A Sharp Eye and a Sharp Tongue

The Wall Street Journal

According to Saturday’s New York Times, a certain Prof. Franco Moretti of Stanford has found the way to “a more rational literary history,” which aims “to replace close reading with abstract models borrowed from the sciences.” In the same day’s paper, we learned that John Brockman, the publisher and editor of a Web site called Edge, has been soliciting new scientific laws from “the third culture,” described as “scientists and science-oriented intellectuals who are, he believes, displacing traditional literary intellectuals in importance.”

Not, of course, that traditional literary intellectuals were very important in the first place — at least not as the New York Times cultural desk measures importance. Yet the more literary studies are done by the numbers — or by the ever-present dictates of “theory” — the rarer and more valuable real readers become.

“The Norman Podhoretz Reader,” (Free Press, 478 pages, $35) edited by Thomas L. Jeffers, a professor at Marquette University, is full of samplings from the works of the feisty former editor of Commentary magazine, as the title suggests. But it could also have been called: Norman Podhoretz, Reader. To dip into it is to be reminded what a fine reader of other people’s prose Mr. Podhoretz is — and to feel a twinge of regret that politics and polemics, over the years, pulled him away from the literary studies with which he began his career as an intellectual and a writer.

Not that the “culture wars” of the past half-century, also chronicled in Mr. Jeffers’s selections from Mr. Podhoretz’s articles and books, are without their own interest. Some, like the chapter on the author’s long and complicated relationship with Norman Mailer, include interesting and memorable readings of Mr. Mailer’s work, as well as insights into his volatile character.

But Mr. Podhoretz the polemicist operates in a different register from Mr. Podhoretz the critic. Throughout this volume of highly readable essays and book excerpts, it is the critical works that stand out. If you want to know in advance posterity’s verdict on, say, Phillip Roth, Milan Kundera or Ralph Ellison, you could hardly do better than to read Mr. Podhoretz’s thoughtful and judicious critiques herein.

Some critics — like Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold or T.S. Eliot — are still wonderfully readable because they are great writers but not necessarily good readers. Mostly we like them because they are wonderfully prejudiced. Seeing works of literature through their eyes gives us a new perspective on them.

Rather surprisingly, given his strong and combative opinions in the political arena, Mr. Podhoretz’s readings aren’t like this. He more closely resembles his teachers, Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis: writers who sacrifice their own stylistic presence for the sake of their subject. Their critical forte is to strike right to the heart of a literary work’s meaning, not to make it appear as it would in a distorting lens.

Even where the polemicist seems to take charge, as in “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Mr. Podhoretz shows a penetrating critical acumen, dismissing Jack Kerouac and the Beats at the height of their vogue as belonging, in effect, to the history of publicity rather than literature (as Leavis said of the Sitwells). Sometimes the cruelest thing you can do to an author is to make him appear as he really is.

The most striking aspect of the autobiographical and nonliterary parts of the book is their portrait of a time, in the earlier phases of the author’s career, when America still had a single literary and political culture. To be sure, it was mostly left-wing and tainted by communist sympathies, but people of differing points of view still talked to each other in a way that they seldom do now.

When, for example, Mr. Podhoretz describes a contretemps between Mr. Mailer and McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, at Truman Capote’s famous black-and-white ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966, one’s first reaction is wonderment that the two would have been at the same party in the first place. It’s hard to imagine Condoleezza Rice and Jonathan Franzen bumping into each other over the hors d’oeuvres at a literary soiree today.

Mr. Podhoretz’s isolation from the increasingly partisan world of his now ex-friends was effected by the growing conservatism on display in the memoirs “Making It” (1967) and “Breaking Ranks” (1979), both of them excerpted here and both memorable for their lucid chronicles of the debates that animated the world of ideas — and that eventually split it in two.

You can see the split in an anecdote about Isaiah Berlin, when Mr. Podhoretz asks the great intellectual historian to account for his writing for the New York Review of Books — enemy territory for the Commentary crowd. Puzzled, Berlin replies: “I see. You are accusing me of being a fellow-traveler of a fellow-traveler.” Mr. Podhoretz calls this a “witticism,” but it is really just the bemusement of someone accustomed to the more free-and-easy ways of British intellectual life and now vexed by the extreme polarization of its counterpart in the U.S.

My only regret about this volume is that the very interesting essay on Saul Bellow that leads it off stops with “Henderson the Rain King” (1959). Although the essay takes a political turn at the end, Mr. Podhoretz’s preference for “Henderson” and “Seize the Day” over the “forced affirmations” of “The Adventures of Augie March” seems to me to stand up well. How one longs to know what Mr. Podhoretz would say if he revisited Mr. Bellow’s writing, taking account of the past 40-plus years, including the Nobel Prize for literature. How is it that we are denied a full appraisal of our greatest writer by one of our greatest readers? Something for the next volume of Norman Podhoretz, Reader.

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