Podhoretz, Norman 1930-
PODHORETZ, Norman 1930-
PERSONAL: Surname pronounced "Podhoretz"; born January 16, 1930, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Julius (a milkman) and Helen P. (Woliner) Podhoretz; married Midge Rosenthal Decter (a writer and editor), October 21, 1956; children: Ruth, John; stepchildren: Rachel, Naomi. Education: Columbia University, A.B., 1950; Jewish Theological Seminary, B.H.L., 1950; Cambridge University, B.A., 1952, M.A., 1957. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—120 East 81st St., New York, NY 10028. Offıce—c/o Commentary, 165 E. 56th Street, New York, NY 10022. Agent—Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Commentary magazine, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1955, associate editor, 1956-58, editor-in-chief, 1960-95, editor-at-large, 1995—. Looking Glass Library, New York, NY, editor-in-chief, 1958-60. Member of University Seminar of American Civilization, Columbia University, 1958. Chairman of New Directions advisory committee, U.S. Information Agency, 1981-87. Hudson Institute, senior fellow, 1995—. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55.
MEMBER: Council on Foreign Relations, Committee on the Present Danger.
AWARDS, HONORS: L.H.D. (honorary), Hamilton College, 1969, Yeshiva University, 1991, Boston University, 1995, Adelphi University, 1996; Doctor of Letters, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1980.
Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After inAmerican Writing, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1964.
(Editor) The Commentary Reader: Two Decades ofArticles and Stories, introduction by Alfred Kazin, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966.
Making It (autobiography), Random House (New York, NY), 1968, new edition, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (autobiography), Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1979.
The Present Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power?, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1980.
Why We Were in Vietnam, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982.
State of World Jewry Address, 1983 92nd Street (New York, NY), 1985.
The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and PoliticsMeet, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1986.
My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative, Free Press (New York, NY), 2000.
The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are, Free Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to books including Scene before You: A New Approach to American Culture, edited by Chandler Brossard, Holt (New York, NY), 1955; Art of theEssay, edited by Leslie Fiedler, Crowell (New York, NY), 1958; A Contemporary Reader: Essays for Today and Tomorrow, edited by Harry W. Rudman and Irving Rosenthal, Ronald (New York, NY), 1961; Partisan Review Anthology, edited by William Phillips and Philip Rhav, Holt (New York, NY), 1962; Poets and Poetry, edited by Charles Norman, Collier, 1962; Recent American Fiction: Some Critical Views, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1963; On Contemporary Literature: An Anthology of Critical Essays on the Major Movements and Writers of Contemporary Literature, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, Avon (New York, NY), 1964; Black, White, and Gray: Twenty-one Points of View on the Race Question, edited by Bradford Daniel, Sheed & Ward (New York, NY), 1964; Theatre and Drama in the Making, edited by John Gassner and Ralph G. Allen, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1964; Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1966; Representative Men, by Theodore L. Gross, Free Press (New York, NY), 1970.
Also contributor to periodicals, including Commentary, Partisan Review, New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, and New Republic.
SIDELIGHTS: Norman Podhoretz, former editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine, has played a major role in American political debate. Schooled as a literary critic and left-wing polemicist, he has since "defected" from the Left and mobilized leading conservative thinkers in a campaign against the ideological vestiges of the 1960s. After joining the editorial staff of Commentary in 1955, Podhoretz established a reputation as a literary critic with a strong political bent. In his criticism he attempted, he once said, "to relate an aesthetic judgment of the book to some social or cultural or literary issue outside the book itself . . . [and] to use the book review . . . as a vehicle for all my ideas about the subject in question." Norman Mailer described this approach in the Partisan Review, writing, "Podhoretz is probably as good as any critic in America at this kind of writing." In 1960 Podhoretz, became editor of Commentary and began to move the political orientation of the prestigious journal toward the Left, and more recently transformed the journal into a forum of "neoconservatism" in order to battle the New Left and the counterculture.
Podhoretz's assessment of the lingering power of the New Left and the counterculture reflects his concern with the influence of culture—specifically, the political ideas of intellectuals—on social policy. As he once told CA: "My interests have increasingly shifted to political and social issues. . . . But as I think is clear from [my books], my writings on politics bear the mark of my earlier literary interests in emphasizing the cultural roots of political developments."
