Success is an outsider becoming the ultimate insider

Norman Podhoretz's memoir was sensational in 1967 - but now seems very dated, says Robert Low


New York, New York, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere: the Sinatra lyrics could have been written for (or indeed by) Norman Podhoretz, a clever Jewish kid from a humble background in Brooklyn whose goal was not to conquer Wall Street, the Met or Madison Square Garden but the city’s literary and intellectual world of the 1950s and ’60s.

His account of how he did it, Making It, caused a sensation when published in 1967 — the author was still only 37 — and is now reissued to mark its 50th anniversary by the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books (somewhat ironically, given that the NYRB is the standard-bearer of New York liberalism and Podhoretz was to become the godfather of neoconservatism).

It is a brilliant memoir that upset just about everybody in literary New York at the time, showing just how thin-skinned intellectuals who spend their lives fearlessly criticising others tend to be when criticised themselves.

Their anger is redoubled when the critic comes from within their own ranks, in this case what Podhoretz dubbed “the family”, the left-wing, largely Jewish coterie of writers, publishers and academics who dominated New York’s literary establishment.

As a portrait of that world, the book remains unrivalled. But it is much more than that: it is a meditation on the whole American concept of success, with Podhoretz scrutinising his own early life as an example: how, pushed by a dedicated woman teacher who called him a “dirty little slum boy” but recognised his huge potential, he made it to Columbia University, then on to Cambridge, and, via the army, into the reviewing world before the age of 30, capping it all by being appointed editor of the prestigious Jewish magazine Commentary (for 35 years, it turned out), swiftly quintupling the circulation and turning it into one of the country’s most influential journals.

His thesis was that the only way to make it in America was to adopt the mores of the class that you aspired to join, even if that meant eliminating all traces of the world in which you grew up. But the ultimate sin was openly to display ambition: so you had to pretend you never wanted to aspire to greater things. According to him, it’s how he got the Commentary job. The more he told its board he didn’t want it, the more they wanted him.

But how dated Podhoretz’s thesis now appears. It’s OK to declare how ambitious you are. You want to be a billionaire? Go for it. Look at all those college-educated internet billionaires — or Donald Trump. And it’s fine to want to be famous. Norman Podhoretz was to become a hugely influential political figure, for example the earliest and most vocal proponent of the Iraq war. But Andy Warhol may have been a more astute cultural prophet.


Robert Low is consultant editor of ‘Standpoint’ magazine.

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