What ‘The New York Times’ Missed in Its Piece about Norman Podhoretz

What ‘The New York Times’ Missed in Its Piece about Norman Podhoretz

What ‘The New York Times’ Missed in Its Piece about Norman Podhoretz

The profile failed to mention the larger historical context in which the former Commentary editor and his contemporaries operated.


On March 17, The New York Times published an article by John Leland: “Norman Podhoretz Still Picks Fights and Drops Names.”

Podhoretz, now 87, showed himself to be indefatigable. He told the same story he has been telling for decades (a rather good story, let it be said, and one which does not vary with successive tellings). It chronicles his ascent from the Brooklyn streets to the editorship of Commentary and prominence as a political and social critic. It also describes his break with old friends, still described almost lovingly. Why not—where would Podhoretz be if he could not claim as many past friendships, past enmities?

The persons recalled by Podhoretz are serious figures, from Hannah Arendt to Lionel Trilling. He describes a milieu of continuous argument and even more continuous drinking. The New York intellectuals, as he recounts it, lived in alcoholic excitement. Moving relentlessly from one party to the next, they were intensely attentive to their peers’ achievements, particularly if they could be verbally diminished.

But the article poses a problem. The New York intellectuals, as they were termed, were the persons who edited and wrote for Commentary and Partisan Review, and later Dissent and The New York Review of Books. They operated in a larger historical setting, about which the Times article is loudly silent. The piece asserts that the New York intellectuals exerted large influence in the ’70s and ’80s—but by then New York was everywhere. College and university campuses had become distinctly cosmopolitan, the local cultural and political small journal an indispensable ticket of admission to a national theater of ideas. Commentary and Partisan Review became their own monuments; Dissent had an aging public. The period in which the New York intellectuals, their books and journals, had the most profound influence extended from the 1930s to the 1960s.

When the Partisan Review was founded by William Phillips and Phillip Rahv in 1934, it sought to advance the ideas of the Soviet Revolution in the US. Two years sufficed for them to reject Stalinism, and they turned to Trotsky’s views of international revolution—and began to struggle with the antithesis of high culture and democracy. For decades, Partisan Review was tormented by the question of the originality of American culture. The Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War rendered its editors’ and writers’ commitments to art and revolution esoteric. (The success of the New Deal had a visible, if disconcerting, effect as well.) In the post-war decades, Partisan Review defended high culture against the threat of levelling, but also found a respected place as a cultural high court, if one in which no decision was allowed to stand. The Cold War and its contradictions, and then the movement against the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the new feminism were matters of argument—and the editors were acutely aware of readers not only on campuses and in the large media firms, but in the White House as well.

As for Commentary, the Times termed it “stodgy” before Podhoretz became editor in 1961—when he indeed for some years made it a central element in the rise of the New Left. Commentary from its inception in 1945 to its next stage was not at all stodgy. It depicted for a national public the emergence of a self-conscious Jewish intelligentsia, published serious debate about Israel and American Jewry, and examined American culture with lively eyes. I can still laugh at the recollection of Chandler Brossard’s article on the problems of being a Gentile intellectual in New York—even if Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald did not find it problematical at all.

The New York intellectuals were located in New York, but they sometimes commuted to the hinterland. Above all, their actual achievement was to bring metropolitan excitement to those unfortunate enough to inhabit elsewhere. Indeed, the provinces began for a long while at Fourteenth Street, as the Village was the chosen territory of the group’s founders. Later, the West Side of Manhattan was included, and much later, the East Side. All of this is well, indeed exhaustingly described in innumerable doctoral dissertations and in tens of books and memoirs. The accumulated evidence is convincing: The New York intellectuals had national influence—and one did not need to live in New York to have a place in the grouping.

To make matters clear, perhaps I can tell a part of my own story. My father, a high school teacher, subscribed to The Nation and The New Republic. Growing up in the early 1940s, I was introduced to Partisan Review by a contemporary who attended a Manhattan progressive school, Fieldston. At my school, the City College high school Townsend Harris, we simply did not know of this alternative reading matter. When in 1942 I went to Williams College, many of the faculty, impeccably tweedy New Englanders, were avid readers of the New York quarterly.

A stroke of quite unexpected good fortune led me at age 19 to meet the New York intellectuals. I knew a young lady who was studying at Bard where her writing teacher was Mary McCarthy. McCarthy invited her to a gathering of the group at Peggy Guggenheim’s East Side mansion—a mythical setting—on the same night I was supposed to see my friend. When I turned up at her family’s brownstone apartment, the ambitious young woman was quite ready to sacrifice me on the altar of high culture. She had been unable to contact me to tell me that our evening was off, and she had large doubts that I was a suitable companion for that evening. I protested that I was a Partisan Review reader, and added that I had indeed submitted a piece of writing to it. (True, a letter, which was ignored.)

I was taken along and met a sympathetic Mary McCarthy. I also met Clement Greenberg, and he adopted me, in effect, as protégé and served as a mentor. I spent the next two years at Williams and then five at Harvard, and found that the connection brought me considerable openings in New England academic society. The arcane and rather self-contained world of the New York intellectuals seemed to offer freedoms not known in high academic culture.

