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Norman Podhoretz’s Valentine to Himself

How the ‘Commentary’ magazine editor came to write his influential memoir, now being reissued for its 50th anniversary

Daniel Oppenheimer
February 15, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

In April, The New York Review of Books will be reissuing Making It, by former Commentary Editor Norman Podhoretz, as part of its Classics series. When the memoir first came out, 50 years ago, it wasn’t instantly recognized as a future classic. Quite the opposite. It was panned by almost every magazine and journal of note, including Partisan Review, Esquire, The New Republic, and the New York Review of Books itself, whose critic called it “lifeless” and “impersonal.”

In this essay, adapted from Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, Daniel Oppenheimer looks at the genesis of Making It, and traces how its reception would end up playing a key role in Podhoretz’s metamorphosis from left-liberal intellectual to founding father of neo-conservatism.

Toward the end of 1963, New York intellectual and Commentary magazine Editor Norman Podhoretz was finally forced to admit that the book of literary criticism he’d promised his publisher, on postwar American fiction, was never going to be finished.

He was asked to substitute a collection of his essays and reviews instead, and after some resistance, he agreed. Doings and Undoings was published the following year, to more or less good reviews.

For Podhoretz, it was an excruciating experience. He’d known, rationally, that a collection of disparate pieces wasn’t likely to blow the doors off the scene, but he’d hoped anyway that the whole of the collection would somehow prove greater than the sum of its quite good but not, with a few possible exceptions, extraordinary parts.

He fantasized the book might do for him something like what his mentor Lionel Trilling’s 1950 collection, The Liberal Imagination, had done for Trilling, which was to elevate his status to that of Major American Critic. Or, if not that, then at least maybe it would give off some sparks like Advertisements for Myself, the more recent, also rather messy, collection from his good friend Norman Mailer. When Doings and Undoings did neither, Podhoretz suffered.

“Only a few years earlier,” he later wrote, “… I had been delighted to see my name mentioned in print, even if the reference was unflattering. Now, unless a reviewer went into raptures over me, I thought him my enemy.”

After the reviews stopped coming in, and the rhythms of everyday life reasserted themselves, Podhoretz realized a few things. One was that he had overreacted. If anything, the mere fact of his having published a book, something he’d failed to do before, had enhanced his stature.

Another was that he had overreacted because something important had been at stake for him. Then he realized what that something was. He wanted to be great, and wanted to be seen as great, extraordinarily badly. More badly than he’d known, and more badly than was in remotely good taste in the circles in which he moved.

“The whole business of reputation, of fame, of success, was coming to fascinate me in a new way,” he wrote. “Everyone seemed to be caught up in it, and yet no one told the truth about it. People capable of the most brutal honesty in other areas would at the mention of the word success suddenly lift their eyes up to the heavens and begin chanting the most horrendous pieties imaginable.”

Podhoretz had always been more naked in his desire for success than was fashionable, but his practice had been to atone for that gaucheness with an extra helping of guilt and self-consciousness. Now he began to wonder if he’d had it backward all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t the ambition, or people’s labors to realize it. After all, most of the people he really admired were pretty ambitious. The problem was the hangover of guilt and embarrassment everyone seemed to feel they owed the cosmos. What good did that do anyone? It didn’t seem to change how anyone behaved. It just got in the way of their being honest about it. The more Podhoretz ruminated, the more the pattern of his thoughts began to remind him of the internal ferment he’d felt a few times before, when his brain was preparing to write the essays and reviews of which he’d ultimately been proudest. There was some bullshit out there in the world that needed to be called out, and maybe he was the person to do it.

