Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
Norman Podhoretz 1930-
American essayist, memoirist, critic, historian, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Podhoretz's career through 2004.
A former student of renowned social critics Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, and F. R. Leavis, Podhoretz is a leading neo-conservative writer, editor, and memoirist whose highly politicized prose style has been characterized as both straightforward and confrontational. Once aligned with the liberal, leftist New York intelligentsia—known collectively as “The Family”—Podhoretz gradually became an outspoken member of the neo-conservative Right, arguing that the Family had become too radical in their beliefs. Podhoretz chronicles his political shift and personal clashes in his essays and memoirs, which also cover such topics as American foreign policy, Jewish affairs, and race relations.
Podhoretz was born on January 16, 1930, in a working-class section of Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish immigrants Julius and Helen Podhoretz. A talented student, Podhoretz was perceived as uneducated due to his Brooklyn accent and was forced to attend a mandatory speech class. Podhoretz subsequently won a Pulitzer scholarship to Columbia University, where he studied under professors Lionel Trilling and F. W. Dupee, receiving an A.B. degree in literature and criticism in 1950. He concurrently earned a degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary. During the 1950s, Podhoretz also earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Fulbright Scholar and Kellett Fellow. While at Cambridge, Podhoretz studied under noted critic F. R. Leavis. Between 1953 and 1955, Podhoretz served in the United States Army in occupied Germany. In 1955 he secured a position as an assistant editor of the political magazine Commentary, rising through the ranks to become editor-in-chief in 1960. Podhoretz became instrumental in setting the political tone of the magazine and, at the time, he was aligned with left-wing anti-communists. His social circle included poet Allen Ginsberg, political critic Hannah Arendt, novelist Norman Mailer, activist and socialite Lillian Hellman, intellectual Mary McCarthy, and Marxist Philip Rahv. However, after his controversial first memoir, Making It (1967), was shunned by his peers—who were growing increasingly anti-American and radical—Podhoretz decided to break away from the Left, a move he chronicles in Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (1979). His political shift cost him several friendships and left him ostracized from the Family, but he gained fame and respect in conservative circles as an outspoken and influential writer and editor. Podhoretz served as chair of the New Directions Advisory Committee of the United States Information Agency from 1981 to 1987. He became a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in 1995, at which time he stepped down as editor-in-chief of Commentary. He remains as an editor-at-large for the magazine and continues to write and speak about social, cultural, and international issues. He has served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Boston College, Hamilton College, Yeshiva University, and Adelphi University.
Podhoretz's first work, Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and after in American Writing (1964), collects several of his previously published essays, covering a range of literary-cultural topics and social commentary. The volume includes one of his most famous and controversial essays, “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” which highlights the difficulties that African Americans faced in obtaining cultural acceptance in the 1960s. The memoirMaking It revolves around Podhoretz's attempt to uncover the modern era's “dirty little secret”—success and the ambition for success. Podhoretz argues that during the 1950s and 1960s being proud of one's success was considered taboo, and Making It offers an unapologetic and unabashed celebration of Podhoretz's business, social, and financial success. Podhoretz has admitted to borrowing the phrase “dirty little secret” from D. H. Lawrence, who used the term to apply to the Victorian attitude toward sex. Breaking Ranks, Podhoretz's second autobiographical volume, revived the critical debate surrounding Making It, as Podhoretz chronicles his growing disaffection for the radical Left. He expresses astonishment that several of the ideas and values he helped shape as a member of the Family have since evolved into more radical and anti-American beliefs, spawning anti-patriotic and morally reprehensible behavior from some radicals. Podhoretz discusses U.S.-Soviet relations in The Present Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power? (1980), taking the stand that the United States needed to make a stronger effort—using force if necessary—to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. Although originally opposed to United States involvement in the Vietnam conflict, in Why We Were in Vietnam (1982), Podhoretz argues that the United States was obligated to guard other countries from the menace of communism. Podhoretz bolsters his argument with tales of the atrocities experienced by the South Vietnamese after the United States left the country and withheld promised aid. The essay collection The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet (1986) takes its title from a quote by Lionel Trilling and presents critical and political evaluations of the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, Albert Camus, F. R. Leavis, Milan Kundera, Henry Kissinger, and Henry Adams. Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (1999) revisits Podhoretz's relationship with members of the Family, expounding on Podhoretz's reasons for attaining and ultimately turning his back on friendships with these intellectuals. The autobiographical My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative (2000) explores patriotic rights and responsibilities, presenting Podhoretz's personal definition of a patriotic American and citing examples of Podhoretz's own efforts to serve his country. Unique from his past works, The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are (2002) examines the historical lives of Judaic prophets, noting how their various spiritual messages apply to both biblical and modern times. In 2004 Podhoretz published the Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s, a selection of his political and autobiographical writing throughout his career.
Critical response to Podhoretz's work has been sharply divided, often split down political lines. Arnold Beichman has declared that Podhoretz “is probably one of the most accomplished politico-literary polemicists of modern times; he takes no prisoners.” Conversely, Christopher Hitchens has stated that, “[l]ike all reactionaries who think that they are against the stream, and who appear to believe in his case that American power is controlled by the New York Review of Books, Podhoretz winds up mouthing mainstream commonplaces under the illusion that he is saying the unsayable.” Making It has received a measure of praise for the author's bold thesis, but the majority of critics have panned the memoir, deriding the work as overly self-absorbed and self-congratulatory. Since Podhoretz's shift from the Left to the Right, his subsequent works have received harsh criticism from both sides. Breaking Ranks and Why We Were in Vietnam have attracted considerable criticism for being politically motivated and self-serving. Podhoretz's political evolution has also caused some commentators to express difficulty in understanding his stance on certain political issues, asserting that the author regularly censures ideas he had once previously supported. Podhoretz's motivations for composing Ex-Friends have also been widely debated. Though some have viewed the memoir as a unique look into the New York intelligentsia scene of the 1950s, others have faulted Ex-Friends for retreading material covered in Podhoretz's previous memoirs and for speaking ill of the dead. However, some reviewers have asserted that Ex-Friends reads as collection of regretful and affectionate remembrances of times past. The reception of Podhoretz's nonpolitical The Prophets has been largely positive, with scholars lauding the work as a strong testament of faith throughout the ages.