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The Baleful and the Brightest

The stupendous Norman Podhoretz, revisited

If you want to know what the good Lord thinks of your earthly strivings, you’ll find it in this note to Isaiah 39, in the Geneva Bible: “How greatly God detesteth ambition and vaine glory.” Pretty straightforward. What was a vice for Romans became a sin for Christians. Ambition, after all, helped damn that hapless pair in Eden. As for vainglory: nobody likes it, not even the deities who perfectly embody it.

God, it turns out, isn’t the only one peeved by vainglorious displays of ambition. In 1968, a whole lot of people were bothered when Norman Podhoretz, the self-satisfied neocon and scourge of leftist-liberals everywhere, published what would soon become the go-to manual of postwar egoism, his memoir Making It, which is now being reissued by New York Review Books. With the straightest of faces, and no detectable irony or shame, Podhoretz chronicles his all-around fabulousness and penchant for success: success as a high-school student, success at Jewish Theological Seminary, success at Columbia, success at Cambridge, success with the New York Intellectuals, success as a critic, success in the Army, success as the editor of Commentary, success as a success. He keeps winning prizes. He keeps getting A’s. The lowborn kid from Brownsville gains entry into Manhattan’s literary elite. The best magazines clamor for his byline. Everybody envies bright Norman—he keeps telling us so.

A sampling, then. “My grades were very high and would obviously remain so.” Obviously. “Everyone knew that I was the smartest kid in the class.” He had “so beautiful a mind . . . so exquisite in sensibility,” if he does say so himself. He was “a notoriously good student . . . accustomed to effortless preeminence in school.” At Columbia he saw himself as a hero from French literature, a “Julian Sorel or a Rastignac.” His pet word for himself is “precocious.” We hear much of his “cleverness,” of his talent: “With my talent, there was no telling how far I might go.” His essays are “courageous.” Hear the relish in this line about his old schoolmates: “I was making it and they were not.” He wants you to understand that “successful” does not necessarily mean “superficial,” that the Greeks, the Elizabethans, and the nineteenth-century novelists valued success—and because he values it, too, he is their equal.

The literary intelligentsia fell upon the book like hyenas upon a suicide. Podhoretz’s detractors called out his confessions with a full battery of put-downs: sophomoric, humorless, constricted, shallow, contrived, appalling, careerist, grubby, intolerable, clumsy, egomaniacal, unprecedentedly loathsome, deplorably inbred, egregiously phony. Wilfrid Sheed’s review in The Atlantic was among the bloodiest: “A career founded largely on showing off to the grownups is likely to result in a fairly infantile version of success . . . His lack of social observation is blinding . . . This seedy moral and professional manifesto . . . These terrible flights of self-congratulation that have made the book funny to so many people . . . Pockmarked by clichés and little mock modesties and a woefully pedestrian tone . . . I cannot imagine a more feckless, silly book.” There’s nothing wrong with telling the story of your own development, but to tell it with a self-lauding exuberance that places your life on a par with, say, Magellan’s or Jefferson’s is to misunderstand your place in the world. Alfred Kazin once wondered “what had led this ambitious man to delusions about his own importance.”

In the august pages of Partisan Review, Podhoretz was defended, sort of, by his friend, that other Norman, the undisputed champ of auto-advertisement—Mailer. Of course Mailer would waltz in to defend Podhoretz, with a caveat or two. A man’s right to marinate in his own superbity must be protected. Mailer spends much of his assessment of Making It bashing the literary establishment that bashed Podhoretz, the hypocrites who gave the book a “hazing” most “brutal”—“it was with all the fury of a military betrayal that the Establishment turned on Podhoretz.” Making It was “written with high ambition and in the teeth of the shaking ague of confronting the highest literary standards,” but the reviews were “coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” True, said Mailer, the book went slack in its second half, and overall it was merely good and not “great or major,” was “seriously flawed,” marred by some “aggressively flatulent” prose, but there was no way that its author deserved the shellacking he took.

Why are we so turned off by someone gazing into the glass and pronouncing him or herself the fairest of them all?

Sheed, writing in 2001, looked back to 1968 and saw that Podhoretz “had made a massive miscalculation and laid an egg with the very people he most admired and had most wanted to impress,” and then he offered something of an apology for his own part in gutting the book: “No human should have to put up with the amount of bile that poured like lava onto Podhoretz’s head.” Still ostensibly a man of the left in 1968, Podhoretz might have been bushwhacked by his comrades’ reaction to the book, but he couldn’t have claimed not to know what he was up to, or that he hadn’t been warned. Jason Epstein, Podhoretz’s friend and the editor of the New York Review of Books, said of the manuscript: “I’d drown it in a river.” Lionel Trilling, Podhoretz’s ex-professor at Columbia and the sanest man ever to become a critic, told him: “Do not publish this book. It is a gigantic mistake. Put it away and do not let others see it.” Podhoretz’s agent refused to agent it; his publisher refused to publish it.

Here is some of the unforgettable opening:

Let me introduce myself. I am a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure. . . . Money, I now saw . . . was important: it was better to be rich than to be poor. Power, I now saw . . . was desirable: it was better to give orders than to take them. Fame, I now saw . . . was unqualifiedly delicious: it was better to be recognized than to be anonymous.

So you see immediately what success means to Podhoretz, the triumvirate he’ll be kneeling at for the next 250 pages: money, power, fame. The preface, though, offers a pixel of hope that perhaps sustained vulgarity won’t be the only offering. He wants part of his mission to be sociological; he must probe an American contradiction. Here is his diagnosis (and please pardon my many cuts when quoting Podhoretz, but I’m forced to fix the verbose entanglements of his prose style):

On the one hand, we are commanded to become successful . . . On the other hand, it is impressed upon us . . . that if we obey the commandment, we shall find ourselves falling victim to [a] radical corruption of spirit . . . On the one hand, “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS,” as William James put it . . . “is our national disease”; on the other hand, a contempt for success is the consensus of the national literature for the past hundred years or more. On the one hand, our culture teaches us to shape our lives . . . with the hunger for worldly things; on the other hand, it spitefully contrives to make us ashamed . . . of those hungers . . . and to deprive us . . . of any pleasure in their satisfaction.

If talk of ambition and success causes people shame, then Podhoretz will lessen that shame by being thoroughly unshameable. In public, we like to preach “a gospel of anti-success”—the noble, Bohemian gospel wherein one maintains one’s credibility by not selling out or compromising one’s ideals for something as sordid as money—while in private we are driven by avarice and the lust for fame. Nothing, he believes, “defines the spiritual character of American life more saliently than this contradiction,” and so he has presumed “to write an autobiographical book about the problem of success in America.”

But one of the memoir’s chief flaws is that the social investigation amounts to mute stuff next to Podhoretz’s own resounding back-pats. “For taking my career as seriously as I do in this book, I will no doubt be accused of self-inflation and . . . tastelessness. So be it.” And so it was. Remember Brutus’s immortal words upon the assassination of Julius Caesar: “Ambition’s debt is paid.” Podhoretz knows that “there are prices to be paid for the rewards of making it in America,” though the steepest price he paid was not for winning those rewards but for broadcasting his greed for them—he paid in humiliation. In Making It, the main thing he succeeds in making is a fool of himself. You tense against his hammy shtick, and then you tense some more when you realize that it’s no shtick at all, but the sincerest self-flattery you’ll ever see. Christopher Hitchens once called the book “the most vulgar paean to pure and simple arrivisme that has ever been penned.” Podhoretz set out to speak candidly about “the dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul” and came out looking dirty, little, and soulless, though quintessentially American.

Making It is a Franklinian testament to waking early, working hard, and winning big. You don’t have to be a wild-eyed patriot to see that America is the great success story of the West, the product of overweening ambition, exertion, and conviction. We laud winners, loathe all losers. The most American sentence in Making It is also the simplest: “I could not bear the idea of not being great.” To be a failure in America, regardless of whether or not it’s your fault, is to be in error, an embarrassment to the hymn of Horatio Alger, to the extraordinary promise of this nation’s possibility. It’s not for nothing that our billionaire president’s most cutting epithet of choice is “loser.” Yet success is a virtue polite society pretends is a vice. To be upfront about wanting success—which in America always means wealth, fame, power—and about the triumphs of your own ambition, is, as Podhoretz admits, “tasteless.”

Why? Why are we so turned off by someone gazing into the glass and pronouncing him or herself the fairest of them all? What’s wrong, exactly, with an ardent self-love? Didn’t “love thyself” long ago become part of the American therapeutic lexicon, and part of how American consumerism snags its victims, by beaming us messages about how special we are, how deserving? Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism (1979), showed us how hollow that ethos is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective: hollowness is the point.

Nevertheless, full-frontal ambition and its braggadocio invites public derision. Tasteless, yes, indecent. It’s not nice to brag about how you made it when—and this is always the underlying crux of the indecency—so many others have failed and are suffering because of it. No one’s saying you can’t be a success—civilization, like nature, inevitably encompasses both the lowly and the elect—but please do shut up about it. It’s perfectly okay for others to celebrate you, but when you celebrate yourself you end up looking miniscule. Whitman won’t help you out here, either. He begins that famous opening stanza of our American anthem, Song of Myself, with “I celebrate myself,” but he ends it with “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—he means reciprocity, fellowship, communion: the antitheses of self-love.

Critics pounded Making It not only because of Podhoretz’s avowals of ambition, his obnoxious obsession with fame, his thumping narcissism, his telltale inability to hear just how vain he sounded, but also because he’d always had a special talent for inciting animus. In his Journals, Alfred Kazin refers to Podhoretz’s “oafishness,” calls him an “ideological cretin” and “the brutal simplifier.” At one point he exclaims: “The brutal, little mind of Norman Podhoretz!” Ginsberg spoke of Podhoretz’s “great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often.” Alexander Cockburn once quipped, with characteristic overkill, that Podhoretz is “a mass murderer whenever he sits down to write or stands up to speak.” Gore Vidal, no stranger to vanity, had terrific fun poking at Podhoretz over the years; in 1986, he referred to him as “Poddy”: “All in all, Poddy is a silly billy.” To Christopher Hitchens, writing in 1999, he was, inexplicably, “the Pod.” Harold Bloom refers to him as Norman Podhorrors. Those are cheap hits. A writer’s name really should be off-limits (it’s the one word he has no choice in), but Podhoretz seems to attract the ad hominem.

And anyway, if you really want to emphasize the deficiencies of Making It you don’t need to make it personal. Podhoretz can wield a phrase when he wants to—“acrobatic ingenuity”—but for the most part you can expect a maddening verbosity, loopy syntax, stilted rhythms, and paragraph-long sentences that often don’t find their way back from their own dashes. There’s his distractingly stuffy, dead-ear habit of never ending any clause with a preposition, or saying something plainly: He can’t simply write “the people who raised me,” but insists on “the people among whom I had been raised.” The funniest is: “the girls in quest of whom my friends and I hornily roamed the streets.” There’s his conviction that “altogether” makes a phrase more substantive: “altogether outspoken snobbery,” “altogether at home,” “altogether typical.” There’s his tic “to be sure”: “There were, to be sure, limits,” or “There was, to be sure, nothing unusual.” Then there’s his happy confusing of self-revelation for self-comprehension. And all you need to know about Podhoretz’s skill as a literary critic is this: He thinks The Adventures of Augie March is a “forced, strained, shrill” lemon.

Making It is best when Podhoretz aims the floodlight away from his own fabulousness and onto the zeitgeist and intellectual weather of the 1930s and 40s, onto the various schisms among Marxists, Communists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, and onto other writers. There are memorable bits on his teachers and mentors—Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, Richard Chase, F. R. Leavis—and on those revered New York intellectuals, the Partisan Review and Commentary crowd, he calls “the family,” a gaggle of illustrious thinkers: Clement Greenberg, William Phillips, Phillip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Dwight MacDonald, Paul Goodman, Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick, Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Leslie Fiedler, Daniel Bell, James Baldwin.

If a memoir causes a ruckus today, it’s probably because the most sensational, selling parts have been uncovered as lies. Making It caused an outrageous commotion that’s no longer possible in these United States, in part because we no longer harbor a caste of famous intellectuals, an elite coven of literary individuals vying for attention, eminence, influence, professional minds eager to snipe at one another. Never having mattered very much, literature and ideas now matter not at all. Literary intellectuals might not have occupied a central place in our culture, but in the 1960s and 70s you could count on seeing big lit names on your TV screen, usually on Firing Line and The Dick Cavett Show: Buckley, Vidal, Mailer, Sontag, Hellman. Making It appeared at a time of severe political and aesthetic upheaval, yes, but also at a time when real literary fame was still possible.

