Among the A-list big dogs of chic fiction, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is not da bomb. Of course, there’s vulgar success against it — cover of Time, phone number first printing. Nothing ills the cool like being hot, except on the rare occasions when it happens to them. But novels by Clancy or Grisham usually pass beneath notice of the critical hepcats. A Man in Full didn’t. Doyen of American letters-a-go-go, John Updike, dissed the text in that edgy journal the New Yorker. "Amounts to entertainment, not literature," sniffed the man who inked The Witches of Eastwick. Perennially def and slammin’ Norman Mailer gave Wolfe a buzz kill in the fashion-forward New York Review of Books. "Chosen by the author to be a best seller rather than a major novel," slagged the caption-writer for Marilyn, An Appreciation. And then there was James Wood (so dope, so phat) in the New Republic (it’s fresh, it’s stylin’): "this bumptious simplicity, this toy-set of literary codes essentially indistinguishable from the narrative techniques of boys’ comics." Jim, that’s cold.
But there is, in fact, every reason for A Man in Full to be unfashionable. Big, sweeping social realism with themes of honor, duty, sin, and belief went out with honor, duty, sin, belief, and the big sweeping societies that had them. Wolfe has written an encomium of the passé, praising hope, reason, self-restraint, custom, shame, good taste, first marriages, and Booker T. Washington. His novel tells the story of failing real estate developer Charlie Croker, who is not only a moss-back personally, but is also that out-moded item, a protagonist who shows character development. This naff and antiquated progress is fostered by an escapee from unjust imprisonment, Conrad Hensley. He is a hero, a species long ago hunted to extinction in literary fiction. Of Hensley, Wolfe says — heaping back-number Pelion upon moldy Ossa — "To lead the bourgeois life was to be obsessed with order, moral rectitude, courtesy, cooperation, education, financial success, comfort, respectability, pride in one’s offspring, and, above all, domestic tranquillity. To Conrad it sounded like heaven." And there’s not one stylish sex scene in the book.
Tom Wolfe uses (what a fossil!) layers of symbolism and allegory. The name Conrad means "bold counselor." The Man of the title is a Charles ("manly") and a Croker because he’s coarse. (A burlap bag is a "croker sack" in the South.) Plus Charles is a "croaker" since his manly identity is dying and also a "croaker" in that he becomes a sort of philosophical doc. Charlie’s second wife, the epicurian Serena, believes, like Epicurus with his serenity, "that everything that’s sweet in this life ends when we die." An assimilated black is called Roger White. If that’s not enough, Roger ("spearman") tries to shaft Charlie. And so on, in the most old-hat way, with nearly every moniker in the book.
And Wolfe’s cornball allegiance to the Western canon must leave the with-it agape. A Man in Full has, per John Winthrop, its City upon a Hill (or its suburb, Buckhart, anyway). The Atlanta metropolitan area is Gibbon’s Rome as well. There is the college football gladiator Fareek Fanon. (We who are about to sign sneaker endorsements salute you.) There is a (more or less) martyred (more or less) virgin sacrificed to Fareek’s date-rape whims. There’s bread (get-out-the-vote money) and circuses (the voting). The Bible comes into it, too, with a Tower of Babel at the PlannersBanc building and walls of Jericho around the Santa Rita Correction Center. Hundreds of other dead white guy allusions are made, such as references to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now that reviewers were too up-to-date to catch. For the intellectually a la mode, A Man in Full is a regular Squaresville Great Books course out of some L-7 ivy hive like Washington and Lee circa early 1950s.
But it’s badder than that. A Man in Full gives such offense to modish sensibilities that the modish haven’t yet fully realized how offended they should be. While Wolfe is unfashionable in his method and scope, his real topic is so outré it can hardly be mentioned in polite society. A Man in Full is about church.
John Updike did notice that "the novel turns out to be all about religion." But then Updike claims, "In a post-Christian world, Wolfe offers us . . . the nobility of Stoicism." Which is nonsense. The first thing that Conrad Hensley does, after deciding he’s a stoic, is violate the tenets of stoicism with an act of Christian charity. And religion, in a denominational sense, is just a tag in the book, little more indicative of creed than an Armani label: "he was Jewish, which in Georgia meant that your paths weren’t going to cross socially all that much." Nor is this a novel about blinding satori insights, born-again dramas, finding God out-of-body or inside self, or about any of the other spiritual slop that might make the theme acceptable to moderns — moderns whom Wolfe sums up in his description of Conrad’s hippie mother, "a very pretty, sweet, sentimental, but terribly lax soul."