Over the next three or so years, as Podhoretz put aside most other writing to craft the memoir that followed from his rather politically incorrect epiphany, his entirely tasteful left-liberal politics remained rock steady. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more Podhoretz became convinced that this dissonance was precisely the point. A system of politics could only be as strong as its capacity to deal with people as they were, not as they imagined themselves to be. A good social democratic country of the sort Podhoretz envisioned should be able to honor and harness these self-serving impulses in ways that served the greater good, or at least didn’t compromise it. We could have a guaranteed minimum income, a withdrawal from Vietnam, and striving, self-promoting intellectuals all at the same time. He hoped his book would be, among other things, an exercise in demonstrating the truth of this. He hoped it would help cleanse some hypocrisy and contradiction from the conversation about success in America, as he believed an earlier and much-celebrated essay of his, “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” had helped cleanse the conversation about race. Then everyone could move forward toward the shared goal of achieving a more just and beautiful society.

To this point, Podhoretz had tried twice, and failed twice, to write the kind of book that followed most obviously from the coordinates of who he was and what he did. Now he was trying to do something else, to be not of the moment but ahead of it, to reach not for excellence but greatness. So he didn’t write a book-length version of the kind of wide-ranging literary-political-cultural essay that was the characteristic form of the New York intellectuals. He didn’t weigh in on race in America, or the Vietnam War, or the demands of the students, or the diagnoses of the social critics. Instead he looked to the essayistic form of what he’d achieved most beautifully with “My Negro Problem”; the example of his friend Mailer, whose brazenness had animated Advertisements for Myself; the harsh lessons of Doings and Undoings; and the laurels he’d won so far from following the call of his ambition, and he rolled it all together.

He would write the story of his own success, and make the wager that if he did so bravely, shamelessly, charmingly, perceptively enough, he’d win people over. He would say, I Want! And the people would say, We Do, Too! and would be grateful. And the act of declaring his desires would generate the very satiation of them, and there would be increases, exponentially.

That was the plan, anyway.

The book that Podhoretz finally produced, with the aid of a great deal of alcohol and an open door at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs where Podhoretz would frequently retreat from his editing duties to write, was not the book he’d hoped he was writing. It was a pretty good book. Podhoretz had insightful things to say about class and status in America, and about the pretzels into which people twisted themselves to avoid acknowledging their pursuit of them. And he was a good storyteller about his life if he had sufficient distance—10 years, give or take—from the autobiographical material he was narrativizing. It was interesting to hear about his childhood as the adored son of his Jewish mother in Brooklyn, his tense but fruitful relationship with the high school teacher who made it her mission to civilize him, his salad days at Columbia and Cambridge, his comic turn in the Army. There was something universal about the conflicts he experienced trying to reconcile his increasingly sophisticated self and the more parochial world of his family and old friends. And there was something sociologically right, and quite endearing, about the way he described the subtle and not-so-subtle competition between his young self—so nakedly, aggressively ambitious—and all the “snobs” who wanted it as badly as he did but were inhibited, by the unspoken rules of being a gentleman, from admitting to it.

For all that was charming and right about the book, however, there was something fundamentally off in the weft of it that betrayed him more and more as the book progressed. The anecdotes got less interesting after he got out of the Army. His descriptions of his ambition were less charming, more grating, when he was describing his adult self. His continual return to the matter of other people envying his success started to sound whiny. He wasn’t able to strike the right balance when dramatizing the characters and institutions of New York intellectual society; they were too close for him to see clearly.

Perhaps most fatal was the humiliating gap between the conceptual check Podhoretz wrote and his book’s ability to cash it. He’d pointed to the centerfield bleachers, and then knocked a solid single, maybe a sliding double, over the shortstop’s head.

He’d wanted to do something Big and New. He’d wanted to take this “dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul,” and use the story of his own life to model how it could be processed into something open and clean and powerful. But he didn’t have the chops to execute it. Or perhaps more to the point, he didn’t have the insight. At the end of it all, having bet everything that the book was an enactment of a new way of being, a higher synthesis of wanting and having and believing and enjoying, proof that he had in himself solved the problem of success, he actually sounded as if he’d regressed.

