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October 20th, 2017

Insight

Norman Podhoretz has caused a sensation with his memoir of ambition. He's been vindicated, twice

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published April 21, 2016

Norman Podhoretz has caused a sensation with his memoir of ambition. He's been vindicated, twice

In recent years there have been several celebrations to mark important anniversaries of the publication of beloved books — “The Velveteen Rabbit,” for example, or the stories of Peter Rabbit. This month comes a celebration of a book hardly anyone liked at the time — and the story of its evolution from cautionary tale to classic is the story of the evolution of our times.

The book is “Making It” by Norman Podhoretz, and when it was released 50 years ago this month it caused a sensation, and not the sort that any author craved, then or now. Mr. Podhoretz, then the editor of the journal Commentary and one of the central figures in New York literary society, was pilloried for his apostacy, though really the criticism was for his honesty.

The novelist Norman Mailer, a friend of Mr. Podhoretz but not particularly of his book, nonetheless described the spectacle as “coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” He went on, in the pages of the Partisan Review, to say that Mr. Podhoretz had produced “a minor work of much excellence, severely flawed.”

The crime of Mr. Podhoretz, born in Brooklyn to Eastern European Jewish parents and thus the very model of the New York intellectual at mid-century, was to avow that he aimed for money, power, fame and social position and to admit “an order of feeling in myself, and by implication in others, that most of us usually do our best to keep hidden.”

He might well have kept that hidden, for the very New York literary world that he characterized as “the family” — men and women who, he wrote, were “madly in love with ideas” and were marked by what he called “a commitment to left-wing anti-Stalinism and a commitment to avant-gardism” — lived the fantasy that they were immune to ambition, or money, or power. He said he didn’t possess that immunity and admitted the truth that dared not speak its name, at least at the time: “[I]t was the attention of the family I most dreamed of arousing.”

He won that attention all right, and as a result was ostracized, isolated, repelled from the island, at least of part of Manhattan. So it was a surprise — really it was a shock — when the New York Review of Books, today more leftish than leftist, decided to reprint “Making It” this spring, in the “Classic” imprint of its book publishing arm. In an interview, Mr. Podhoretz told me: “I thought it was a practical joke. I was flabbergasted. I never thought I would live to see the day when ‘Making It’ would not only be reprinted but allow me to feel vindicated.”

That word “vindicated” struck me as poignant. Some 37 years ago I traveled to New York’s Upper East Side, sat down in Mr. Podhoretz’s apartment and heard him use the very same word in a very different context.

“Vindication,” he said that wintry day in 1980, repeating the word before going on: “Yes, there is vindication. There are incredible numbers of people who have been forced to admit that what we were saying was at least worth discussing if not true. But I also feel vindicated because these ideas have worked out exactly as I had predicted.”

This 1980 version of vindication had nothing to do with “Making It” and everything to do with the fact that, only five weeks earlier, Ronald Reagan had been elected president, causing funereal despair among liberals much the way the election of Donald J. Trump did several months ago. Always one of what A.J. Liebling once called “the boys from the literary quarterlies,” Mr. Podhoretz no longer was a liberal.

He was one of the founding fathers of the neoconservative movement, and the election of Mr. Reagan affirmed his passage and rehabilitated him, though not in the eyes of his onetime allies or, in a phrase that still stings, his onetime fellow travelers. He said that day: “I think 1980 is the beginning — Act I, Scene 1 — and not the end, and the drama is whether the United States is going to be able to reverse its decline in power and revitalize the Western alliance.”

More than a third of a century later, Mr. Trump — no conservative lineal descendant of Mr. Reagan — is committed to the former but not to the latter. And Mr. Trump is living in a world Mr. Podhoretz helped create, where new conservative voices argued for a muscular American role in world affairs

“He provided a respected venue where they could publish and be in dialogue with each other,” said Daniel Oppenheimer, who has written on how onetime leftists shaped modern conservatism. “It was not something that happened overnight. The process took a long time. And providing that legitimacy was vital.”

That was the first Podhoretz vindication. The second is the one he feels about ambition. Fifty years ago he wrote:

“The whole business of reputation, of fame, of success was coming to fascinate me in a new way. Everyone seemed to be caught up in it, and yet no one told the truth about it. People capable of the most brutal honesty in other areas would at the mention of the word success suddenly lift their eyes up to the heavens and begin chanting the most horrendous pieties imaginable.”

Today ambition is no sin, and no one is silent about it or, in the social media age, silent about anything. And so, in my 2017 interview, I asked Mr. Podhoretz whether he, and “Making It,” had been the victim of honesty in 1967. His answer:

“The book was published in a perfect storm. It came out at the high point of the counterculture, whose sworn enemy was anything having to do with commerce or capitalism or middle-class values. ... I still regarded myself then as a member of the left and I was uttering what amounted to blasphemies, and nobody could understand why. One of my closest friends told my wife, with love and affection, that she ought to have me institutionalized, because I had gone crazy.”

Crazy, perhaps. But the republication of “Making It” is an important moment in the American cultural passage, leading us to examine our own lives and motivations, re-evaluate our own priorities, discover our own sense of purpose and role in the world. The key, of course, is not to find the answer, but to ask the question.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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