Man in Full is about go-to-church church, about Sunday best, Sunday school, Sunday manners, Sunday dinner church. Get me to the church on time church. Church with convictions as deep and resonant as the snores during the sermon. Church with 2,000 years of loud in the hymns, quiet in the pews, $5 in the collection plate, and a big breakfast when we get home. A taken for granted, foregone conclusion church about which little need be said. And Tom Wolfe speaks for this church by saying little about it.
Church is central in its absence from A Man in Full. Fashionable Atlantans are seen in every kind of social gathering except the kind where they’re scrubbed and sober and fumbling in the hymnal for "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." They don’t disparage church. They wouldn’t bother. In the one passage where Charlie Croker might be criticizing organized religion, where he’s thinking about an institution that "had been the center of the most important network in the city" but now is "filled with old people who didn’t mean much one way or another," he is referring to the Piedmont Driving Club.
Unfashionable Atlantans go to church — Roger White, for example, the African-American who (and what could be more unfashionable?) loves Western culture. The declassé go to church. Conrad Hensley rents a room from the fat, old, tooth-absent Munger siblings and they ask him, "You go to church?" Stoic Conrad replies, "I go to the church of Zeus."
"Sister’n’me’s Methodists," says his landlord.
And the lumpen proletariat goes to church, in the ghetto, with the Reverend Isaac Blakey at the Church of the Sheltering Arms.
But the church-going isn’t going well, even with the church-goers. The Rev. Blakey and his parishioners have been tempted in the wilderness of political activism and are praying to give Caesar what is Caesar’s — right in the kisser. Roger White recalls the fancy altar goods and abstract stained glass in his own Uptown church and thinks that his minister father "would have seen all this for what it was: an attempt to look high-class." And the Mungers run an over-stuffed junk shop with the sadly resurrectional name, "Hello, Again." The scripture says, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth," let alone junk.
People who don’t know what they should be doing — which in A Man in Full is all of them — wander outside the bounds of traditional piety seeking answers in the gym, the hospital, the ballot box, the bottle; in press conferences, art shows, the Piedmont Driving Club, and, indeed, in the colloquies of Epictetus. So ignorant is Conrad Hensley of, well, Jesus, for instance, that Conrad thinks of Epictetus as the only philosopher "who had been stripped of everything, imprisoned, tortured . . . threatened with death."
However, to imagine that Wolfe is positing a pagan, or as Updike would have it "post-Christian," world is to miss what the author’s been up to. By studying Epictetus, Conrad and Charlie are able to find a decent, if dour, system of ethics. But Wolfe is careful in his choice of stoics. He doesn’t pick the 4th century b.c. founder, Zeno, who perforce had no exposure to Christianity, nor the Christian-persecuting Marcus Aurelius, whose prose would have made for better citation. He selects instead the stoic who lived at the beginning of the Christian era and who was the slave of a freedman of Nero, the emperor who crucified St. Peter. Epictetus was the most spiritual of the stoics and his sayings imply monotheism. Yet Wolfe substitutes "Zeus" for "god" when Epictetus is quoted, thus emphasizing the differences between the good beliefs of stoicism and the better beliefs of the — with apology to the author — right stuff.
There’s no attempt to improve on that stuff. Wolfe is hardly a Walk Toward the Light new age sage, or latter-day prophet either. Maybe Charlie Crocker and Conrad Hensley are meant to be Christ figures in their trials, punishments, and rebirths — Conrad is even joked about as "Messenger Connie, who’ll soon be returning to Earth from wherever." But that "wherever" is a semi-detached home with the missus and the kids. And Charlie is "about to sign a syndication deal with Fox Broadcasting." These are Christ figures who are wholly inadequate, as well they should be since Christ exists already. Possible anti-Christs are even less impressive. Mute, stupid, merchandising-minded Fareek Fanon? Whore of Babylon Serena who, by book’s end, is just one more single mom? The race-baiting politician, Andre "Balq" Fleet, winds up unelected. The sin-relishing banker, Raymond Peepgrass, finishes as a trophy husband.
A Man in Full, whose millennial time-frame goes pointedly unmentioned, is no updated Book of Revelations. Although Wolfe does create an evil double to a house of worship, "right across the street from the First Presbyterian Church." This is the basilica of au courant art, the High Museum. Writes Wolfe, "The museum was fiercely different from the church. The church, built in 1919, was a stately, dark, and stony neo-Gothic pile. The museum, built in 1983, was pure white and modern in the Corbusier mode."
"Looks like an insecticide refinery," says Atlanta’s black, and presumably church-going, mayor.
