Interview with Norman Podhoretz ; part 1
BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:30:04
Norman Podhoertz discusses his book "Making It" his memoir about American intellectual life and academia. Discussing the parallels in the relationships between politics, money, and education.
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Studs Terkel Norman Podhoretz is a celebrated literary critic in our country, editor of Commentary. His biography- autobiography is called Making It, the very title itself, published by Random House, the very title itself, the two words, Making It, almost- would this be your credo?
Norman Podhoretz Well no, not exactly. I intended, as sort of slight edge of irony in that title, for one thing, the colloquialism was supposed to signal the ironic intention. It's also- it's called Making It and Not Having It Made, which is something a lot of- a lot of critics haven't understood. It's a book that tries to describe as honestly and frankly as possible what, you know, how career works in this country, how career really works, what it's all about, and how- and how the ambition for success can be- is inevitably both roused and crippled by American attitudes on the whole subject.
Norman Podhoretz Some have, yeah, some have. Making It is not a success story, it's not even really an autobiography, I call it a confessional case history. What I tried to do was to take the story of my own career, which happens to have been made in the New York literary world, what is nowadays called the literary establishment. I try to take this- use this story of my own career as- as case material for the analysis of a problem and there's nothing about my personal life in this book, for example, this was deliberate. I deliberately excluded it because I say I did not intend it to be an autobiography-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Well, that's very well put, Studs, it's a- it's not a book that advocates anything, or in so far as it advocates anything, it- what I'm trying to say is that I don't think that the kind of conflict that once existed between the ambition for success, which most of us, I think, are driven by in this country, and the possibility of intrinsic achievement, particularly in the arts. I don't think that conflict, which once was a very powerful and important one in America, exists any longer with anything like the intensity it once did, and that the attitudes that grew out of the period when this conflict- when this conflict did exist are still around, and still- and are- although they no longer- they no longer have any relation to the realities around us, they continue to, oh, to maintain themselves and I think to create a good deal of hypocrisy and shame. And I was trying to dispel some of the hypocrisy and shame-
Studs Terkel On this matter of the hypocrisy, people are- you're talking really here about being a celebrity, isn't the question of money, though you speak of your childhood from a relativly poor background-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Norman Podhoretz Right.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well, that's one of the things I'm talking about 'cause I'm a writer and I'm talking about people who are either writers or associated in some way with the literary world, and the main mark of success for writers has always been fame rather than- rather than money or social position or power though- yeah, different periods of history, all of these things have gone together. The whole idea of celebrityhood is an interesting one because it's generally used in a derogatory sense, that is, I point out in the book that of all the goals of worldly ambition, fame has always enjoyed the best moral reputation. The ambition for fame has not generally been considered corrupting. Maybe that's because it's had- it's had the best press of any of the other objects of worldly ambition, it's that fame is that for which the poets have aspired throughout the centuries and they've said kindly things about it, unlike the things they've said about money or power or social position. But anyhow, the word celebrity represents an attempt to distinguish between- between fame- fame that is presumably earned by intrinsic achievement, and fame that is earned by false or, you know, I don't know, by the fame that has no relation to intrinsic achievement. And this is regarded as a new phenomenon. People tell you that there didn't use to be celebrities, there were only famous people and obscure people. I don't think this is the case. The celebrityhood- I don't think there's much- that much difference between fame and celebrityhood in the first place.
Norman Podhoretz Right
Studs Terkel -you know? The fact that someone appears often on a, let's say a celebrated panel program that millions see, he may be a successful used car dealer or a [Huud?], but he becomes a celebrity.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, and there's no question that it's, in a sense, easier to become a celebrity because of the media than it used to be. But, Daniel Boorstin I think it was, who first said that nowadays we have people who are famous for being famous-
Studs Terkel Has this affected literature? We come to this, see, a great deal of your book we'll come to, I say early- your early life story, which I find very fascinating indeed, but a great deal devoted to your association with figures who are celebrated figures, though they be in the world of writing and the world of literature.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Well, it's true in the last 5 or 10 years writers, good writers, in fact, even great writers, have achieved a degree of celebrityhood in America that they didn't use to have, though there too we exaggerate. I mean Hemingway was certainly a celebrity. So was Fitzgerald, you know other writers have not been. Faulkner was never a celebrity for example, but certainly, Robert Lowell, who is probably our best poet is a celebrity, Norman Mailer is a celebrity, I think Norman Mailer is-
Norman Podhoretz Mailer is sort of like Hemingway, really. And I must say, I mean, I'm a great admirer of Mailer's work, and it seems to me perfectly plausible that a man as interesting as he is, both personally and as a writer, should- should command the kind of attention he does, though a lot of people put him down for it, but most people are, and rightly fascinated by the doings of Norman Mailer.
