The trouble is that Podhoretz has a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often. —Allen Ginsberg, 1958
Fortunately [Ginsberg’s] ideas are not for the moment especially fashionable among the middle-class young. And yet there is enough resemblance between the current situation and the cultural climate of the 50’s to fear that his siren song may yet find its insidious way into the ears of yet another generation of restless kids, misleading and corrupting them as it did so many of their forebears in the all too recent past. —Norman Podhoretz, 1997
The young literary critic and editor Norman Podhoretz was at home one evening, in the fall of 1958, when he got a phone call. On the other end of the line was a woman who said she was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend.
“I’m here with Allen and Jack who would like you to come see them tonight,” she said.
For a brief moment Podhoretz thought (hoped) it was a practical joke. Over the past year he had written three essays on the Beats, each one arriving at more certainty than the last that they weren’t the literary redeemers he’d been searching for. They weren’t the ones who would carry his generation, and the culture, out of its Eisenhower-era doldrums.
His culminating piece, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” published in the spring issue of Partisan Review, had been brutal. Not only were Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the rest mostly bad writers, who’d written bad stories and books and poems, they were bad people, champions of dangerous impulses.
“The spirit of hipsterism and the Beat Generation strikes me,” he’d written, “as the same spirit which animates the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amok in the last few years with their switchblades and zip guns. … Even the relatively mild ethos of Kerouac’s books can spill over easily into brutality, for there is a suppressed cry in those books: Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.”
A powwow with Ginsberg, with whom he’d been friendly back in college, and Kerouac, whom he’d abused in print, was such a perfectly awful thing to contemplate that it seemed to Podhoretz it almost had to have been cooked up by a friend.
“But then Ginsberg got on the line,” wrote Podhoretz in his memoir Ex-Friends, “and the minute I recognized his voice and realized that this was no joke, practical or otherwise, I caught myself desperately fishing for some graceful way to avoid what was sure to be a very unpleasant encounter.”
He was unwilling to be the coward, however, and Ginsberg was insistent. So he agreed. He’d make the trip down from his place on the Upper West Side to the Village, and hear them out. Before he went, though, he had to contemplate the state of his person. He needed a shave, and his clothes were all rumpled and ratty. No good. He couldn’t show up to the battlefield kitted out like the enemy.
So he shaved, looked around at what else was available to wear, and remembered one of the lines from Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem Podhoretz had actually found quite impressive when he’d first encountered it back in 1956. Ginsberg had written, of the best minds of his generation, that they were:
burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.
Podhoretz wasn’t certain that Ginsberg had been thinking of him, in speaking of those sinister intelligent editors, but he thought he might have been an inspiration. And the poem wasn’t quite saying that such editors would be wearing flannel suits. But it didn’t have to be precise if you already had a taste for self-dramatization, not to mention the necessary suit. So he suited up, three-piece Brooks Brothers suit, tie, and everything, and headed downtown.
From the moment Podhoretz got to the apartment, the two men went at each other. First they argued over whether Podhoretz would smoke pot with Ginsberg. Podhoretz had smoked it a few times before, but he wasn’t into it, and in any case he wanted his wits about him. So he refused. Then they got to the meat of the matter.
“All night long he hectored and harangued me for my stupid failure to recognize both Kerouac’s genius and his,” remembered Podhoretz, “and the more I fought back, the harder he tried to make me see how insensitive I was being. It was I, he kept railing, who was the know-nothing, not they.”
The argument they had—for four hours, by Podhoretz’s later reckoning—was a multileveled one. It was literary: Podhoretz had no time for the style of the Beats. He thought they’d fallen victim to a spurious notion that the way to evoke the feeling of spontaneity and vitality on the page was to write spontaneously, from the gut, without care or precision.
Ginsberg thought Podhoretz had shit for ears—had no feel for language himself so naturally was unable to perceive that Kerouac, in particular, was using spontaneous-seeming language to achieve subtle lyrical effects.