Wolfe fills the museum with an exhibit of obscene paintings, has a sermon preached upon them by an advocate of that devil Michel Foucault, and puts the whole of swank Atlanta in the opening night dinner congregation, including a Baptist deacon. "A Baptist deacon!" thinks Charlie Croker. "True, Tabernacle Baptist was an In-Town Baptist church, a bit sophisticated, at least, as compared to a good old Footwashing Baptist church out in the countryside, but Godalmighty, nevertheless — he was a Baptist deacon! — and he was looking at these pictures of . . . of . . ." But as Wolfe limns the scene it becomes clear that "le tout Atlanta" isn’t really participating in the grisly parody of the mass. Le tout Atlanta is yacking among itself and not paying a bit of attention to Satan either.
And then A Man in Full comes to its much-panned ("perfunctory and inadequate," said John Updike) ending. One of the less important characters ties up some loose ends in an epiloguic chat. It’s allusive, brief, abrupt and a bit mysterious — a conclusion much like the gospels have. Said the Apostle John: "And there were also so many other things . . . the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."
Something is slouching toward Bethlehem (and Atlanta), all right, but it’s no rough beast. It’s something conventional, middle-class, blushing, staid, and as unfashionable as a church service.
Tom Wolfe gives the last line to Roger White, the fellow who’s a fan of western civ but is, withal, an everyman, neither very bad nor very good, and who has been seduced by politics, which makes him feel like a "man of the world." From the mouth of this humble vessel come the words, "‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said the man of the world, ‘I’ll be back.’"
P.J. O'Rourke is author most recently of Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics.
By Michael S. Greve
WILLIAM G. BOWEN AND DEREK CURTIS BOK. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. 384 PAGES. $24.95.
As former presidents of Princeton and Harvard respectively, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok played leading roles in committing two of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning to racial preferences in student admissions. Their collaborative effort last year, The Shape of the River, came billed as a turning point in the debate over affirmative action. In it, the authors examine the consequences of these policies and find that they and their colleagues at other elite colleges have done an outstanding job. "Race-sensitive" admission practices, they find, have been good for blacks, good for elite universities, and good for the country.
No other social science book has been promoted so lavishly and with such determination to alter public debate. The eminences who submitted dust jacket blurbs sing the praises of "race sensitivity," Bowen and Bok’s euphemism for race preferences. With equal attention to detail, the manuscript was withheld from experts and journalists suspected of harboring critical views, while advance copies were mailed to media outlets and experts who could be relied on to provide an echo chamber. True to form, the New York Times devoted a page-length article to the book and its authors, printed excerpts, and endorsed the tome in an editorial.
There is a potent reason for the hype, the spin, and the eagerness with which so many have seized on The Shape of the River: The defenders of race-based preferences have been on a long, unbroken losing streak — in the courts, at the polls, and in the public debate. Demoralizing events of the past three years include a March 1996 appellate court decision in Hopwood v. State of Texas, which held that racial preferences in student admissions are virtually always unconstitutional and, in particular, that an alleged interest in racial "diversity" provides no warrant for such policies; the abolition of admission preferences at the University of California; the enactment of California’s Proposition 209 in November 1996 and, in 1997, a strongly worded appellate court decision sustaining the measure; also in 1997, the filing of additional lawsuits against the University of Washington Law School and the University of Michigan; and, over the past year, successful constitutional challenges to race-based student assignments in primary and secondary education. In November 1998, a large majority of voters in the state of Washington approved a popular initiative barring race- and sex-based preferences at all public institutions in the state, including universities. Federal district courts in Georgia, New York, and, of all venues, the liberal First Circuit Court of Appeals joined the growing number of jurisdictions to declare racial preferences in education unconstitutional.
Preference advocates have grown increasingly worried about the possibility of stopping this juggernaut. As first steps, they need to draw some line of defense and to shore up confidence in their own camp. The Shape of the River is an attempt to do just that. The book does indeed contain a mountain of data, including some previously unavailable information on race-based admission preferences and their consequences. However, it impresses mostly for the authors’ obliviousness to the forces and arguments that have, for the better part of a decade, generated broad public and judicial support for official colorblindness.
Bowen and Bok’s own evidence suggests serious reservations about their cheerful conclusion that racial preferences "work." The black students who graduate from elite institutions, we are told, earn a lot of money and, on the whole, feel good about themselves and their educational experience. All that, though, is also true of white graduates, except more so. Similarly, 61 percent of white students now get to "know well" two or more black students, whereas (the authors estimate) only 53 percent would if the number of black students were cut as a consequence of race-neutral policies. Either way, elite colleges seem to fall short of the larger American polity, where 86 percent of whites say they have black friends. But one does not learn this from The Shape of the River.
