Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt and Norman Mailer

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Overview

Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Hanna Arendt, Norman Mailer, and Lillian Hellman -among the other things these writers and intellectuals all had in common is Norman Podhoretz. With them Podhoretz was part of "The Family," as the core group of New York intellectuals of the 50s and 60s came to be known. And in Ex-Friends, he has written the intellectual equivalent of a family history- a sparkling chronicle of affection and jealousy, generosity and betrayal, breakdowns and reconciliations, and ultimately of dysfunctions impossible to cure.

Ex-Friends is filled with brilliant portraits of some of the cultural icons who defined our time. Yet anyone who has followed Norman Podhoretz's career as a writer and editor and above all one of the leading controversialists of our time will expect more than just another fond memoir of literary alliances and quarrels, brilliant talk and bruised egos. Indeed, while Ex-Friends has some of the elements of a personal diary, it is also a journal de combat describing the intellectual and social turbulence of the 60s and 70s and showing how the literary living room was transformed into a political battleground where the meaning of America was fought night by night. Against this backdrop, Podhoretz tells how he left The Family and undertook a trailblazing journey from radical to conservative, a journey that helped redefine America's intellectual landscape in the last quarter of the 20th century and caused his old friends to become ex-friends.

If there is a nostalgia in Ex-Friends, it is not only for lost friendships but also for a time of wit, erudition, and passionate argumentation. Norman Podhoretz bodies forth a world when people still believed that what they thought and wrote and said could change the world.

Norman Podhoretz is also the author of a new Simon and Schuster book, My Love Affair With America.

Editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine for 35 years, Norman Podhoretz has written seven books whose subjects range from autobiography to analysis of American foreign policy.

If there is a nostalgia in Ex-Friends, it is not only for lost friendships but also for a time of wit, erudition, and passionate argumentation. Norman Podhoretz bodies forth a world when people still believed that what they thought and wrote and said could change the world.

Norman Podhoretz is also the author of a new Simon and Schuster book, My Love Affair With America.

Editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine for 35 years, Norman Podhoretz has written seven books whose subjects range from autobiography to analysis of American foreign policy.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Post
Hits like a tumbler-full of vodka. It is breakth taking, bracing, shocking, perfectly clear, highly intoxicating.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781893554177
  • Publisher: Encounter Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 233
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Ex-Friends

Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer
By Norman Podhoretz

Encounter Books

Copyright © 2000 Norman Podhoretz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1893554171


Introduction


HOW OUR "FAMILY" BROKE UP


I have often said that if I wish to name-drop. I have only to list my ex-friends. The remark always gets a laugh, but, in addition to being funny, it has the advantage of being true.

Of course, the main subjects on whom I concentrate here represent only a small sample of the ex-friends I have made whose names are famous enough to be worth dropping. The reason I have decided to focus on these half-dozen in particular is that all of them were once, and for a considerable period of time, very close to me. This was true even of Allen Ginsberg, whose closeness consisted not in a genuine friendship but in the many years we went back and the recurrent visions and dreams he had about me. As it happens, these special ex-friends were all Jewish in one way or another, perhaps because the literary-intellectual milieu in which I lived was predominantly Jewish, or perhaps because some tribalistic instinct of which we were loftily unaware drew us together.

Nevertheless, I can claim with all due deference to current law and fashion that I am an equal-opportunity maker of famous ex-friends, as will become clear from the many eminently droppable non-Jewish names that crop up throughout the chapters that follow. I was closer to some of these people than to others, but to none was I as close as to the ones I focus on in this book, and my friendly relations with most of them lasted a much shorter time. A few of these latter make cameo appearances whenever their presence is required by the stories of the leading characters. Still others -- some of them still well known and some (sic transit) with names once considered worth dropping but now almost entirely forgotten -- are also mentioned in passing. But even adding all these to the main characters does not begin to exhaust the list of famous people whose friendship I have managed to lose or throw away in the past thirty years.

Thirty years. That means from the late 1960s, when I was approaching forty, to the present. Before the late 1960s, I was much better at making friends of strangers than at making enemies of friends. Strange as it may seem to those who have come to know me in my rather reclusive dotage, as a young man I was very outgoing and gregarious and curious about other people -- what they were like, what they did, and how they did it. It will seem even stranger to my more recent acquaintances that in my younger years I was also full of fun, as Norman Mailer confirmed when he said that I was "merrier" in the "old days." The same word was once used by Max Lerner, the historian and columnist (now among the almost forgotten), who after spending a few days in my company at a conference described me (to general agreement) as the "merry madcap" of the group.

