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...
(The entire section is 1080 words.)