Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1609
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 Bazelon—and a few such as Dwight MacDonald, F.W. Dupee, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Mary McCarthy, who were decidely not Jewish. What these people had in common, besides an extraordinary intelligence, was a shared sense of taste—“highbrow”— and a deep concern for politics. With the exception of Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, and a few others, they were not primarily known as novelists, poets, or playwrights. The group was mainly interested in the criticism of literature, painting, and films and in social problems; a number of them, Podhoretz notes, including Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol, “could hardly be said to have had literary interests at all.”
All this cultural/literary/intellectual history is exceedingly complicated, but not unimportant, and Podhoretz does a real service in tracing the trends, alliances, and personalities of this most important segment of the American intelligentsia. He traces the movement through the “second generation” as well, discussing such writers as Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, and Irving Howe, noting differences. This second generation, Podhoretz says, was far less Marxist, more Freudian, published more fiction and poetry, and, most important, was much more comfortable with being Jewish in America than the first generation had been. These writers are of the generation which would yield Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and the others who would constitute the self-conscious “Jewish literary renaissance” of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Among the most interesting passages of Making It are those in which Podhoretz discusses the mysterious process of writing. He is very good at conveying the experience of writing when the creative “floodgates” are open; he describes with equal authority the experience of writer’s block. At the same time, he does not fail to anchor these reflections to his thesis. People write, he says, because they are good at it, not because they have something urgent to say. They write because they have been praised for their writing and, in American society, the title “writer” is one of considerable social rank, although attempts are often made, innocently or not, to deny it. Podhoretz was coming to understand why he wrote when he lost the ability to write. He had signed a book contract, and received an advance, but after several false starts, had produced no book. What had happened? For others, he speculates, the block is a result of a kind of vanity. The elders at Partisan Review were so learned, they could write nothing if they could not say everything, and so they wrote nothing. Podhoretz, too, shared this vain urge to omniscience and perfectionism but in addition flailed himself with having committed the sin of ambition. There it was again: He had not been satisfied with a good job at Commentary. He had wanted too much fame, too much power, too much money, and now his powers had been taken away from him. He was saved from this situation, ironically, by being brought back to Commentary as editor in chief.
It was a job he did not really want, he tells the reader, and so he got it, with the maximum amount of power and money available to the position. In any case he went to work with a vengeance. Commentary, under Podhoretz, was a leader in the later 1960’s. He moved the magazine to the left, away from what had been called “hard anti-communism” and toward an anti-Vietnam War, New Left position. Since this was the direction much of the energy of the time was taking, Commentary, once a fairly dusty Jewish-American journal, found itself in the vanguard of American cultural life. Podheretz tells the story of those heady days for the American intellectual and recalls with relish some of the disputes of the time. These passages from Making It have taken a different guise in retrospect; they should be read alongside Podhoretz’s later book, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (1979), in which he recounts the shift in perspective which transformed him into a leading spokesman for neoconservatism—a shift clearly reflected in the pages of Commentary.
Podhoretz’s analysis of the ways in which Americans bury their ambition, even from themselves, is both convincing and entertaining. The literature of the American counterculture since Henry David Thoreau—and even the literature of the elite culture in the works of an upper-class writer such as Edith Wharton—does indeed reinforce the disreputable nature of visible ambition.
Podhoretz also details an aspect of American upward mobility not often talked about, and that is the deal that a lower-class citizen or ethnic American must make in order to succeed. He can rise, yes—if he will speak, dress, eat, and in general act like a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, in essence rejecting his roots, whatever they may have been.
While Podoretz’s style in Making It is, for the most part, lucid and pleasing, even entertaining, the reader soon comes to understand that Podhoretz has only a few basic points to make concerning power and ambition. Since he makes these points a number of times, the book does tend to become somewhat repetitious. One suspects that if Podhoretz had not been entirely dedicated to the idea of publishing his first real book—he had previously published Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing (1964), a gathering of his previously published essays and reviews—the material in Making It could have been presented in one, long magazine article. In its present form it does seem a trifle inflated.
Podhoretz merits high marks for his discussion of the history and personnel of the New York intellectual group, those thinkers and writers who produced Commentary, Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books, and other major publications. He is an insider, and no one but an insider could break down the membership into generations and then assign rank to individual members in the generations. Only other insiders can dispute Podhoretz on these evaluations; no outsider would dare.