Obviously, not everyone I met liked me; nor did I like all of them. Indeed, not all of the people who I thought liked me actually did. There were also always those I rubbed the wrong way (sometimes to the point of outright enmity) by being too brash or too arrogant or too ambitious or too precociously successful -- or by not being inhibited or tactful enough to refrain from writing about my career, especially in Making It, which came out in the late 1960s. But all that being said, the fact remains that I was more popular than not in the circles I frequented and that I always had many close friends and many more friendly acquaintances.

An interesting measure of the personal standing I enjoyed is what happened when I began -- as I would call the process in the title of a book published about ten years after Making It -- "breaking ranks" with the dogmas and orthodoxies of the world in which I lived. What happened was that it did not occur to anyone to invoke the classical leftist explanation that I was "selling out" for money and/or power. In my case, because I seemed to be destroying rather than advancing my career, the theory circulated that I had gone mad. One of my best friends at the time even tried to persuade my wife to have me committed to a mental institution before my clearly self-destructive actions had a chance to reach their consummation in literal self-destruction -- that is, suicide. He did this not out of hostility or spite but out of love: it was his way of excusing and forgiving what would, if I were sane enough to be held responsible, have had to be deemed inexcusable and unforgivable.

The problem was that not only had I not gone mad, but that I was saner than ever, having finally come to my senses after more than a decade of experimenting with radical ideas that were proving dangerous to me and destructive to America, not to mention the threat they posed to my own children, and everyone else's as well. No sooner did it become clear that this was how I really felt, and that I fully intended to carry on with the war I had started against those ideas, than the exculpatory explanation for my apostasy was dropped, and in its place came shock and a deep sense of betrayal. Some of my friends simply cut me off, or perhaps it would be metaphorically more apt to say that they excommunicated me. Others made a brave but ultimately futile effort to remain in touch -- futile because getting together led either to unpleasant arguments or to the equally unpleasant biting of tongues and the avoiding of precisely those subjects that we all most burned to talk about.

But this was by no means a one-way street; I did my own share of cutting off old friends and letting others drift away, because continuing to see them became so awkward and uncomfortable. Nor was this process confined to the private sphere. I attacked them in print, at first mostly in articles in Commentary, of which I was the editor, and then later in Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, and they attacked me back or else tried to pretend, by ignoring my work, that I did not exist.

Yet all this is much too general. As I hope to show, each ex-friendship was marked by its own wrinkles, particularities, and complexities, as well as its own special mix of feelings and personal involvements. I also hope that the stories I am about to tell will provide at least indirect answers to the two questions I have been asked over and over again by puzzled people to whom such experiences are completely foreign.

The first of these questions is why it is so hard for friends who disagree about large and apparently impersonal subjects like politics or literature to remain friends. To this my answer is that they can -- but only provided the things they disagree about are not all that important to them. Such, I think, is the situation with most people. They go from day to day, trying to earn a living and to raise their kids as best they can in accordance with the morals, customs, and traditions they have inherited from their own parents or have absorbed almost unknowingly from the culture around them. The ideas that underlie their way of life are mostly taken for granted and remain unexamined -- luckily for them, since the biggest lie ever propagated by a philosopher was Socrates' self-aggrandizing assertion that the unexamined life is not worth living.

Another big lie is that the "apathy" toward politics that so many Americans feel, at least judging by their persistently low turnouts in elections, is a sign of dissatisfaction with our system. In reality, it is just the opposite. Rightly or wrongly, and more often the former than the latter, very large numbers of Americans are content with their lot and do not believe that it will make much difference to their lives if this Republican or that Democrat wins or loses this or that campaign. Why then should their friendships be helped or hurt by whether they are members of one or the other party, any more than they are helped or hurt by their rooting for rival football or baseball or basketball teams, whose fortunes, if truth be told, most Americans are more passionate about than they are about politics or perhaps anything else besides their own families?

More power, I say (and I say it, believe me, without a trace of condescension) to such people. But I only wish that their greatest wish, which is to be left alone by outside forces so that they can tend to their own affairs as they see fit, were as easy to grant as they seem to imagine. How hard this actually is I learned from Robert Warshow, a dear old friend who edited the first pieces I wrote for Commentary when I was starting out in the early 1950s and who did not live long enough to become an ex-friend, though it would break my heart to think that I might ever have split even with him. Writing about the wish to be left alone, as it was expressed by the characters in a movie he was reviewing, Warshow remarked, "One could almost weep at the innocence that makes them think this is a small thing to ask."

