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Review of Norman Podhoretz’s “Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer”

The New York Observer, February 15, 1999

In all the trips I’ve made to the Strand bookstore, I don’t think I’ve ever failed to find at least one copy of Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir, Making It, somewhere on a dusty shelf. I’ve considered several theories to explain its cut-rate ubiquity. Perhaps Random House, anticipating a best seller, printed an enormous number of copies, a reasonable proportion of which were subsequently discarded. Or maybe thousands of readers threw their copy across the room in disgust and packed it off to the used book store. I like to imagine that Making It was snapped up by hordes of enthusiastic readers who at first appreciated Mr. Podhoretz’s audacious chest-thumping and then, as his politics grew more reactionary and his prose more leaden, came to so loathe him that they simply had to banish his book from their homes.

Aside from being the most emotionally satisfying, this last theory has the advantage of mimicking the pattern – infatuation, gradual disappointment and, finally, outright contempt – by which Mr. Podhoretz says he lost most of his friends over the past 40 years. And quite a group of friends they were, as we learn even before we open the third volume of his memoirs, Ex-Friends – the subtitle lists the companions with whom he has “fallen out”: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt and Norman Mailer. The notion of a memoir organized around the principle of mutual antipathy has its own peculiar charm, and since Mr. Podhoretz has never been a particularly subtle hater, one opens Ex-Friends confident it will be free of the winsome nostalgia that usually plagues the genre.

Moreover, Mr. Podhoretz has lived through genuinely interesting times – about which a more candid, forthcoming book should one day be written. A student of Mark Van Doren’s and Lionel Trilling’s in the 1950’s, he attended Columbia University along with the editor Jason Epstein and the poets Allen Ginsberg and John Hollander. After studying English literature with F.R. Leavis at University, he returned to America to write literary criticism for The New Yorker, Partisan Review and Commentary, of which he eventually became the editor.

Taking over Commentary in 1960, Mr. Podhoretz transformed a cautious, parochially Jewish magazine with a dogmatic pro-America, anticommunist agenda, into a provocative, liberal literary monthly that published some of the most controversial political and social criticism of its time. He serialized Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd in the first three issues of the “new” Commentary; he ran essays by Norman O. Brown, as well as by the group Mr. Podhoretz calls “The Family,” established New York intellectuals like Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe. Although I’ve always been skeptical of Mr. Podhoretz’s insistence that he was a “radical” during this period (a claim that conveniently lends authenticity and drama to his “conversion” from left to right), it’s certainly true that he edited a scintillating magazine.

In fact, I’d argue that one can’t really understand the state of so-called highbrow culture today without first coming to terms with the career of Norman Podhoretz. Along with Jason and Barbara Epstein, Robert Silvers, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and a few others (the “children” of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling and Philip Rahv), Mr. Podhoretz reconceived the very idea of what it means to be an intellectual. The sense of urgency and expectation that swirled around this third generation of New York intellectuals is often overlooked by historians who view the late 60’s as the end, not beginning, of a grand New York tradition. Victor Navasky, in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article, “Notes on Cult: How to Join the Literary Establishment,” quoted one critic’s bold prediction: “There’s an intellectual revolution going on and we’re about to see the emergence of a new intelligentsia … Guys like Epstein and Podhoretz are riding herd on the hurricane. They are giving direction and shape to this revolution.”

For their elders, an intellectual was first and foremost a thinker who lacked power; for Mr. Podhoretz’s generation, the duty of the intellectual was to come to terms with cultural and even economic power itself – whether by starting a magazine like The New York Review of Books, establishing ideologically oriented think tanks, advising businessmen or protesting U.S. Government policy. This generation realized that power, unless it was embodied in institutions, would simply fade away. (The intellectual’s lust for success – the “dirty little secret” Mr. Podhoretz trumpeted in Making It – was taken more or less for granted by his peers; what dismayed them was the unironic, artless way he announced it.) The period during which Mr. Podhoretz ran Commentary (1960 to 1995) might be thought of as a cultural test tube in which two elements – power and ideas – were combined and shaken up. The experiment may be too recent for us to judge the results with any accuracy; but it’s clear at least that the revolution in the culture industry which took place during this time was as momentous as the battle for modernism and against communism that had preoccupied the previous generation. For better or for worse, this is Norman’s and Jason’s world; we just live in it.

