Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Rightby Benjamin Balint
In the years of cultural and political ferment following World War II, a new generation of Jewish- American writers and thinkers arose to make an indelible mark on American culture. Commentary was their magazine; the place where they and other politically sympathetic intellectualsHannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and many othersshared new work, explored ideas, and argued with each other.
Founded by the offspring of immigrants, Commentary began life as a voice for the marginalized and a feisty advocate for civil rights and economic justice. But just as American culture moved in its direction, it beganinexplicably to someto veer right, becoming the voice of neoconservativism and defender of the powerful.
This lively history, based on unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and dozens of original interviews, provocatively explains that shift while recreating the atmosphere of some of the most exciting decades in American intellectual life.
"Commentary was founded soon after World War II as a magazine of ‘Jewish interest’ but its impact reached well beyond the community. For decades it has been the most admired and most hated, but also perhaps the most influential periodical of its character and size. Benjamin Balint’s fine, well written book is far more than a history, it is an important, in fact essential contribution to American cultural and political life during the second half of the last century. It is the most important work of its kind published for years.”
Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor of History, Princeton University
“In this eloquent and richly informed book, Benjamin Balint both tells the story of COMMENTARY as a magazine and reads it as an ‘American Talmud’--a great mass of position statements and debates, always passionate and sometimes contradictory, that illuminate the larger intellectual history of America's Jews.”
"Benjmain Balint's history of Commentary magazine is nothing less than a history of the intellectual life of Jews in America as they go from being cultural outsiders to being consummate insiders. It is written with enormous verve, capturing the many colorful characters who created and shaped a publication that was unlike anything the American-Jewish reading community had seen before. Balint's judicious, non-partisan account doesn't miss a shift in the political landscape, whether on the Left or on the Right, and he has an uncanny ability to steer clear of apologetics or screeds. This is intellectual history as it should be written: lucid, capacious and unfailingly readable."
Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2010
“[An] acutely perceptive account...As Mr. Balint’s book shows so vividly, Commentary made—and continues to make—an invaluable contribution to the politics and culture of our time.”
Huntington News (WV), June 4, 2010
"A lively, accessible history of the magazine… Running Commentary was eye-opening to me and I recommend it as not only the story of Commentary, but as a brief history of the post-World War II leftist movement and the rise of neoconservatism.”
New York Times Book Review, August 1, 2010
“The story of American Judaism’s growing self-confidence—its increasing willingness to defend itself as well as its move from the periphery to the center of cultural and political power in the United States—is the unifying thread of Benjamin Balint’s beautifully written and richly researched history of Commentary …By placing the man and the magazine in this broader context, Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant editor at Commentary, manages to strike just the right balance between respectful admiration and critical distance. The result is the best book to date about neoconservativism—and one offering far greater insight into the mind and career of Norman Podhoretz than Jeffers’s obsequious biography.”
Huffington Post, July 6, 2010
“Author Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, is adept at political inside baseball; he neatly recalls the mood, circumstances and passion of pre- and postwar political life… Balint is fair-minded, pointing out contradictions in both Left and Right, while eloquently chronicling the thinkers and events that defined this singular review.”
Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2010
“A surprising account of how Commentary steered neoconservatism to the height of power while leading it intellectually astray.”
American Conservative, July 2010
“Yet his book is neither apologia nor hagiography. It explores its subject with both real familiarity and a critical distance all the more refreshing for being unexpected… Balint's illumination of some of the magazine's internal gears, especially the role of Neal Kozodoy, who worked as Podhoretz's right hand from the 1960s to 1995, when he took over as editor, is especially valuable.”
JTNews.net, May 24, 2010
“Balint’s expert recounting of goings on at the magazine is both a tad gossipy— with dissections of personality and editorial conflicts — and historically informative, as what happens to the magazine is unavoidably tied up with sea changes in the Jewish social, literary and political world.”
Providence Journal, June 20, 2010
“Benjamin Balint’s vividly honest account of the transformation of Commentary from an obscure but influential Jewish leftist intellectual magazine to an incubator of neo-conservatism embodies the political winds that have tossed American public opinion around for decades.”
Democracy, A Journal of Ideas, summer 2010
“An enlightening and sympathetic history of the magazine”
Jewish Book World, Fall 2010
“In meticulous detail, Balint traces the steps by which this influential and paradoxically anti-intellectual monthly reconfigured itself from a post-World War II voice of liberalism to a post-Sixties voice of conservatism…Balint explores the rich complexity of this transition, including its connection with changing attitudes toward Israel, offering colorful portraits of the key members of The Family and their intricate, shifting relationships.”
Jerusalem Post, August 21, 2010
“In Running Commentary, Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and former assistant editor at Commentary, provides a sympathetic, but remarkably thorough, dispassionate and balanced history of the magazine, tracing its twists and turns from liberal anti-communism in the 1950s to a dalliance, of sorts, with radicals in the 1960s, to neoconservatism in the 1970s and beyond.
Standpoint Magazine (UK), September 2010
“Balint's riveting history of Commentary magazine is much more than an account of an influential publication. It is a chronicle of what has happened since the Second World War to American society."
Moment, October 2010
“Intellectually shrewd and tonally astute.”
Commentary Magazine, November 2010
“The book is far more friendly, intelligent, and elegantly written, and having been informed by the author’s term of employment at this magazine possesses some of the virtues and defects of any insider account. There is copious detail, even about familiar episodes, since unprecedented access was granted to the magazine archives. But there is also a persistently elegiac tone meant to convey the sense that Commentary’s best days are irrevocably behind it."
CHOICE, November 2010
“Balint had written a penetrating political and critical history of the magazine and the magazine’s ‘family.’… Highly recommended."
Jerusalem Report, November 22, 2010
“In this refreshingly impartial examination of one of the 20th century’s most influential magazines that gave America novel insights into politics, culture and literature, Balint, himself a former assistant editor at Commentary who has written both for Haaretz and the Wall Street Journal, paints with precise brush strokes a nuanced and honest picture, offering readers a comprehensive study of an important chapter of Jewish American intellectual history. In prose as vivid as it is elegant, Balint proves himself worthy of Commentary’s stylistic and intellectual heritage.”
Journal of American History, January 2011
"This will be the standard history of Commentary for many years and a model of how to write the history of an intellectual journal."
Shofar, Summer 2011
“An exceptionally well written book that describes with enthusiasm the major transformation identified in the subtitle. It is a thoughtful analysis of American intellectual and ideological history from the 1920s to 2009…. Balint’s thoroughly researched book is an example of very solid American intellectual history. But it is more: it provides real insights into the nature of post-World War II American political history…. An especially interesting and important intellectual history, Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary is highly recommended.”
n+1, October 6, 2011
“Former Commentary editor Benjamin Balint’s admiring but not hagiographic history of the magazine, Running Commentary, helps shed light on [the neoconservative] trajectory, which was more a story of continuity than of change…One of the virtues of Balint’s account is that it punctures the widespread enthrallment with Podhoretz… Balint complicates the standard left-to-right account of the magazine’s trajectory by showing how central hawkish anti-Communism was to it from the beginning.”
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Meet the Author
Benjamin Balint has written for the Wall Street Journal, the American Scholar, the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, Haaretz, the Forward, the Claremont Review of Books, and Commentary, where he served as an editor from 2001 to 2004. Originally from Seattle, he earned a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Washington. Balint is currently a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
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