“For taking my career as seriously as I do in this book, I will no doubt be accused of self-inflation and therefore of tastelessness,” Norman Podhoretz writes in the Preface to Making It. “So be it. There was a time when to talk candidly about sex was similarly regarded as tasteless—a betrayal of what D. H. Lawrence once called ‘the dirty little secret.’ For many of us, of course, this is no longer the case. But judging by the embarrassment that a frank discussion of one’s feelings about one’s own success, or the lack of it, invariably causes in polite company today, ambition (itself a species of lustful hunger) seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” “Such a book,” he notes in the concluding sentences, “ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought in itself to constitute a frank 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. Writing a book like that would be a very dangerous thing to do, but some day, I told myself, I would like to try doing it.
“I just have.”
The analogy between sex and ambition that Podhoretz makes in this passage seems to me appropriate and, in its context, illuminating. He is quite right in considering ambition to be as ubiquitous—and, in itself, as morally neutral—as lust. The same questions arise with reference to both drives: To what kinds of relationships to other persons does it lead? How does it affect one’s perception of the world in which one lives? Either drive may lead to violent and destructive abuse of others or to affiliation and mutual respect—though only sex may lead to love, which does give it a certain edge in human importance. Podhoretz would, perhaps, deny sex even this point of primacy over ambition, for he complains in Making It of “the privatized universe of most American fiction, with its increasingly boring emphasis on love as the be-all and end-all of life”—an emphasis he certainly avoids in Making It. But ambition, though very different from sexual lust, may be almost as effective in involving a person deeply and authentically in the lives of other persons. Both lust and ambition may lead to a heightened interest in and awareness of others—in the spring, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove—or to the dullest and most passive preoccupation with oneself.
Moreover, both lust and ambition may be derivative expressions of anxiety and poor self-esteem rather than expressions of healthy, though ruthless, animality. That much—perhaps most—sexual activity in our society is itself motivated by ambition is a commonplace. But it is equally true that the ambition so served may be as stale and puerile as the sexuality through which it seeks expression. Yet, there are also people whose ambition is informed with so much joy and vitality that their success gives empathic pathic satisfaction even to their rivals, or some of them. John F. Kennedy was perceived as such a man by his admirers, while from his writing, I should judge that George Plimpton, who is mentioned briefly in Making It, is another.
THE ISSUE Podhoretz raises is therefore both complex and ambiguous, and can only be faced by examining the quality of the relationships he presents in his defense of his bid for literary distinction, fame, and money. The opening sentence of the first chapter of Making It asserts that “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.” Even so, Peer Gynt made a longer one beginning and ending in a small Norwegian village—but Podhoretz, of course, is reporting from midpassage and his may yet be the longer of the two. It has certainly already taken him through territory usually regarded as among the most interesting, and inaccessible, in the world. That he could have made it is confirmation that the American promise of opportunity to the industrious and gifted who are realistic about the system in which they operate is kept, and kept lavishly. His journey takes him from Brownsville in Brooklyn through Columbia University, where he is befriended by Lionel Trilling to whom he refers gracefully in his Acknowledgment. While at Columbia he wins a Kellett Fellowship and Fulbright which take him to Clare College, Cambridge—and that is a long way from Brownsville. At Cambridge he is assigned his first manservant, and works with F.R. Leavis. In 1953, at the age of twenty-three and after having returned to New York and again to Cambridge for a short, unsatisfactory period of graduate study, Podhoretz became a monthly contributor to Commentary.