One does learn, if one did not already know, that college campuses are marred by racial tensions. Bowen and Bok emphasize what they take to be the bright side, even going so far as to rationalize that "it is often through racial slights, misunderstandings, and disagreements that minds are opened and the understanding of differences enlarged." (One wonders if the LAPD has heard the news.) But the facts remain discouraging. One in four black admittees to elite colleges fails to graduate, compared to 14 percent of whites, and the disparities in drop-out rates increase with the colleges’ selectivity. Black students earn grades that on average place them at the twenty-third percentile of their class, and the average includes those who would have been admitted under race-neutral standards. The authors express concern over this fact, but they never really address it, preferring instead such relativistic generalizations as "by any standard, the achievements of the black matriculants have been impressive." Many pages and charts later, the evidence of high achievement by blacks is "overwhelming."
Bowen and Bok mean to encourage "defensive or disillusioned" university administrators "who have worked hard to increase minority enrollments." Demoralized educrats do need cheering up, and perhaps this book will help. But outside the groves of academe and the liberal civil rights lobby, The Shape of the River has failed to reshape the affirmative action debate. It has produced no significant rethinking among opponents of racial preferences. Anti-preference civil rights organizations such as Linda Chavez’s Center for Equal Opportunity and Ward Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute promptly published effective responses. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have dissected the book’s claims in a devastating review (Commentary, February 1999).
Though its intentions are clearly otherwise, The Shape of the River may in fact accelerate the trend toward official colorblindness. The most fundamental reason is that while Bowen and Bok’s consequentialist argument may succeed in "informing" the debate (as the authors hope), it cannot change the terms of a debate that is fought, on both sides and for good reason, primarily over constitutional and moral principle.
For instance, Bowen and Bok argue that the demise of racial preferences would only marginally increase white or Asian applicants’ chances of admission. Among thousands of non-minority applicants who think they were displaced by racial preferences, according to them only a handful were in fact displaced. Even on purely utilitarian grounds, this argument cuts both ways, since the perception itself is a serious social cost. Leaving that aside, though, the argument is unlikely to impress "reverse" discrimination plaintiffs, the courts that entertain their claims, or the voters. It is a lot like saying that on those crowded Southern buses, most blacks wouldn’t have obtained whites-only seats anyhow. The argument presupposes that the principle isn’t terribly important in the first place.
Most people bend or break with principle only when the consequences of adherence become too awful to contemplate. And so Bowen and Bok paint a dreadful picture of the consequences that would ensue from race-neutral practices. Echoing the central defense of racial preferences in Hopwood and subsequent lawsuits, they warn of virtually-all-white-and-yellow colleges from here to what might as well be eternity. They also contend that elite college graduates "with advanced degrees are the backbone of the emergent black and Hispanic middle class." Their data do not remotely support that claim. In America, the black middle class "emerged" decades ago, which explains why 86 percent of black admittees in Bowen and Bok’s sample already came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. As the Thernstroms observe, a few hundred elite school graduates — who, as Bowen and Bok concede, would have led successful lives even without Harvard degrees — hardly amount to the "backbone" of a middle class of over 10 million members.
Voters and judges, fortunately, do not believe that a handful of elite institutions are as important to the country’s well-being as the authors of The Shape of the River make them out to be. At the time, the demise of racial preferences in Texas and California produced jeremiads about the decline of minority enrollment at flagship institutions in those states. But the hoped-for backlash against race-neutral admission standards never materialized. Bowen and Bok’s evidence of the dire consequences of abolishing racial preferences is far too inconclusive to persuade anyone but higher education administrators, who need no persuading.
The book does, however, establish two points in the opposite direction. First, competitive colleges and universities administer very substantial racial preferences. Upwards of 60 percent of all black students at elite colleges owe their admission to such policies. Second, Bowen and Bok explain that elite institutions administer racial preferences for the purpose of boosting black enrollments.
While higher education experts have known these facts for well over two decades, judges, prospective plaintiffs, and the public have not. Curiously, the authors seem not to recognize that their own findings undermine their cause in the institutional venues where their arguments might matter. For the courts, "getting the numbers up" is discrimination for its own sake, which is verboten. So, too, with discrimination for broad societal objectives: It is unconstitutional per se. Voters, for their part, tend to ask whether those white kids who sue universities would have been admitted had they been black. The Shape of the River strongly confirms the suspicion that of course they would have — and that the same is true of thousands of others. This is all most citizens need or want to know about race "sensitive" practices.
Sensing perhaps that their empiricist argument can’t do the job, the authors end their book with a string of bare assertions. Colorblind practices are "unworthy of our country’s ideals." We must not turn back from efforts to integrate blacks into "the mainstream of American life." A few sentences later, the remedial argument for race preferences, otherwise ignored throughout the book, makes an appearance — coupled with a reaffirmation of Harvard’s role as the nation’s conscience: Racial preferences at elite colleges "will encourage others to press on with the hard work needed to overcome the continuing effects of a legacy of unfair treatment." Besides (and still in the same paragraph), racial neutrality would induce despair among blacks, which "seems a high price to pay for a tiny increase in the probability of admission for white applicants" to elite institutions. Thus does the moral imagination shaped at Harvard reduce an argument over principle to a disagreement over probability distributions.