I then went to Europe for fourteen years, and wrote for Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review—and was enlisted as a New York intellectual at an oceanic distance. When I visited Kennedy’s Washington in the early sixties, I met readers in the White House. William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, told me that my 1962 argument for ending the Cold War (“The Coming End of Anti-Communism”) had caused him more aggravation than anything he had published. I thought that an accomplishment larger than my curricular triumph at Oxford, where I had a major role in introducing sociology into undergraduate studies in the social sciences. When I returned to New York in 1966 for two years before moving to Amherst College, I was received as something of a prodigal son. Briefly, it was entirely possible to function as a New York intellectual at some distance from Manhattan.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, I counted Norman Podhoretz as a close friend, despite increasing political differences. I had met him on a visit to New York from the UK, and we shared an appreciation of the British sense of proportion and time (he had studied at Cambridge, and I had taught at the London School of Economics before moving to Oxford). Even our differences were positive: we had matters to impart to each other. Returning to the US with a European family after 14 years in Europe was not easy, and Norman and his wife did what they could in my two years in New York to welcome us. Not having been immersed in New York’s culture, I could offer Norman in turn other standards of judgment. He was very distressed when Lionel Trilling urged him not to publish Making It–on account of Norman’s frankness about ambition. I pointed out that Trilling in his writings on English literature was especially appreciative of the ambitions of its fictional characters: why was ambition so embarrassing to him in the life and thought of a gifted student from Brooklyn? Norman had to endure a considerable amount of self-righteous criticism on account of his openness: I thought Making It a very good book and said so in several public ways.

In 1968 I moved to Amherst, but I continued to go to New York for many weekends. Our friendship continued, and we eschewed a conversational armistice zone. We were joined by our hyper trophied critical powers, even as we pursued different ends. The New York Times’s portrait of the ageing Podhoretz, astonishingly, makes no reference to the role of Judaism and Jewishness or the situation of Israel as determinative elements in his thought. There followed the years of the campaign to persuade the USSR to allow Jewish emigration—relentlessly, even obsessively pursued by the American Jewish community and its Gentile allies (including Senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, amongst others) despite the obvious constraints on the Soviet leadership. It had no interest in alienating its Arab allies and client states and even less in losing an educated and intelligent segment of its labor force. Podhoretz and Commentary were very vocal in the campaign. Podhoretz went so far as to write a Commentary article, “Making The World Safe For Communism,” in which he argued elites like President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger were doing so by embracing isolationism. Their efforts to reach limited arms control agreements with the USSR, to engage in discussion of the larger problems of conflict, struck many of us as eminently sensible. I wrote a reply and published it in Partisan Review.

New York intellectual life did often confound issues large and small, historical and familial. The Podhoretzes had as upstairs neighbors the interesting family of the literary psychoanalyst Leslie Farber. Midge Decter, Norman’s wife, was the physician’s publisher and in due course, I was invited to a party at the Podhoretz West Side apartment to celebrate Dr. Farber’s new book. I had of course sent Norman the Partisan Review article on Dr. Farber’s book before publication, but it was Midge who took considerable exception. My invitation was abruptly cancelled. Midge told me that she was “tired of the attacks on us,” and Norman seemed somewhat embarrassed by her intervention. In what was clearly a conciliatory gesture, I was shortly thereafter invited to participate, for the last time alas, in a Commentary symposium. It is difficult to interpret that as anything but a note of regret. Other invitations, to my sadness, did not follow and I was consigned to the list of former friends.

Perhaps my experience casts some light on the larger historical setting. Nation readers of course will ask about The Nation and its place in this segment of recent history. Founded in 1865, The Nation can claim to have been a voice for New York intellectuals when Brooklyn was an independent city and before the ambiguous capitalist Andrew Carnegie established the Public Library system, before City College was founded—and before many of the ancestors of the New York intellectuals of later years had taken ship for the US.

I began to read The Nation at age 12 in 1938, the year of the departure of the International Brigades from Spain, the German occupation of Austria and the Munich crisis, and the ignoble capitulation of France and Great Britain to Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. It was also the year of Kristallnacht, the barbarous pogrom in Germany, and the year in which Stalin retreated from the most brutal aspects of his deformation of the Soviet Revolution. It was, in the US, a year in which the New Deal was in retreat as Roosevelt prepared for the war that was inevitable.

I kept reading The Nation, began to write for it from Europe in the fifties. When I returned to the US in 1966, I did some of the writing of which I am most proud for The Nation. In 1978, when the then editor, the late Blair Clark, formed an editorial board I was very glad to join it.

The Nation struggled with the intellectual and moral challenges posed by the Soviet Revolution, with the actualities of the New Deal. It recognized a kinship to the US labor movement, an early alliance with African-American leaders and thinkers, a positive view of the now nearly forgotten League of Nations. There were, then, over the decades plenty of conflicts between The Nation and Partisan Review, later with Commentary, and sometimes with Dissent. There were any number of writers who shared their talents across these battle lines. New York intellectual life cannot be imagined without The Nation.

A great deal, then, escaped the notice of the Times.

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