Making It and Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, Podhoretz's two autobiographical works, are mixtures of personal and social history, psychological self-examination, and political and cultural analysis. The appearance of Making It was perhaps the first indication that Podhoretz was drifting away from the leftist New York literary establishment. In Making It, he presents the thesis that "ambition . . . seems to be replacing erotic lust as the dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul." Joseph Epstein of the New York Times Book Review explained, "[Podhoretz believed] a contradiction lies at the center of our culture, in which we are under an injunction to succeed yet educated to believe that the pursuit of and (worse) the attainment of success invariably brings with it a corruption of the spirit. Secondly, he declared that it was best to be out in the open with it: success was better than failure, it was better to give orders than to receive them; and better, too, to be recognized than anonymous." "These shattering truisms . . . are accepted by contemporary intellectuals—yet denied by them at the same time," Daniel Stern noted in Book World. "They practice the active pursuit of money, fame and power secretly, while appearing to be solely concerned with knowledge, truth, values and other ethereal concepts."
Making It, met with, what Epstein called, a "brutal reception," for Podhoretz had "committed the crime . . . [of coming] out against the intellectual climate that spawned him." "It was with all the fury of a military betrayal that the Establishment turned on Podhoretz," Mailer asserted in Partisan Review.
Breaking Ranks revived the controversy created by Making It. In the book, Podhoretz chronicles his growing disaffection with the Left. "I came more and more to believe that radicalism—mine and my friends'—was destroying the children," he told People magazine. "I still think that is true. I felt responsible for the mortal danger these kids were getting themselves into—not as a parent but as a propagandist." In his "political memoir," Podhoretz combines a narrative of his personal evolution with an examination of the politics and influence of the literati. "What is remarkable about Breaking Ranks . . . is the way it moves beyond the quarrels that have divided the literary intellectuals of Mr. Podhoretz's immediate circle into the larger world of practical politics where so many of the ideas of these intellectuals began," observed New Republic's Hilton Kramer. "In dealing with this fateful link between culture and politics in the period of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, Mr. Podhoretz has few equals among the writers of his time. . . . We are treated to a dazzling account of precisely how the ideas of cultural radicalism . . . succeeded in reshaping the policies of the Democratic Party, and thence the country as a whole. But there is also a personal story . . . the story of its author's defection from the new radical consensus he helped to create, and the consequences he grew to abhor."
Certain critics have reduced Podhoretz's adoption of conservative politics to an ambition for influence and recognition. "Podhoretz would rather be fashionable than right or left," a Los Angeles Times reviewer stated. However, New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt noted, "it appears self-evident that he moved right as a simple reaction to the excesses of those who had moved farther left." And Edwin Warner wrote in Time, "As radicalism advanced . . . he began to have his doubts. . . . With growing apprehension, he read the outpourings of the New Left as they castigated U.S. democracy as a sham, belittled middle-class values and began to compare 'Amerika' to Nazi Germany. Increasingly arrogant and authoritarian, they wanted to make over America in their image—or else. . . . Podhoretz realized he must make a choice between 'loyalty to radicalism as against loyalty to intellectual standards.'"
Seymour Epstein of Chicago's Tribune Books noted that Breaking Ranks "uses for its cutting edge a candor that, for some, may have the surgical function of a scalpel, and for others may have the deadly intent of an assassin's stiletto." This candor often provokes a vehement response from critics. In the New York Times Book Review, JosephEpstein assessed,"[Breaking Ranks] is a book superior to Making It; it is more candid, more courageous, written with better humor and a larger heart. It is also a book that has considerable documentary value, for it provides a highly detailed chronicle of the split in American intellectual life that had its beginnings in the 1960s—and that has had serious consequences for the nation at large. . . . what intellectuals say is no longer without consequence; they no longer speak exclusively to and for themselves. . . . The powerlessness of intellectuals is a thing of the past—a piece of sociological nostalgia. Because this is so, Breaking Ranks cannot fairly be dismissed as a piece of self-indulgence or mere intellectual gossip. The events its author describes are important. I think he describes them without falsehood, even though many of his portraits of contemporaries are etched in acid."
