May 21, 2019

How Norman Podhoretz “Made It”

“Bellow’s novel occupied a moment where the vector of history and the art of fiction, pitched to extremes, could define themselves best by defining each other. Yet the enormous tensions of this period registered little in the contemporary reviews of Augie March: admiring commentators tended to take the novel’s historical context so much for granted that they failed to interrogate it closely. The reasons for shortsightedness were themselves historical and aesthetic. Augie March’s later chapters would reflect the postwar present in their unseemly hurry to dispose of the realities of the prewar past. Not even the author himself seemed greatly invested in revisiting the unvarnished deprivations and frozen antagonisms of the Thirties, much less in speculating as to how they had helped give rise to striking scenes—scenes equal to the best in American, if not world, literature—at the heart of a book that was, otherwise, largely, disappointing.

It was at this point, in the glaring, still unvoiced gap between a book’s real and perceived values, that Norman Podhoretz’s first big public intervention would occur. Commissioned by Commentary at the fresh age of 23, the aspiring critic produced a 2,500-word review that dissented from the chorus of fulsome praise that had greeted Bellow’s novel. Where others saw a gleeful break from the constricting vise of modernist alienation, Podhoretz saw only the effort; where they heard a full-bodied, triumphant affirmation of American values, he sensed a void behind the boisterous positivity. In ensuring that Augie March struck a figure larger than life, Bellow had rendered him less than human; striving to encompass everything, he had signified nothing. “It is no disgrace,” his review concludes with a prominent sniff, “to have failed in a pioneer attempt.”

The review would ultimately do little to puncture Augie’s robust reputation, but the perceptiveness that it displayed did much to advance Podhoretz’s own. “What clinched it for me,” he revealed in his 1967 memoir Making It, “was a long review of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.” In both cases “it” referred to his membership within an exclusive gang of book reviewers, art critics and political radicals, constituted primarily but not exclusively of second-generation Jews in America; though they would come to be memorialized as the New York Intellectuals, Podhoretz’s preferred term in his book is, simply, “the Family.” Headquartered at Partisan Review since the Thirties, the Family was coming into possession of a cultural authority far out of proportion to its narrow ranks. It would be a watershed moment in Podhoretz’s life to be numbered among them, and he knew it: his memoir is essentially an essay at plumbing the depths of that knowledge.”

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