Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Norman Podhoretz's Discourses on America

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Norman Podhoretz's Discourses on America

Article excerpt

Norman Podhoretz's most recent book, declaratively, almost confessionally, titled My Love Affair With America, asks us to think about patriotism, a word he salvages from Dr. Johnson's dismissive "last refuge of a scoundrel." It's the proper name for love of one's country, ours in this instance, which in the early decades of the twentieth century right-wing isolationists used to consider too good for the rest of the world, and which in later decades left-wing isolationists thought too evil. The "too good" party survives, barely, in the imaginations of Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork-carrying followers. The "too evil" party, which peaked during the radical protests against segregation and the war in Vietnam-what was a "racist" society doing trying to tell the rest of the world how to order its affairs?-has had a strong afterlife. It's present in the so-called liberal politics of the Democrats-the New Class wonks who want to run governmental institutions for what they believe is the good of the rest of usand in the victim studies of our school and university teachers, who picture past and present mainly in the colors of resentment against "x" who made "y" unhappy. Enough already. Podhoretz is glad to live in a country that is "merely" good. not some mythic golden or silver polity, but not exactly an iron one either. Iron is what totalitarian states provide (those dependent on the state in China refer to their "iron rice bowl," their modicum for life). America's polity, to push this Ovidian metallurgy to the edge, is solid brass. When it's tarnished, we call it brazen and insist on reform; when it's polished, we regard it as a worthy, certainly more generally available stand-in for gold-the best, if we're looking for a culture that serves the greatest number well, that never-to-be-perfected human beings have created. That is Podhoretz's thesis, capped by My Love Affair but developed ineluctably over more than four decades of editing and writing for Commentary, and of building an oeuvre of seven other books, two of literary criticism, two of foreign policy studies, and three of autobiography, the category My Love Affair fits into.1 The moment is propitious for examining this patriotic thesis (is it cogent?), and the personal significance Podhoretz gives to it (is he persuasive?). I'll begin with a partial portrait of his early years and a consideration of his method as a literary critic; then I'll turn to his discourses on America, especially as they deal with race and with international relations.

My Love Affair reprises some of the childhood, boyhood, and youth adventures he covered so movingly, and controversially, in Making It. He tells the story by combining two familiar kinds, that of the son of immigrants (here, Jews from Eastern Europe) and that of what Lionel Trilling called "the young man from the provinces" (here, a Jewish-American Rastignac or Julien Sorel whose province is Brooklyn and whose Paris is Manhattan). He also, without mentioning it, evokes Jean de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782), with its famous chapter, "What Is an American." Crevecoeur said in effect that, leaving aside the Amerindians, an American was a person who either had been born in Europe and emigrated to the New World, or came from forebears who had done so. The reasons for emigration typically had to do with religious persecution or economic hardship in Europe; in America with its weak colonial and later federal and state governments, and its lack of an established church, people found religious toleration or even indifference, while an abundance of water and tillable land made for ample economic sufficiency and, as yet, no great disparities in wealth. True, Crevecoeur was troubled by the barbarity of manners on the frontier and, much more, by the practice of slaveholding in the South, but he understood these flaws to be remediable, and didn't think he was hyperbolizing when he said America was "the most perfect society now existing in the world"-the synthesis, we may say, of the explorer John Smith's vision of a pastoral Eden and a Bradford or Winthrop's Christian vision of a New Jerusalem, the City upon a Hill as antechamber to the City of God. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.