Monday, September 27, 2010

Norman Podhoretz

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:

“I don’t understand it,” she said. My dad began to expound on what homosexuality is, and this little boy sat there with a look of absolute horror on his face. He was some sweet kid, and his family talked about whatever people talk about at dinner table—what they did that day, sports, shopping, whatever—and this was an alarming experience for him. He went home, and after that we weren’t friends anymore.His argumentative intensity, his refusal to modulate a view, his sworn enmity toward affectation and obscurity, his callous indifference to approval (although Jeffers quotes friends and family who say that he secretly craved the warm regard that his elected acrimony made impos­si­ble)—over the years Podhoretz built up a style of downright statement that never failed to challenge his readers and keep them reading. All of Podhoretz’s books—not only his memoirs—are briskly paced, cutting straight to the point. Even his polemical essays have the strong current of a good narrative.

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:What you don’t want to do is feel you have to prove your bona fides, to make it clear what a good person you are and all the rest of it. If you have to do that, it weakens the force of your argument. It already suggests there’s something suspect about your position.Starting out in the ’fifties as a liberal anti-Communist (that now-extinct creature), Podhoretz briefly flirted with the counterculture before deci­sively breaking with the Left over its reluctance to confront totalitarian­ism, its romance with Palestinian Arab terrorism, its elevation of race, sex, and class at the expense of intellectual and aesthetic merit, and its willing­ness to sacrifice concrete freedoms to an abstract equality. What remained steady, however, was his devotion to candid unflinching speech. When the literary history of postwar America is finally written, it will be recorded that Norman Podhoretz did as much as any writer to summon English prose style back from its retreat into polished and pointless sophistication.


tim chambers said...

In my masters thesis on Bellow, showed how Augie March did not fulfill the stated intention of its famous first sentence. I did so without the benefit of reading Norman Podhoretz, so I would very much like to see his case for the novel's failure and compare it to my own.

I also like what you say about polished but pointless prose. It has been my problem with contemporary literature for years. The only fiction writer I can think of who is consistently worthwhile is Richard Powers. He's not the sort who writes cliches about the sordidness and emptiness of contemporary suburban life. His characters are always people involved in fascinating pursuits on the frontiers of science or the arts. His writing is exceptional. His latest, though, is not his best.

My problem with Podhoretz is Israel first. It is proving to be far too costly, in lives and treasure to pursue it in the face of Israeli intransigence on the issue of settlements. One cannot make peace with people whose land and water they continue to steal.

D. G. Myers said...

Spare me the Arab propaganda. Next you’ll want us to believe that Israelis use Arab blood to bake their Passover matsot.

Podhoretz’s fine essay on Augie March is reprinted in the collections Doings and Undoings, which is well worth tracking down.

Tim Chambers said...

Thank you for the info on Doings and Undoings.

No, I will not make that claim. But the West Bank does amount to Liebensraum for Israelis, and the settlements make it damned difficult to establish a two state solution, which is the only thing that will work. To deny that is simply to blindfold oneself. Migration and displacement are historical forces that must always be reckoned with. But the Jewish people migrated in and out of Palastine a long time ago. To claim that land as their own now, based on abandoned settlements from centuries ago, seems a bit far fetched to me. said...

My argument dealt more with Augie's passivity in the face of his claim to being first to knock, first admitted.

Bellow devotes the entire novel to deconstructing the grand claim of that first sentence. Augie embarks on all his adventures at the instigation of others. There is very little that he does for himself in his own way. It's more like he muddles his way through life on the coattails of others. That's how I read it anyway. I found it entertaining and somewhat humorous that he never attained the swagger that he claimed for himself, but there seemed to be no point in taking it away from him.

D. G. Myers said...

[T]he West Bank does amount to Liebensraum for Israelis. . . .

I am invoking Godwin’s law. You lose the argument.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Liebensraum? Loving-room?

Thank you, DGM, for the always refreshing reviews.

Tim Chambers said...

lieben, leben - easy mistake to make for one who never studied German and has only a passing historical interest in the Nazis.

Israel was a client state, during the Cold War, to counter Soviet influence in Syria and Egypt. It was deemed vital to the national interest to protect Israel at that time. But it has a prosperous economy and can stand on it's own feet.

Now, Israel is only vital to the survival of politicians, who kowtow to a small number of single issue swing voters. For that we have the ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and might yet take on Iran.

Does anyone seriously believe that Iran would be dumb enough to drop an atomic bomb on Israel, or that any of these countries is a credible threat to the long term survival of Israel?

The only reason they're building the bomb is the village idiot's moronic Axis of Evil speech. It accomplished nothing more that persuading a few rogue nations to rev up their nuclear programs to counter the perceived threat of a preemptive military invasion. Where were the supposed adults in the room to persuade him that American presidents simply don't say such things?

I'm an American and a realist. I'm concerned for my own country's welfare and in fighting wars, for Israel's sake, we're putting ourselves in the kind of bind England was in after the World Wars. The United States stayed out by design, lending England the money (and ships) it needed to fight the Germans on its own. When England couldn't pay back its war debts, we said, fine, we'll take your coaling stations, and became the dominant sea power. China will do the same to us one of these days and we'll be as @#$%ed as England was.

I want both sides to live in peace, and for that to happen there must be an accommodation on Israel's part, because it does, in fact, hold all the land.

D. G. Myers said...

Off topic. A losing argument, filled with hoary clichés, but still off topic. said...

Off Topic? I don't think so. Podhoretz was the Grand Poobah of the NeoCons, and the NeoCons were pushing for the clash of civilizations.

So how is it a hoary cliche to discuss how China might decide to reclaim the capital that finances those wars? I don't see any discussion of it, even though it is a possibility.

Nor does anyone remark how stupid that speech was. I remember it being lauded by everyone.

If the village idiot had chosen, instead, to finance the war with taxes, or better yet, simply to get bin Laden without the assistance of the Afghans, we would not be in the position we are in.

D. G. Myers said...

Blah blah blah.

You may not have noticed, but my review concentrated upon Podhoretz the writer.

You’re simply proving my point that his qualities as a writer are rarely discussed when he is.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

lieben, leben - easy mistake to make for one who never studied German and has only a passing historical interest in the Nazis.

And yet you feel somehow qualified to use this term that you cannot spell from a language you cannot understand and a history that you do not know.

You do realize that it makes the rest of everything you write suspect?

D. G. Myers said...

Tim Chambers:

I deleted your last comment, not because it offended me somehow, but because (as I warned earlier) it was off topic. If you want to complain about Zionism and neoconservatism, I am sure that you can find somewhere on the web to do so. If you wish to comment upon Podhoretz the writer—with some evidence that you have actually read Podhoretz—then I shall be happy to post your comment, no matter what you say.

Anonymous said...

That's a copout, D.G. Meyers. Neoconservatism and Israel-firstism is all that Podhertz is known for, and will be known for. Considering your use of the phrase "Arab propoganda" it's obvious that you share Podhoretz enthno-nationalistic views re Israel. Treating him as any other intellectual who should be lauded for his prose is YOUR form of propaganda.