Thomas L. Jeffers, Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 393 pp. $35.00.
Norman Podhoretz has been called many things—ultra-hawkish, U.S.-centric, neo-imperialist, Israel firster. And those are among the kinder things. His admirers know him as the editor who transformed Commentary into America’s best magazine. Along with the late Irving Kristol, he was the architect of the neoconservative intellectual movement, perhaps its leading advocate for “exporting democracy.” His counsel was sought by President George W. Bush, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and later by presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani. He is notorious for describing Islamism’s war against the West as “World War IV” and for advising that the U.S. bomb Khomeinist Iran.
What Podhoretz has not been called often enough is a good writer, one of the most influential American prose writers of the last half century. Making It, his 1967 “auto-case study” which revealed that a thirst for success is the dirty little secret of the intelligentsia, ignited the boom in American memoirs. (He followed up with the equally outrageous and invigorating Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends.) Trained originally as a literary critic under Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis, he made an immediate name for himself at twenty-three when he broke ranks with the critical consensus, writing in Commentary that The Adventures of Augie March was a grand failure, but a failure nevertheless. (Bellow never forgave him.) Doings and Undoings, his 1964 collection of essays, was nearly the last gasp of the New York intellectuals, the last successful attempt to write criticism of novelists’ ideas.
The virtue of Thomas L. Jeffers’s new biography is that it locks in on Podhoretz the writer, tracking his intellectual development through his essays and memoirs. A reader with a curiosity about postwar American intellectual history who is a stranger to Podhoretz’s work will find an excellent one-volume introduction to both in this biography. Podhoretz the man does not disappear beneath the surface of the writing, but Jeffers has small patience for scandal. As a direct consequence, his book has been denigrated as “extremely admiring,” “tightly aligned with its subject,” “exhaustive but frustratingly uncritical.” Podhoretz’s detractors are upset that his biographer does not share their opinion, along with their unthinking assumption that, as a matter of course, biography is the art of debunking a great man. Jeffers’s life belongs to an older tradition, in which the reasons that a man deserves his reputation—and a book-length treatment—are amply justified.
Podhoretz was born in 1930, and grew up in his native Brooklyn. The streets were tough, and fights between Jews and blacks and other second-generation immigrant kids were common. “I got beaten up a couple of times, and I don’t think I ever really won a fight,” Podhoretz later wrote, “but I was good or staunch enough to hold my own and not be totally humiliated.” The important thing was not to run away. “It was good training for the life I was to lead,” he said.
Indeed, Podhoretz has never run away from a fight in his life. In one of my favorite passages, John Podhoretz—the only son—relates how he brought a friend home for dinner when he was twelve or thirteen. His sister broached the subject of homosexuality:
Although not everyone will appreciate it for this reason, Jeffers’s biography contains an engrossing account of how Podhoretz built up his remarkable prose style—a variety of what I have elsewhere called the harsh style. Early in his career, he wrote in a letter to a friend that being obliged to submit multiple drafts to Commentary managing editor Robert Warshow—a wonderful writer in his own right—was teaching him to concentrate on “the qualities of things instead of on their meaning [his emphasis], and it seems to have wrought a revolution in my style.” The revolution not only transformed Podhoretz’s own style, but also that of the magazine of which he assumed editorial control in 1960. Commentary became a haven for what the great literary critic Ruth R. Wisse, one of Podhoretz’s discoveries, a regular contributor to the magazine since 1976, called the no-apologies style: