Norman Podhoretz

Ex-Friends, Part I

VTR Date: January 11, 1999

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “Ex-Friends”, Part I
Recorded: 1/11/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, since the mid-1950s. A long time.

Indeed, my guest and I go back a long time together as well (I as a most admiring reader, Norman Podhoretz as a most prolific writer), through his Making It, and Breaking Ranks and The Present Danger and Why We Were In Vietnam and, of course, Commentary Magazine during all 35 years of his brilliant editorship.

Now Norman Podhoretz has written still another provocative comment on his American generation and mine intriguingly titled Ex-Friends about his enormous, life-long capacity for “falling out”, as the sub-title of his new Free Press book has it, falling out with the likes of such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer … plus a whole slew of lesser lights along the way.

Henry Kissinger has quite appropriately written about Ex-Friends that “anyone interested in the evolution of the views of American intellectuals in the last half century will find Norman Podhoretz’s account of his relations with key literary figures over that period indispensable and in the process the reader will learn much about the fundamental issues that continue to challenge our country and the cause of freedom”.

Of course, my guest has long been noted for his pugnacity, his take-no-prisoners approach to nations and causes as well as to friends who become ex-friends.

In introducing one of our much earlier Open Mind programs together, indeed, I noted that Henry Kissinger had quipped then about Mr. Podhoretz long-time bitterly anti-Soviet position and his concerns that even Ronald Reagan wasn’t being tough enough on the USSR, that when the President’s second inauguration was moved indoors because of the bitter cold, rumor had it that Norman Podhoretz objected that this was unnecessary appeasement of the weather.

Which is as good a point as any at which to look at Ex-Friends and to ask my guest what the thread was that connected them throughout all these years of “falling out”. What was the connection, Norman?

PODHORETZ: You mean among myself and the people I write about?

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

PODHORETZ: Well, we were all, in one way or another, with I guess the exception of Allen Ginsberg, members of the group that I once called The Family and that others have called the New York Intellectuals. And I called it The Family, it was actually Murray Kempton, the late columnist who coined that term because it had many of the attributes of the family. We choose our friends, they say, and not our relatives. And the members of this group were, in a sense, involuntarily brought together, yoked together, by the fact that they were the only people that … I exaggerate slightly … but they were, they were the people who cared about ideas, the arts, the relation between the arts and politics, the avant garde, to a degree that almost nobody else in America did. So they were stuck with one another … or perhaps I should say we were stuck with one another. And even people who disliked one another personally had no alternative but to remain related because there was no one else to talk to. There was no one else who knew what you were talking about. So, all of these people wrote for one another. And even the audience outside … the readership … until the late fifties I would say was very tiny. Partisan Review which was, of course, the magazine that was at the center of the family for a very long time then, then joined by Commentary, in ‘45, Partisan Review founded in the thirties … at the height of its influence, and its influence was enormous … I think there are dozens of books about it now … had a circulation of perhaps seven or eight thousand. So you’re talking about a very small group. Nevertheless, it had what you’d call, from a statistical point of view a disproportionate influence, as time went on, on the climate of opinion in this country regarding a whole host of issues. I mean just a few blocks from where we’re sitting now, crowds are standing out in the bitter cold waiting to get in to see the paintings of Jackson Pollack. Now Jackson Pollack was an unknown young artist discovered by a prominent member of this Family … Clement Greenberg, who was also on the staff of Partisan Review and then on the staff of Commentary, and was valued by only a handful of people up until … I don’t know exactly when, but now he’s a … you know, a major figure, being given a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and the crowds are just bursting at the seams. Which is just a small measure of the kind of influence that this … that The Family had in that field. Painting was not the major preoccupation. The major preoccupation of The Family, myself included … was literature and literature understood within a broad social context. And particularly as a criticism of society. And all the arguments that went on and they were very heated within The Family. And eventually trickled down or seeped out or leaked out into the, into the common culture and I think had an enormous effect on the way things moved in this country … politically, socially and in terms of what writers and other artists came to be valued.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, Norman, in Ex-Friends you write, here toward the end, “In spite of everything that I have said against my ex-friends here, I believe that the absence today of a community like The Family constitutes a great loss for our culture”. And I wondered whether it would even be possible to have such a Family today?

