Making It Essay - Critical Essays

Norman Podhoretz


Some autobiographies proceed in what might be called novelistic fashion, immersing the reader in re-created experience. By contrast, Podhoretz’s approach in Making It is essayistic. The book contains very few passages of sustained narrative. Podhoretz’s recollections are mixed with reflections, comments, and digressions. Even as he is describing himself at an earlier age, one is always aware of the brash persona of the author as established in the opening sentences of the preface. Moreover, Podhoretz consistently connects the incidents he recalls to his thesis about the “dirty little secret” of success in American culture; he does not recount any experiences which are simply unrelated to that thesis.

In part 1, for example, Podhoretz tells of the influence of a high school teacher, Mrs. K., who saw promise in him, tried to teach him “manners” (there is a comical scene in which she takes him to a restaurant and orders duck for both of them), and encouraged him to attend Harvard University. The point of the story of Mrs. K., noted by Podhoretz in retrospect, is that he failed to grasp what she was trying to teach him: that his interest in literature and the arts, inevitably separating him from the social class in which he was reared, would lead him not to “some mystical country of the spirit” but to another level in the Americal class structure, and that he would have to learn to behave accordingly.

Podhoretz was indeed admitted to Harvard but received a better scholarship to Columbia College of Columbia University and decided to attend there. At Columbia and at the Jewish Seminary College, which he attended simultaneously, Podhoretz excelled in his studies and formed the ambition to become a literary critic. With irony at his own expense, Podhoretz acknowledges that, to many of his readers in the late 1960’s, such a goal must be hardly plausible, yet he adds, “The physical sciences apart, literary criticism in those days was probably the most vital intellectual activity in America, and the most vital branch of literature itself.” Podhoretz, who studied under Mark Van Doren, Richard Chase, F.W. Dupee, and especially Lionel Trilling and read avidly such intellectual journals as Partisan Review and The Kenyon Review, received a Kellett Fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship and went to Cambridge University to study.

At Clare College, Cambridge, Podhoretz encountered the truly non-ambition-ridden upper-class Englishmen, who were relaxed precisely because they were in a society which openly acknowledged the existence of classes, and they were at the top. Podhoretz remained himself, however, and by great effort attracted the attention of the literary critic F.R. Leavis, who published an article by Podhoretz on Lionel Trilling in Scrutiny. Podhoretz discovered that as an American he was, to Englishmen, classless, and thus not burdened as he had been at Columbia. He also discovered, as many Americans abroad will do, that he was an American, through and through, and that he could not expatriate himself. Popular culture, he discovered, is American culture, and he was too steeped in it to live permanently elsewhere. He returned to New York for the summer and received an invitation to write a review of The Natural (1952) by Bernard Malamud, from Elliot Cohen, editor of Commentary. Thus began Pohoretz’s long association with Commentary.

“Moving into Manhattan” offers a kind of literary history of the New York intellectuals as a group and a history of their very special journal, Partisan Review. Podhoretz divides this “family,” as he calls it, into generations, the oldest being European immigrants—Philip Rahv and Meyer Shapiro—with most of the rest of the first generation having been born to Jewish parents in New York City—Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman, Clement Greenberg, Robert Warshow, David...

(The entire section is 1609 words.)