Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803
At the age of only thirty-five years, Norman Podhoretz had already been, for several years, the editor of Commentary, an important magazine published under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee, and the author of about one hundred pieces of nonfiction. These reviews and articles of various kinds had been appearing in print since 1963 in periodicals such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Show. Podhoretz had not yet written a book of his own, however, and felt the urgency to do so. Two events triggered the writing of Making It (1967). The first concerned James Baldwin and the publication of The Fire Next Time (1963). This important piece of writing had been commissioned by Podhoretz at Commentary, but Baldwin took the opportunity to get twenty times as much for it from The New Yorker. Podhoretz was furious and accused Baldwin of committing such an unprofessional act partly because, as a black, he would get away with it. Podhoretz further went on to assure Baldwin that he felt no white-liberal guilt, although, admittedly, his attitude toward blacks was less than saintly, based on real childhood experiences in Brooklyn. Baldwin responded by suggesting that Podhoretz write it all down and publish it, which Podhoretz did as “My Negro Problem—and Ours” in the February, 1963, issue of Commentary. This article, which suggested among other things that wholesale miscegenation, while unlikely, might be the best conclusion to the problem of integration in America, given that whites possessed more racist feelings than they admitted to and that blacks had at that time a secret dream of escaping their blackness, received a torrent of response. More important, it marked a breakthrough for Podhoretz as a writer, for it was the first time he had written in his own voice, not hiding behind the book under review while sneaking in his own opinions.
The other phenomenon which made Making It possible was Podhoretz’s friendship with the novelist and gifted nonfiction writer Normal Mailer. Mailer, who also came from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and also had been educated in an Ivy League school, in Mailer’s case, Harvard University, was an unabashed seeker after success, fame, and wealth. Mailer believed that everyone was ambitious, regardless of whether he admitted it, and that each person was the most interesting subject he had. Advertisements for Myself (1959) was Mailer’s boldest attempt to explain himself and promote his own career. Podhoretz admired Mailer’s straightforwardness and contemplated writing a book about Mailer, only to realize that the book he really wanted to write, and now had the voice in which to write, was a book, in the first person, about his own life, education, career, and ambition.
The preface to Making It sets the tone and establishes the theme for the entire volume and therefore deserves extensive consideration. Podhoretz introduces himself as “a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure.” From this axiom certain corollaries followed. First, “it was better to be rich than to be poor.” Second, “it was better to give orders than to take them.” Finally, “it was better to be recognized than to be anonymous.”
These revelations may not seem too startling at first glance, Podhoretz says, but one must consider the price that society exacts, especially upon the non-WASP, for the opportunity of “upward mobility.” In American literature, Podhoretz reminds his readers, “successful” is usually a synonym for “corrupt.” There is an inherent contradiction in American culture, he says. “On the one hand, our culture teaches us to shape our lives in accordance with the hunger for worldly things; on the other hand, it spitefully contrives to make us ashamed of the presence of those hungers in ourselves and to deprive us as far as possible of any pleasure in their satisfaction.”
Making It is a success story, a Horatio Alger tale of how the very bright son of Jewish immigrant parents rose to the top of the New York publishing establishment. It contains ten chapters, organized into three parts. Part 1, “A Journey in Blindness,” traces Podhoretz’s progress from high school in Brooklyn to Columbia University and the Jewish Seminary College and across the Atlantic to Cambridge University. The section concludes with Podhoretz’s disillusionment with academic life and his first experience writing for Commentary. Part 2, “Moving into Manhattan,” describes the world of the New York intellectuals (mostly but not exclusively Jewish) in which he made a rapid rise; this section also covers the period of his military service. In the third and final part, “Making It,” Podhoretz recounts how he became fully established as a writer and editor, and how he came at last to recognize those truths about ambition and success which are invoked in the preface.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69
Cevasco, G.A. Review in Library Journal. XCIII (January 1, 1968), p. 69.
Goldberg, S.L. “The Education of Norman Podhoretz: Or, I Was a Teen-Age Intellectual,” in The Critical Review. XII (1968), pp. 83-106.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Challenge of Success,” in The New Republic. CLVIII (January 27, 1968), p. 27.
Maloff, Saul. Review in Newsweek. LXXI (January 8, 1968), p. 62.
Raphael, Frederic. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIII (January 7, 1968), p. 4.
Time. Review. XCI (January 19, 1968), p. 94.
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