The innocence at which Warshow nearly wept in the 1950s is still with us in the 1990s, but it is being lost by the day (or even by the hour). Forty and fifty years ago it was still possible for communities to quarantine themselves with local ordinances and social sanctions against outside influences they considered undesirable and did not even want to know about. But thanks to the "imperial judiciary," the ubiquity of the mass media, and now the Internet, quarantines are no longer possible to declare, and anyone who tries soon discovers that they cannot be maintained. This came home to me with unusual force when it was discovered that a convicted pedophile serving time in a Minnesota prison had access on the inside to a state-of-the-art computer and was using it to collect and disseminate information to his fellow pedophiles on the outside about local potential victims, who ranged in age from two or three to twelve. Apart from the intrinsic horror of the story itself, the reason it made such a large impression on me was that the ring of pedophiles being supplied by this prisoner was operating only a stone's throw away from St. Paul, where my mother-in-law was born and raised and where she lived until her death in 1972. "Such things don't happen in our part of the country," she used to assure me whenever anything involving any departure from conventional sexual morality would come to light in New York. And though she was undoubtedly wrong in making so categorical an assertion, she was not wrong in believing that a place like St. Paul, Minnesota, was, thanks to its local laws and mores, much more inhospitable to such "goings-on" (by which she mainly meant adultery, homosexuality, and pornography; pedophilia would almost have been beyond her imagination) than New York. No longer. In this respect, my mother-in-law's part of the country is now incapable of protecting itself from the aggressions of my part of the country against the traditional moral standards which hers once upheld with all the force of law and social sanction and sometimes hypocrisy, acting as "the tribute vice pays to virtue."

This is why we now have "culture wars." In contrast to most strictly political battles, these culture wars do arouse the passions of all those people who, in their wish to be left alone, are frustrated by forces and ideas that are repugnant to them and from which they cannot seal themselves off or -- what is more infuriating -- protect their children. I have done no formal survey research on the issue, but I would be willing to bet that even among people living the unexamined life, friendships have begun to be disrupted and even broken by disagreements over pornography and drugs as well.

In becoming thus aroused, these people are getting a small taste of what life is always like for an intellectual, by which I mean someone who, in the famous sociologist Nathan Glazer's memorable definition, lives for, by, and off ideas. Such a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes, or anyway used to take, doctrine or dogma. Though we cluck our enlightened modern tongues at such fanaticism, there is a reason why people have been excommunicated, and sometimes even put to death, by their fellow congregants for heretically disagreeing with the official understanding of a particular text or even of a single word. After all, to the true believer everything important -- life in this world as well as life in the next -- depends on obedience to these doctrines and dogmas, which in turn depends on an accurate interpretation of their meaning and which therefore makes the spread of heresy a threat of limitless proportions.

We intellectuals are like that: not for nothing have we been called the "clerisy" of a secular age, and not for nothing are we unable to live amicably together when disagreements arise over the ideas that are so vitally important to us. This fear and hatred of the heretic, together with the correlative passion to shut him up one way or the other, is (to say the least, and in doing so I am bending over backward) as much a character trait of so-called liberal intellectuals as it is of conservatives. It was once thought that the concept of absolutistic relativism was an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms, but, thanks to the spread of "political correctness" the world has now, or should have, learned better. For we have seen that "liberal" intellectuals who tell us that tolerance and pluralism are the highest values, who profess to believe that no culture is superior to any other, and who are on that account great supporters of "multiculturalism" will treat these very notions as sacred orthodoxies, will enforce agreement with them in every venue in which they have the power to do so (the universities being the prime example of the moment), and will severely punish any deviation that dares to make itself known.

Furthermore, when intellectuals of the Left have been able to assume actual political power, as in most of the formerly Communist countries, where the leadership more often than not consisted of highly educated types, they have not hesitated to excommunicate and execute their own species of heretics. I would fear the same result in the thankfully unlikely event that my fellow intellectuals ever took over in this country. Which is why, like William F. Buckley, Jr., I would rather be ruled by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. St. Augustine said that the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs, and I would apply the same adage to intellectuals, the weakness of whose political power is more conducive to their democratic virtue than the content of their wills.