Bowen and Bok attempt to clinch their case by insisting on "The Importance of Institutional Autonomy." American universities, they proclaim, are great because the government respects their autonomy, and that autonomy must encompass a license to engage in practices that in every other arena constitute race discrimination. Otherwise, highly selective colleges that are faced with a choice between colorblindness and elite aspirations will either lower admission standards or find furtive ways around obnoxious legal commands to cease discrimination. As the authors observe, "it is very difficult to stop people from finding a path toward a goal in which they firmly believe." True enough; that is exactly why Southerners of an earlier generation discovered literacy tests.
Bowen and Bok urge that we trust our elite colleges to administer racial preferences sensibly. Institutional safeguards, we are promised, ensure that they will do so:
University faculties and administrators know that they will have to live with their mistakes, and this realization acts as a restraint on hasty, ill-conceived policies. The admission practices of colleges and professional schools are highly visible, and there is no lack of individuals and entities ready to criticize their results.
After 285 pages of circumlocutions, these preposterous falsehoods come almost as a relief. In the academy, there is only one "mistake": No provost or dean at a prestige institution can afford to question the "diversity" orthodoxy, which is why none have done so. As for the "visibility" of college admission practices, the nation’s elite schools have in fact harassed students (such as Georgetown Law School’s Timothy Maguire) who made the data visible. They have doctored documents and submitted perjured testimony, as University of Texas officials did in Hopwood. If the affirmative action debate has been uninformed by the sort of evidence presented in The Shape of the River, that is not because researchers, advocates, or the public lacked interest in the data, but because universities did everything in their power to keep the data secret. Bowen and Bok themselves will not permit independent researchers access to their "restricted access database."
Behind the obsession with race and "diversity" lies a kernel of good sense: Public universities, at least, have a democratic or (in James Q. Wilson’s phrase) "representational" function. We do not like public institutions that serve only a select few. By definition, though, elite universities won’t be representational by any measure, be it race or religion or income. Elite public education redistributes income and life chances upward: Students at the University of Virginia (one of the most demanding public universities in the country) are being subsidized by taxpayers who will be lucky to see Mr. Jefferson’s institution as tourists. There may be a case for subsidizing the education of heart surgeons or nuclear physicists. But one is hard-pressed to articulate an argument for subsidizing the education of predominantly wealthy kids who will go on to become even wealthier lawyers.
There is an equally serious argument, albeit another one these authors do not address, for the autonomy of private colleges. America’s (mostly private) elite universities are the envy of the world, whereas our overwhelmingly public K-12 system is a mess. Public institutions must adhere to the Constitution and to public norms distilled in uniform laws and regulations, with all the attendant rigidities. Perhaps we should repeal the civil rights laws that tie private institutions to constitutional commands and let those institutions be truly private. Let each define its own mission and admission standards. Let there be institutional choice and (for lack of a better word) diversity.
Regardless of one’s views of the merits of these arguments, their forthright consideration would enrich an often sterile debate. Conservatives and liberals alike should be concerned about the redistributive implications of public higher education. Both camps, too, ought to respect the autonomy of private or privatized institutions. The captains of higher education could do worse than to query whether we really need a public Boalt Hall to produce white-shoe lawyers; whether Harvard and Columbia really need to pine for federal subsidies to the point of becoming well-nigh indistinguishable from the University of Alaska.
Such a debate, though, would present and eventually demand choices — between elitism and representation; between public and private; between Harvard’s autonomy and its claim to be a model to America. Bowen and Bok, however, want the best of all worlds. They want elite institutions with a multi-chromatic veneer. They want diversity — so long as it conforms to their definition. They want private autonomy for Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Michigan — on the taxpayers’ nickel. They want permission to discriminate — and yet harangue everyone else for latent racism.
In the end, all the data and charts and graphs in The Shape of the River cannot camouflage the brazen arrogance of the authors’ demand for our money and our gratitude and an exemption from the rules that apply to everyone else. They can forget it.
Michael S. Greve is executive director of the Center for Inidividual Rights (CIR), a public interest law firm. CIR serves as legal counsel to the plaintiffs in Hopwood v. State of Texas and in the cases against the University of Washington and the University of Michigan Law School.