Gone was the man who’d gone toe-to-toe with James Baldwin, in “My Negro Problem,” and come out the other side still standing. Back was the good bad boy of his earlier years, daring/entreating the world to love his naughty self, but laid bare, without even the protective device of channeling his plea through consideration of other writers’ work.

“For several years I toyed with the idea of doing a book about Mailer that would focus on the problem of success,” he wrote at the end of Making It, “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, I thought, ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought in itself 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.”

When Podhoretz finished the manuscript, he felt scared but good. Then he began showing it around to friends and colleagues. His agent refused to represent it. Roger Straus, the chief of the publishing house that had given Podhoretz a rather large advance to write it, told him he could keep the advance and the manuscript; FSG wouldn’t publish it. His buddy Jason Epstein told him not to publish it. Partisan Review Editor William Phillips argued with him about it. Jackie Kennedy broke off relations after she read it. Diana Trilling told him it was “completely humorless and lacked any touch of saving irony.” Most upsetting of all was the reaction of Lionel Trilling.

“Do not publish this book,” Trilling said. “It is a gigantic mistake. Put it away and do not let others see it.”

Trilling begged him, if he insisted on proceeding, to at least add a chapter at the end that would soften some of the more extravagant claims of the book.

“If it appeared in its present form, he warned … it would be 10 years before I lived it down.”

There were some warmer responses. Mailer said he liked it. Another agent liked it and agreed to shop it around, finally finding it a home at Random House. But Podhoretz knew these were the exceptions. There was a consensus forming about the book, at least within the world of insiders who had access to it (or to the gossip about it). And he knew there was a good chance that the public reception after it came out in January of 1968 would be similarly harsh. But he went boldly forth anyway. One didn’t write a book such as Making It, the whole point of which was to lance a taboo, and then retreat because people were uncomfortable. It was a dangerous book. That was the point.

Making It came out the first week of 1968, and it was brutalized. Not in every single instance. There were some pleasant reviews. A few were middling. But most of the reviews were harshly critical, a number extravagantly so. And if Doings and Undoings had fared better than the mean of its reviews, Making It suffered the opposite fate. Once the critical consensus on the book was formed, each successive review was factored in only for how it could add to the tally of Podhoretz’s failures. As the bad reviews of January gave way to the bad reviews of February, and to those of March and April, a story coalesced about what kind of cultural event the publication of Making It was. This was evident both in the reviews themselves, which had their fun with Podhoretz, and in those blunter elements—headlines and art—intended to signal to readers what genre of drama was being acted out, and in what roles the actors had been cast: Podhoretz was in a comedy, and he was the buffoon.

“An apologist for fame ought to be a better judge of it,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic. “This aspect of Podhoretz’s book can be closed off with one (appropriately) Jewish joke. A man makes money, buys a yacht and a captain’s outfit, and then presents himself to his aged mother. The old lady says, ‘Boychick, to me, you’re a captain. To you, you’re a captain. But to captains, are you a captain?’ ”

Esquire’s headline wasn’t the worst—“The Dirty Little Secret of Norman Podhoretz”—but the nasty little couplet they ran beneath it got to the emasculating nub of it.

Actually, it’s neither dirty nor a secret

It is little, however.

“He seems scarcely to have been personally present among the celebrities who so delight him,” wrote the reviewer in The New York Review of Books. “Podhoretz amid his growing collection of trophies is so impersonal that there are times when it seems Making It might have better have been called Manhole in the Promised Land.

What came through even in many of the reviews that were most complimentary was that Making It generated an almost physiological cringe in its critics. It was such a spectacle, so vulnerable, so naked in its neediness. And because it lacked the rhetorical command to take the unease it provoked and transmute it into a higher form, that unease rebounded on Podhoretz.

