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Making It

Making It

by Norman Podhoretz, Terry Teachout (Introduction)

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A controversial memoir about American intellectual life and academia and the relationship between politics, money, and education.

Norman Podhoretz, the son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn, attended Columbia University on a scholarship, and later received degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Cambridge


A controversial memoir about American intellectual life and academia and the relationship between politics, money, and education.

Norman Podhoretz, the son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn, attended Columbia University on a scholarship, and later received degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Cambridge University. Making It is his blistering account of fighting his way out of Brooklyn and into, then out of, the Ivory Tower, of his military service, and finally of his induction into the ranks of what he calls “the Family,” the small group of left-wing and largely Jewish critics and writers whose opinions came to dominate and increasingly politicize the American literary scene in the fifties and sixties. It is a Balzacian story of raw talent and relentless and ruthless ambition. It is also a closely observed and in many ways still-pertinent analysis of the tense and more than a little duplicitous relationship that exists in America between intellect and imagination, money, social status, and power.

The Family responded to the book with outrage, and Podhoretz soon turned no less angrily on them, becoming the fierce neoconservative he remains to this day. Fifty years after its first publication, this controversial and legendary book remains a riveting autobiography, a book that can be painfully revealing about the complex convictions and needs of a complicated man as well as a fascinating and essential document of mid-century American cultural life.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

In 2005, I wrote my first book review for The Washington Post that one of the staff members fittingly named "Brainiacs Need Love Too." As a black guy who grew up in and around the D.C. area for much of his life, and who by fifteen was scrupulously following Michael Dirda's literary column, I was elated. But what most sticks out about the occasion was the sheepish look that my late, great aunt Marguerite directed at me after she read my article in the paper, which she received every day. Though a consummate hostess able to interact with all sorts of people and put them at their ease, she was confounded by what I'd written. Certainly, its allusions to Dante and the history of the Church's ambivalent relationship to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake sailed past her. But as much as it bothers me to admit it, I doubt I would've been more pleased if she'd gone into raptures over my review because, I knew it wasn't written for her. It was written for my editor -- from whom I naturally wanted to get more work -- and for a rarefied audience in my imagination. I naively thought of it as a calling card that would secure my admission into the intellectual class.

I was reminded of this and other unflattering episodes from my life while reading Making It, Norman Podhoretz's astute though not necessarily always likable memoir about his rise to prominence as a literary critic and later as the editor of Commentary. The book, which was originally published in 1967 and has now been reissued by NYRB Classics, charts the author's will to power, which takes him from Brownsville -- still one of New York City's most shamefully neglected neighborhoods -- to the Upper West Side. Thus, the famous first sentence: "One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan -- or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan."

It takes considerable equipoise or security in one's status to read Making It and not measure oneself against it, for better or worse. You don't have to be involved in the publishing racket to feel goaded by the author's account of his accumulation of cultural, social, and monetary capital (in that order), since the text is tension-laced with competitive energy. Furthermore, the author's guiding precept is that success has displaced sex "as the major 'dirty little secret' of the age." The corollary to this statement is that to deny one's psychological investment in the competitive field of human endeavors is a sure sign of repression. It is impossible to affect indifference within the context of such a worldview without courting the charge of self-deception or calculated disingenuousness.

Yet, when Making It was first published, people all over the world, notably students, were questioning the legitimacy of the moral order around them. (In the ensuing years, Podhoretz made himself into an enemy of the counterculture.) A book about assimilating into the Establishment could hardly have been more out of step with the zeitgeist of the era. So it was that in early days of 1968, The New York Times published Frederic Raphael's take on the book, "What Makes Norman Run." Toward the end of the piece, Raphael shows himself an adept in deploying the type of criticism that Podhoretz, in his book, describes as his forte -- i.e., that which uses the book review as a means to touch on larger cultural issues. "We no longer," Raphael writes, "look to critics with the same servility . . . The resurgence of the movies, as everyone's medium, a medium which largely postpones judging until showing has been completed, suggests that the whole structure of our presuppositions may be on the point of subversion." By questioning the sacrosanct dimension of the literary critic's vocation -- which Podhoretz gives every indication of subscribing to -- and looking to a changing social structure that threatens to devalue his position, Raphael leaves readers wondering why they should care about a self-described success whose long-term prospects appear shaky.

In Making It, Podhoretz gamely owns up to his own hypersensitivity toward negative criticism. "I responded even to the most enthusiastic reviews," he writes about those he received for his first essay collection, "as though they were attacks (in this acting exactly like many other writers I had always despised for their childish behavior in the face of criticism)." I hesitate to imagine what Podhoretz, who, after Making It came out, drifted from the anti-Communist Left to the staunchly pro-Establishment Right, must have thought of the Times review of Making It. Even though it was mild in comparison to the drubbing he received in The Nation, which called the book "deplorably inbred," or The New Leader, which referred to it as "a career expressed as a matchless 360 pages of ejaculation." But as Norman Mailer (then a friend from whom Podhoretz eventually grew estranged) observed in "Up the Family Tree," a sympathetic albeit critical appraisal of the book in Partisan Review, "The Establishment has qualities, not the first of which we might suggest is its absolute detestation of any effort to classify or examine it."