What happened in the 1960s was, to put it simply but not inaccurately, a mass conversion to leftist radicalism by the formerly liberal intellectual establishment and a commensurate seizure of enormous power by radical ideas and attitudes over the institutions controlled by intellectuals. These institutions, as everyone now knows, include the universities, the major media of information and entertainment (New York and Hollywood, the big newspapers and magazines, the movies and television), and increasingly even the mainstream churches. But if I am to explain how and why this development ultimately brought me such a wealth of ex-friends, I will have to stop for a minute or two and try to clear up the enormous amount of confusion about the word liberal that had its origins in this very same development.


Naturally, the radicals of the New Left hated the Right, but the Right was to them so self-evidently evil that there was no point wasting energy in fighting it. The real villain was "the liberal establishment," on whom the New Left heaped all the blame for everything that in its eyes was wrong with America: for starting and refusing to "end the cold war" and the "arms race" (and, a little later, the war in Vietnam); for perpetuating a social and economic system that fostered racism and poverty; for maintaining a middle-class culture based on repression (just as their socioeconomic system was founded on oppression); and for creating colleges and universities whose main purpose was to turn out slavish participants in that system and cannon fodder for its imperialistic aggressions in the Third World. To all these charges, the liberals, and especially those teaching in or administering the universities, in effect pleaded guilty with an explanation and threw themselves on the mercy of their young judges.

The terminological confusion arose when the victors in this aggression by the radicals against the liberals decided not only to occupy the territories once ruled over by the defeated enemy but to assume its previously despised name as well. The reason for this curious and entirely unexpected maneuver had everything to do with the exigencies of electoral politics. For in 1968 the radicals, in their own version of the Maoist "long march" through the institutions, tried to do to the Democratic party what they were already doing so successfully to the universities. In pursuit of this purpose they mobilized behind Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was challenging both Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Robert F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination for president. Not only did the radicals get "clean for Gene" (i.e., shave their beards and dress in more conventional clothes), but, realizing that radicalism had limited appeal among the voters, they also started (in a perhaps unconscious echo of the tag "liberals in a hurry" that had once been applied to the Communists) calling themselves liberals.

Four years later, with Senator George McGovern as their leader, these "liberals" actually did succeed in taking over the Democratic party. In the process, the term liberal itself underwent a -- shall we say? -- radical change of meaning and now signified on almost every issue a position almost the opposite of the one associated with liberalism a decade earlier. So deep and thoroughgoing was the transformation that by 1976, when Senator Edward M. Kennedy tried running for president, his policies both on the cold war and on the economy deviated by 180 degrees from those that had been pushed by his older brother John F. Kennedy fifteen years earlier. Indeed, JFK's own ideas were now much more closely approximated by those of a conservative like Ronald Reagan, who shared his Democratic predecessor's belief that a defense buildup was the best way to defend the liberties of the free world against the threat of Soviet totalitarianism and that a tax cut was the best way to ensure a prosperous economy at home.

As the stories that follow make clear, I, having been a liberal of the old style myself, participated in the conversion to radicalism, and it was when I lost faith in the teachings and practices of the radical (or, to use the confusing new designation, "liberal") "church" that I also lost all the friends I had made as a devoted communicant. They now looked upon me a dangerous heretic, which I certainly was from their point of view, and I considered them a threat to the well-being of everything I now held dear, which they certainly were -- and still are.

No wonder, then, that there is hardly one of my old friends left among the living with whom I am today so much as on speaking terms, except to exchange the most minor civilities if we happen unavoidably to meet (and often not even then).

Admittedly, not everyone would agree with this account of why and how intellectuals invariably become ex-friends when they fall out over ideas. For example, according to yet another famous sociologist, Daniel Bell, who is also another of my ex-friends (though we were never that close, and there were always difficulties between us even in the best of times), it is not "the ideas held by individuals but the way they are held" or the "temperament" of the holder, that matters most. Thus, he goes on, "I have retained my regard for Irving Kristol, for his wit and charm, though we have differed strongly in our political views."

