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City Light

Doings and Undoings

by Norman Podhoretz
Farrar, Straus, 371 pp., $4.95

Hold a mirror up to Manhattan’s literary man-of-all-work and what do you see? Virtues, vices, neutral peculiarities. The chief virtue is the man’s guilefulness as a performer. (Aware of the perils of working to a chilly house, the New York wit comes on with warm gossip—a swift inside glance at the doings of a celebrity, a rumor about orgasms in academia. Aware that literary scuffles for fame are dull in the report, he packages his accounts as cataclysms or “undoings,” thus tweaking the market. And aware that a pinch of self-disclosure can redeem even a longish sermon about books, he has taught himself to emit—when his learning flags—a piquantly malodorous autobiography smog.)

The chief vice, at least at the dead-center of the group, is tactlessness. The writer is disposed to pretend, first, that cozy literary jobs, like his own, are filled by Civil Service exam—may the best man win and I did—and, second, that his residence in town is proof that he is adventurous, engagé, and inventive in bed. The pretenses are both self-inflating and, to any reader having normal acquaintance with the run of the world, insulting.

The chief neutral peculiarity is that the writers in question, despite a Byronic self-image, appear to the outward eye not as wild loners precariously clutching the edge of time, but as members of a coherent group enjoying civilized “life satisfactions” and anxious to preserve them. Brisk, newsy, unponderous, but above everything socialized, the Manhattan bookman-of-all-work seems to have created a non-toxic environment for himself, a set of easy relations within a group. And to read him is to have occasional intimations of a new possibility in American letters—a critical intelligence that will have taught itself how to speak as the responsible voice of a community.

Norman Podhoretz isn’t by position, an average or dead-center member of the company just described; as editor of one of the country’s few important general magazines, he outranks the ordinary piece-writer. The work at hand, moreover—a collection of articles mainly about novelists of the last three decades—opens with remarks about the author’s personal temperament, not about social groupings (the book’s contents are described as “hot responses” to the times). And in a famous piece called “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” Podhoretz writes as a loner drawing upon particulars of his private experience, rather than on some wide consensus. Still, it would be a mistake to think of him as a man of intensity boiling with the conviction of “apartness.” One moment after using the phrase “hot response” about his work, he turns down the heat with the remark that he himself can no longer recognize the youngster who wrote large portions of his book. And, as that turn hints, the impression left by the collection as a whole isn’t of anger but of equanimity—the equanimity of a writer lodged under a sound roof of social perspectives, relations, and reassurances.

That the shelter is comfortable doesn’t mean that everything going on underneath it is attractive. Some of the verbal behavior, for example, is embarrassing. There are traces of clammy primness, too many parlor expletives (“goodness knows,” “heaven knows”), too much weary insiderism (“so they tell me,” “from what I hear”). Names bounce about the reader’s ankles like pingpong balls (“And so the conversation [with Mary McCarthy] went, each of us after a while beginning to wonder what on earth could have gone wrong with the other”). The writer spends space recklessly on beamish greetings to chums; his response to the publication of a new magazine—the journal in your hand—was to note, seemingly as evidence of the essential order and harmony of experience, the presence of a large number of his friends among the contributors (“Book Reviewing and Everyone I know”). In the act of judging a book he often calls into play a doubtfully relevant rule of etiquette—say, the rule against speaking a language unknown to the whole company. (Proof of the inferiority of a recent American novel is that some of its sentences are “impenetrable” because written in Greek—“literally written in Greek!” And in judging the quality of individual lives he hastens to invoke a doubtfully relevant standard of boozing. (The “sober little parties” of academics are criticized in “The Young Generation,” and, in the same essay, the over-clubbable, over-sportif critic opines that people ought to “break loose and [decide] to take a swim in the Plaza fountain in the middle of the night.”)

Nor are these tics and gestures the only items that rouse reservations. The social ambiance tends to blunt the force even of the best-conceived attacks; stern judgments welter beneath decencies and compliments. (Dwight Macdonald has deficiencies “as a thinker,” but he is a “master” and an “artist.” Philip Roth’s Letting Go isn’t a good novel but its failure is simply “the price the Muses have required [Roth] to pay for the brilliance and authenticity of the satiric gift they have put into his hands.” A “rage” is “stifled” in Saul Bellow, but he is the “greatest virtuoso of language the novel has seen since Joyce.”) Yet another problem is the critic’s conception of criticism as a talk-producing machine. The latter notion forces him to eschew any mode of description or analysis that might prime readers for rereading in private rather than for arguing in public. Beauty bores him; so too do shapes and designs. In his summary, works of imaginative literature “come across” mainly as collections of opinions breeding further opinions, the whole corpus being seen as endlessly and profitably discussible. (One counter-opinion induced by a reading of Doings and Undoings is that the literary rank list of the present hour rests on propagandistic as opposed to aesthetic values; on the evidence offered here it would seem that no men have ever been pushed farther toward literary eminence, on every other ground except that of their power as artists, than the novelists of the New York school.)