By far the most personally devastating review came from Norman Mailer, in the spring 1968 issue of Partisan Review. Podhoretz had been hanging some hopes for critical redemption on the piece by Mailer, who back in the fall, after seeing the manuscript, had told him he liked the book. More recently Mailer had even told him he was writing the review precisely as a corrective to the attacks. But at some point between Mailer’s first reading—which was probably only a half-reading or skimming—and his more thorough reading of Making It for the review, his judgment changed. He still liked the first half of the book. It had “the quiet authority of good art.” But then it seemed to Mailer as though something went sour in the execution. At just that point where the book should have really gotten juicy, when Podhoretz joined the ranks of the New York intellectuals, when his restless and penetrating intellect finally encountered a milieu worthy of its attention, the story lost its nerve. It became nice. The protagonist “Podhoretz,” who’d been capable of such ruthless observation of people and institutions when he was on the make, suddenly found, upon having made it, that nearly everyone was rather charming and supportive.

Making It ceases to be a novel,” wrote Mailer, “just so soon as its protagonist enters the climax of his narrative; we are projected right out of that rare aesthetic vineyard where autobiography dares to become that special and most daring category of fiction which is its inner necessity, and instead we are now forced to jog along on the washboard road of memoir. Characters come in and out, observations are made, names file through, Podhoretz suffers, becomes an editor, thrives, we do not care—the novel has disappeared—the interplay between ambitious perception and society which has been the source of its value now gives ground to the aesthetic perplexity of the author who must flounder in the now novelistically alienated remains of his hypothesis—that success is the dirty little secret. Now he has no novel on which to work it, only sketchy anecdotes, abortive essays, isolated insights, and note of the drone—repetitions. A fine even potentially marvelous book gets lost in a muddle, finally finishes itself, and is done. No joy in closing the back cover.”

Mailer’s review had its own problems. He was working with a knot of private loyalties and literary principles so thick and tangled even a swordsman of his virtuosity couldn’t cut through it cleanly, and the jagged edges were manifest in the text. Mailer exerted himself to be compassionate to Podhoretz in one paragraph only to be viciously, brilliantly bitchy in the next. He didn’t like the book but wanted to make clear he liked his friend. He was angry on his friend’s behalf at how petty the gossip about the book had been within “the Inner Clan.” But then, as he would admit much later, he was also still angry at his friend for excluding him from the list of invitees to a dinner party with Jackie Kennedy. He knew on some level that he shouldn’t have written the review once he realized he didn’t like the book, but he’d accepted the assignment and, besides, he had some interesting things to say. And hadn’t he and Norman always prided themselves on being blunt with each other?

A different person than Podhoretz might have been able to hear in the review at least a few of the many notes of conciliation it struck. Even Podhoretz himself, at an earlier stage in the process, might have heard them. But the man he was at the moment the review arrived, after so much public humiliation, heard only betrayal and more humiliation. One of his dearest friends had determined that his book was so bad that the necessity of publicly declaring its badness yet one more time was more important than their friendship. Podhoretz had been tormented when Doings and Undoings, a cautious book, had gotten decent reviews. Now he had put himself so far out there he could feel the abyss keening beneath him, and the worst had happened, in full view of everyone he cared about and everyone whose opinion of him he valued (too much, obviously). He wasn’t great. He wasn’t even good. He was a failure, an object lesson, an object of ridicule. And he was wrecked by it.

The next two years would be the worst of Podhoretz’s life. He began drinking more. He retreated from his social life. He grew depressed. He brooded over the reaction to Making It. As had often been the case in the past, he also began to perceive that what was happening inside him was connected, in some profound way, to something larger happening in American culture.

That something, it soon became clear, was a shift in the temperature of the American left. The root optimism that had animated the movement throughout much of the decade—the sense that for America to be great it had only to heed the call of its better angels—was giving way to perceptions of a more intrinsically rotten society, in need of radical surgery or perhaps even euthanasia. Signs of the shift were everywhere. The civil-rights movement of figures like Martin Luther King Jr., and Bayard Rustin had been superseded by the more revolutionary black nationalism of leaders like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Out of the ashes of Students for a Democratic Society rose the violent Weather Underground. The Communist Party U.S.A., which everyone had thought dead and buried, seemed to be making a comeback.