Studs Terkel And your last- the last part of your autobiography deals with your friendship with Norman Mailer and you getting to know him better and appreciate him more. It's a question here though, isn't the a question of the personality and the writer? I mean, and his is almost a classic case, isn't it, it's the personality dash-
Studs Terkel [Unintellegible]
Norman Podhoretz -I think- I think it's true that in all the arts, it's becoming increasingly difficult to separate the personality from the work, you know the classical view is that a work of art exists independently of the personality and that it's- and there is a whole aesthetic tradition which, you know, says that you must look at a work of art without any reference to the person who created it. T.S. Eliot, for example, held this view, but I think we find in all the arts an- an increasingly powerful intrusion, if you like, of personality into the work itself. You certainly see it in something like Action Painting, you- you see it more and more in the novel, I mean, there are fewer and fewer novels that are anything but thinly disguised autobiographies whose power, when- when- when these novels have power, the power lies in the ability of the author to infect you with his personality rather than with any created or imagined world that takes on an independent existence. Bellow's work is a good example, I think, of a native Chicago man, is a good example of this.
Studs Terkel Well, incidentally, if we can dwell on this just for a moment, it was your review of Augie March that caused quite a stir in the family. Perhapse you could describe the family first. This is the literary family distinguished from Stephen Birmingham's Our Crowd which was the financial Jewish fam-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well what I call the family is what some people call the, as I say, the New York literary establishment, where Truman Capote in the current issue of Playboy calls it the Jewish Mafia. The family, this- this world is very largely, though not exclusively Jewish. I mean, many members of it are- are non-Jews-
Studs Terkel You
Norman Podhoretz -like Mary McCarthy- Yeah, well no, the kissing cousins is a different category. I mean, what I call core members, there are many non-jews who are also core members, there's Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, there's James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Fred Dupee, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick. All of these are what I would call core members of the family. But I think that the- the- this group is predominantly made up of Jews and by the
Norman Podhoretz Well-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah well, the kissing cousins would be people who have some kind of relation to this world and the magazines around- in which this world has done much of its work, but who are not, you know, centrally connected with it. I mean, there are people like, the poet John Berryman as an example of someone I call a kissing cousin, trying to think of some of the others I list-
Norman Podhoretz [Laughs]
Studs Terkel Commentary-
Studs Terkel Huh?
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, it was- that was the Adventures of Augie March and I wrote one of the few unfavorable reviews of the book that appeared anywhere, I think. And this is, by the way, characteristic of the family. The members of the family tend to be very harsh about one another's work. In fact, most of the family's being very harsh about my book Making It which is- which is certainly within the family tradition, but a lot of people were outraged by that review, though I think a good many people now take much the same view of that novel as I did in 1953, and Bellow himself, of course, was- was enormously angry, and so were most of his courtiers.
Studs Terkel But we come back to this theme, though, you became known, to a certain extent, because of this review as indeed because of your review of Nelson Algren's Walk on the Wild Side in New Yorker Magazine. It's interesting that you wrote a certain review that caught the attention in a certain magazine, therefore you, the critic, became as well-known as the guy who wrote it.
Norman Podhoretz Well, not as well-known but it- yeah, I mean- well, this is one of the ways in which young writers do attract attention. When a young writer will publish something that is either- seems to be original or especially lively or provocative, especially the latter, I mean, that the best way to attract attention is to outrage people. I must say, I was not, when I wrote that review of Augie March, trying to outrage anyone and I was naive enough then to be surprised by the- the reaction to that review. I was just a kid and I saw Bellow seemed to me to be a great famous writer, and it had not occurred to me that he would pay any attention to what an unknown kid had to say- I know better now, of course. All authors pay attention to what everyone says about their books. I met John O'Hara not long ago for the first time. He publishes a book every Thanksgiving and has probably read about a million reviews of himself by now. But all he could talk about on this occasion was some unfavorable review that had appeared in some obscure place that had got to him and if John O'Hara hasn't got over it by now, I don't suppose any- anybody can.
Studs Terkel But this is a fascinating aspect, I think, you know, to me, is that the critic who does a review in a certain magazine New- New Yorker obviously is one of the magazines to which this would apply, doesn't it? Prestige Magazine-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, this can- can happen. I don't think it happens that often. And, you know, Max Beerbohm talked about people with a few months of success ahead of them. This can be the case with a young critic who wallops a book. Certainly, if the book- certainly if the book has any substance or any staying power it's going to outlast any unfavorable review.
