The Intellectual’s Bargain

Norman Podhoretz
Norman Podhoretz; drawing by David Levine

In 1967 Norman Podhoretz published Making It, the story of how a “filthy little slum child” (as one of Podhoretz’s schoolteachers called him) from darkest Brooklyn grew up to be the editor of a prominent magazine of opinion and a member in good standing of the second generation of writers who long ago came to be known as the “New York intellectuals.” Making It is a memoir, in some ways an unusually revealing one, but it is not an autobiography in the conventional sense of the word. It is, rather, a book about the pursuit of ambition, a study of how certain Americans transform themselves in order to get ahead in the world, and how, once upon a time, many of them steadfastly preferred not to admit their ambitions, even to themselves.

Not so Podhoretz. The point of Making It, as he readily admits, was to be as honest as possible about what he had done to get ahead—and, just as important, about the fact that he had wanted to get ahead. America’s educated class, he argued, is taught to believe in what he calls the “gospel of anti-success”:

On the one hand, we are commanded to become successful—that is, to acquire more of these worldly goods than we began with, and to do so by our own exertions; on the other hand, it is impressed upon us by means both direct and devious that if we obey the commandment, we shall find ourselves falling victim to the radical corruption of spirit which, given the nature of what is nowadays called the “system,” the pursuit of success requires and which its attainment always bespeaks.

This contradictory set of attitudes, Podhoretz claimed, was central to the American national character, which cannot be understood without acknowledging the fact that they exist in irreconcilable tension with each other. Hence Making It, in which he offered himself as a case study in “how the two warring American attitudes toward the pursuit of success are likely to reveal themselves concretely in the details of an individual career.”

Such a book, Podhoretz knew, was bound to be controversial, and the notices, not surprisingly, ranged in tone from admiring to contemptuous, with not a few of the latter written by the New York intellectuals portrayed in the pages of Making It. One of the unfavorable reviews, published by Norman Mailer in Partisan Review, put a severe strain on the friendship of the two men—an ironic consequence, seeing as how Podhoretz had conceived of the book as “a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package: otherwise it would be unable to extricate itself from the toils of the dirty little secret.”

A few years later, though, he would become controversial in a far more thoroughgoing way when he embraced neoconservatism, a political persuasion that had yet to take shape when Making It came out. To those who know only the latter-day Podhoretz, this new edition of Making It will likely come as a surprise—but not just because of its revelation of the political beliefs that its author espoused in his youth, much less its unabashed acknowledgment of a longing for renown (“It has been said of me… that I have ‘a super-ego like a horse’”) that in the age of selfie sticks and social media is now taken for granted. Making It, truth to tell, is not really a political book at all, save by indirection.

For anyone interested in the New York intellectuals, Making It is an indispensable primary source, a “family album” full of startlingly candid snapshots of the reigning literati of the Fifties and Sixties. Here is James Baldwin, agreeing to write a piece on the Black Muslims for Commentary, then pulling a switch and offering what would become The Fire Next Time to The New Yorker for twenty times as much money. Here is Saul Bellow, gnashing his teeth at the less than flattering review of The Adventures of Augie March that “your young Mr. P” (he couldn’t bring himself to spell out Podhoretz’s name) wrote for Commentary. Here is Lionel Trilling, chatting with his ex-student about what he wanted to be when he grew up: “Everyone wants power. The only question is what kind. What kind do you want?” All these tales are told with the sharpest of eyes, and salted with aperçus that are as quotable now as they were half a century ago: “The occupational hazard of the literary intellectual is to believe that he is redeemed by consciousness.” “The best way to get a job you really want is to believe that you really don’t want it.” “Every morning a stock-market report on reputations comes out in New York. It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it.”

But Making It is never more memorable than when it describes its author’s belated discovery of “the brutal bargain” to which he was introduced by “Mrs. K.,” a Brooklyn schoolteacher who took him in hand and showed him that the precocious but rough-edged son of working-class Jews from Galicia could aspire to greater things—so long as he turned his back on the ghettoized life of his émigré parents and donned the genteel manners of her own class. Not until much later did he realize that the bargain she offered him went even deeper than that:

She was saying that because I was a talented boy, a better class of people stood ready to admit me into their ranks. But only on one condition: I had to signify by my general deportment that I acknowledged them as superior to the class of people among whom I happened to have been born…. what I did not understand, not in the least then and not for a long time afterward, was that in matters having to do with “art” and “culture” (the “life of the mind,” as I learned to call it at Columbia), I was being offered the very same brutal bargain and accepting it with the wildest enthusiasm.