Podhoretz's study Why We Were in Vietnam is in the vanguard of what Robert W. Tucker called in Harper's "the second wave of Vietnam revisionism." Tucker explained, "Liberal and moderate critics have seen Vietnam as a mistake, although not as a crime. They have judged the intervention imprudent, but not immoral. And when methods employed in Vietnam elicited their moral censure, the war itself did not. It was radical revisionism [the first, leftist wave] that condemned the war on moral grounds." Tucker contended that "a conservative revisionism has arisen in [radical revisionism's] place." For the conservatives, the intervention in Vietnam "is given positive moral sanction. Undertaken in order to contain communism, the war was, in the words of Ronald Reagan, a noble cause. . . . The 'truth' as set for by [the conservative] revisionists is not merely historical but political," Tucker asserted. "So long as the nation's collective memory of Vietnam is determined by the conventional view of this war, it will be difficult for us to act with the pride and assurance we require." Lehmann-Haupt, in another New York Times review, concluded, "[Why We Were In Vietnam is] less a serious examination of the past, and more a clarion call to future crusades."
A Booklist reviewer described the book as "stimulating, awesomely informed, quote-rich, and likely to pique intense controversy," and a Kirkus Review contributor stated, "Podhoretz thinks we have never had a debate on the morality of the Vietnam War; and he means to initiate one." Robert W. Kagan of the Wall Street Journal remarked, "[Podhoretz's] book is important, for it disposes of myths and falsehoods that have to be set aside if we are to understand the real errors of Vietnam." Book World's Philip Geyelin found the book "makes interesting reading," but believed Podhoretz "is more than ready to play fast and loose with 'facts' to make his point." Geyelin attacks Podhoretz's arguments that President Kennedy, not President Eisenhower, first led us into war and that Senator Fulbright viewed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as a mandate for President Johnson to initiate a major land war in Southeast Asia. Podhoretz once responded to the allegations of critics that his book is full of factual inaccuracies, telling CA, "At best, they have challenged my interpretation of certain facts."
In 1986 Podhoretz published The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet, a collection of nine essays written over his long career as an editor and literary critic. Recalling his roots as a student of the opinionated British critic F. R. Leavis, a New Yorker contributor noted, "when Mr. Podhoretz goes to work on literary texts, he is often as dogmatic as his mentor." Dismissing the works of such writers as Albert Camus and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Podhoretz enthuses over the novels of Milan Kundera and the work of Henry Adams. In the political realm, Podhoretz hails Henry Kissinger as a writer of stature, a fact that New York Times Book Review contributor Cynthia Ozick found "unsettling" because of Podhoretz's "fundamental disaffection from nearly all of Mr. Kissinger's [political] policies." Taking issue more with the author's political than critical views, Sidney Blumenthal commented in the Washington Post Book World, "The supreme litmus test by which [Podhoretz] measures novelists, critics and poets, is whether they correctly answer the question: Which side are you on?"
Retiring as editor-in-chief of Commentary in 1995, Podhoretz maintains his controversial stance within the intellectual community, coming under particular fire from politicized writers such as Norman Mailer and Alan Ginsberg. Podhoretz discusses his relationships with these and other writers in Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. In line with Making It and Breaking Ranks, Ex-Friends continues Podhoretz's memoirs of his political shift and his change in thinking from his intellectual contemporaries. In discussing his friendship with these influential writers, Podhoretz writes, "I was who I was in some part because of my friendship with them, and I am who I am in larger part because we ceased being friends." Throughout the book, Podhoretz writes about both his past arguments and his new viewpoints that caused the rift between him and his former friends, a tactic that Jordan Hoffman of the Leisure Suit Web site felt "shows how thin a man Podhoretz truly is."
Many critics made comparisons between Podhoretz's new memoir and his older memoirs. In a review on the Robert Boynton Web site, Boynton remarked, "Making It is a tremendously vital book that burns with the yearnings of a brash 35-year-old. Breaking Ranks is the wistful political memoir he wrote a decade later. Ex-Friends is a new departure . . . his high-minded tone is designed to convince the reader that he has written a more important, more sophisticated book that he actually has." Likewise, Robert Fulford of the Robert Fulford Web site observed, "Making It was a brave and original book, though widely scorned. Breaking Ranks was provocative, but more predictable. Ex-Friends is the least effective because it suffers even more than the others from intense self-consciousness. It slowly collapses under the dead weight of the author's ego." Hoffman believed that "despite the arch-conservative slant Podhoretz currently writes with, the book does have much merit. It is extremely well-written." Roger Bishop of the BookPage Web site commented, "Anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the literary culture of the '60s will want to read this insightful, at times combative, memoir."