HE HAS BEEN WORKING with Commentary ever since—as editor-in-chief since 1960—except for two years as an enlisted man in the Army, which came just at the time they would have most impact on his life. Podhoretz was drafted on December 15, 1953—the dates of his induction and discharge are, I believe, the only two dates precisely given in Making It, though I could have over-looked others—just five months after he had returned to New York and had already begun to experience decided success as a writer and reviewer, and to feel accepted by some of its leading literary figures, like Robert Warshow, the gifted and ill-fated critic, and Philip Rahv of the Partisan Review. He was discharged on December 14, 1955; and hastened back as from exile to resume the pursuit of his career at Commentary. Here he runs into trouble. Two associate editors with whom he has worked on terms of equality before being drafted are jointly in charge of the operation and make life miserable for him and creative work very difficult. By skillful infighting he shortly becomes an associate editor himself and effectively neutralizes them; and within less than five years he has become the Boss, as he calls his collective adversary, himself. Meanwhile, and since, he has remained continually active as a contributor to Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Esquire, Show, and many other journals; published a book, Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing; and attended virtually every party given in the New York literary world:
Parties were sometimes fun and sometimes not, but fun was beside the point: for me they always served as a barometer of the progress of my career. There were other landmarks besides my first party at Lillian Hellman’s. There was my first weekend at Philip Rahv’s house in the country, drinking and arguing about radicalism late into the night; there was my first invitation (at last!) to Hannah Arendt’s annual New Year’s Eve party…there was my first small dinner party at Mary McCarthy’s meticulously furnished apartment in the East Nineties; there was my first elegantly peopled cocktail party at Sylvia Marlowe’s; there was my first black-tie affair in New York, at Louis Kronenberger’s, where legendary figures from the twenties like E. E. Cummings appeared; there was my first summons to the Park Avenue salon of Mr. and Mrs. Kirk Askew, with its dazzling collection of celebrities and titled European ladies. And for the sake of these things too, I drove myself to write.
Only for the sake of these things and fame? Did I not write because I had something to say? This question rests, I believe, on a misconception of the nature of writing—or more precisely, the nature of writers.
But the nature of writers, and of their motivations, varies. Podhoretz continues this passage with an astute and quite generally applicable analysis of what happens to the urge to write in its social context, which shows his own motives to have been more professional than this breathless social column suggests. But, conversely, there are more professional reasons why a writer might wish to attend such functions: to observe and comprehend the scene, as well as to enjoy having made it, as Marcel Proust did in the process of living which made him capable of writing Remembrance of Things Past—a more ambitious exegesis of the relation of ambition to passion and nostalgia than Podhoretz has undertaken here. Podhoretz seems to have wanted to attend these often acrimonious parties neither out of gregariousness nor even curiosity, but to check up on his progress. It was necessary to have been there because:
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. Did so-and-so have dinner at Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment last night? Up five points…Did so-and-so’s book get nominated for the National Book Award? Up two and five eighth’s.
In a man who really is a competent—even a distinguished—editor, and who has had a Columbia and a Cambridge B.A.—both, presumably, attesting to some real interest in literature and life, this is not ambition but a perversion of it. Perhaps one might call it acrophilia. What seems tragically limiting about Podhoretz’s vision is that it obscures the fact that it really is sometimes possible for a successful American writer to gain enough fame and wealth to feel free to take his career very seriously indeed. This, I suppose, is what Dr. Spock has done and God knows I envy him for it. A physician who is serious about babies must also be serious about napalm and equally serious about a society in which its use has become cliché; though I should think each successive Vietnamese child must find it novel enough. Those who seriously accept a calling must sometimes alter their manner of pursuing it as reality alters its demands on them.