By Arnold Beichman
NORMAN PODHORETZ. Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. FRESS PRESS. 256 PAGES. $25.00
There are plenty of reasons why I should disqualify myself as a reviewer of Norman Podhoretz’s sensitively and beautifully composed autobiographical chapter. I am mentioned favorably three times in this book. I’ve known the author for some four decades. During that time I have been friend, ex-friend and friend again. I knew him before and after he became editor of Commentary magazine. We became ex-friends because of his lamentable lurch to the left in the late 1950s. We then became friends anew when he saw the light some years later in the late 1960s. I have favorably reviewed several of his political books but not his earlier autobiographical volumes, Making It and Breaking Ranks, which cost him a lot of friendships but not mine. We dine regularly when I am in New York and are devoted e-mail correspondents.
I have no problem writing about Podhoretz now because at 68, he is not just a friend but an historic figure as well. He was and still is one of the most influential intellectuals of our time, comfortable in letters as well as politics and a scourge of left-liberalism. He is probably one of the most accomplished politico-literary polemicists of modern times; he takes no prisoners.
In 1982 he published an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "The Neo-Conservative Anguish over Reagan’s Foreign Policy." He was critical of what was perceived by some conservatives, neos and paleos alike, as the president’s softness toward Soviet policies in the pre-Gorbachev period. So concerned was Reagan about this "anguish" that he phoned Podhoretz to discuss the article.
Now what was there about Podhoretz and his little magazine (Commentary’s circulation never topped 80,000) that would impel the president of the United States to phone and argue with this particular critic of his foreign policy? Perhaps President Reagan, a onetime New Deal liberal, saw in Podhoretz someone with a similar history of progress from left to right and, therefore, a kinsman. Or perhaps it was because in the ideological wars of the 1970s and 1980s, Podhoretz had become an intellectual force who by himself and through his magazine contributed mightily to the global victory against communism. (I would include among other contributors Midge Decter, his wife, for the salience of her writings in this period and for her leadership of the Committee for the Free World.)
Richard Gid Powers recognized Podhoretz’s distinction a few years ago in his book, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. It was Podhoretz in the post-Nixon, post-detente era of the mid-70s who "summoned the will, the strength and the imagination to commence the giant task of rebuilding the anti-communist coalition," Powers wrote.
Podhoretz was for 35 years editor of Commentary, then a publication of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which promised its editor full independence. In that time he took Commentary and made the monthly an integral part of the American socio-political scene, building on the work of its founding editor, Elliot Cohen, before his tragic death. The AJC, however, was not always pleased with Podhoretz’s unyielding brand of anti-communism or with his cultural ideals. In fact, some AJC board members were so displeased that they plotted to remove him from his editorial post. I took pleasure at the time in describing these plots in a long article in William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.
The six ex-friends he writes about here, all Jewish (at least ethnically) and all residents, on and off, of New York City, are: Hannah Arendt, the philosopher; Allen Ginsberg, the poet; Lillian Hellman, the playwright; Norman Mailer, the novelist; and Lionel and Diana Trilling, politico-literary critics. With the exception of Mailer, now 76, his other ex-friends are all dead. Along with other literary intellectuals, they were members of what Podhoretz calls "The Family," a loosely defined assemblage of New York intellectuals, more or less anti-Soviet, pro-Freud (Arendt, inter alia, excepted) and grouped around three magazines, Partisan Review, New Leader, and, of course, Commentary. The main requirement for admission to the Family, says Podhoretz, was "brilliance." Through his friendships with these and other "ex-friends" like Hans Morgenthau, Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, Podhoretz has given us a view of the "bloody crossroads," where literature and politics meet, at least in Manhattan.
When I finished reading this memoir I asked myself: how could Podhoretz have sustained a friendship with someone like Ginsberg, fine poet though he might be, but also sex pervert, druggie, probably a pederast, and an impassioned America-hater? How could Podhoretz have remained such a devoted friend of a bitchy Stalinist like Lillian Hellman — who, despite the ghastly revelations from Conquest to Solzhenitsyn and even Khrushchev of what Stalinism meant, never recanted? While I can think of some redeeming quality in Ginsberg, I cannot think of a single one for dear old Lillian; nor, it seems, can most of her biographers. For me, the injunction de mortuis nil nisi bonum does not apply to unrepentant Stalinists.
In some ways, Podhoretz’s relationship with Lillian Hellman is the most difficult to understand. He acknowledges his guilt over the "unsavory trick" of pretending in private conversations with her to admire the playwright’s work, something he says he would never have written in the public prints, for that would have been self-betrayal. Whenever he praised her work to her face, he says he felt "ashamed and more than a little disgusted with myself." He says that he misses Hellman, "an incomparable playmate with whom I had so much fun — more than perhaps I had with any of my other ex-friends — that I was able, for what seems an amazingly long time, to overlook the flaws in her writing and to forget about the evils of her politics." I never thought I would ever think of Podhoretz as a toy-boy.