In Podhoretz's next book, My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative, the author remembers his early childhood in Brooklyn, recollects the opportunities granted to him in America, and as Library Journal's Jack Forman noted, "details his political metamorphosis from liberal to neoconservative." Rob Stout of Book explained, "While many of his fellow pundits have grown bitter toward the course of American society, Podhoretz claims to have grown fond of both its conformity and turmoil. Whether one sees this change as yet another sign of intellectual uncertainty or the unflinching honesty of a man unafraid to publicly change his mind, one cannot doubt his brilliantly perceptive talents as a writer and social critic." Forman praised, "the book critically revisits so many crucially important events and issues . . . that it serves as a vibrant, incisive, and ultimately instructive commentary on how America (not just Podhoretz) has changed."
Podhoretz combines his political views and his religious views in The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are. In the book, Podhoretz examines each of the Biblical prophets from the Old Testament, and describes the battle they fought against idolatry. He explains, according to Michael Potemra of National Review, that the prophets were "not chiefly interested in predicting Christianity, or in propagandizing for secular social justice; they were, rather, engaged in a very this-worldly struggle against the particular challenges of idolatry in their own time and place." In addition, Podhoretz believes that the teachings of the prophets can be applied to today's world, where idolatry of self exists on a large scale. As Booklist's Bryce Christensen noted, "Nothing Podhoretz draws from the prophets will kindle hotter controversy that his concluding appeal to prophetic morality in condemning the modern idolatry of self—in sexual liberation, drug use, feminism, gay rights, and multiculturalism—that has reshaped American culture since the sixties." David Novak of New Republic observed, "Podhoretz is willing to associate any social practice of which he disapproves with idolatry. He even links the phenomenon of working mothers with the pagan practice of child sacrifice!" A Kirkus Reviews contributor felt The Prophets was "at times, sublimely ridiculous," but also called it "forceful" and "challenging." Commentary's Hillel Halkin said the book was "powerfully argued," and Potmera called it an "excellent new book."
According to a Publishers Weekly critic, The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of his writings from the 1950s through the 1990s edited by Thomas L. Jeffers, "brings together a collection of [his] essays and book excerpts, tracking Podhoretz's journey from young literary critic in the '50s to leading provocative thinker of the '60s to prominent and influential neoconservative in later decades." The critic felt the essays were "highly personal" and were full of "good writing." Booklist's Gilbert Taylor commented, "any appreciation of intellectual history would be incomplete without a sample of Podhoretz's work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Almanac of Famous People, 8th edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Enright, D. J., Conspirators and Poets, Dufour, 1966.
Frankel, Benjamin, editor, The Cold War, 1945-1991, 3 volumes, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Gross, Theodore L., Representative Men, Free Press (New York, NY), 1970.
Jeffers, Thomas L. The Norman Podhoretz Reader: ASelection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s, introduction by Paul Johnson, Free Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Kostelanetz, Richard, editor, The Young American Writers, Funk, 1967.
Parini, Jay, editor, American Writers: A Collection ofLiterary Biographies, supplement VIII, Scribers (New York, NY), 2001.
Podhoretz, Norman, Making It, Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
Podhoretz, Norman, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
Podhoretz, Norman, Ex-Friends: Falling out with AllenGinsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Free Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Winchell, Mark Royden, Neoconservative Criticism:Norman Podhoretz, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1991.
America, February 3, 1968.
American Journal of Psychiatry, December, 1999, review of Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, p. 2007.
American Literature, June, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 390.
American Scholar, autumn, 2000, Keith Gessen, review of My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative, p. 143.
American Spectator, August, 1986, p. 38; December, 1986, p. 27.
Atlantic, April, 1968; November, 1979.
Book, September, 2000, Rob Stout, review of My LoveAffair with America, p. 77.
Booklist, February 1, 1982; February 15, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 1028; April 15, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of My Love Affair with America, p. 1507; October 1, 2002, Bryce Christensen, review of The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are, p. 290; January 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s, p. 812.
Books & Bookmen, November, 1968.
Book Week, March 29, 1964; June 22, 1966.
Book World, February 27, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 2.
Carleton Miscellany, spring, 1968.
Change, March-April, 2003, Harold Orlans, "Our Country, Our Culture," p. 6.
Choice, October, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 330.
Christian Century, April 1, 1964.
Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 1964; June 23, 1966; January 11, 1968.
Commentary, November, 2002, Hillel Halkin, "Smashing the Idols, review of The Prophets, p. 65.