Alas, this is not the tale Mr. Podhoretz chooses to tell in Ex-Friends.

Instead of a genuinely searching exploration of a few unlikely, intense friendships, Mr. Podhoretz has chosen to write a memoir whose covert function is to assure himself that he’s better off as he is: “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.”

One often wonders how much self-deception was involved in these friendships. Mr. Podhoretz writes that he was dazzled by Lillian Hellman’s “easy references to legendary literary characters” until he wearied of her intellectual hypocrisy. There is no one for whom he has higher regard than Hannah Arendt – until she writes about Adolf Eichmann and he realizes “there was nothing admirable about brilliance in itself.” For Mr. Podhoretz, Lionel Trilling was “the most important literary figure on the Columbia faculty.” Trilling tells him he was “the best student he ever had” – then loses his nerve when faced with the naked honesty of Mr. Podhoretz’s first memoir.

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: By now, Mr. Podhoretz fancies himself a neoconservative eminence grise; his high-minded tone is designed to convince the reader that he has written a more important, more sophisticated book than he actually has. The deadly sobriety makes one long for the jaw-dropping egotism and forthrightness of his earlier work.

The new book rehashes – and often outright cannibalizes – his previous memoirs, with certain episodes tweaked or, “filled out,” with details Mr. Podhoretz may have hesitated to include while his “ex-friends” were still alive. But a hint of deja vu is not necessarily fatal when your stories are as good as some of these are: the disastrous, and ultimately humiliating, orgy Mr. Podhoretz joins in his Maileresque quest for sexual liberation (Mr. Mailer later tells him it was “a concentration-camp orgy” and that he was lucky to have gotten out alive); Ginsberg’s parting threat to Mr. Podhoretz that the Beats would “get you through your children!” (judging by the hard-right politics of Norman’s son John Podhoretz, the Beats failed miserably); Lionel Trilling’s advice to conclude Making It with a mealy-mouthed final chapter, a play-it-safe retraction; Mr. Mailer privately telling Mr. Podhoretz he admired Making It, and then denouncing it in the pages of Partisan Review as “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.”

The only ex-friend about whom Mr. Podhoretz seems to have genuinely unresolved feelings is Norman Mailer; at one point, he even compares their friendship to the one between Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I felt a certain proprietary interest in Mailer – he was my tiger,” Mr. Podhoretz writes. Fellow son of Brooklyn, fellow “nice Jewish boy,” Mr. Mailer still casts a spell over Mr. Podhoretz – never mind the nasty comments about recent Mailer novels. One wonders how different literary history might be had Mr. Mailer given Making It a good review. Would Mr. Podhoretz still have taken his right turn? Might “The Family” have held together?

The two Normans once had an extremely intimate bond, traces of which sneak into the book. In the wake of the “concentration-camp orgy,” Mr. Mailer attempts to soothe Mr. Podhoretz’s disappointment. After a dinner with one of Mr. Mailer’s girlfriends, the three return to her hotel room for a nightcap. The atmosphere is charged and Mr. Mailer gets up and goes into the bathroom. “A few minutes later he returned stark naked and directed a very serious look straight into the eyes of his girlfriend. It was as if he had decided to make up for having inadvertently misled me by demonstrating what a proper orgy was like.” Unfortunately, the girlfriend simply laughs Mr. Mailer off and apologizes to Mr. Podhoretz for the misunderstanding, leaving the reader to ponder another great “What if?”

“I must admit that I was more disappointed than relieved,” Mr. Podhoretz writes.

Me, too.