Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers Cambridge University Press 2010, $35.00, pp. 408
Running Commentary. The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right
By Benjamin Balint Public Affairs 2010, $26.95, pp. 290
As quarrelsome as they were prolific, as brittle as they were brilliant, the circle known as New York Intellectuals of the mid-20th century has enjoyed a disproportionate number of historical studies. First came the paeans, then the attacks, and more recently the full--scale treatments of stellar individuals from their ranks: Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Richard Hofstadter.
The newest member of the so-called "family" to rate a biography is Norman Podhoretz, the hyper--confident former editor of Commentary, who in the 1960s and 1970s made the American Jewish Committee's once thoughtfully provocative periodical into a must-read for an emergent cadre of political cognoscenti sharply critical of the established order. Podhoretz's significance to recent history is indisputable. With the exception of William F. Buckley, no intellectual journalist on the right mattered more over the last half century. No writer better embodied the midlife conversion to conservatism of a notable minority of American Jews. No editor better gave voice to the scathing critiques of liberal thinking about race, sex and culture that emerged from the 1960s,
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers, a professor of English at Marquette University, will surely please its subject. Based on new interviews and extensive research in Podhoretz's correspondence, it's a strident defense of the ever-embattled Podhoretz--its perspective so tightly aligned with its subject that it fatally undermines Jeffers' reliability as a guide. Unfortunately, Jeffers seems not to appreciate that Podhoretz, a master of defending the maneuvers that have marked his own ambitious career--he has written four memoirs of his own--needs no apologias on his behalf from anyone else.
Indeed, the elder icon of neoconservatism is probably better served by another new biography, Running Commentary, a sharply critical but fair-minded history of the magazine by Benjamin Balint, a former editor there, which is breezier and less deeply researched than Jeffers' book yet far more intellectually shrewd and tonally astute. In recounting the relationship between Podhoretz and Hannah Arendt, for example, Balint deftly moves, in just a few pages, from dryly describing a "mash note" that the young Podhoretz wrote to Arendt in 1958 to smartly pinpointing the mix of personal and principled motives that led to their falling out, following Podhoretz's evisceration of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the pages of Commentary. For Balint, Podhoretz's evolution from Vietnam War opponent and supporter of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign to Medal of Freedom winner under George W. Bush is a tale fraught with ironies. For Jeffers, it is merely a story of enlightenment.
Although much of Podhoretz's life story will be familiar to readers of either his memoirs or the stacks of group biographies, these two books are valuable because they definitively establish Podhoretz's place as one of the most intriguing figures of both the New York intellectual cohort and its neoconservative offshoot. Indeed, as one of the few men to figure centrally in the histories of both groups, Podhoretz merits attention for his journey from one milieu to the other--his ideological passage from left to right (an oft-told story) but also, just as interestingly, the evolution from a literary life to a political one.
Among the intellectual foot soldiers of the Reagan Revolution, Podhoretz always stood out from the pack with his erudition and his deftness of prose. That may be because he began his adulthood as a student of literature, a protege of Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F. …