Commonweal, April 17, 1964; February 16, 1968.
Detroit News, April 7, 1982.
Dissent, winter, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 99.
Economist, April 10, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 6.
Esquire, February, 1968; April, 1968.
Forbes, January 19, 1981.
Harper's, October, 1965; December, 1967; November, 1981; March, 1982; June, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 73, review of Making It, p. 73.
H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, October, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. ONL.
Hudson Review, summer, 2001, review of My Love Affair with America, p. 202.
Human Events, February 12, 2001, review of My LoveAffair with America, p. 16.
Kenyon Review, Volume XXX, number 2, 1968.
Kirkus Review, January 15, 1982; September 15, 2002, review of The Prophets, p. 1370.
Library Journal, January, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 97; May 15, 2000, Jack Forman, review of My Love Affair with America, p. 111.
Life, January 12, 1968.
Listener, August 29, 1968; October 24, 1968.
London Review of Books, September 2, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1979; February 22, 1980.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 9, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 5.
Minnesota Review, Vol. VII, no. 3, 1967.
Nation, March 23, 1964; February 5, 1968; November 10, 1979; March 20, 1982.
National Review, February 27, 1968; February 8, 1980; November 14, 1980; April 2, 1982; July 4, 1986, p. 36; February 8, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 51; December 9, 2002, Michael Potemra, "Voices of the One God," review of The Prophets, p. 46.
New Criterion, September, 2000, James Bowman, review of My Love Affair with America, p. 72; January, 2003, Hadley Arkes, "The Prophets Today," review of The Prophets, p. 62.
New Leader, January 29, 1968; November 5, 1979.
New Republic, January 27, 1968; November 17, 1979; August 16, 1980; March 10, 1982; April 7, 1982; May 12, 2003, David Novak, "Ideas and Idols," review of The Prophets, p. 29.
New Statesman, August 30, 1968; March 21, 1980.
Newsweek, January 9, 1968.
New York, December 1, 1980.
New Yorker, July 4, 1964; July 21, 1986, p. 94; February 22, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 167.
New York Herald Tribune, March 29, 1964.
New York Review of Books, April 30, 1964; February 1, 1968.
New York Times, January 5, 1968; October 24, 1979; March 30, 1982; May 9, 1986, p. 23; February 15, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. E12; November 3, 2002, Judith Shulevitz, "The Close Reader: Norman Podhoretzs Old-Time Religion," review of The Prophets, p. 31.
New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1964; April 7, 1966; February 5, 1967; January 7, 1968; June 2, 1968; October 21, 1979; March 28, 1982; May 18, 1986, pp. 11-12; February 21, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 8.
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Partisan Review, spring, 1968.
People, February 16, 1981.
Playboy, December, 1968.
Prairie Schooner, spring, 1967.
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 2000, review of My LoveAffair with America, p. 80; October 21, 2002, review of The Prophets, p. 69; January 19, 2004, review of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, p. 68.
Punch, September 11, 1968.
Reporter, March 7, 1968.
Saturday Review, March 14, 1964; June 11, 1966; January 13, 1968; October 27, 1979.
Shofar, winter, 2003, review of The Prophets, p. 193.
Spectator, February 9, 1980.
Time, January 19, 1968; October 29, 1979; February 15, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 78.
Times Literary Supplement, August 29, 1968; April 25, 1980; April 30, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 7.
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Utne Reader, March, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. 107.
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Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1964; spring, 1968.
Wall Street Journal, April 1, 1982; February 2, 1999, review of Ex-Friends, p. A20.
Washington Monthly, September, 2000, W. Scott Thompson, review of My Love Affair with America, p. 60.
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BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (January 16, 2003), Roger Bishop, review of Ex-Friends.
Brothers Judd,http://www.brothersjudd.com/ (October 18, 2001), review of My Love Affair with America.
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Hudson Institute Web site,http://www.hudson.org/ (January 16, 2003), "Learn about Hudson: Staff Bio, Norman Podhoretz, Senior Fellow," brief biography of Norman Podhoretz.
Leisure Suithttp://www.leisuresuit.com/ (January 16, 2003), Jonathan Hoffman, review of Ex-Friends.
Robert Boynton Web site,http://www.robertboynton.com/ (January 16, 2003), review of Ex-Friends, original review from New York Observer, February 15, 1999.
