Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

Podhoretz_book_covers_300Norman Birnbaum reviews two new books on Podhoretz, in truthdig:

The biographer’s evident discomfort with Podhoretz as political and social critic is surprising. After all, Podhoretz himself has written for five decades of his change of mind. The text provides ample evidence of what bothered him. One event does not quite receive the attention it merits: the mixed reception of “Making It.” I thought the book very good on the New York literary milieu and its honesty about ambition. I recall Podhoretz’s distress at the publisher who having commissioned the book, refused it, at the sententious advice of Trilling not to publish it, at hostile reviews by others. I found Trilling’s fastidiousness absurd: He praised ambition in 19th century English novels, found it distasteful in a student of his from Brooklyn. In the end, the indignation of the critics reinforced Podhoretz’s tendency to think of himself as isolated, his antipathy to other intellectuals. He saw arguments with others as proof of his own virtue.

By 1968, indeed, he had broken decisively with the New Left. He found the tactics and what there was of strategy of the movements for social change mistaken, and aligned himself with the leadership of the AFL-CIO in rejecting them. He abjured the cultural and political separatism, as he saw it, of many of the African-American and feminist leaders. The rejection by much of the student movement of high culture offended him, and he joined with the liberals who dismissed it as adolescent if not infantile self-indulgence. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was no longer a matter of critical distance from imperial power, but became ignoble capitulation to illusions about communism. His criticism changed rapidly from the common sense of an old progressive to the overwrought anxiety of a threatened deacon of the established order.