Now, there can be no doubt that Irving Kristol (who, I am very happy to report, is not one of my ex-friends) possesses great wit and charm, as well as a temperament that is equable, cheerful, and almost relentlessly easygoing. Yet none of this prevented him from becoming a bete noir to the new liberals when he, a radical leftist of the Trotskyist persuasion during his student days in 1930s, emerged in the 1960s as the leader -- or "the Godfather," as he was sometimes mockingly described -- of the former leftists, myself in due course included, who became known collectively as the "neoconservatives." In fact, even as early as 1952, during the long phase of his political life in which Irving himself was a member in good standing of the old-style liberal community, most of his fellow liberals fell on him like ten tons of bricks when (in an article for Commentary, on whose editorial staff he then served) he deviated from the orthodox liberal analysis of why Senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade against Communist subversion was proving so effective. As Irving saw it, the liberal community bore some of the responsibility for McCarthy's rise in that its failure to dissociate itself unambiguously from the Communists, and to mount a much firmer opposition to them, was what had given the notorious senator from Wisconsin the running room he needed for his demagogic exploitation of the issue. For saying such a thing, Irving was never forgiven. At the time, he was vilified as a defender of McCarthy, and this slander is still being repeated to this very day. So much for the saving graces of wit, charm, and temperament.


Which brings me to the second question I am frequently asked and on which I hope to shed some light. If what in Making It I called the Family did not fall apart when the neoconservatives broke ranks with it, what caused it to disappear and has anything come along to take its place? I will deal with the latter part of this question in the afterword, but to the former my answer begins with a consideration of the difference between ordinary friendships and those based on ideas.

In the normal course of events, people form friendships either through physical contiguity (growing up in the same surroundings or becoming neighbors as adults) or through shared enterprises (working together at a job or on some project or in the same profession) or through common cultural or recreational interests. Conversely, such friendships, even when they have become very strong, can be and often are dissolved by nothing more profound than a change in circumstances: childhood buddies drift further and further apart as they wind up pursuing different paths in life; a neighbor who has become an intimate moves to another city vowing to keep in touch, but as time goes by, the contact becomes less and less frequent; a co-worker changes jobs and after a while is no longer heard from; great pals starting out in the same profession become rivals, and envy and bitterness gradually replace affection and loyalty; the election campaign ends, and the warm camaraderie it fostered among the participants fades away for lack of continued nourishment from the source that originally fed it.

The ties between people that are forged of ideas may be reinforced by any or all these factors, but they differ in one crucial respect: they do not necessarily rest on personal affection. On the contrary, they can endure and even remain strong in the teeth of mutual dislike and even detestation. It was by virtue of sharing a common culture, and not because they were fond of one another, that the writers and intellectuals whose work once appeared mainly in Partisan Review and Commentary became a Family. They had all read and tended to value books which had relatively few other readers in the culture at large, and they not only were conversant with the great works of literature, music, painting, and philosophy of the past but also were at home with and sympathetic to the avant-garde currents in the arts and in the intellectual sphere that the general public found too difficult or esoteric or irrelevant or even repulsive.

In politics, too, the "New York intellectuals" stood at a peculiar angle. In contrast to most other Americans, they were neither Democrats nor Republicans nor even independents. But this is putting it much too blandly. The attitude of most of his fellow members of the Family was summed up by Dwight Macdonald's derisive dismissal of the two major political parties, in a piece he wrote at my urging for Commentary in the early 1960s, as "Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber."

Interestingly, Macdonald was throwing bricks from inside a glass house. In the 1930s, when he too was a Trotskyist (though from Yale rather than CCNY), his own leader, the great Leon Trotsky himself, had once issued the following pronouncement from the exile into which he had been driven after being beaten out by Joseph Stalin in the fight for succession following Lenin's death: "Everyone has a right to be stupid but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege." It was typical of Macdonald's good humor and sometimes clownish antics that he reveled in this insult. So much so, indeed, that he printed it on the front page of every issue of Politics, the magazine he founded and edited after quitting the editorial board of Partisan Review in the late 1930s when his colleagues Philip Rahv and William Phillips came out in support of American intervention in World War II. Still hewing at this point to the Trotskyist line, Macdonald regarded that war as a clash between two equally retrograde imperialistic systems that would end in mutual destruction. This would then set the stage for a true Communist revolution, led by Trotsky, that would redeem what Stalin, his old rival (and future murderer), had betrayed.

In 1945, before he had become world famous as the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, himself the veteran of a mild flirtation with Trotskyism, would say of several similarly egregious misjudgments concerning the progress of World War II: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool." But by the time Macdonald founded Politics, he had deserted Trotskyism and had moved on cheerfully and with characteristic insouciance to pacificism and anarchism. Still later, in the 1950s, he would become a fierce anti-Communist cold warrior and, later still, an even fiercer opponent of the Vietnam War and a great enthusiast of the student radicals of the 1960s.