Robert Fulford Web site,http://www.robertfulford.com/Podhoretz.html (June 24, 2004), Robert Fulford, "Podhoretz: The Man Who Killed His FatherTwice," review of Ex-Friends, original review from Globe and Mail, February 27, 1999.
University of California, Berkeley Institute of International Affairs Web site,http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/ (April 6, 1999), Harry Kreisler, "Conversations with History," interview with Norman Podhoretz.*
INTERVIEW: CA interviewed Norman Podhoretz by phone June 1, 1981, at his office in New York City.
CA: Your first autobiographical volume, Making It, aroused not just negative criticism but actual hostility from several quarters. Had you expected that when you wrote it?
PODHORETZ: Yes, I had, but I did not expect the degree of intensity of the hostility that was actually aroused. That surprised me somewhat.
CA: Was any of it personally hurtful to you?
PODHORETZ: Oh yes. There were reviews and also letters and some remarks either made directly to me or, more frequently, behind my back which came back to me not only through friends and acquaintances, but also through strangers. These comments were personally hurtful and were intended to be. Certain people intended to criticize not the book as a book, but me as a person, my character. There was even one piece that discoursed at some length about what a bad parent I must be.
CA: The book dealt with much in your childhood and youth that was very personal. Was it in any way difficult for you to expose these feelings?
PODHORETZ: Yes, it was. But I was raised in a literary tradition that encouraged being as candid and as ruthlessly honest as one can be. My entire purpose was to expose an order of feeling in myself that could be assumed to be representative, that is, not peculiar to me as an individual or merely idiosyncratic, but fairly typical in American culture. Although I found it difficult and painful, it was also, to a certain extent, exciting and exhilarating.
CA: You dedicated Making It to your children, and the prologue to Breaking Ranks is written in the form of a letter of explanation to your son John. Has the course of your social and political thinking set you seriously at odds with any of them?
PODHORETZ: Oddly enough, no. My wife once said in a piece that she wrote about our family, "Talk is the medium in which we swim." So there was always a good deal of discussion with the children. All four of my children today—the youngest is now twenty, the oldest is thirty—are, if anything, more enthusiastic followers of the point of view that I express in my work than I myself am. So there's no gap there at all. The children have been central to the development of my own thinking about social and political issues. It was in watching them and their friends, and thinking about the kinds of problems and difficulties they encountered in the culture I myself had taken a part in creating, that made me think twice about some of the ideas and attitudes I had believed in and had been propagating. In other words, because of the children, these ideas were translated from the realm of abstraction to that of concrete realities that were having actual consequences in the lives not only of my own children, but of children and young people all around. I began to recoil from some of these ideas when I saw their consequences in the lives of these children.
CA: I suspect that you and your wife encourage each other in your careers.
PODHORETZ: Yes. We talk a lot, even excessively, after twenty-five years of marriage. It takes a lot of time. Certainly we have influenced one another professionally, yes.
CA: Do you help each other in the actual writing?
PODHORETZ: Not really. As a matter of fact, we're careful about that. If I run into a snag, I'll ask her to give me some advice about how to get around what I'm doing wrong, and I will often give her editorial advice. We're both professional editors as well as writers and each of us reads everything the other writes. But there's a problem when both husband and wife write, edit, and think more or less alike; it's important to keep a certain distance, to be tactful, and also not try to exercise undue influence in either direction.
CA: Although your first ambition was to be a poet, until the last ten years or so you were primarily a literary critic. Have you missed writing literary criticism?
PODHORETZ: I have, and I try to keep up with contemporary fiction, which was my specialty. I don't read everything, but I do try to read most of the major stuff that comes out, and I think about it a lot, and I may even someday write about literature again. I don't feel as I did when I was younger that the most important medium for describing the life around us is fiction. I think that the novelists have become peripheral, whereas they were central in my own youth. I'm still interested in many of the same questions that concerned me then, but I find more to chew on and to think about in the political arena these days. That may change.
CA: Do you have a positive feeling about any particular writers?
PODHORETZ: I've changed my mind so many times about so many contemporary writers. I think better of some than I used to and less well of others than I used to. I think better of Saul Bellow than I once did, better of Philip Roth than I once did—not so much his old work as his more recent books. I have greater reservations about Norman Mailer, but I think better of William Styron than I once did. Some of the writers I found interesting when I was younger I no longer find interesting at all, like James Baldwin, who I think has deteriorated seriously.