The answer to my own question about Podhoretz’s friendships is this:
In bildungsroman (or "young man from the provinces") novels, the hero (or anti-hero) knowingly abandons the moral life. He dishonors himself by going in for drugs or notorious women or big money swindles or connections in high places — whatever — so as to reach some desired pinnacle that will perhaps make his sickening behavior all worthwhile. Rousseau’s Confessions details some contemptible behavior on his part; the philosopher meant to tell all about himself and he did. Podhoretz has taken as a model Jean-Jacques’ tell-all intellectual journey. Thus his painfully honest description of his spooky friendships with Ginsberg and Hellman — and his even more instructive friendship with Norman Mailer. As George Orwell once said: "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats." And that is what makes Podhoretz’s memoir so engrossing and even refreshing: he snatched victories from the "series of defeats" Orwell talked about because of impeccable timing: Podhoretz knew when to get out, when enough was enough.
Somewhere I remember from my own Talmudic studies the story of how the devil, assuming the pleasing shape of a beautiful woman, so tempted a rabbi that he began to undress. As he doffed his shirt, his tzitzes (or "fringes," an undergarment worn by orthodox Jews) began miraculously to slap the rabbi’s face. He immediately came to his senses and drove away the devil in disguise. Some may say that Podhoretz’s tshuba (or return) was opportunism. I don’t think so. I think his luminous intelligence and his reasserted moral sense, derived in part from years of Jewish religious studies, served as Podhoretz’s tzitzes.
Podhoretz describes with a bruising candor his "sexual restlessness" in his early marital years. Despite Mailer’s attempts to involve him in sex orgies, Podhoretz writes, "by the early 1970s [I had] decided that the radical ideas in the sexual realm with which I had been playing around were no less pernicious than their counterparts in the world of politics and I had now returned for good to my old set of beliefs in marital fidelity and everything that went with it."
But it took time before he found his way back from Mailerite mores to his currently treasured "old . . . beliefs." When Mailer, having stabbed Adele, one of his many wives, went into hiding from the police, he came to Podhoretz, his "foul-weather friend" (Mailer’s phrase), for help. But not to escape arrest. Oh no. When he surrendered himself, Mailer wanted to avoid institutionalization via a probable court-ordered psychiatric examination. After all, to be declared blameless in a felonious assault by reason of insanity would — heaven forfend! — hurt his reputation as a writer. That was as much a matter of concern, if not more so, than the life of poor Adele, recuperating in a hospital from the wound. But long before he stabbed Adele, Mailer was already defending juvenile murderers in his essay, "The White Negro," with the statement that by committing murder "the hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown." Fortunately for Adele, Mailer didn’t have the courage of his "hoodlum" convictions.
Of all the elders in the Family, there were none for whom I had a higher regard than Hannah."
So writes Podhoretz about Hannah Arendt’s brilliance, which he defines in these words: "the virtuosic ability to put ideas together in such new and exciting combinations that even if one disagreed with what was being said, one was excited and illuminated."1 For him, Arendt and her "agile synthesizing mind" achieved the attributes of brilliance and originality with her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which as a 21-year-old he found in 1951 and read with ever-growing excitement. The book theorized that communism and Nazism were, in Podhoretz’s words, "brothers under the skin." Arendt was trying to establish the moral equivalence of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
It was only years later when Arendt published "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" (first as a series of five articles in the New Yorker and later as a book) that he learned, says Podhoretz, that "originality was not so great an intellectual virtue as I had once thought . . . [and] there was nothing admirable about brilliance in itself."
The Arendt chapter is clearly the most important to Podhoretz because Arendt’s writings and public positions, as well as the anti-Israel New Left, forced him to address his own doubts about his Jewishness and the state of Israel. He once expressed these doubts in a single, jarring question:
In thinking about the Jews I have often wondered if their survival as a distinct group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant. Did the Jews have to survive that six million innocent people should one day be burned in the ovens of Auschwitz? It is a terrible question, and no one, not God Himself, could ever answer it to my satisfaction.
Leaders of this confessional, which might just as easily have been titled "The Many Lives of Norman Podhoretz," will single out one "friendship" as more interesting than another. I, for one, found the chapter on Lionel Trilling, Columbia University’s famed literary critic, and his wife, Diana, most absorbing, especially the report of a highly charged dinner party at my New York Upper West Side apartment in the mid-1960s. In a bridge-building endeavor, I had invited the Trillings and the Podhoretzes to see if I could make peace between them. Woe unto the peacemakers, indeed. Despite Lionel’s soothing post-prandial remark that at least we all had common assumptions, the party ended with Podhoretz’s denial that they had any "common assumptions." Those were indeed heady days.
