Breaking Ranks

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Breaking Ranks is an intellectual odyssey; it is also an exercise in self-justification. It starts with the author’s espousal of the liberal anti-Communism of the 1940’s and 1950’s with its emphasis on benevolent government centralization, salutary economic growth, and integration as a solution to racial problems. It shows Podhoretz’s conversion at the close of the 1950’s to the radicalism that was to characterize much of the 1960’s, a radicalism which attacked these positions. This memoir deals centrally, however, with the author’s “breaking ranks”—his dismissal of 1960’s radicalism as a self-defeating sham—and his attempt to define a new position in terms of his own interests as an American and as an intellectual.

When Podhoretz began his career as editor of Commentary in 1960, he immediately altered its ideological direction by publishing Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, serialized in the magazine’s first three issues. This spirited critique attacks American society as a creator of obstacles for people who want to satisfy “certain elementary needs of the human spirit—for useful and necessary work to do, for sex without shame or guilt, for a community to be loyal to.” In his support of Goodman and his desire to criticize American society and its public values, Podhoretz was at odds with his teacher and mentor, Lionel Trilling, and at one with his friend, Jason Epstein, whose New York Review of Books was on the forefront of radical ideology preferring a Communist victory in Vietnam, suspecting American motives at home and abroad, and glorifying youthful irresponsibility as political idealism.

Podhoretz, however, soon began to distance himself both from traditional liberalism and from new-style radicalism. This distancing can be seen in his essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours” and in his first book of memoirs, Making It. In “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz gives vent to his pessimism about integration: all blacks hate whites and all whites are “twisted and sick” in their feelings about blacks. Moreover, blacks “hate whites not only—or perhaps not even primarily—for social and political reasons, but also for psychological and spiritual ones.” This essay attained some notoriety, but Making It actually became notorious. Published in 1968, Making It was a memoir of the author’s craving for and attainment of success as a member of the New York intellectual community. His attitude toward success was essentially positive: it was right to want it and a pleasure to have it. Podhoretz’s affirmation provoked intense hostility. As one...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)