The Smashing Eggheads

How to lose friends and influence people: Making enemies is Norman Podhoretz's true gift.

The Free Press; 233 pages; $25

Not without justification, given its history of vendettas, rubouts, and closed-door initiation ceremonies, Norman Podhoretz calls it “the Family” – the ring of liberal New York intellectuals who, through the fifties, sixties, and early seventies ruled the bloody Olympian turf of such exalted journals of opinion as Commentary, The Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books. Like literary mobsters, but without the actual Mafia’s occasional spasms of mercy for its own, this select gang of writers warred over issues from socialism to the Vietnam War, tolerating, according to Podhoretz, little dissent and no disloyalty. To be with them meant getting the right professorships and the most coveted party invitations; to be against them meant, Podhoretz writes, a kind of Siberian exile in one’s own study.

Podhoretz’s new memoir, Ex-Friends, traces his gradual alienation from the likes of Lionel and Diana Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer – a sampling of the Family’s made members who turned against him as he aged and changed, going from an appropriately left-ish Columbia University wunderkind to an unapologetic Reagan man. It’s a hallmark of Podhoretz’s aggrievement that he blames nearly all these breakups on the other party, number one, and on intellectual politics, number two, rather than on, say, raw dislike of someone’s face. For while there’s sufficient dirt in the book to cause the reader to at least suspect that Podhoretz can be pretty personal in his quarrels (anecdotes about Ginsberg’s sexual high jinks and Mailer’s drug use stand out), the ruling notion is that his falling-outs were the result of clashes over ideas.

These clashes follow a common pattern. Take Podhoretz’s history with Ginsberg. As fellow students at Columbia, they supposedly liked each other and recognized each other’s talent and promise. Podhoretz was impressed by Ginsberg’s gift for aping traditional poetic forms, but when the author of “Howl” transformed himself into a “Pied Piper” of radical youth, his erstwhile admirer changed his tune. Though still a full-fledged lefty, Podhoretz wrote that Ginsberg’s Beat confederates felt that “sordid acts of violence are justifiable so long as they are committed in the name of instinct.”

What’s more, Podhoretz was skeptical about Ginsberg’s homosexuality, wondering if it wasn’t indeed a pose meant to fill out his wild underground image. A flurry of letters and shouting matches followed, with Ginsberg playing the inflamed bohemian, charging his peer with a juvenile grudge going back to a college squabble over the editing of one of his poems, and Podhoretz playing the principled young thinker, chiefly concerned, he claims, with Ginsberg’s moral stance.

To this colorful tempest in a pot pipe, Podhoretz brings plenty of marginal disgust over Ginsberg’s lifestyle and choice of friends, running down everything from his crappy apartment to the financial windfall he received for his literary papers, while insisting that their dispute, at least for his part, was primarily a cultural matter.

Podhoretz’s method throughout the memoir is to play up the will-to-power in others and highlight their unwillingness to see it while cheerfully admitting to his own. As Manhattan’s last honest man, Podhoretz suggests that by knowing what drives him – pride, ambition, lust for praise – he’s free to think and judge more rationally, while those who deny or hide their egotism tend to be its slaves.

It’s an arrogant point of view, to say the least, and reason alone, the reader can’t help but feel, for any old friend who felt its chill to dump him, their political disagreements notwithstanding. Yet Podhoretz can’t seem to see it. The looking glass through which he views himself is decidedly less powerful than the microscope he turns on others. Indeed, Podhoretz’s mirror seldom yields other than a flattering image. Brilliant student. Faithful, if tempted, husband. Courageous editor. About the only peccadillo he cops to (besides his appetite for fame, which is really a virtue, he argues) is a youthful fondness for strong drink.

Podhoretz may not be fully aware of the reasons people disliked him so, but he does have a knack for portraying that dislike and conjuring up an era as a result. For the Family, the problem of problems was the Cold War and its now unintelligible array of subsidiary questions. Were Hitler and Stalin equivalent villains? Could Soviet communism reform itself? Should America be spelled Amerika? And who would you rather have marry your sister, Lenin or Trotsky? Looking back on them from the placid, globalist nineties, these formerly life-or-death debates have the sepia quaintness of baseball seasons past. It’s hard to believe that they inspired slammed doors once, vows of revenge, and hurled martinis, and yet they surely did. The strength of Ex-Friends is in making these tantrums plausible, in bringing a lost time to life, and in this respect it’s absorbing reading. So absorbing, in fact, it’s almost trashy.

The chapter on Norman Mailer, placed last, shows Podhoretz the gossip in all his glory and lets us forget for a blessed interval Podhoretz the embattled moralist. The pages drip with steamy, bloody juices. Even as the two Normans zing each other about their positions on existentialism and foreign policy, they contend on a baser, dirtier plane. Mailer, in the role of the corrupter, invites Podhoretz to join a threesome. He thrusts a joint at him and makes him inhale. After stabbing his wife at a rowdy party that Podhoretz makes sure to stipulate he had the sense to exit early, Mailer runs to his upright friend for counsel – an honor Podhoretz still hasn’t lived down, it seems. “There was a strategy session by the Mailer family that Sunday evening at which I was among the few outsiders… .”

The use of the word outsiders is telling. Hostility Podhoretz can abide (he views it as a distinction, one gathers), but irrelevance, no way.

In purely emotional terms, Ex-Friends is Podhoretz’s way of telling the world that, rejected or not, he was a contender once. A contender in a particularly strenuous league. There’s a true and affecting sadness in this, not just for him but for the culture at large. At a time when intellectual debate means Carville versus Falwell on the Today show, the internecine battles of the Family, whatever their muddy personal roots, seem towering indeed.

The Smashing Eggheads