The argument was also sociological. Podhoretz granted that the Beats had perceived, correctly, the torpor of 1950s America, but rather than rigorously applying their literary imaginations to the project of generating new sources of vitality, they had simply rejected it all, thrown in with “primitivism, instinct, energy, ‘blood.’ ”
At its worst, by Podhoretz’s lights, this was a kind of proto-fascism, the glorification of violence for the sake of its dynamism and clarifying force. At its least bad it was a celebration of the infantile and adolescent in American culture.
Ginsberg saw in Podhoretz just another defender of the bourgeois status quo, afraid of the liberatory id of the American psyche. He was also a herd-minded member of a literally intellectual establishment that had been too stodgy to give Ginsberg his due as a poet.
The argument was also very personal. Podhoretz’s first piece of published work, a long undergraduate poem, had been edited and published by Ginsberg when they were both at Columbia. Podhoretz had been Ginsberg’s successor in the role of favored student of Lionel Trilling. After college they’d run in many of the same literary and intellectual circles, and had remained aware of each other. More than anything they were both vastly ambitious, rather narcissistic, moderately insecure Jewish-American young men of the same generation bent on using words not just as a vehicle with which to understand themselves but, if at all possible, as the hammer and chisel with which to carve out spaces in the culture that corresponded rather precisely to their particular projects. And those projects, because they began from such similar origins before going off in such different directions, couldn’t help but bring the two men into a kind of intimate conflict with each other.
And so they went back and forth, back and forth, for hours. Ginsberg was for homosexuality; Podhoretz was against. Ginsberg said that middle-class values should be exploded once and for all. Podhoretz thought they were in need of moderate revision. Ginsberg was a drug experimenter; Podhoretz liked to drink (too much, as he would later realize), but was suspicious of drugs. Ginsberg was a literary rebel who craved acceptance from the establishment. Podhoretz had been anointed by the establishment but feared that its approval was more of a curse than a blessing. Ginsberg was a poet, Podhoretz a literary critic. Ginsberg, though he was older by a few years, was spiritually at home on the far side of the radical cultural break that was coming. Podhoretz, it would turn out, was born both too late and too early. He heard the call of the sixties, but he would never be at home there. In his heart he was a child of the 1950s. At his most adventurous he would be a creature of the early sixties, whose vision of the good life was some kind of fusion of New York intellectual–style depth, moderate Left politics, and Rat Pack insouciance.
“Inevitably, then, and along with everything else, it was myself I was defending,” remembered Podhoretz. “… As against the law-abiding life I had chosen of a steady job and marriage and children, he conjured up a world of complete freedom from the limits imposed by such grim responsibilities. It was a world that promised endless erotic possibility together with the excitements of an expanded consciousness constantly open to new dimensions of being: more adventure, more sex, more intensity, more life. God knows that as a young man full of energy and curiosity, and not altogether averse to taking risks, I was tempted by all this. God knows too that there were moments of resentment at the burdens I had seen fit to shoulder, moments when I felt cheated and when I dreamed of breaking out of limits I had imposed upon myself. Yet at the same time I was repelled by Ginsberg’s world.”
With the stakes so high, no quarter could be given, and on they went, past midnight, until they ran out of things to throw at each other. As Podhoretz left, Ginsberg threw out one last sally: “We’ll get you through your children!”
A decade later that threat would prove one of the fulcrums around which Podhoretz would execute his hard pivot to the right. At that moment, though, in the fall of 1958, Ginsberg just sounded grandiose to Podhoretz’s ears. The Beats, after all, weren’t the problem. They were an overreaction to it, a symptom of it. They didn’t want to just take a swim in the Plaza fountain at midnight (Podhoretz’s metaphor for the cultural loosening up his generation of conformists needed to explore). They were so consumed by emptiness they felt they had to have sex in the Plaza fountain, with other men, while high, in order to approximate the feeling of being alive.
Podhoretz’s encounter with Ginsberg and Kerouac did nothing to change his mind about the basic absence at the center of American culture and society, which was of an authentic vitality and passion, tempered by intellect. If anything the encounter highlighted just how challenging an equation he was trying to solve. The Beats were too hot. The New York intellectuals were too cold. But what was just right?
Excerpted from Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (Simon & Schuster) by Daniel Oppenheimer. Copyright © Daniel Oppenheimer 2016.