PODHORETZ: I don’t think it would be. I don’t think anything like it exists. And the reason that nothing like it exists … well, there are a lot of reasons, but there’s a sociological reason. For one thing the people who were stuck with one another for lack of anyone else to talk to began to find wider audiences to address as time went on. You know one of the paths that some of the Partisan Review writers traversed was from Partisan Review with its seven or eight or five or six thousand readers to The New Yorker with its several hundred thousand readers, and some of them beyond. Some even became big, best-selling authors. So they were no longer as isolated, or to use the term that was once fashionable “alienated” from the society. And once that isolation broke down it was almost inevitable that this Family, this group would begin to disintegrate. That’s the sociological element. There was also the development and exacerbation of certain political differences, which had always been there, some of them latent, some of them explicit. That became more and more … how shall I say … aggravated … by the events … the outbreak of a new radicalism in the late fifties and sixties and up through the seventies. So, the culture … the socio-political culture that held this group together, that was the glue that held this group together melted under the pressure of events. That’s number one. And number two, the valuation that we all placed on the arts, particularly literature, was challenged by the rise of politics. That is everything in the sixties became politicized. The slogan of the Women’s Movement later was “the personal is the political”. But that was … wasn’t the half of it. I mean all issues were sucked into this political maw and because everything became politicized the idea of the autonomy of art which was a central principle of The Family, which had itself developed out of a rebellion against the dictation by the Communist Party in the early thirties to writers and critics about how to write and what to, you know, what to value. This principle of the autonomy of art and this idea of the supreme importance of art as an independent activity gave way to a new wave of political pressures. So the literature no longer … not just literature … the arts were no longer as important as they had been and that was another element that had held this group together. The religious intensity with which the arts were regarded. I mean it’s hard for me to imagine people coming close to having fistfights today over whether Tom Wolfe’s latest novel is any good. But that happened all the time when I was young. I tell a story of … I wrote a negative review of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in 1953. Saul Bellow was a member of The Family, though he didn’t live in New York. But he was a Partisan Review writer, and The Adventures of Augie March was his third novel, and it became a best-seller. This was an unthinkable development … nobody liked Bellow becoming …

HEFFNER: … a best-seller …

PODHORETZ: … yeah. Nobody even dreamed you could sell more than a few thousand copies. And the book was much celebrated, and I didn’t think it was that good a novel. And, I mean I had nothing against him, or … and I was happy to see him succeeding. But I did not as young literary critic … I was only 23 … think it was a very good novel. And I wrote a highly critical review of it … on literary grounds … which appeared in Commentary. I wasn’t yet the Editor. Some years … not, well not some years later … some months later I was at a party of The Family … The Family had a lot of parties …

HEFFNER: It reads as though they had a party almost every night.

PODHORETZ: Well, they did. We gave them, we went to them and there was a lot a drinking in those days. Nobody drinks anymore, maybe that’s good. But people drank a lot. And a very drunk and very, later … very famous poet by the name of John Berryman, who was a close friend of Saul Bellow’s staggered over to me at one point and he said, “We’ll get you for that review, if it takes ten years”. Now I was appalled and even a little bit horrified. But looking back on it I think, “well, you know, it was an index of the kind of seriousness” [laughter] that I miss now. I mean I can’t imagine anyone saying such a thing to anyone else about a book of … about a novel.

HEFFNER: When you say, Norman, that “I miss now”, you don’t just mean it isn’t there, but that you really, emotionally, personally miss it.

