Doings and Undoings
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…
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