Despite the statement in Making It with which I have opened this review, what Podhoretz takes seriously, it seems to me, is not his career but his quest for fame, power, and money. Of this he writes clearly, cogently, and with commendable detachment. But the subject is so limited—in this case in scope as well as depth, since Podhoretz has had essentially only one employer. There have been many books by self-made men who took their careers seriously to the point of obsession, some of them very bad books—which this is not—by very bad men. But I recall few as lifeless as this. When a man who takes his career seriously writes about it he may be boring—but only by assuming that you are as interested as he is in its sometimes overly technical details and in the issues and people he gets involved with in the course of it; he tells you more about them than you really want to know. Podhoretz, who has been where much of the action is for more than a decade, and has been editor of one of the country’s most serious journals of opinion for nearly that long, tells us very little about anything that has happened in his life except as it affects his self-esteem or concerns his quest for class, status, and power. He seems scarcely to have been personally present among the celebrities who so delight him; Podhoretz amid his growing collection of trophies is so impersonal that there are times when it seems that Making It might better have been called Manhole in the Promised Land. There are also times, as the names of the celebrities drop, when one feels that one is reading Leporello’s catalogue and that these people mean as little to Podhoretz as the 1003 women in Spain did as individuals to Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni, too, was fond of parties and gave very amusing ones himself; and I found myself hoping, as I neared the end of Making It, that Podhoretz might one day give a dinner party as interesting, and as conclusive, as he did.
BUT NO SUCH event enlivens these pages. The celebrities and literati do not come to life; they remain part of Podhoretz’s mise-en-scène. The strongest emotion in the book—unfortunately, frozen hatred—is directed toward the high-school English teacher, Mrs. K., whom Podhoretz makes sound as if she were Joseph K.’s wicked stepmother. It is she who arouses Podhoretz’s ambition, as well as his permanent resentment, by her patronage; which culminates in an occasion when she takes him, at the age of fifteen, into Manhattan on a shopping trip and, afterward, to his first restaurant meal. She is “visibly pleased by this unexpected—or was it expected?—object lesson” when the hostess requires that he put on a coat and tie which it provides; and orders “duck for both of us, undoubtedly because it would be a hard dish for me to manage without using my fingers.” His recollection of Mrs. K.’s perception of him is given in this passage:
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).
In a book in which human emotional conflict, external and internal, had played a larger role this memory might be acceptable as the psychic trauma that set Podhoretz’s life in motion, and which has remained, and must be accepted, as a part of his permanent core of being. But in Making It, it serves chiefly to establish that Podhoretz was ambitious enough to consent to his own humiliation before he became Mrs. K.’s pupil. For, at fifteen, he must have known that any vision of him as a filthy little slum child was absurd; and if he was beyond saving it was for moral and theological rather than social reasons. Fifteen-year-olds, particularly from bad neighborhoods, don’t think of themselves as children. And if I remember correctly from “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” the Podhoretzes didn’t live in a slum but in a decaying lower-middle-class neighborhood whose white inhabitants were very uptight indeed about its infiltration by Negroes—a much better ambience for the cultivation of one’s anxiety about status than a slum. Finally, in 1945, the academic standing of Brooklyn College was high, not low—not only in Brownsville and the rest of Brooklyn, but all over the country—though its image was shortly to be marred by President Gideonse’s spectacular Red-hunts. It provided a very good launching platform for ambitious young men, though not one as good as Columbia did. Mrs. K. was right about that; but it was already Norman Podhoretz who cared enough to accept a dinner invitation from a teacher who must have seemed to him half-cracked, and who he thought didn’t really like him, even though she valued his promise.
It would seem to me tragic that Podhoretz’s account of this encounter with Mrs. K., which he recalls as purely spiteful and humiliating, should express the strongest emotion he records having felt about any human relationship in this memoir—except that the whole book has so much the character of a set piece, almost an allegory, or a public celebration of the American Way of Life. Making It is not really a personal document; it is dedicated, for example, to Podhoretz’s four children whom I do not recall being mentioned in it; his wife is, but very briefly. If the book has any personal meaning at all, it is a declaration of Podhoretz’s triumph at no longer feeling subject to such humiliations as he believes Mrs. K. once inflicted upon him, and a by-no-means abject apology for being the sort of person to whom such a triumph continues to be important. But Making It may also be just what its author says it is: a bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package. If it succeeds, we may surely hope that successive volumes will permit us to follow the career of this remarkable, still young man. And they may be more mellow; sometimes, as we age, memory softens our perceptions of reality. In Podhoretz Returns and Son of Podhoretz, the monster may turn out to have a heart of gold.
February 1, 1968