Podhoretz, Norman Harold

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PODHORETZ, Norman Harold

(b. 16 January 1930 in New York City), writer, editor, critic, neoconservative, and New York intellectual who in the 1960s promoted views of the New Left as the editor of Commentary and as the author of Making It (1966).

Podhoretz and his older sister were born to the European immigrants Julius Podhoretz, a milkman, and Helen (Woliner) Podhoretz, a homemaker, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Podhoretz graduated from Boy's High School in Brooklyn in 1946 with an outstanding scholastic record. He then enrolled in Columbia University in New York City, graduating with a B.A. in English in 1950. Upon being awarded a Kellert Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, he attended Cambridge University in England, where he received a B.A. in 1952 and an M.A. in 1957. Podhoretz also attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan in 1950, and again in 1980, where he earned a B.H.L. and subsequently was awarded an honorary doctor of letters. On 21 October 1956 he married Midge Rosenthal Decter, a writer; the couple raised a son and a daughter, in addition to two children from Decter's previous marriage.

At Cambridge, Podhoretz came under the influence of F. R. Leavis, who in 1951 published the New York scholar's first work of literary criticism in Scrutiny. Articles by Podhoretz subsequently appeared in the Partisan Review, New Republic, New Yorker, and other periodicals. After a four-year stint in the U.S. Army, he was discharged in December 1955 and became the assistant editor of Commentary, the publication of the American Jewish Committee. In 1960 Podhoretz was appointed its editor, following the death of Elliot Cohen. Under Cohen's editorship, Commentary had established a hard-line anticommunist policy, which Podhoretz was determined to change. His goal was to transform Commentary into a center for the revival of American social criticism.

Podhoretz's impact on the new Commentary was immediate. In the first three issues under his editorship he serialized Paul Goodman's book Growing Up Absurd, which, after being rejected by nineteen publishers, was published by Random House soon after its appearance in Commentary. Goodman's bristling indictment of U.S. society in the 1960s soon became one of the first "bibles" of the New Left. Podhoretz credited his publication of Goodman's book as an important reason for the rapidly growing interest in the new Commentary. The magazine during the 1960s became an important voice for the views of such major intellectuals as Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, Dwight Macdonald, and Irving Howe. Commentary also shed its parochial image, becoming less of a venue for special Jewish concerns and embracing issues affecting the nation and the world at large.

Two books that Podhoretz wrote during the 1960s contributed to his reputation as one of America's most controversial intellectuals. His article "My Negro Problem—and Ours," which was published in the February 1963 issue of Commentary and in a collection of his essays in Doings and Undoing: The Fifties and After in American Writing (1964), turned out to be a milestone in his career. The essay relates his experiences growing up in "integrated" Brownsville, where, he stated, "It was the Negroes who persecuted the whites, and not the other way round." As Podhoretz later wrote in his autobiography Making It (1966), the essay grew out of his irritation with "all the sentimental nonsense that was being talked about integration by whites who knew nothing about Negroes and by Negroes who thought that all their problems could be solved by living next-door to whites."

In hundreds of letters to Commentary, Podhoretz was alternately criticized for his racism and praised for his courage. One critic, David Boroff, wrote of the essay, "Measured by the author's own touchstone for literature, 'to help the age became less chaotic and confused,' it is irresponsible, gratuitously confessional, and damaging to the most crucial struggle of our time." Given the emotional turmoil that enveloped the civil rights movement during the 1960s, it appears that much of the controversy over "My Negro Problem—and Ours" had less to do with the truth of Podhoretz's experiences than with the timeliness and social usefulness of the article.

Also controversial was Making It (1966), a confessional autobiography in which Podhoretz reveals how the drive for power, money, fame, and social status became the prime motivating factor throughout his career. He frankly admits that he strove to become rich, to be talked about, and to create constant intellectual controversy. Podhoretz explained that in writing this memoir, he was merely being honest about an attitude that pervades American society. He charged that, in his experience, indifference to success and achievement was a snobbish, puritanical pose or affectation. Ambition, he concluded, had replaced sex as the "dirty little secret" of our time.

Reactions to Making It were mixed. Some critics praised the book for its candor and integrity, whereas others were put off by the book's almost embarrassing frankness. One critic accused Podhoretz of forfeiting his potential to become an important critic of contemporary literature and culture, settling instead "for the strongly expressed negative judgment, the devastating assault more likely to provide quick fame, quick power, quick money." Making It remains a classic work of its kind and reveals as much about the 1960s as it does about Podhoretz.

By the middle of the 1960s Commentary's circulation was three times its 1960 figure, and along with Partisan Review it had become one of the leading periodicals among American intellectuals. However, Podhoretz had moderated his enthusiasm for leftist politics, noting that the New Left was as naive about Communist totalitarianism as the Old Left of the 1930s. He was particularly disappointed with the presidential candidacy of the Democrat George McGovern in 1972; the fallout from that election marked his break with liberalism and the New Left and the beginning of his journey toward a neoconservative ideology. In Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (1979), his candid second autobiographical work, Podhoretz explains how he grew to abhor liberal views. With this change in political perspective, Podhoretz restructured Commentary into a forum for neoconservatism, characterized by such positions as opposition to détente with the Soviet Union, support for a strong U.S. military, and firm backing for Israel.

During the 1970s Podhoretz moved farther away from literary criticism to address politics and social issues. This change can be found in his book The Present Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power? (1980), in which Podhoretz argues that a Soviet victory over America may not be the result of a military defeat, but of an increasing debilitation of culture, the economic system, and the standard of living. In Why We Were in Vietnam (1982), Podhoretz argues that the Vietnam War was moral because it was fought to free the Vietnamese from Communism, and thus U.S. involvement in the war should not be viewed as a national mistake.

Podhoretz edited Commentary until 1995, when he retired after thirty-five years to devote himself to writing. He remained associated with Commentary as an editor at large and became a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute.

By the end of the 1960s Podhoretz had established himself as an important voice among New York intellectuals. Specifically, his 1963 article "My Negro Problem—and Ours" provided Podhoretz with the great success and recognition that he had been waiting to achieve.

Podhoretz has written three autobiographies: Making It (1966), Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (1979), and Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (1999). Biographical information is in D. J. Enright, Conspirators and Poets: Reviews and Essays (1966); Mark R. Winchell, Neo-conservative Criticism: Norman Podhoretz, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein (1991); and Podhoretz, My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative (2000). Articles about Podhoretz include "Norman's Conquest: A Commentary on the Podhoretz Legacy," Policy Review (22 Sept. 1995), and "Norman Podhoretz: Making Enemies," Publisher's Weekly (25 Jan. 1999).

Jack Fischel