As is obvious from all this history, everyone within the Family of New York intellectuals was on the Left, the spectrum ranging from revolutionary Marxism of one stripe or another, through democratic socialism and communitarian anarchism, and all the way to a rather heterodox brand of liberalism. But what is often overlooked is that many of the poets and novelists who were literary heroes and mentors to these leftists were either men of the Right, like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and D. H. Lawrence, or at least anti-Left (W. B. Yeats and William Faulkner, for example).

It was this admiration for what would decades later be called "politically incorrect" writers that led Partisan Review, which had been founded in the early 1930s as the organ of a Communist "front" (the John Reed Clubs), to break with the party. The two main editors, Phillips and Rahv, rebelled against the efforts of the party's cultural commissars to prevent the magazine from publishing or praising writers whose political views were "reactionary" or whose formalistic experiments and often obscure work violated the officially approved canons of "socialist realism."

After breaking with the Communist party, Partisan Review went on to form a loose association with Trotsky, which lasted until the outbreak of World War II. Though anti-Stalinist, in other words, the magazine remained within the revolutionary Communist fold while at the same time identifying itself with the modernist movement in the arts. Here the connection with Trotsky helped. For of all the major Communist leaders, Trotsky was the most congenial to young radical intellectuals with a passion for the arts. Himself a highly distinguished intellectual and a very good writer, he had once said that in his eyes "authors, journalists, and artists always stood for a world that was more attractive than any other, a world open only to the elect." Even more to the point, in his youth this extraordinary future leader of a Marxist revolution had once called down "a curse on all Marxists, and upon those who want to bring dryness and hardness into all the relations of life."

Lenin too -- whose true heir Trotsky never ceased claiming to be, from the time he went into exile until the time Stalin finally sent an agent to Mexico to dispose of him once and for all by burying an ice pick in his head -- understood that there was a conflict between the love of art and the "hardness" required of a Communist revolutionary. As he confessed to the writer Maxim Gorky after the two of them had sat enraptured through a performance of a Beethoven sonata, he could not "listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to...stroke the heads of people....And now you mustn't stroke anyone's head....You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy."

In any event, among the closest literary friends and allies of the Family were Southern critics and poets like Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, who were politically very conservative indeed. What brought these apparently opposing groups together was the same thing that kept the Family of New York intellectuals together despite its own internal or sectarian differences: a similar set of standards in the arts. But they also shared a common disdain -- stemming in the Family from Marxism and in the Southerners from an idealized and romanticized conception of the agrarian society of the pre-Civil War South that differed from the picture of that world in Gone with the Wind only in being more abstract and intellectually sophisticated -- for the middle-class or "bourgeois" civilization in which they all lived. It was a civilization they saw as entirely philistine, materialistic, and puritanical. Dominated by businessmen and their values, it had no use, they felt, for people like themselves, people who cared about ideas and art more than they cared about anything else and who had "never met a payroll." Necessarily estranged or "alienated" from such a civilization, they huddled and remained together even in the teeth of personal animosities and serious political disagreements.

To be sure, there were limits: Communism (or Stalinism, as it was usually known in that world) on the Left and Fascism on the Right. Throughout this book, I explore the nature and the contours of the limits on the Left. Since, however, I will have much less to say about the limits on the Right, I think it may be worth pausing here to cite an interesting and somewhat bizarre incident as a case in point.

This occurred when the 1948 Bollingen Prize for Poetry was awarded to The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound, who was then living in St. Elizabeth's, a mental hospital in Washington to which he had been sentenced for making radio broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini during World War II. Without questioning Pound's eminence as a poet, the philosopher William Barrett, one of the editors of Partisan Review, wrote a piece in protest against honoring the man -- a man who had sided with Mussolini and Hitler in a war against his own country and whose work, including The Pisan Cantos itself, was shot through with fascist ideas and anti-Semitic sentiments of an especially crude variety. (Barrett quoted a few choice examples from The Pisan Cantos, such as this little gem, in which the Holocaust becomes a crime perpetrated for profit by the Jews on the gentiles: "the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle/...and go to saleable slaughter/with the maximum docility.")

