Reading Between the Lines: When ideas mattered

This month's issue of Commentary magazine will be different from every other issue published since the journal's founding in 1945.

commentary 88 (photo credit: )
commentary 88
(photo credit: )
This month's issue of Commentary magazine will be different from every other issue published since the journal's founding in 1945. Just a few weeks ago, the magazine announced that it's parting ways with its longtime sponsor, the American Jewish Committee. The development is a fortuitous segue, as I was already reflecting upon a book that documents Commentary's history and legacy: Norman Podhoretz's Making It, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year. Making It was published seven years into Podhoretz's reign as Commentary's editor-in-chief, and it describes his meteoric rise to this position. But the book also intended to demystify the very discourse Podhoretz was undertaking: a discussion of one's own success. "[A]mbition (itself a species of lustful hunger)," wrote Podhoretz, "seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul." Alas, this probably wasn't true then, and it certainly isn't true now, but I imagine it helped Podhoretz justify blurring the lines between autobiography and autoeroticism. Still, while the honesty and openness that Podhoretz wanted to write with - and about - might not have revealed much about the nature of success, it produced, perhaps, the most remarkable portrait of the era's great intellectuals. Making It guides us through the lives and work of the writers who contributed to Commentary and Partisan Review and shaped decades of highbrow taste, setting new standards for intellectual snobbery and one-upmanship along the way. Indeed, cerebral jousting was a great mark of the group that Podhoretz calls "the family" (which included Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy and Clement Greenberg, to name just a few). "To be adopted into the family was a mark of great distinction: it meant you were good enough, that you existed as a writer and an intellectual. But once adopted, you could expect to be spoken of by many (not all) of your relatives in the most terrifyingly cruel terms." Podhoretz himself was initiated into the tribe by publishing a thrashing of Bellow's now-classic The Adventures of Augie March. He was 23 years old at the time. When reading Making It, however, these squabbles seem anything but petty. This was a time when ideas were worth fighting about. When ideas mattered. When - and I admit, I'm particularly nostalgic for this - book reviews mattered. Today, most book reviews are glorified summaries with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down attached. Back then, book reviews were a primary medium for intellectual advancement, something that was possible because the genre's model was different. Podhoretz describes the reviewing method of the "family" as an attempt "to relate aesthetic judgment... to some social or cultural or literary issue outside the book itself - the strengths and deficiencies of the work being assumed to mean something more than that the author was operating at the top of his bent here and nodding, as even Homer occasionally does, there." When I asked Benjamin Balint, a former Commentary editor who's now working on a biography of the magazine (Palgrave, 2008), about his thoughts on Podhoretz's work, he also noted the insights about book reviewing and added a nod to the American Jewish Committee's midwifery. "I love the way Making It evokes the New York literary world that had by then disintegrated," Balint said. "I love its description of the art of editing. And I love its definition of the art of book reviewing. All of these came together to help make one of the most important journals in Jewish history. And what made all of this possible was the most unique patronage in American journalism - unique because of the unprecedented editorial freedom the AJC granted to Commentary and its young editor." The split between Commentary and the AJC is not really the end of an era. The great period Podhoretz describes was already waning in 1967 when Making It was published. But the parting is an occasion to reflect on a time when an establishment Jewish organization helped encourage revolutionary, independent thought, and it's an occasion to recall Podhoretz's classic, which is still exciting and inspiring 40 years after its release.