Norman Podhoretz Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 1,260 words.)