Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It was almost universally disliked when it came out in 1967. It struck a chord of hostility in the mid-twentieth-century literary world that was out of all proportion to the literary sins it may or may not have committed. The reviews were not just negative, but mean. In what may have been the meanest review of all, Wilfred Sheed, a prominent critic and novelist of the time, wrote:
In this mixture of complacency and agitation, he has written a book of no literary distinction whatever, pockmarked by clichés and little mock modesties and a woefully pedestrian tone…. Mediocrities from coast to coast will no doubt take Making It to their hearts and will use it for their own justification…. In the present condition of our society and the world, I cannot imagine a more feckless, silly book.
Even before the book was published it was an object of derision. Podhoretz’s friends urged him not to publish it, and his publisher shrank from it after reading the manuscript. Another publisher gamely took the book, but his gamble did not pay off. Word had spread throughout literary Manhattan about the god-awfulness of what Podhoretz had wrought. This and the reviews sealed the book’s fate. It was a total humiliating failure.
Making It was reissued last year by New York Review Books as one of its Classics, and the literary world—perhaps because it no longer exists—remained calm. Bookish people didn’t call each other up to exclaim about the scandal. Not many reviews appeared. And yet among those that did were some that in their nastiness might have been written in 1967. James Wolcott’s review in the London Review of Books was the longest and nastiest. It began with a quote from an entry in Alfred Kazin’s journal of 1963, in which Kazin wrote of a party he attended at the offices of Commentary magazine, of which Podhoretz was editor:
Struck by the oafishness of Norman Pod, drunkenly clowning in the entrance to the elevator. That lovely, blond girl (wife of the publisher of the NY Review?) looked really offended, and I couldn’t blame her.
Wolcott’s decision to begin his put-down of Making It with an image of its author as a boorish jerk, taken from a text written years before the book’s publication, may help answer the question of its original outlandish unpopularity. It illustrates a glaring problem of the autobiographical genre, namely its susceptibility to influences outside the text. At the time of the memoir’s first publication Podhoretz was a well-known if not universally well thought of figure in the New York literary establishment. He had been writing for Commentary, Partisan Review, and The New Yorker since the 1950s, when he was still in his twenties, and had become editor of Commentary in 1960 at the age of thirty. He…
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