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.