Studs Terkel Norman Podhoretz is our guest, editor of the very influential journal Commentary, and the autobiography is Making It and Random House, the publishers returned to beginnings, you yourself, drive. There's always the aspect of drive involved there, all creative people obviously have a drive, an impulse.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Well, I was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, which is now I guess one of the worst slums in the country. I was back there recently and it was- it was a slum when I was a kid, is now absolutely appalling. But I was born in 1930 in Brownsville and it was, of course, the heart of the depression. My father did have a job, we were not on relief, but we were poor. But I was- I was very happy in Brownsville, it seemed to- seemed to me a glamorous neighborhood. There were a lot of- it was the home of Murder, Incorporated, and a lot of famous athletes had come out of the neighborhood. And it was- it was fun growing up in Brownsville and I had no, at least not that I- not that I can remember, I had no- no social ambitions, you know? I was not, as the sociologist say, upwardly mobile in my- in my ambitions, though I did as- from a very young age have literary ambitions. I started out writing poetry-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, this was a high school teacher who spent a good deal of time and energy on trying to polish and civilize me, as she called it. She used to call me a filthy little slum child. This was done affectionately, by the way, she really believed and she was right, to a very large extent, she really believed that unless a kid like me could- could learn how to act with proper, putting the word proper in quotes, with proper manners, could learn how to dress in the accepted style and, you know, eat with the right sort of forks, and in general, comport himself in the style of what I call in the book a facsimile WASP, unless I could do this, that I would never, you know, never be able to get very far in this society.
Norman Podhoretz Oh I knew she was rude even then and I, in fact, resisted her because I was certainly aware of- of her rudeness, I was also aware of her affection. But my own feeling was that she was a snob and that she was trying to turn me against my own background, which indeed she was. Of course, the joke is I try to show in the book was on me because- because in the course of time, not directly as a result of her influence, I did change from a lower class kid into something, I don- it's hard to know how to describe it, I mean I'm sitting here-
Norman Podhoretz Well, I'm sitting here wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and a, you know, button-down collar shirt and I certainly don't speak in the accents of the old neighborhood anymore, and I- and I have very little contact with the people I grew up with. One gets cut off in the course of making it in this society, making it almost to any extent, especially- especially in the world of culture. And I point out that though I grew up there was a famous- then famous-
Studs Terkel Athlete.
Norman Podhoretz Athlete, a boxer. His name was Harold Green. He was- came very close to becoming a welterweight champion in the 40s, and there had been- and there were other famous athletes in the neighborhood. One of them, for example, is now the coach of the New York Knicks, from this very same street, Red Holzman. Now, these people, famous athletes, were not cut off from their background, they were, as a matter of fact, they would, even when they'd moved to, you know, to classier your neighborhoods, used to come back and hang around the local pool room or the local candy store where they were treated by their friends as important celebrities.
Studs Terkel This is a fascinating point. Both of you are celebrities. Harold Green, almost welterweight champion, and you, yet he could return and you could not because something happened here that is quite clear [clanking noises] in the case of England, [unintelligible]. Accent. Accent became a factor here.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. I think accent is an enormously important aspect of American life and something that hasn't been paid very much attention to. There are a great many accents in this country. Some of them- some of them regional in character, and some of them ethnic in character. The broadly regional accents enjoy more or less equal status socially, that is you're alright if you have a-
Norman Podhoretz Southern or midwestern accent or New England accent. The accents that- however, that are influenced by the languages of the major post-Civil War immigrant groups like Yiddish or like Italian or even American Irish as a kind of ethnic accent, certainly in New York, these particular accents are- are regarded as- as what?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel And you had a strange paradox, a- a strange contradiction here, negro accent among kids, say, or hippies- hip- oh not- I shouldn't use the word hippies. Kids who want to be in, or generally speaking, among those who are, to use an old-fashioned word, hipsters-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Norman Podhoretz Oh yeah. Well, that's a fairly recent development and it's- and it's just the obverse of the- of the coin that I'm trying to describe, in other words, the whole hipster movement, if you can call it a movement, was, you know, was born out of the identification with a socially despised group. And it, you know, and it- hipsters were expressing their disaffection with American society in general by- well Kenneth Rexroth once used a wonderful phrase for this kind of thing called it Crow Jim-ism, you know, the obverse of Jim Crow and- but that- that in itself I think is another symptom of the importance and significance of accent in this country.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well, for example just to cut in on this, if Arthur Goldberg, who comes from I think a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, if Authur Goldberg still had the accent he must have had as a kid, he would- he would never have been appointed to the Supreme Court and he would never have become, perhaps fortunately for him, ambassador to the U.N.-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, I mean, it's perhaps unfortunate that he got that job. But certainly, or, you know, Lyndon Johnson is interesting in this regard because Lyndon Johnson's accent privately is much more- much more regional, much more deeply Southern than his public accent. He seems to feel, as a politician, that if he comes on too regional, this will limit his appeal.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligble]