But within these various full or partial snubs one can spot evidence of Making It's most useful quality for anyone with writerly ambitions: as a mirror that offers up a painful but perhaps necessary reflection. Early in the book, one finds the sort of admission that's likely to gall bien-pensants who wish to present themselves as incorruptibly egalitarian or are loath to reflect on their class prejudices. Recalling his well-bred, Vassar-educated high school teacher, Mrs. K., who did her utmost to help him shed the markers of his Brownsville acculturation, Podhoretz states, "She was fond of quoting Cardinal Newman's definition of a gentleman as a person who could be at ease in any company, yet if anything was clear about the manners she was trying to teach me, it was that they operated -- not inadvertently but by deliberate design -- to set one at ease only with others similarly trained and to cut one off altogether from those who were not." Although the young Podhoretz balked at his teacher's instructions on how he should dress and comport himself, he internalized them to forestall a break with his surrounding community. A break, he notes, that many of his elders in the neighborhood anticipated much sooner that he did.

As the precocious second child of working-class immigrants, Podhoretz grew up with keen sensitivity to class distinctions. At his alma mater, Columbia, he resisted but still felt burdened by a "code of manners" that "forbade one to work too hard or make any effort to impress a professor or to display the slightest concern over grades." Later, he writes, "So far as the characteristic, upper- class disdain for ambitiousness is concerned -- the species of disdain I encountered in youthfully exaggerated form at Columbia -- no doubt it was originally adopted as a weapon to be used by those whose wealth was inherited or whose position was secure against those who were occupied with accumulating the one acquiring the other." Many years later, I found traces of a similar moral code in place when I went to Vassar. Indeed, it was my richest friend, a true scion of the upper class, who dismissed my attempts to foster relationships with my professors and thought nothing about lamenting over how he was too lazy to take advantage of the opportunities that life had afforded him.

Today, when so many people have a tough time finding or keeping decent-paying jobs, and when a subject like income inequality has trickled into the storylines of everything from popular television shows to video games, a book about the obsession over status could hardly feel more relevant. (Recently, one of the most popular stories on The New York Times website concerned the cultural differences that a young man perceived when he left his hometown of Flint, Michigan to attend a summer semester at Phillips Exeter.) If anything, our love/hate relationship with social media, which goes hand-in-glove with the ideology that enjoins us to be our own brand, has probably made us as status-conscious as the courtiers of Versailles ever were.

If you're fascinated by code switching -- adjusting one's behavior to suit different milieus -- or have ever received the cold shoulder from someone at a party who, apart from anything having to do with attraction, assumed you were not in their league, then you will likely find much of interest in this book that plunges deep into the pressure cooker of the American class system.

Reviewer: Christopher Byrd

From the Publisher
"A frank and honest book...high-stepping brilliance...tactfully and touchingly revealing of the fearful ambitions of Podhoretz’s family.... Podhoretz has ‘allowed himself to be fully known’ and so may give the key to the B.Y.M. (Bright Young Men) of the next generation, which will allow them to shuck the iron mask of premature intellectual good taste and join in the common pursuit of self-knowledge and self-expression." —Frederic Raphael, The New York Times

"This masterpiece of American autobiography is the tale of a striving, self-mythologized, and nearly Melvillean figure crashing toward his own salvation—and more.... Nearly 50 years on, it’s clear that, to paraphrase Dostoevsky on Gogol, we all come out from Podhoretz’s overcoat." —Lee Smith, Tablet

"One can’t really understand the state of so-called highbrow culture today without first coming to terms with the career of Norman Podhoretz. Along with Jason and Barbara Epstein, Robert Silvers, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and a few others (the ‘children’ of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling and Philip Rahv), Mr. Podhoretz reconceived the very idea of what it means to be an intellectual." —Robert S. Boynton, The New York Observer

"Making It
was a brave and original book." —Robert Fulford, The Globe and Mail

"Podhoretz’s analysis of the power of the family is penetrating." —Andrew M. Greeley, The Reporter

Product Details

New York Review Books
Publication date:
NYRB Classics Series
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Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Norman Podhoretz is an author, editor, and political and cultural critic. He was the editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995 and has written twelve books, including World War IV, The Prophets, Ex-Friends, and most recently Why Are Jews Liberals? He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large for Commentary. He has written biographies of Louis Armstrong, George Balanchine, Duke Ellington, and H. L. Mencken; the libretti for three operas by Paul Moravec; and a play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, that has been produced off-Broadway and throughout America.

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