Making It in the Big City

For months before publication, the new autobiographical book by Norman Podhoretz, editor of COMMENTARYmagazine, was the subject of tense speculation, heated gossip, and wouldn’t-touchit-wilh-a-bangalore-torpedo disclaimers in New York’s books-and-brains circles. Now Mr. Podhoretz’s MAKING ITis out, and the public is allowed to consider what all the sollo voce shouting was about. The author of this critique is a New York-based critic and novelist whose latest book was, appropriately enough, OFFICE POLITICS.

BY WILFRID SHEED

BUT what did you do in the bordello, Mr. Fitzgerald?” Scott, in the famous story, had been trying to shock Edith Wharton with tales of his early days in Paris. Mrs. Wharton was, at best, politely curious. So, too, with readers of Norman Podhoretz’s much self-acclaimed book Making It.

What does Mr. Podhoretz do in the bordello? Simply sits up there and purrs, as far as we can make out. His ruthless confession must rank with the great literary teases of all time; or with the fake pornography they used to fob off on teen-agers in the bad old days.

“It is better to be a success than a failure,” it says on page one. See the unveiling of Little Egypt, gentlemen. One thousand breezy photos. But “being a success,” as Chesterton pointed out years ago, is one of the most meaningless phrases in the language. It may get us into the tent, but it is no substitute for a real bump and grind.

This is the first impression of Making It: that of a burlesque queen solemnly striding up and down to the strains of “Temptation,” and nothing coming off. Hour after pitiless hour. Norman likes money (tiny bump), Norman likes to be well-regarded (desultory twirl of tassel). Sorry men, no refunds. It is only on the way home that we realize that we have seen a rather dirtier show than we thought, and that Norman has shown us plenty.

The theme of the book must be familiar by now. Podhoretz’s life has lacked specific content as perhaps only an American life can. For example, he was raised as a Jewish boy simply because his unbelieving father wanted to keep him unassimilated. At a Jewish seminary college he consumed enough Hebrew lore to become class valedictorian without ever supposing that any of it mattered. By the time he got to Columbia University, he had apparently severed the act of learning from its natural objects, and was free to concentrate on such phantoms as pleasing the teacher, getting good grades, and being in the intellectual swim; at the same time, he found himself being pressed into WASP gentility, an ideal as attenuated and irrelevant as his father’s Jewishness had been. A Jew and not a Jew, a WASP and not a WASP, scholar and operator: all set now for “Making It,” “travelling first-class,” and all the other empty cans we append to celebrity.

Pleasing his elders for rather obscure objectives seems to have been Podhoretz’s story all along —somewhat like the man in H.M.S. Pinafore who “polished that handle so carefully that now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” First a platoon of doting relatives, then a Dragon Lady schoolmarm. Next Lionel Trilling at Columbia, followed by F. R. Leavis at Cambridge; a short ugly interlude in the army, with no parents at all; next, Elliot Cohen, his patron at Commentary magazine; and then a whole host of elders, veritably a faculty, the Family of New York intellectuals, who made him their ultimate pet. Home again, safe and sound.

Now, as editor of Commentary, with no more elders to conquer (except the American Jewish Committee and Group Captain Norman Mailer), Podhoretz asks himself what it all means. But instead of drawing at least one obvious conclusion — that a career founded largely on showing off the grown-ups is likely to result in a fairly infantile version of success: comfort, admiration, power, for their own sakes, the baby’s triumvirate — he has decided to celebrate both the career and the success, and to elevate them to the rank of universal desirables. It is that the intellectual community is as greedy as the next fellow, but that our author is the first one honest enough to admit it. Courageous in a way — suppose he turned out to be wrong? Suppose he really was the only greedy one? Henry VIII grunting over his chicken bone. But Podhoretz takes no chances on this. He absolutely insists on sharing his vices. As in his famous essay “My Negro Problem — and Ours,” where he botched a useful mini-confession by demanding, in effect, that everyone else sign it, he again inflates himself to the size of a Significant Social Index. When Norman sins, everybody sins. Which means, of course, that nobody sins.

No doubt, he is just right enough. Every intellectual is a little bit greedy; some more, some less. Podhoretz calls this a “dirty little secret,” but for all that, I cannot imagine any intellectual claiming, “I do not want money, fame, or power,” even if it were true. The dirty secret cuts both ways. No one admits to greed, but no one denies it either. The rules governing self-display, both one’s virtues and vices, are quite ambiguous and a good deal more interesting than you would ever guess from this rather simple manual.

Ambiguity is totally alien to Podhoretz’s book, which has but one gear and one track and rolls down it like a Daily News van. For instance, the dirty little secret of sex has been unveiled for some time, yet we still frown on people who boast about their sexual prowess as much as we frown on people who boast about their money. Envy? (but our own prowess may be even greater). Squeamishness? (but our conversation may be a solid stream of sex or money in other respects, and nobody minds that).