Norman Podhoretz Well, that's a very good point and this is all part of the assault in, you know, in England since about 1950 on the class structure. It used to be in England, even when I was there between 1950 and 53, that- that so-called working-class accent doomed an Englishman to, you know, to low occupational status. I mean well we all know this from Pygmalion and Shaw. Shaw was acutely aware of the significance of accent in that class society. My own view is that accent, and perhaps in a more subtle less obvious way, has much the same significance in America, and that changes of accent are- are part of the, if you like, of the price that people pay for being allowed to make it in any field outside the ethnic community, in other words, if you're a Puerto Rican lawyer, you know, servicing, you know, Puerto Rican clientele, or even if you're a congressman representing a heavily, you know, district with a heavily ethnic pop- population, it's ok, you can still sound and look, in fact, you almost have to, like the people you are serving. But once you move outside that sphere, let's use the analogy in politics, say, if you're gonna to try to run for the Senate, for example, you have to shed- you almost have to shed that- that ethnic coloration.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, yeah. Well, what I believe is that the literary world is, as a world, is- is in princ-, it is pretty much like any other worl- occupational world in America. I mean the work it does is special and my book is not really about the work that literary people do as my book is not a book of literary criticism. It's about the- it's about the careers that are pursued in the literary world. And I think that, you know, with changes of detail, you could tell pretty much the same story about General Motors or about-
Studs Terkel Yeah
Studs Terkel I wonder if this has always been the case, 'cause here you have the same drives in the literary world as you would find on the industrial or the political world, and you use the phrase "the dirty little secret" which D.H. Lawrence referred- was referring to sex as [unintelligble]-
Norman Podhoretz Right.
Norman Podhoretz That's right. Which is- which is itself a form of lust. I mean, you can try and experiment if you don't believe that- that ambition is the same kind of dirty little secret to us as sex was to the Victorians. Most people these days are perfectly happy to tell you and great and graphic detail, you know, what happens in the bedroom, what kind of sex lives they have. If you ask- if you ask someone about this he'll- he's likely to, you know, think this is a perfectly legitimate question, but if you ask somebody how much money he makes, he will regard this as an extremely tasteless question, or if you ask him, you know, whether he feels himself to be a success or a failure in his, you know, in his particular field, he's liable to get extremely nervous and embarrassed, much, I think in the way that, you know, a proper Victorian would have when asked about sex.
Norman Podhoretz No.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well, the contempt for success in the American literary world is- well, there's a history here, no it has not always been so and writers throughout the centuries have certainly been, you know, have certainly been ambitious people, I mean ambitious in the worldly sense, and have not generally concealed this. This is, you know, I think Shakespeare was very clearly ambitious and Dickens was and so on. What happened in this country was that after the Civil War, during the period of great industrial expansion, what's called The Gilded Age, the balance of power or influence in this country shifted from the old line patrician WASP class to this new class of- of big businessmen, or robber barons as Matthew Josephson once called them, who were in some kind of political collusion with- or who were helped along by the influx of large numbers of immigrants starting in the 1880s. Now it was out of- it was out of this era that the- that a conflict, a very serious conflict developed, between the people who considered themselves enlightened, cultivated, spiritual- so this battle develop between that class on the one side, that class of people on the one side, and the- and the business community, or what later came to be called the bourgeoisie on the other side. And it was- was in this period that the idea began to gain currency in this country. You see it in Andrew Carnegie, P.T. Barnum, and so on, the idea began to gain currency that- that success, that is to say, the making of money, really was equivalent to virtue and this is an old Calvinist idea. But at the same time, there was an opposite idea that got into currency which was that success was equivalent to corruption. And what I would call the gospel of anti-success, which- which became, if you like, the gospel of not only the literary community but the educated public in general. And I think the attitudes associated with the gospel of anti-success have always been more influential than most historians have told us and have really come into their own in our own day. I think it's impossible to understand the hippies and the kids who drop out and so on without reference to the influence of these attitudes. And you see them all over, you know, they take the form sometimes of the romance- the romanticizing of the loser. I think the romanticizing of the negro, and I don't mean sympathy with the negro, romanticizing of the negro is part of this-