Making It

Twelve years ago, I wrote my first book review for The Washington Post which one of the staff members fittingly named “Brainiacs Need Love Too.” As a black guy who grew up in and around the D.C. area for much of his life, and who by fifteen was scrupulously following Michael Dirda’s literary column, I was elated. But what most sticks out about the occasion was the sheepish look that my late, great aunt Marguerite directed at me after she read my article in the paper, which she received every day. Though a consummate hostess able to interact with all sorts of people and put them at their ease, she was confounded by what I’d written. Certainly, its allusions to Dante and the history of the Church’s ambivalent relationship to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake sailed past her. But as much as it bothers me to admit it, I doubt I would’ve been more pleased if she’d gone into raptures over my review because, I knew it wasn’t written for her. It was written for my editor — from whom I naturally wanted to get more work — and for a rarefied audience in my imagination. I naively thought of it as a calling card that would secure my admission into the intellectual class.

I was reminded of this and other unflattering episodes from my life while reading Making It, Norman Podhoretz’s astute though not necessarily always likable memoir about his rise to prominence as a literary critic and later as the editor of Commentary. The book, which was originally published in 1967 and has now been reissued by NYRB Classics, charts the author’s will to power, which takes him from Brownsville — still one of New York City’s most shamefully neglected neighborhoods — to the Upper West Side. Thus, the famous first sentence: “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan — or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.”

It takes considerable equipoise or security in one’s status to read Making It and not measure oneself against it, for better or worse. You don’t have to be involved in the publishing racket to feel goaded by the author’s account of his accumulation of cultural, social, and monetary capital (in that order), since the text is tension-laced with competitive energy. Furthermore, the author’s guiding precept is that success has displaced sex “as the major ‘dirty little secret’ of the age.” The corollary to this statement is that to deny one’s psychological investment in the competitive field of human endeavors is a sure sign of repression. It is impossible to affect indifference within the context of such a worldview without courting the charge of self-deception or calculated disingenuousness.

Yet, when Making It was first published, people all over the world, notably students, were questioning the legitimacy of the moral order around them. (In the ensuing years, Podhoretz made himself into an enemy of the counterculture.) A book about assimilating into the Establishment could hardly have been more out of step with the zeitgeist of the era. So it was that in early days of 1968, The New York Times published Frederic Raphael’s take on the book, “What Makes Norman Run.” Toward the end of the piece, Raphael shows himself an adept in deploying the type of criticism that Podhoretz, in his book, describes as his forte — i.e., that which uses the book review as a means to touch on larger cultural issues. “We no longer,” Raphael writes, “look to critics with the same servility . . . The resurgence of the movies, as everyone’s medium, a medium which largely postpones judging until showing has been completed, suggests that the whole structure of our presuppositions may be on the point of subversion.” By questioning the sacrosanct dimension of the literary critic’s vocation — which Podhoretz gives every indication of subscribing to — and looking to a changing social structure that threatens to devalue his position, Raphael leaves readers wondering why they should care about a self-described success whose long-term prospects appear shaky.

In Making It, Podhoretz gamely owns up to his own hypersensitivity toward negative criticism. “I responded even to the most enthusiastic reviews,” he writes about those he received for his first essay collection, “as though they were attacks (in this acting exactly like many other writers I had always despised for their childish behavior in the face of criticism).” I hesitate to imagine what Podhoretz, who, after Making It came out, drifted from the anti-Communist Left to the staunchly pro-Establishment Right, must have thought of the Times review of Making It. Even though it was mild in comparison to the drubbing he received in The Nation, which called the book “deplorably inbred,” or The New Leader, which referred to it as “a career expressed as a matchless 360 pages of ejaculation.” But as Norman Mailer (then a friend from whom Podhoretz eventually grew estranged) observed in “Up the Family Tree,” a sympathetic albeit critical appraisal of the book in Partisan Review, “The Establishment has qualities, not the first of which we might suggest is its absolute detestation of any effort to classify or examine it.”

But within these various full or partial snubs one can spot evidence of Making It‘s most useful quality for anyone with writerly ambitions: as a mirror that offers up a painful but perhaps necessary reflection. Early in the book, one finds the sort of admission that’s likely to gall bien-pensants who wish to present themselves as incorruptibly egalitarian or are loath to reflect on their class prejudices. Recalling his well-bred, Vassar-educated high school teacher, Mrs. K., who did her utmost to help him shed the markers of his Brownsville acculturation, Podhoretz states, “She was fond of quoting Cardinal Newman’s definition of a gentleman as a person who could be at ease in any company, yet if anything was clear about the manners she was trying to teach me, it was that they operated — not inadvertently but by deliberate design — to set one at ease only with others similarly trained and to cut one off altogether from those who were not.” Although the young Podhoretz balked at his teacher’s instructions on how he should dress and comport himself, he internalized them to forestall a break with his surrounding community. A break, he notes, that many of his elders in the neighborhood anticipated much sooner that he did.

As the precocious second child of working-class immigrants, Podhoretz grew up with keen sensitivity to class distinctions. At his alma mater, Columbia, he resisted but still felt burdened by a “code of manners” that “forbade one to work too hard or make any effort to impress a professor or to display the slightest concern over grades.” Later, he writes, “So far as the characteristic, upper-class disdain for ambitiousness is concerned — the species of disdain I encountered in youthfully exaggerated form at Columbia — no doubt it was originally adopted as a weapon to be used by those whose wealth was inherited or whose position was secure against those who were occupied with accumulating the one acquiring the other.” Many years later, I found traces of a similar moral code in place when I went to Vassar. Indeed, it was my richest friend, a true scion of the upper class, who dismissed my attempts to foster relationships with my professors and thought nothing about lamenting over how he was too lazy to take advantage of the opportunities that life had afforded him.

Today, when so many people have a tough time finding or keeping decent-paying jobs, and when a subject like income inequality has trickled into the storylines of everything from popular television shows to video games, a book about the obsession over status could hardly feel more relevant. (Recently, one of the most popular stories on The New York Times website concerned the cultural differences that a young man perceived when he left his hometown of Flint, Michigan to attend a summer semester at Phillips Exeter.) If anything, our love/hate relationship with social media, which goes hand-in-glove with the ideology that enjoins us to be our own brand, has probably made us as status-conscious as the courtiers of Versailles ever were.

If you’re fascinated by code switching — adjusting one’s behavior to suit different milieus — or have ever received the cold shoulder from someone at a party who, apart from anything having to do with attraction, assumed you were not in their league, then you will likely find much of interest in this book that plunges deep into the pressure cooker of the American class system.

The Barnes & Noble Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s