A tradition of conversational manners is a complicated affair devised originally to ward off dullness and pain, although sometimes causing both. Podhoretz’s revision of the code would surely do so. People sitting around discussing their success, even their success at Columbia University, would be as inspiring as executives modeling long johns in the locker room. Civilization has its reasons for keeping such talk to a minimum. Mr. Podhoretz, who tells us that he has made the upper middle class (you can tell it by his clothes: no more colorful folk costume for him), knows this quite well. Hence his reticence. He does not really talk about his success.

At certain points, the book turns the reader off quite primly, shuts the porter’s gate on him. How does Norman make it with servants, other children’s parents, and rich bores? Can he join any club he wants to? Does he ever find the whole thing a bit stuffy? Before we go haring after him, we would like to know about these things. But the upper middle class doesn’t tell.

We would also like, since this is presumably a full-blown investigation of the subject, to hear some case histories besides his own. Are other Family men and women snobs and climbers? and if so, which ones? The names come tumbling out like clowns from a circus car. Mary and Dwight and Philip—but then he gets stuck. A gentleman doesn’t rat on his friends. He simply uses them to pad his index.

An anatomy of Making It should not bog down on the first navel it comes to. Why have we been brought here anyway? Anyone who has paddled about in these literary wading pools knows at the very least that George Plimpton looks over your head and Podhoretz looks under your armpit and that Macdonald looks you periodically right in the eye. (Our bad luck that the armpit man wrote the book.) Podhoretz is mildly informative about the structure of the literary establishment, but only mildly, and his lack of social observation is blinding. How does an establishment man furnish his house? Whom does he marry and why? Podhoretz thinks the novel is on the way out — but a novelist could change Philip Rahv’s name and tell us something about him. Podhoretz can only take this liberty with one person — himself. And even his one big scene, his Eliza Doolittle debut into the Family, is flat and unevocative, for want of other actors.

BUT the real point of the book is not to describe a scene or even himself, but to rationalize and justify his own living standard. It is as if he wanted the reader to say, it’s OK, you can keep the money. He is demanding, through bluster and wheedle, some kind of open-ended absolution. The words we might use to condemn him have all lost their jurisdiction overnight: from arriviste to apple polisher to sellout. So uncompromising is he that we can’t be sure whether those words could still apply to anybody; whether there is any mode of progress so self-serving that even he would condemn it. (From his upper-middle-class aerie, he knows that there are such modes, because — another garment that fails to come off—his own rise is shown to have been remarkably clean and disinterested. Only his thoughts are impure.)

Podhoretz’s Damascus occurred during a jamboree on an island owned by Huntington Hartford, when Norman, frosted glass in hand, looked around him and saw that it was good. One looks despairingly for irony in this scene. Podhoretz to cover himself puts a tiny twist in his voice, but nothing like enough. Finding happiness in one of the less poverty stricken corners of the Caribbean is no great trick. Religious creeds are more convincing when uttered in adversity, and Norman’s doctrine of self-interest would ring more commandingly from a hovel in Trinidad than from Mr. Hartford’s spotless beach.

No one demands of a left-wing writer (Podhoretz claims to be of that persuasion) that he turn down luxury. It is good practice for going to prison, but that will not arise in Norman’s case. American writers don’t have to keep in training like their Eastern brethren. It doesn’t take much wind to sign a petition.

But we do still have our little problems in the West, and it is mildly surprising to find so little allusion to these in Making It. It may be all right to have your tabs picked up by some chuckleheaded tycoon, or even by Mr. Hartford. But this can lead to certain bad habits. It becomes a drag having to look into how the tycoon got his money, his labor practices, and so forth, and now on top of that one has the further nuisance of worrying about the CIA and such. Jason Epstein has noted in the New York Review of Books that since the cold war began, certain types of thinkers have enjoyed more winter cruises than other types. The success that Podhoretz talks about always has to be paid for by someone. The complexity of Foundation living has made it hard at times to trace that someone.

In other words, a modicum of training is still useful. The conventional wisdom about ambition which Mr. Podhoretz revises so airily has always known this. It is based not so much on Christian asceticism as on a determination to function when the patron dies or turns ugly. (A good deal of Christian asceticism is based on the same thing, but that’s another story.) You don’t function so well when you, or your wife, or your in-laws have become used to silk sheets. One apologizes for the truisms. But in his lightning survey of Western thought on the subject (two credits, freshmen) Podhoretz seems to have overlooked them completely.

Mr. Podhoretz’s own prosperity is probably built on air and luck like most people’s. The magazine he edits is subsidized by a most benign master, the American Jewish Committee. He is allowed at present all the freedom an editor could want. But suppose his bosses change their minds? He could always find another job: either a smaller one with the same freedom, or a bigger one with less. In either case, he would be joining the rest of the human race, with its familiar discontents. And no more talk about making it.

That a man with such an Ayn-Rand-and-water program should call himself a man of the left is symptomatic of the fifties and sixties. Podhoretz has given us some intellectual history here after all — his mind moving, with the rest of the salmon, to pro-Americanism and back, but his tastes moving steadily to individual profit, and winding up somewhere to the right of Horatio Alger. This means that his left-wing opinions are just talk. And talk is cheap.