Allen Tate, a member of the committee that had chosen Pound for the award, took offense at what he considered a slur by Barrett on his honor and announced in the pages of Partisan Review itself that he would henceforth settle such insults in traditional Southern fashion -- by actually challenging the perpetrator to a duel. Evidently, he also wanted to issue the same challenge to the poet Karl Shapiro, who had served with him on the Bollingen committee but had voted against giving the prize to Pound. He even went so far as to ask the critic George Steiner, then one of his students, to find out for him "whether or not a Jew was, in the context of his faith and morals, at liberty to accept a challenge to a duel." Presumably, no such question arose in connection with Barrett, who was raised by his immigrant Irish family as a Catholic.

Having just reread Barrett's editorial in the April 1949 issue of Partisan Review, together with the debate it triggered the following month, I cannot resist transposing Robert Warshow's phrase to this context and saying that "one could almost weep" at the contrast between the culture it embodied and that of the 1990s. The Pound affair showed the New York intellectuals and their relatives in other places at both ends of the Atlantic at their intellectual and literary best. Except for Tate's almost comically intemperate outburst, every one of the pieces on both sides of the issue was written out of loyalty to the autonomy of art while its author wrestled honestly with the almost insuperable moral and intellectual difficulties this ideal presented. The case of Pound exposed these difficulties with unusual salience, and the participants in the debate (including immediate Family members like Barrett himself, Irving Howe, and the art critic Clement Greenberg, along with "kissing cousins" from England like W. H. Auden and George Orwell) rose to the occasion with arguments of a complexity and prose of a delicacy that puts the literary world of the 1990s -- the deconstructionists, the feminists, the Africanists, and the assorted multiculturalists -- to even greater shame than its work does all on its own.

Incidentally, I had a curious experience with Pound myself when in 1969, shortly before becoming persona non grata, I was awarded an honorary degree by Hamilton College in upstate New York. Pound had spent a few years there as a student, and, having long since been released from St. Elizabeth's, he turned up as one of my fellow honorees. Possibly as a penance for his sins during the war, he had taken a vow of silence (that is, he would write but not speak), which at least spared me the social embarrassment of refusing to talk to this notorious fascist and anti-Semite. But I still had to decide what to do when, during the academic procession, I preceded him to the stage, where everyone else stood up and applauded as he came darting down the aisle. My decision was to stay put in my seat and refrain from joining in the applause.

No more than Will Barrett did I question the aesthetic distinction of Pound's poetry (or, to be more precise, his early poetry). Still less did I doubt that he had performed a very great service as a guide and mentor to other poets, who then turned out to be much greater than he ever was. Like everyone else familiar with twentieth-century literature, I knew that he had, for instance, edited T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," which Eliot then dedicated to him with a phrase from Dante: il miglior fabbro ("the better craftsman"). An even greater debt, in my opinion, was owed him for the role he played in relentlessly encouraging W. B. Yeats to move beyond his early pre-Raphaelite and "Celtic twilight" beginnings and to start using a tougher, more colloquial, and (as one critic has called it) more "athletic" idiom. By taking this advice, Yeats, who had up till then been not much more than a good lyric poet, went on to produce some of the greatest poems ever written. Nor, finally, could I help feeling a secret thrill at the sight of this almost mythical figure from what seemed the distant past: it was as though history itself were suddenly being made flesh. Yet, like Barrett, I could not bring myself to honor the man. Pound, with only three years left to live but still possessed of sharp and burning eyes even in his dotage, turned them fiercely on me as a sign that he had noticed my thin little gesture of protest, but I had the impression (probably mistaken) that his inquisitorial stare was not altogether disapproving.

Still, it was rare for things to go so far as they did between Barrett and Tate in the Pound affair, and even when splits occurred -- even when the parties involved ceased to be on speaking terms -- they remained stuck with one another. For who else cared so much, or even at all, about the issues they were debating? Who else could properly understand the things they were writing and saying and the ways in which they were writing and saying them? By the same token, it was precisely when others began appearing on the scene who both understood and appreciated them that the Family's world started falling apart. In fact, this new cultural development was steadily eroding the foundations of the Family's communal interdependence by the time the political wars of the 1960s erupted. Those wars accelerated the process of cultural disintegration already going on within the Family and finally led to its complete dissolution.