And finally, more important than any of this, the sense of membership obviously plays hell with a man’s prose, encouraging him to think of himself as inhabiting a world in which print is but a beginning, a preliminary to the refining and close-tuning that will be undertaken later in conversation. Podhoretz’s sentences are seldom fresh-featured (“consummate artistry,” “to put it mildly,” and a hundred other blackheads mar their surface). When he manipulates abstractions, he too often takes the boxing writer as his model (“…the optimistic ideals of the liberal-radical tradition are still capable of holding their own against all comers on the theoretical plane…”). When he attempts to thicken his texture with a line from an Old Book, he settles too quickly for a stale tag (“What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”). His juxtapositions point up similarities only of subject matter, not of human or philosophical weight and value. (Paul Goodman’s The Community of Scholars “deserves comparison with Newman’s The Idea of a University.”) His irony trims good books more often than bad ones, while his solemnities are reserved for junk. (“The mystery of life has finally caught up with O’Hara in the fact of death, and Ten North Frederick is his attempt to reinterpret the universe in the light of that fact.”) And his scientism, which implicitly assumes that each critical superlative has an operational definition, turns judgment itself in the end into a kind of bidding formula. (Faulkner was “one of the two or three first-rate writers in modern American literature. But [he] was not…a truly great writer.” “Fitzgerald, then, was not a genius: he was a highly gifted natural…” etc.)

It is evident that these are serious weaknesses; what follows from the harsh catalogue is that if Podhoretz’s claim rested—as he himself appears to believe it does—on his power or grace as a literary critic, it wouldn’t deserve notice. But, putting the case flatly, his claim does not rest there. It is as a confident man of general sense, not as a critic of books, that Podhoretz deserves regard. What matters about him is that, when speaking of extra-literary subjects, or of socio-political questions that have bookish bearings, he is strongly armored against nonsense; neither complexity nor contradiction nor subtletv nor playfulness nor flippancy nor grand-schmerz distracts him from his clarity about the general needs of the large community (as opposed to the circle of old pals)—the plain facts that count most to men. It is true, of course, that general good sense isn’t spectacular in its discoveries. It is also true that general good sense wavers once or twice in this book: a too-early, too-unqualified endorsement of Mailer leads the writer into tortuous absurdities and obscurities about hipsterism; over-responsiveness to the anti-institutional doom-ringing of The Fire Next Time leads into a hot-eyed thesis about relations between Negroes and Whites in the urban North which has no underpinning save for a few trivial snippets of teentime “personal experience.”

But these are exceptions to a solid rule. To say it again: when issues of more or less public import emerge from books, Podhoretz is regularly right in his decisions about them. Confronted with Dwight Macdonald’s “solution” of the problem of vulgarization (masscult for massmen, highcult for “those who care…”), he shakes his head at Macdonald’s “baffingly cheerful tone,” denies that the “solution” is anything of the sort and insists, sensibly, that the “moral arguments and philosophic convictions” on which the ideal of a broadly democratic culture was based have never “been refuted in theory or properly tested in practice.” Confronted with the thesis that one or another contemporary novelist—Roth or Bellow or Gold or Styron—has a unique product in the line of despair, he declares his impatience (with no effort at self-protecting irony): all these writers “endow the present condition of things in America with the status of an inexorable fate against which there is very little point in struggling.” Confronted with Dr. Arendt’s speculative pinwheels and rockets about Eichmann, he rises with splendid force to the necessity for a statement of the plain, “uninteresting,” yet incontrovertible truths. Time and time over, in sum, the author of Doings and Undoings says what has to be said, shakes his audience out of its novelty-strewn trance, reminds it that, even in the oh-my-yes-Jesus Modern Age, truth can be homely expressible stuff.

That the reminders are dully phrased, that their source is a writer whose literary taste and manner are undistinguished, that the soundness of this writer’s public intelligence is poor justification for extending privileged status to his ventures at criticism, that the crowd which extends the privilege is still too arrogant and too coarse to grasp the nature of its mistake—all these matters warrant regret and attention. But what counts equally with them, to repeat, is that the reminders are forthcoming. A writer willing to utter simple essential truths when sanity depends on that utterance is not only functioning, but enlarging his audience and the influence of his position. The ideal of a decent intellectual community doesn’t on this account flourish, but it does at least partly on this account survive.

Letters

The Literary Life June 11, 1964

The Literary Life June 11, 1964

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