Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080
After assuming the editorship of Commentary magazine in 1960, Norman Podhoretz (pod-HOHR-ehts) became one of the most influential literary and cultural critics in the United States. His views on literature and culture were invariably shaped by his political opinions, and in consequence his criticism reflected his political odyssey from the...
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- Critical Essays
After assuming the editorship of Commentary magazine in 1960, Norman Podhoretz (pod-HOHR-ehts) became one of the most influential literary and cultural critics in the United States. His views on literature and culture were invariably shaped by his political opinions, and in consequence his criticism reflected his political odyssey from the radical left to the neoconservative right.
Podhoretz’s career as a literary critic began in the 1950’s with frequent appearances of his writing in such magazines as Commentary, Partisan Review, and The New Yorker. A selection of his essays from this period was published in 1964 under the title Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing. Although he applies aesthetic standards of literary judgment to the works he discusses, Podhoretz is no art-for-art’s-sake critic. Rather than seeing literature as an end in itself, he regards it as “a mode of public discourse that either illuminates or fails to illuminate the common ground on which we live.” Consequently book reviewers do not simply discuss verbal artifacts but make their own contribution to the shape of culture. In Doings and Undoings Podhoretz argues that the best American writing of the postwar era was being done in magazine articles directed at the intelligent general reader.
According to Podhoretz, the more purely imaginative forms of writing did not fare nearly as well. Podhoretz says virtually nothing about poetry and drama, and he pans most contemporary fiction for lacking both the iconoclastic vigor of early modernism and the moral certitude that modernism displaced. He has little respect for such writers as John Updike, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, and Saul Bellow, and even less so for the Beats. (Although he is somewhat more enthusiastic about Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, Podhoretz finds them more valuable as social commentators than as literary artists.) No more respectful of the acclaimed writers of an earlier generation, Podhoretz criticizes F. Scott Fitzgerald for his romantic self-indulgence and William Faulkner for his gothic anti-intellectualism. In fact, the only writers for whom he has unmixed praise are the novelist Nathanael West and the critic Edmund Wilson.
Perhaps reacting to his evaluation of the relative merits of the fields, Podhoretz then turned from literary to political and social criticism. In Making It he used the story of his own rise to blast the hypocrisy of a literary establishment that rewards ambition while condemning it. In Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir he traces his own intellectual odyssey to neoconservatism. This work was followed by The Present Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power?, a call to the United States to resist international Communism, and Why We Were in Vietnam, a positive reevaluation of America’s least popular war.
After Doings and Undoings twenty-two years passed before Podhoretz published another book of criticism, a collection of essays entitled The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet, which reflects his move to the right. In the first three essays he deals with writers who, like Podhoretz himself, moved from an acceptance of the tenets of Communism to their fervent rejection. While praising these individuals for their conversion, Podhoretz argues that Arthur Koestler and the other authors of The God That Failed (1949) were intellectually incoherent in trying to reject Soviet Communism while still maintaining the illusion of “democratic socialism,” and that Albert Camus would have been a more influential writer had his work been more explicitly political. Podhoretz, however, is uniformly positive in his assessment of George Orwell, who, he argues, would have become a neoconservative had he lived until the year 1984.
The second section of The Bloody Crossroads concerns what Podhoretz calls the “adversary culture.” This culture consists of alienated intellectuals who are antagonistic to the basic institutions of the modern industrialized Western world. The category is broad enough to include not only the hippie counterculture but also a reactionary Luddite such as the literary critic F. R. Leavis. The intellectual godfather of the adversary culture, however, he considers to have been the patrician historian and autobiographer Henry Adams. Because of personal bitterness and professional disappointment, Adams mounted such a withering critique of both American society and life that Podhoretz finds his long-term influence culturally “malignant.”
Podhoretz concludes his book with essays on three writers who helped to illuminate the geopolitical conflicts between the Communist nations and the free world. He finds Henry Kissinger brilliant as both diplomat and writer, a conclusive rebuke to Henry Adams’s notion that intellect and political power are mutually exclusive in twentieth century America. Podhoretz also praises the Czech novelist Milan Kundera for having shown “the distinctive things Communism does to the life—most notably the spiritual or cultural life—of a society.” (His only criticism is that some of Kundera’s statements have unwittingly played into the hands of pro-Communists who have tried to minimize the political content of his work.) Even more impressive is the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man whose personal witness and artistic passion make him the hero of The Bloody Crossroads. Nevertheless, Podhoretz’s veneration of Solzhenitsyn has not blinded him to the fact that the novelist has difficulty breathing life into his fiction. It is in his nonfiction, when he is simply writing the truth about Soviet totalitarianism, that Solzhenitsyn is most compelling.
In his assessment of Solzhenitsyn and his other literary judgments, Podhoretz tries to strike a critical balance between the integrity of art and the imperatives of politics. Paraphrasing a character in a V. S. Naipaul novel, Podhoretz’s friend Joseph Epstein writes, “Everyone has opinions—some correct, some incorrect—but not everyone has a point of view: a standpoint, a perspective, from which to view the world going on around him.” The Norman Podhoretz of Doings and Undoings was a man of opinions. The author of The Bloody Crossroads writes from a point of view.
Ex-Friends was described by one reviewer as “a nifty if one-sided sketch of the intellectual gang wars”; it is a gossipy account of Podhoretz’s journey from the intellectual Left to the intellectual Right. In My Love Affair with America, however, Podhoretz began to see the same problems arising in the Right that had caused him to flee the Left. With The Prophets, Podhoretz turned his attention from contemporary American politics to the prophets of the Bible, although much of the book turns into an analysis of the politics of biblical society, treating Jeremiah and Isaiah with the same caution he accords Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.