CA: You recalled in an interview in the December 24, 1979, U.S. News and World Report the emphasis on self-gratification that was so evident in the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Do you think some positive effects grew out of that as well as the obvious negative ones?
PODHORETZ: I suppose every human development contains some good and positive elements. But I would still say that on the whole the emphasis on self-gratification was damaging to the health of the people centrally affected by it. Those benefits which may have accrued are relatively minor compared with the harm that has been done, and continues to be done by the idea that the main aim of life is self-gratification.
CA: In that same interview you spoke out against the quota system as opposed to the principle that individuals be treated strictly as individuals. Without the quota system, though, could we ever have begun to stop discrimination against minorities?
PODHORETZ: I think that the removal of the discriminatory barriers, which occupied the civil rights movement through the 1950s as well as the 1960s, was beginning to have dramatic effects and has incidentally continued to have dramatic effects. I think you could make a case that the quota system has in fact not led to a big advancement for minorities but actually has had harmful effects in producing new doubts about the ability of minorities to compete on an equal footing—doubts that have been raised in the minds of so-called beneficiaries of these programs themselves as well as others. I would stick with the view that the way to fight discrimination is by not discriminating. The way for any group to advance in American society is through equal opportunity. So far as it is humanly possible, this should be provided, whether it be through education or some other form of extra help. All of that is both legitimate and necessary in certain cases. But at some point, unless people are thrown upon themselves as individuals and asked to compete with other individuals, I think you do damage to them, to the principles of justice, and to society.
CA: Your 1963 essay "My Negro Problem—And Ours" was a frank discussion of your own feelings about blacks and how those feelings evolved from your childhood experiences. Have any of your feelings changed since you wrote that essay?
PODHORETZ: In that essay, I ended by advocating wholesale intermarriage between the races. Even then, I wasn't entirely sure that was a good idea. The main reason I ended the essay with that conclusion is that it followed from the analysis I had offered, and I was determined not to shrink from the implication of my own sense of reality. In other words, I was trying very hard to carry the argument honestly to its logical conclusion. I thought of it not so much as a practical proposal but as a very dramatic way of casting light on the entire issue. Today I would certainly not say that intermarriage is the answer to the conflict between the races in the United States, nor would I take the view that there can never be any harmonious or peaceful relations short of the complete disappearance of color as a fact of consciousness. On the other hand, I think almost everything I said about the feelings of people, both black and white, and about the reasons for the development of black nationalism and the loss of faith in integration, was true then and is still true. I reread the piece recently and I think up until the last paragraph or two it stands. So I would certainly not repudiate it, and as a dramatic or poetic statement, I wouldn't repudiate any of it—not even the end of it.
CA: You've been editor-in-chief of Commentary since 1960. Describing your predecessor Elliot Cohen's editorship, you said, "All good editors have a style." How would you describe your own editorial style?
PODHORETZ: I think my style could be characterized as provocative; that might be the best word. I try very hard as an editor to publish pieces that fit into an ongoing discussion of issues in a way that takes account of the state of intellectual play and that at the same time tries to say something of long-range value.
Certainly as an editor I go after diversity of subject matter. But I believe that cultures are organic, and that if you look at any given area of a living culture, you will find the same preoccupations expressed in different forms, different languages, different modalities. In other words, people living in a culture will tend to be preoccupied with the same problems and issues. This goes back to what I said before about my own change of focus from literature to politics. I went from one area to the other, but I think my preoccupations have remained pretty much the same. Both in my own writing and in editing Commentary I have found it easier to deal in an interesting manner with those preoccupations in the language of politics rather than in the language of literature or literary criticism. That's partly because those very preoccupations in our day have become politicized in a way that was not true of the 1940s and 1950s.
CA: Do you commission most of the material published in Commentary?
PODHORETZ: Yes. We get a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, we read them all, and we actually publish some occasionally. But most of what we publish is commissioned.
CA: Are you planning another volume of autobiography?
PODHORETZ: Yes. Someday, I don't know when—probably some years from now—I would like to do a third volume to complete the series. Making It was about careers, Breaking Ranks was about politics, and I want to do one about religion. This is a trilogy and each book will be different, but the general literary mode is the same: the use of my own experience as a narrative thread and a focus for describing the larger context in which my personal experience takes shape. But it will probably be a few years before I get around to a third volume, and it does not yet have a title. I can't write it until I know how the story comes out.