Here’s how Podhoretz closes the book:

For several years I toyed with the idea of doing a book about Mailer that would focus on the problem of success, but in the end I decided that if I ever did work up the nerve to write about this problem, I would have to do it without hiding behind him or anyone else. Such a book . . . ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought . . . to constitute a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package: otherwise it would be unable to extricate itself from the toils of the dirty little secret. Writing a book like that would be a very dangerous thing to do, but some day, I told myself, I would like to try doing it.

I just have.

But of course the book is in no way a Mailer-like bid; it’s missing Mailer’s flirtatious peril, his darling menace as thinker, his opportunistic fearlessness before the big issues. Christopher Ricks began his review with: “Disappointing, Making It,” because “the American reviews had made it all sound unprecedentedly loathsome and egomaniacal, whereas Making It is nothing as interesting at that. A clumsy vanity doesn’t come to much of a break-through.”

There’s a sense in which everything that happened in Podhoretz’s career after Making It happened because of Making It: the critics’ brutality he suffered, the spectacle he made of himself—he never got over it, could never let it go, never forgive those who pointed out his buffoonery. In the ensuing decade Podhoretz would fully defect from the left, a defection he records in his second memoir, Breaking Ranks (1979). But Making It suggests that there wasn’t all that much leftism in Podhoretz’s storied career to defect from. A purring coziness with wealth and power isn’t exactly a dignified leftist position. Wilfrid Sheed put the point well: “That a man with such an Ayn-Rand-and-water program should call himself a man of the left is symptomatic of the fifties and sixties.” Podhoretz, he said, is actually “to the right of Horatio Alger. . . . His left-wing opinions are just talk.” In a 1983 essay, Alfred Kazin remembered Podhoretz saying to him, during his supposedly leftist days, “I never knew power could be so pleasant.” That was part of what irked so many in his set: They saw Podhoretz “breaking ranks” before he ever formally did so. His hard-right turn can be seen as a kind of revenge against those who ridiculed, dismissed, and betrayed him, especially those on the left who wouldn’t worship him as he worshipped himself.

For all the vulgarity of Making It, Podhoretz wasn’t wrong. If you’ve spent any time at a writers’ conference, you know that writers are indeed an ambitious, narcissistic, needy lot, secretly beset by feelings of inadequacy and irrelevance. As the pie shrinks by the day—as more and more hacks deluge the scene, as respectable publishing venues dwindle, as literature becomes culturally obsolete, as the internet kills quality reading and makes it harder for writers to earn a buck—aspirants grow more desperate yet, thirstier for renown, for all the plaudits denied them. This was Mailer’s point about the establishment’s fury over Making It: Podhoretz wasn’t just confessing to his own neediness, but revealing all writers to be miniscule and needy.

Norman Podhoretz set out to speak candidly about “the dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul” and came out looking dirty, little, and soulless, though quintessentially American.

The ridicule Podhoretz aroused, in Mailer’s judgment, “came not because he was revealing the dirty little secret of others, but because he was exposing himself, and this act of self-exposure was received by The Family as a treason—one simply did not go around exposing any member of the clan. To do that was to weaken all.” And writers are weak enough as it is without being outed as the raging narcissists they are. “Can that be why Making It was so abominable to them?” Mailer asked. “Because Podhoretz was blind to the defenses of the put-on and had the idiocy or the suicidal strength to move to the center of the stage, open his box, exhibit his tricks?”

The self-regarding monotone of Making It makes it tough to read, even now, in this foul age when the online world has enabled and exposed millions of throbbing egoists. Eleven years after Making It, Christopher Lasch would proclaim: “Self-absorption defines the moral climate of contemporary society,” and if that was true then, the internet has made it much truer now. Podhoretz writes, he says, “to attract attention and acquire status—to become, in a word, famous.” Yes, that is the word all right, the ugly, inevitable American word. But the obsession with fame, status, reputation, and rivalry is a colossal waste of time. It seeks to barter away a private, cultivated passion for the spectacle of a public pose. It means a kind of death for serious writers, sapping their already slim margins of strength to make what really matters: not it, but a book that might live alongside art, that might one day be called literature.