PODHORETZ: Well, I do … yeah. I mean there are two dimensions that I try to evoke in Ex-Friends. Well, I try to tell these stories of why I became such … such close friends with all these people … most of whom were much older than I was. I was the sort of runt of this litter. And I try to evoke the world in which our relations developed and I try to evoke a sense of what these people were like, at their best, and most attractive, even when they were wrong. And then I try to explain why our friendship … why this series of friendships broke up. It had a lot to do with my own political move from Left to … in a Rightward direction. But at the same time I try here to explain what it was that made life exciting for me personally in knowing these brilliant people and seeing them all the time and arguing with them and learning from them. That was the personal dimension, but there was also the cultural dimension. That the fact that this world existed meant that you had a community of people, however isolated it may have felt and been, and actually been for a while, that was engaged on an almost hourly basis in examining all the presuppositions behind the thinking of the age. And this is totally different from what I … well, not only I … I mention in the book, you know, we have thousands of what they call “policy wanks” these days, who are, you know, explaining why this welfare program will work and that one won’t. But what you don’t have is a community of people who are engaged in very intense and passionate debate on the fundamental issues and assumptions that lie behind what the “policy wanks” are “wanking” about. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: You know …

PODHORETZ: So I think … I, I think we miss that.

HEFFNER: Going back to this notion of a Family, or The Family, I was going to ask you about the pater familias, Lionel Trilling. And then I realized … and I still shall, but I was at Columbia before you were, and Richard Chase and Lionel Trilling, all those people were my teachers, too. There is something non-fatherly about Lionel Trilling in your book and in real life, as I remember. How do you explain that? He had the opportunity to be.


HEFFNER: He wasn’t.

PODHORETZ: I must say that’s a very shrewd question [laughter] and obviously comes from someone who knew Lionel. Lionel shied … I mean he eventually became a father, literally, he had a son … quite late. I forget how old he was, I think in his forties by the time he and Diana had a child. And though I was … I think he regarded me as a kind of surrogate son for a while. But he shied away from assuming the kind of responsibility that the pater familias inevitably assumes. It was something in him that resisted playing this role. And there was something in him that resisted coming down hard with both feet on any issue. As I say in Ex-Friends Lionel’s favorite word was “complexity”. And I remember the way he would pronounce it “com-plex-ity”.

HEFFNER: Don’t forget “ambiguity”.

PODHORETZ: And well, there were seven types of ambiguity, as you remember. Though that was William Epson, the British literary critic who wrote a book by that title. And everybody was in love with “complexity” and “ambiguity”. But at the same time most people in The Family did not rest content with complexity and ambiguity. You were expected to take a position, on whatever it was, whether it was the merits of Saul Bellow’s novel or Jackson Pollack’s painting or, or whether the Soviet Union was as bad as Nazi German, and so on. I mean all of these issues you were expected to have strong views about and express them. And Lionel had strong views, but he was much more comfortable in a world of nuance. He liked shifting about a lot. So maybe I’m saying he wasn’t sufficiently authoritarian or dogmatic to be a pater familias like my other great literary mentor, F. R. Levus at Cambridge University in England, who was a pater familias with a vengeance. I mean including, he was more like a Pope. I mean he would, you know, accept and excommunicate on a daily basis. [Laughter] But, you should also realize that Lionel though he became perhaps the most famous of the … certainly became the most famous of the literary critics within The Family, and most members of The Family wrote about literature … was much more … within the Family. His own contemporaries did not look up to him as a mentor and a guide the way I did. I was his student. I later became his friend. But, in fact I met him when I was an undergraduate at Columbia and he was a professor.

HEFFNER: Yes, you make note of almost a snide comment by Richard Chase, which surprised me.

PODHORETZ: Well, Richard Chase … nobody remembers Richard Chase anymore.


PODHORETZ: Well, I know … but we do…

HEFFNER: Great teacher.

PODHORETZ: And he was a very brilliant literary critic who wrote about American literature as incisively as almost anybody, at a time when people weren’t writing much about American literature. And when they wrote about literature in this country, it was about English literature. There was only one course in American literature at Columbia when I was an undergraduate from ‘46 to ‘50 and Chase taught. Anyway, Richard, who dies young, was a disciple of Lionel Trilling’s and he came to resent his position of disciple-ship and he also came to … he started moving to the Left of Lionel which caused tension, politically, I’m not talking about … but also in his cultural attitudes and his attitudes toward America, really. And so he would sardonically refer to Lionel sometimes as “Uncle Lionel”, which was supposed to suggest something fuddy-duddy or retrograde, at least that’s what the tone conveyed. And I was, myself, at that time beginning to move in a Leftward direction and which I later reversed. Ten years later I reversed and I’m still now where I was that succeeding ten years and I’m too old and tired [laughter] to move in any other direction again. I think I’m here for the duration, as we used to say in World War II.