So he did, and he never seriously doubted that he had done the only thing possible by making himself over into an alumnus of Columbia and Cambridge and a member of the educated, art-loving upper middle class. At the same time, though, he never forgot what he had lost by doing so, having acquired in the process “a distaste for the surroundings in which I was bred, and ultimately (God forgive me) even for many of the people I loved.” Neither did his mother, who in later years would look with wonderment at “this strange creature, her son” and mutter, “I should have made him for a dentist.”

Podhoretz compares his relationship with Mrs. K. to the one portrayed in Emlyn Williams’s The Corn Is Green, a 1938 play about a near-illiterate child from a Welsh mining town who is tutored by an English schoolteacher and wins a scholarship to Oxford (as Williams himself had done under similar circumstances). The comparison is apt, though when I first read Making It, it also put me in mind of Point of No Return, John P. Marquand’s 1949 novel about a young man from a provincial town in Massachusetts who flees to New York after his father’s suicide, there to become the vice president of a bank with an upper-crust clientele and eventually to realize that his transformation into a smoothly polished executive has alienated him from the small-town values of his youth, changing him in ways that he could not have foreseen and about which he has sharply mixed feelings: “I mean it’s all so superficial. The bank president and the big job, and what will happen to Junior, and whether a boiled shirt will help.”

Podhoretz claimed in the preface to Making It that his story, distinctively Jewish as it is in its particulars, is in fact characteristically American in its “underlying contours.” Of this I have no doubt.


Bettmann/Getty Images
Norman Podhoretz, circa 1960

from Making It

by Norman Podhoretz

 

Chapter 1: The Brutal Bargain

One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan—or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan. I have made that journey, but it is not from the experience of having made it that I know how very great the distance is, for I started on the road many years before I realized what I was doing, and by the time I did realize it I was for all practical purposes already there. At so imperceptible a pace did I travel, and with so little awareness, that I never felt footsore or out of breath or weary at the thought of how far I still had to go. Yet whenever anyone who has remained back there where I started—remained not physically but socially and culturally, for the neighborhood is now a Negro ghetto and the Jews who have “remained” in it mostly reside in the less affluent areas of Long Island—whenever anyone like that happens into the world in which I now live with such perfect ease, I can see that in his eyes I have become a fully acculturated citizen of a country as foreign to him as China and infinitely more frightening.

That country is sometimes called the upper middle class; and indeed I am a member of that class, less by virtue of my income than by virtue of the way my speech is accented, the way I dress, the way I furnish my home, the way I entertain and am entertained, the way I educate my children—the way, quite simply, I look and I live. It appalls me to think what an immense transformation I had to work on myself in order to become what I have become: if I had known what I was doing I would surely not have been able to do it, I would surely not have wanted to. No wonder the choice had to be blind; there was a kind of treason in it: treason toward my family, treason toward my friends. In choosing the road I chose, I was pronouncing a judgment upon them, and the fact that they themselves concurred in the judgment makes the whole thing sadder but no less cruel.

When I say that the choice was blind, I mean that I was never aware—obviously not as a small child, certainly not as an adolescent, and not even as a young man already writing for publication and working on the staff of an important intellectual magazine in New York—how inextricably my “noblest” ambitions were tied to the vulgar desire to rise above the class into which I was born; nor did I understand to what an astonishing extent these ambitions were shaped and defined by the standards and values and tastes of the class into which I did not know I wanted to move. It is not that I was or am a social climber as that term is commonly used. High society interests me, if at all, only as a curiosity; I do not wish to be a member of it; and in any case, it is not, as I have learned from a small experience of contact with the very rich and fashionable, my “scene.”

Yet precisely because social climbing is not one of my vices (unless what might be called celebrity climbing, which very definitely is one of my vices, can be considered the contemporary variant of social climbing), I think there may be more than a merely personal significance in the fact that class has played so large a part both in my life and in my career.