Podhoretz was a Trilling protege and it was Trilling who first brought him to the attention of the Commentary editors. The Trillings themselves had been mild fellow-travelers in the late 1920s but had then turned and become hard-line anti-communists. It was Mrs. Trilling, however, who throughout the 1950s and 1960s was the clamorous anti-communist activist in the Family. It was she who, in a mordant essay on J. Robert Oppenheimer, wrote that "a staunch anti-communism was the great moral-political imperative of our epoch." It was a commanding and courageous precept from an American intellectual, written at the zenith of Soviet power and in defiance of America’s seemingly omnipotent anti-anti-communist adversary culture.
As chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, she publicly protested a 1956 British magazine article by Bertrand Russell in which he denounced the United States as a dictatorship (run by J. Edgar Hoover, no less). The parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, reprimanded her for daring to attack Russell, since the philosopher was an honorary chairman of the congress. It was then that Mrs. Trilling fired off to the parent congress a brutal question: "How untruthful about America may a man be and still be useful to an organization which is pledged to truth and which numbers among its affiliates an American branch?" (None of this is in Podhoretz’s book. I include these episodes here simply to demonstrate how far in later years the Trillings retreated from their hard-line position.)
The Trillings flinched when they looked into what they saw as the abyss and realized where their "staunch anti-Communism" might lead them: away from soft, mushy Jimmy Carter anti-anti-communist liberalism2 to what under the captaincy of Irving Kristol became not merely neoconservatism but which, programmatically, led inevitably to support of Ronald Reagan against Carter. Had Carter been re-elected in 1980 the world today would be far different.3 The Trillings turned back from the brink.
The break between the bildungsroman Podhoretz, the "young man from the provinces," and the Trillings came over the first volume of his biography, Making It. This book, as Podhoretz describes it, "unapologetically told the story of my own hunger for success, and it was he [Trilling], after all, who had first taught me that ambition, far from being the shameful ‘bourgeois’ passion that so many literary people professed to believe it was, actually testified to a commendable spiritedness of character." What infuriated the Family was that Podhoretz was spilling their "dirty little secret" to the whole world.
Now this reaction sounds balmy, but there it was. I was present at a salon where some leading intellectuals agreed that the Podhoretz book, which was yet to be published but which had been gossiped about for weeks, proved that the author had suffered a nervous breakdown and it was now only a question of whether he would ever recover his sanity. To top it all off, the original publisher who had given Podhoretz a hefty advance now refused to publish the book.
What the change finally came down to was that Podhoretz in the 1980s saw the welded relationship in the larger world between moral ideas and practical politics, particularly as the Cold War became a hot war and there seemed no end to Soviet expansionism. It was then that the once left Podhoretz became the "ex-friend" of the new Podhoretz. Unlike such liberal leftists as Irving Howe, Podhoretz saw when the McGovernites took over the Democratic Party in 1972 that it was time to enter the real world of decision making — not, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, to cheerily adopt "the strategy of fleeing from difficult problems by taking refuge in impossible solutions." Podhoretz’s 1976 Commentary article "Making the World Safe for Communism" was an attack on liberal foreign policy and Republican proponents of detente that came just in the nick of time.
For one shining moment, there was the Family, though not quite a Camelot of knightly intellectuals. I, too, have a sense of nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s, where in Manhattan you could always find a parking space on the very street on which you lived, where there were weekday cocktail galas for just published novelists and weekend dinner parties for visiting British intellectuals. For me, visions of Camelot ended in late 1969 at a crowded Trilling cocktail party, when I heard in a far corner of the living room a loud voice cry out, "Dammit, I can’t sell, I’m locked in, the capital gains would kill me."
But it was great while it lasted, and we can thank that "nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn," as Podhoretz sardonically describes himself, for having recorded it in such Balzacian detail.
Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is preparing a political biography of Henry A. Wallace.
1 Podhoretz may have admired Hannah Arendt, but it turns out from her published correspondence that she may have been pretending to admire his writings, just as he pretended to admire Lillian Hellman’s.
2 It was at such a time that President Carter proudly announced that thanks to his efforts "[the American people] are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear." And there was the memorable idiocy of Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance: "Leonid Brezhnev is a man who shares our dreams and aspirations."
3 I have always regarded it as a measure of God’s grace towards the American people that Harry Truman was nominated at the 1944 Democratic presidential convention to replace Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Had that substitution not occurred and assuming that FDR would have won a fourth term, Stalin would have had his man in the White House on April 12, 1945, the day FDR died.