ultimately (God forgive me) even for many of the people I loved, and so a new taste for other kinds of people.”

Ambitious to succeed and quickly shedding any trace of Brownsville from his accent, Podhoretz rocketed from triumph to triumph, the benchmarks of which we’re given in excoriating detail: getting fantastic grades at Columbia (A+ in all classes except for poetry composition) and Cambridge where the teachers adored him; publishing in The New Yorker and Partisan Review while still young; becoming the editor of Commentary at age 30; publishing a well-received essay collection (Podhoretz makes sure we know that it “went into a third hardcover edition within a year”); attending fancy parties with famous friends like Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, and various movie stars.

Some of these signposts of victory can be disputed. From other books by and about New York intellectuals it’s fairly clear that many of those he claimed as friends—like Arendt—were more like acquaintances. To go by Making It, the towering Cambridge literary critic F.R. Leavis was one of many teachers dazzled by Podhoretz’s youthful brilliance. But after Making It was published, Leavis’s wife Queenie Leavis, herself a formidably literary critic, composed a cold missive to the Spectator saying that Podhoretz was merely an aggressive Yankee her husband allowed to audit his classes, and insisting they had no real bond. And even Podhoretz’s genuine friends like Mailer and Jason Epstein would soon break with him. The fact that we now know these friendships were destined to splinter gives Making It a patina of melancholy it originally lacked.

Podhoretz was as attentive to the distinctive qualities of failure, as he was obsessed with success. The simple dialectical reality, as he saw it, was that for Podhoretz to win, others had to lose. He soon came to recognize “that special combination of bitterness and smugness I had so often seen on the faces of people whom Robert Rossen’s film The Hustler later taught me to think of as ‘losers.’”

Who are these losers? They include Jews who, unlike Podhoretz, lack the wherewithal to become “facsimile WASPs.” Podhoretz derides his fellow teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary (which he attended concurrently with Columbia) for their “endless harping on the suffering of the Jews.” (Podhoretz is here describing his teachers in 1946, only a year after the Nazi death camps had been liberated). 

His classmates at Columbia who didn’t get grades as good as his were also losers. After graduation, he couldn’t help but notice that “I was making it and they were not; perhaps they never would.” He bonded with Jason Epstein in part because Epstein (who quickly became a success as an editor by spearheading the quality paperback revolution) was also “making it.” The only downside was the envy of their loser former friends. “Now, however, we were each being victimized by the aggressive and whining treatment which is always reserved for the newly successful by their less fortunate old friends, and which more than anything accounts for the tendency of most people to associate only with their peers in status or wealth,” Podhoretz regretfully notes. “One gets tired of feeling guilty and apologetic toward others to whom one is constantly forced to accord sympathy without the reciprocal entitlement to it.”

Gay men, with their failure to achieve proper heteronormative masculinity, also counted as losers. Among those that gave Podhoretz a hard time at Columbia were “the homosexuals with their supercilious disdain of my lower-class style of dress and my brash and impudent manner.” The homophobia in Making It is mild compared to views he would later express, but his intense contempt for “losers” foreshadowed some of the vitriol that was yet to come. In 1987, Podhoretz claimed “AIDS is almost entirely a disease caught by men who bugger or are buggered by dozens or even hundreds of other men every year” and opposed spending money on AIDS research since it would only “allow [gay men] to resume buggering each other with complete medical impunity.”  

Finally, the biggest losers of all in the Podhoretzian universe are African-Americans. Explaining the origins of his infamous 1963 essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz recounts an argument with James Baldwin during which he told the novelist, “Neither I nor may ancestors had ever wronged the Negroes; on the contrary, I had grown up in an ‘integrated’ slum neighborhood where it was Negroes who persecuted the whites and not the other way around. I told him several stories about my childhood relations with Negroes and about the resentment and hatred with which my experience had left me.” Acknowledging that “there was something almost psychotic in the relation of whites to Negroes in America,” Podhoretz thought the only solution was the erasure of blackness through “miscegenation.” As he argues, “Some day, perhaps, the Negroes would disappear through wholesale miscegenation into the white population; it would be the best conclusion to the whole sorry mess.”  

This solution of “miscegenation” is of course an attempt to apply the logic of assimilation to racism. Just as Podhoretz became a “facsimile WASP” so, over the generations, black Americans would disappear as a distinct group into whiteness. The novelist Ralph Ellison raised an inarguable, practical objection to Podhoretz’s miscegenation scheme: Blacks and whites had in fact been “mixing” in America for centuries and it simply created shades of brown—newer gradations of blackness—which did nothing to overturn the existing racist hierarchy. Podhoretz’s plan would only be desirable if you thought African-Americans as a people had nothing distinctive to contribute to the world. While Podhoretz might think that his miscegenation plan had an anti-racist intent, the end goal was no different than age-old transportation schemes to send blacks to Africa: an America without an African-American presence.

The pose Podhoretz adopts in Making It is of a brave truth-teller, willing to face the realities other intellectuals shy away from. But his supposed discoveries—that wealth, fame, and power are desirable, and that America is the greatest country on earth because it allows go-getters like him to succeed—are merely reiterations of the most banal form of conservatism. There’s no moral lesson in Making It that George F. Babbitt (of Sinclair Lewis’s novel) would disagree with, although, on a practical point, Babbitt would rightly note that if the goal is the big money then real estate is a better field than editing. 

While Podhoretz would’ve called himself a liberal in 1967, all the traits that led to his shift to the right in the early 1970s were already present in Making It. In the sharpest review of Making It, Wilfrid Sheed accurately describes it as having a “Ayn-Rand-and-water” program. Podhoretz’s hatred of the New Left was rooted in the simple fact that they were trying to overthrow the very establishment he had made such an effort to join. 

The figure Podhoretz ultimately resembles is not Charles de Gaulle but a more contemporary statesman. Making It is the story of a boy from the outer boroughs who dreams of succeeding with the Manhattan elite. A relentless self-promoter he finds fame, yet he can’t quite shake the feeling that the more genteel members of the establishment don’t like him. Full of racial resentment, he is also quick to deride the losers and haters who criticize him. Podhoretz even has some advice on how to make deals. (“Advice to Young Men: The best way to get a job you really want is to believe that you really don’t want it.”) 

Norman Podhoretz is the Donald Trump of American literature and Making It is his Art of the Deal. That’s a sad strange fate for what was once a promising Brownsville boy who loved Keats and wanted to be a poet.