Probably the main factor here was the enormous expansion of the colleges and universities in the aftermath of World War II. Thanks to the GI Bill, millions upon millions of Americans who would never have gone to college before were now exposed to a higher education, which in those far-off days still actually meant higher. This in turn led to an expansion of the audience for serious books and magazines and high culture in general. It was still a small audience as compared with the one that consumed the products of mass and middlebrow culture, but it was a lot larger than it had been before. It was now large enough, for instance, to make inexpensive paperback reprints of classic works a commercially viable proposition and to put a difficult and previously obscure highbrow novelist like Saul Bellow on the bestseller list (I vividly remember the shock of amazement, not untouched by envy, that ripped through the Family when his The Adventures of Augie March appeared on that list in 1953).

The upshot was that there were now other people to talk to and write for and other places to go. One of these was The New Yorker, where, beginning in the 1950s, veterans of Partisan Review and Commentary like Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Harold Rosenberg, and even Hannah Arendt, the most abstruse of them all, began appearing fairly often. What made this migration all the more remarkable was that the Family had always regarded The New Yorker as the quintessential middlebrow publication, even though highbrow critics like Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and (once in a great while) Lionel Trilling had reviewed for it. (Fiction was another matter: no comparably highbrow story writers appeared in The New Yorker until later.)

That the old hostile attitude toward The New Yorker persisted among intransigent highbrow purists became clear to me from the disapproval of most of my literary friends when I myself began reviewing for The New Yorker in the mid-1950s. Nor were they altogether mistaken about the lingering middlebrowism of the magazine, at least among the old guard. My own editor there, a man with the central-casting name of Rogers Whittaker, once asked me whether there was a special typewriter in the offices of Partisan Review with a key containing the word alienation. On that occasion I retaliated by asking him whether it was true that John O'Hara had thrown a knife at him because he had tried to rewrite a sentence in one of O'Hara's stories. "Yes," Whittaker replied in his inimitably dry tone -- the driest it has ever fallen to me to hear -- "but it was only a butter knife."

Of course, the question of whether the likes of Harold Rosenberg were as fully understood by their new audience as by their old remained open. Harold himself told me that shortly after becoming The New Yorker's regular art critic, he was summoned into the office of its then editor, William Shawn, for a flank discussion. Shawn confessed that half the time he simply did not know what Rosenberg was talking about. "What difference does that make?" replied Rosenberg pleasantly. "The only thing that matters is whether I know what I'm talking about -- and I do."

The only other writer I have ever run into who could have matched, or perhaps even topped, this display of placid arrogance was Paul Goodman. At lunch one day a young admirer of his, to whom I was introducing him, timidly ventured a gentle demurrer about something Paul had written. I forget whether it was a novel or a poem or an essay, since he worked regularly in all these forms (though it was as a social critic, and especially as the author of Growing Up Absurd, published in the early 1960s with more than a little help from me, that he would make his deepest mark). Without missing a beat and smiling benignly, Paul puffed on his pipe and said, "Well, some day you'll learn to read better."

For all the faults of the kind of intellectual community whose adventures are recounted in the pages ahead, its disappearance and the absence of anything resembling it today is a great loss to our culture. It is also, as I will later explain, a loss to me personally.

But for now what I want to stress is that I have found great consolation in a few old friends in whose company I broke ranks with the radical Left in the late 1960s (others of this group, alas, went on to break ranks with me because, like Nathan Glazer, they decided that I was moving too far to the Right). There has also been the joy of reconnecting with other old friends from whom I had for a few years become estranged in moving to the Left -- notably Irving Kristol and his wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb; the writer-turned-diplomat-turned-writer H. J. Kaplan; the indefatigably anti-Communist journalist Arnold Beichman; and the at least equally relentless philosopher Sidney Hook. And I have not yet mentioned the many new friends, inveterate denizens of the conservative world, who have been added to the rediscovered old. Here, in what is for me a rare submission to the principles of affirmative action, which dictate that I should strive to achieve greater name-dropping "diversity," I will single out Henry Kissinger and William E. Buckley, Jr.

In spite of our failure to form ourselves into a cohesive family, we have managed to join forces as a dissenting minority of "heretical" intellectuals who are trying to break the virtual monopoly that the worst ideas of my ex-friends hold (even from beyond the grave) over the cultural institutions of this country. We have not succeeded, not by a long shot, but we have made much progress.

In the meantime, I never stop counting the blessings with which I have been showered -- as a husband, a father, a grandfather, an editor, a writer, and indeed as a friend -- since I shouldered the burden of challenging the regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe, and to do so with all my heart and all my soul and all my might.

Continues...


Excerpted from Ex-Friends by Norman Podhoretz Copyright © 2000 by Norman Podhoretz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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