No one, of course, is so naïve as to believe that America is a class-less society or that the force of egalitarianism, powerful as it has been in some respects, has ever been powerful enough to wipe out class distinctions altogether. There was a moment during the 1950s, to be sure, when social thought hovered on the brink of saying that the country had to all intents and purposes become a wholly middle-class society. But the emergence of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and the concomitant discovery of the poor—to whom, in helping to discover them, Michael Harrington interestingly enough applied, in The Other America, the very word (“invisible”) that Robert L. Heilbroner later used in The Limits of American Capitalism with reference to the rich—has put at least a temporary end to that kind of talk. And yet if class has become visible again, it is only in its grossest outlines—mainly, that is, in terms of income levels—and to the degree that manners and style of life are perceived as relevant at all, it is generally in the crudest of terms. There is something in us, it would seem, which resists the idea of class. Even our novelists, working in a genre for which class has traditionally been a supreme reality, are largely indifferent to it—which is to say, blind to its importance as a factor in the life of the individual.

In my own case, the blindness to class always expressed itself in an outright and very often belligerent refusal to believe that it had anything to do with me at all. I no longer remember when or in what form I first discovered that there was such a thing as class, but whenever it was and whatever form the discovery took, it could only have coincided with the recognition that criteria existed by which I and everyone I knew were stamped as inferior: we were in the lower class. This was not a proposition I was willing to accept, and my way of not accepting it was to dismiss the whole idea of class as a prissy triviality. Given the fact that I had literary ambitions even as a small boy, it was inevitable that the issue of class would sooner or later arise for me with a sharpness it would never acquire for most of my friends. But given the fact also that I was on the whole very happy to be growing up where I was, that I was fiercely patriotic about Brownsville (the spawning-ground of so many famous athletes and gangsters), and that I felt genuinely patronizing toward other neighborhoods, especially the “better” ones like Crown Heights and East Flatbush which seemed by comparison colorless and unexciting—given the fact, in other words, that I was not, for all that I wrote poetry and read books, an “alienated” boy dreaming of escape—my confrontation with the issue of class would probably have come later rather than sooner if not for an English teacher in high school who decided that I was a gem in the rough and who took it upon herself to polish me to as high a sheen as she could manage and I would permit.

I resisted—far less effectively, I can see now, than I then thought, though even then I knew that she was wearing me down far more than I would ever give her the satisfaction of admitting. Famous throughout the school for her altogether outspoken snobbery, which stopped short by only a hair, and sometimes did not stop short at all, of an old-fashioned kind of patrician anti-Semitism, Mrs. K. was also famous for being an extremely good teacher; indeed, I am sure that she saw no distinction between the hopeless task of teaching the proper use of English to the young Jewish barbarians whom fate had so unkindly deposited into her charge and the equally hopeless task of teaching them the proper “manners.”

For three years, from the age of thirteen to the age of sixteen, I was her special pet, though that word is scarcely adequate to suggest the intensity of the relationship which developed between us. My grades were very high and would obviously remain so, but what would they avail me if I continued to go about looking and sounding like a “filthy little slum child” (the epithet she would invariably hurl at me whenever we had an argument about “manners”)?

Childless herself, she worked on me like a dementedly ambitious mother with a somewhat recalcitrant son; married to a solemn and elderly man (she was then in her early forties or thereabouts), she treated me like a callous, ungrateful adolescent lover on whom she had humiliatingly bestowed her favors. She flirted with me and flattered me, she scolded me and insulted me. What would she do with me, what would become of me if I persisted out of stubbornness and perversity in the disgusting ways they had taught me at home and on the streets?

To her the most offensive of these ways was the style in which I dressed: a tee shirt, tightly pegged pants, and a red satin jacket with the legend “Cherokees, S.A.C.” (social-athletic club) stitched in large white letters across the back. This was bad enough, but when on certain days I would appear in school wearing, as a particular ceremonial occasion required, a suit and tie, the sight of those immense padded shoulders and my white-on-white shirt would drive her to even greater heights of contempt and even lower depths of loving despair than usual. Slum child, filthy little slum child. I was beyond saving; I deserved no better than to wind up with all the other horrible little Jewboys in the gutter (by which she meant Brooklyn College). If only I would listen to her, the whole world could be mine: I could win a scholarship to Harvard, I could get to know the best people, I could grow up into a life of elegance and refinement and taste. Why was I so stupid as not to understand?


The essay by Terry Teachout is adapted from the introduction to Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, published this week by New York Review Books