HEFFNER: How come, Norman? How come … not … can you say …

PODHORETZ: How come I’m here for the duration?

HEFFNER: No, not that so much.


HEFFNER: How come the shift, the earlier shifts?

PODHORETZ: Yeah. Well, the … we don’t have enough time for me to go through both shifts, and I hope people will read Ex-Friends and get …

HEFFNER: We’ll make them do so.

PODHORETZ: And get a detailed account. The story … the main story was my move first to the Left in the late fifties. From, not from the Right, but from a position, the position that was called Liberal in those days. Now, the position that was called Liberal in those days bears more resemblance to what most Conservatives believe today than what most people who are called Liberals believe today. So it’s a very confusing situation terminologically. And that’s why it takes so many pages to describe to, to … especially the younger people. Anyway, I was a Liberal. I was what they called the Cold War Liberal. And which is, was the position that Lionel Trilling held, that Richard Chase held and it was from that position that I moved in a Leftward directions in the late fifties and early sixties and up through the late sixties. For about ten years I was a Radical of the Left.


PODHORETZ: Well, my main view then was that we had reached a point in the Cold War where a) it was possible to negotiate some kind of settlement that would end it. I later came to believe that that was a mistaken view.

HEFFNER: You felt that way. You’re not saying there is that possibility.

PODHORETZ: Right. No, I, I thought there was. And I later decided that I had been mistaken. And I now believe I was mistaken. But at least I, and a lot of other people. Well, not a lot, only a very few to begin with [laughter], there was only a handful of us to begin with. And given that the Cold War could be settled, and given the increasing prosperity of this country, I fell victim and an increasing number of people did to a new outbreak of what I could call the “plague of Utopianism”. And Utopianism is a kind of plague. That is the idea that it was possible to work toward the perfectibility of this society, of life on Earth. Ironically, that was the very idea that Lionel Trilling made his reputation attacking, in a book called The Liberal Imagination … as a Liberal. He said what was wrong with Liberalism was that it had this strain within in that believed in the perfectibility of man. But Lionel Trilling along with other self-proclaimed Liberals like Reinhold Neibor, who had an influence on the young Arthur Schlesinger, said “the pursuit of perfectibility leads you into great trouble”. And I rejected that idea in my late twenties, and I said conditions were now ripe for the pursuit of perfectibility. It was that more than anything else that made me a Radical. But as the decade wore on I became more and more disturbed. There was never a great revelation on the Road to Damascus, you know like St. Paul experienced. For me it was gradual process of re-thinking, re-examining my own ideas. And through the sixties, as I watched those ideas spread … there’s a line in one of T.S. Eliot’s poems … “that is not what I meant, that is not what I meant at all”. I began to feel that the movement that I had helped to created and the ideas that I had helped to disseminate were mutating into something that I could not support. At first I was simply uncomfortable with it, but then I couldn’t support it. And if your next question is “Into what did it mutate?”. The only short answer, on a short program, and again I think you have to read Ex-Friends to get the full answer … is anti-Americanism. That is hatred of this country, for not being perfect. People have chided me for using the term “anti-American”, which they confuse with “un-American”, the term that was used in the McCarthy era. But there was a big difference. “Un-American” meant if you held certain ideas you were not a real American, or a good American. Anti-Americanism was a political position that took the view that this country was so rotten internally and was the cause of most of the evils in the world outside that nothing could save it except a revolution. It had to be destroyed in order to be saved.

HEFFNER: Norman, we’ve got to stop. Believe it or not, the half hour is over.


HEFFNER: But you’ve got to come back and, and go on with this because …

PODHORETZ: I would be delighted.

HEFFNER: All right. Thanks so much for joining me today, Norman Podhoretz.

PODHORETZ: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.