Podhoretzism is a baneful doctrine for any writer anywhere. Twentieth-century politics aside, one never knows when any writer will be called on by some private or public reverse to double as hero or saint. A diet of guilt-free softness will not help. And beyond that, self-satisfaction is every artist’s enemy. The ego that sets you to writing in the first place hangs around like a great swollen, sensitive fool, demanding an impossible payment in flattery and love: do not hurt me, it screams to the world. My master thinks he wants criticism, but don’t listen to him, listen to me.

It might be argued that this is the state of the insecure writer, and not one who has been taking Dr. Podhoretz’s success medicine and learning to love himself as he deserves. But even if the medicine worked, vanity would still be the writer’s enemy, for it maketh him sloppy and humorless and it dimmeth his wits. See Making It, passim. To advise writers to wallow in their occupational disease rather than light it is, to put it temperately, mischievous.

BUT besides this seedy moral and professional manifesto, Podhoretz has written a personal story of a slightly more touching sort. He suffered from a brutal case of precocity, a disease which can make both childhood and adulthood wretched, with just a few good years in between. Norman grew up in Brownsville, a tough neighborhood to be precocious in. And he must have exerted, even overdeveloped, his political gifts trying to be one of the boys. In Making It he assures us that he succeeded; but in “My Negro Problem — and Ours,” he gives some hint of the anxiety underneath it, his fear of the colored marauder and the fragility of his own confidence.

Having learned more or less how to make like a tough guy, he then had to unlearn it at Columbia and Cambridge. At the former he was resented as pushy; at the latter he is under the impression that he wasn’t. His experience there also gave him a notion that class in England is quite different from class in the United States, that it has nothing to do with manners or dress. I have heard Englishmen make the same point over here. It takes time and much observation for a foreigner to learn what is actually going on.

Anyway, those were the golden years for Norman, and he lovingly records every A plus as if it had happened yesterday. At that point in time he was ahead of the field, and he wants it on permanent record now. Since then, a lot of people have caught up and passed him. Boys who were making C’s and waitresses, while Norman was busy imitating Professor Trilling’s style, have straightened out and made their moves. And Norman is no longer a boy wonder, no longer the promising young man that all the older men are gruffly impressed with, but another thirty-sevenyear-old writer who didn’t do anything last year or the year before: a good enough position to be in, but not if you’ve tasted glory; not if you ran the hundred in 9.5 in high school.

This subject could have made a good book — has, in fact, made many good books. Romantics like Fitzgerald and Connolly have done fine things with it. Podhoretz’s trophies carefully lined up for inspection are like old dance programs, or like Fitzgerald’s overseas cap never worn, genuinely touching mementos. But what Connolly and Fitzgerald never did was to pretend that things are just the same now: that a nice apartment and being on some damn presidential committee and affording a smart school for your daughter are valid extensions of the old dreams. In his late thirties, Fitzgerald was writing The Crack-up, a study of encroaching middle age, of a sensibility dwindling and cooling, and of a break with his past self that could not be mended. Now, more tragically, Podhoretz comes bounding along to tell us how well he’s still doing — first, A pluses, and then, lots of money. Great territory, you should move there.

This is the sense in which the book is revealing after all. Podhoretz would rather show himself to be a crass operator (well, at least Em honest) than an anxiety-ridden failure counting his assets and looking prosperous for the sake of the customers. Of course, he is not really a failure; he is a good editor and an adroit essayist; but no one could ever be the success he felt like at twenty-one. And second best is a hard pill to gag down.

Thus, we get this book instead, which refuses to face the fact, to say the words. It must be hard for a man of Podhoretz’s intelligence to be so obtuse, but self-respect demands it, and the big fool Vanity says go ahead, we’ll make a mint. And we get these terrible flights of self-congratulation that have made the book funny to so many people, but could just as well make them cry.

“I toyed with the idea of doing a book about Mailer that would focus on the problem of success,” but he decided to make it a book about himself instead; as if to say, I was going to write about Rockefeller and money, but decided to write about the local branch manager instead. The book is to be a “bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package.” A great economy offer that only lacks a set of dishes. The precocious child cannot just write a book like other people and take his chances; he must write a great book, nothing less will do, and ram it down our throats.

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. There arc one or two shrewd observations — for instance, the distinction he makes between jealousy and envy, and some of his remarks about the writing process: in particular, that people take up this career because they find they do it well, and not because they have something to say. But they usually do get something to say eventually, or else they give up. Podhoretz has been rummaging among his belongings and come up with this. One can’t imagine what he keeps underneath it.

Meanwhile, mediocrities from coast to coast will no doubt take Making It to their hearts and will use it for their own justification; they will prate about power and honesty and add another wing to the game room. In the present condition of our society and the world, I cannot imagine a more feckless, silly book.

One last note might be added, because the matter comes up a good deal in conversation and not, for obvious reasons, in print. It has been suggested that Podhoretz also implicates Jewishness in his peculiar syndrome. I do not believe he does this: Jewishness is part of his story, but a coincidental part. He could just as well be an Irishman. The book could simply be titled America 1967; slickness, shallowness, and the flight from pain and death and art — all in one package.