The relationship between the New Left and the left-liberal New York intellectuals, of whom Podhoretz was a representative figure, has fundamentally shifted as well. In 1962, Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society had hoped that Commentary would publish the Port Huron Statement. In 1965, at Berkeley, Nathan Glazer and his faculty colleagues had been recognized by the student protesters as, if not quite allies, then at least good-faith partners in the process of creating a more humane university. By 1968, during the student protests at Columbia, when liberal faculty members tried to step into a similar role, they were met with disdain. They couldn’t solve the problem; they were the problem.

“I’ll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I’m sure you don’t like whole lot,” wrote campus SDS leader Mark Rudd, in his open letter to President Grayson Kirk, published the day before the uprising: “Up against the wall, motherfucker. This is a stick-up.”

For most of Podhoretz’s friends—many of whom would ultimately move to the right alongside him—this was an unpleasant, even traumatic message to receive. For Podhoretz, the primal trauma was what happened to Making It, and the process of reassembling his identity was fueled to an extraordinary degree by his need to reconstruct the recent past so that his book’s rejection by the world, and by his friends, would be endurable.

That meant coming to the conclusion that the book’s critics had been dishonest and hypocritical. More radically it meant going back to the genesis of the book and reimagining what kind of act its creation had been. Not primarily a literary act, as everyone had thought, but instead a political one. And it was as the raw material in this act of reimagination that the radicalism of the left, at the tail end of the decade, assumed its significance for him. Podhoretz hadn’t realized it at the time he was writing, but Making It was an expression of his soul crying out in protest against the indictments the New Left and other militant groups were handing down with ever-increasing fury and frequency.

It was a Yes to success and ambition and glory, but, more meaningfully, it was a No. He would not join with the growing chorus of those who saw the flaws in the major institutions and practices of American life as evidence that it was rotten all the way down. And it was for that political refusal, that act of dissent, that he was being punished. By the radical leftists, of course. By all the organs of the middlebrow media state, which deferred, as they always did, to whatever notions were fashionable at the moment. But also—and this he hadn’t fully anticipated—by those friends and allies of his who should have known better.

During this period of reconstruction, Podhoretz didn’t go so far as to persuade himself that the book he’d written was as spectacularly good as its (corrupt) critics were saying it was bad. But by reimagining Making It as a political rather than a literary object, he shifted the criteria according to which its worth should be measured. The question was no longer whether its literary construction was good but whether its political content was right. He also shifted the temporal frame. What he had done wasn’t necessarily done yet, wasn’t bounded by the back cover of the book. It was a beginning, perhaps only the first chapter in an unfolding story of political and intellectual resistance. He could be redeemed over time, depending on what happened next.

From that point forward, Podhoretz began to reorganize his very self around the fight to win the war he hadn’t been aware he was launching when he wrote Making It—in defense of America against the barbarians of the left. This didn’t mean a sudden conversion to conservatism. He had no template for that. But his sense of where the nation was, and what it needed, had always been a projection of his own feeling of place in the world. When he felt stifled, the nation needed release. When he felt empowered, the nation needed to stride forward exuberantly. Up until that moment, when the book came out and everything started to go wrong, Podhoretz had been a certain kind of man. His vision of what America would look like at its best was to a considerable degree a nation full of people like him. Loud, open, warm, boisterous, aggressive, hopeful, joyful, loyal, mischievous, vulgar in a knowing and cosmopolitan way, confident bordering on arrogant in some ways but also vulnerable in his affections and enthusiasms.

Then Making It was published, and the landscape of his political imagination transformed. He began retreating from those parts of himself that had been in tune with, or seduced by, the spirit of the decade and “the Movement.” He stopped looking around the corner for some new, fresh thing that might be coming, and began instead to retrench.

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author ofExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. He is working on a book about critic and writer Dave Hickey.