I had a distinctly middle-aged moment when I picked up the galley proof of Norman Podhoretz’s Ex-Friends. The publisher’s blurb on the inside cover says: “[T]his memoir of some of the key intellectual battles of the last 30 years offers a rare, firsthand portrait of the New York intellectuals—’American Bloomsbury’ as they have been called—by one of the few surviving members.” The phrase “American Bloomsbury” was coined, I believe, not by the etherous passive-voice-denoted entity of the blurb but by me, in the pages of this magazine, in a review of Alexander Bloom’s Prodigal Sons published in 1986.

What I meant was that the New York intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century—or, as Podhoretz calls them, using Murray Kempton’s term, “the Family” — was our best example of a tight-knit, complicatedly connected hothouse group of writers and intellectuals whose ideas changed the culture. Since then the comparison has become even more apt: Both Bloomsbury and the Family have spawned a seemingly inexhaustible series of memoirs. The publisher’s blurb makes it sound as if Ex-Friends will be one of the last Family memoirs because so few of the members are left. I don’t think so. If Bloomsbury is any guide, the death of the original members only frees their children to get started on their memoirs. Surely out of the group that includes David Bell and John Podhoretz and Maura Moynihan and Lizzie Glazer and Bill Kristol will emerge our Nigel Nicolson and Quentin Bell.

As with Bloomsbury, the story of the Family has by now become so familiar and comfortable that reading in it is like slipping into a warm bath. Norman Podhoretz alone has now written at least three Family memoirs (four if you count The Bloody Crossroads) covering essentially the same ground. Here is the broad outline: The Family took form in the 1930s, mainly around the founding of Partisan Review. Most of its members were Jews from working-class backgrounds, and most were ex-Communists. They came together in shared commitment to anti-Stalinist Left politics, but they were really esthetes first and political people second. Indeed, their disillusionment with Communism was over just the Moscow trials and Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, but also over the Party’s insistence that its members celebrate mediocre, didactic works of art and literature and condemn great ones that didn’t hew to the party line.

Through the ’40s and ’50s, its glory days, the Family lived a rarefied, enclosed, incestuous life, publishing in such small-circulation journals as Dissent, Commentary and The New Leader in addition to Partisan Review and conducting a never-ending series of complicated feuds and love affairs. It had no use for and little interaction with the main cultural institutions—and yet it produced such enduring works as Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, and. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The ’60s brought the life of the Family to an end. Some became faculty fifth columnists in the student revolution, some (like Podhoretz) moved right and started the neoconservative movement, some retreated into comfortable professorships, some went mainstream and wrote bestsellers (Norman Mailer) or ran for office (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). Today there’s nothing in America quite like the Family.

With Ex-Friends Podhoretz has re-told the Family story in the odd and provocative form of five mesmerizing, densely interconnected narratives of his feuds with prominent people who were either Family members or figures on the periphery: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. To present yourself as a feudist is to make it quite difficult to achieve what I would have thought would be every memoir-writer’s dream, to come across as a deeply sympathetic character. Does Podhoretz, in what he describes as “my rather reclusive dotage,” just not care what people think of him any more? No, probably not—if he didn’t care, then he wouldn’t have so carefully constructed each story so as to demonstrate that he was right and the ex-friend wrong. But the stories, though brilliantly incisive about the weaknesses of their subjects, present Podhoretz quite differently from the way he seems to think they do. At the very least they offer a massive temptation, which I won’t resist, to armchair-psychoanalyze him.

Each of the ex-friendships began as an alliance that was more advantageous to Podhoretz than to the ex-friend. Allen Ginsberg, his Columbia classmate, was editor of the campus literary magazine and the first person to publish Podhoretz’s writing; Lionel Trilling was the leading light of the Columbia faculty; Hellman operated a glamorous literary salon; Arendt was one of the world’s great thinkers; and Mailer was New York’s hottest young novelist. The narrative arc of each story is the same. First Podhoretz, powerfully eager and charming, wins the person over. A wonderful and well-recounted period of closeness follows (except in the case of Ginsberg, who was never really a friend). Even during this phase Podhoretz, though, as presented by Podhoretz, isn’t a terribly appealing character. He expertly catalogues the weaknesses of the friend (without letting the friend know he’s doing so) while reaping as much benefit as he can from the friendship. He isn’t especially generous, loving, or steadfast; for example he tells Hellman he likes her books when he doesn’t, which isn’t an act of true friendship.

And then the friendship ends—over politics, as Podhoretz tells it, each of the ex-friends having proved to be more sympathetic to the New Left, less alarmed about the Soviet threat, and less loyal to the Jewish cause than he. Podhoretz’s overarching explanation for all this feuding is that it is simply an example of “what life is always like for an intellectual,” because “[s]uch a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes . . . doctrine or dogma.” In particular, when there has been a “seizure of enormous power by radical ideas and attitudes over the institutions controlled by intellectuals,” as occurred in the ’60s, feuding is practically a moral responsibility. But Podhoretz’s writing is too vividly detailed, and too candid, to allow him to get away with his own theory. He provides us with mountains of evidence that unusual prickliness is a personality trait of his, not a characteristic that all members of the type to which he belongs possess in equal measure. In the course of going through his official roster of ex-friendships he also mentions that he has feuded with many other people, from Jackie Onassis to Nathan Glazer, and that as a young literary critic he was known for usually being on the attack. He has that illogical but quite common pairing of human qualities, hypercriticality and hypersensitivity. Read carefully in the ex-friendships, and you often find that what turned things sour was that the other person criticized Podhoretz in a way that he found mystifyingly unjustified and that deeply, permanently wounded him. There’s more going on here than just intellectuals differing over politics.

The most hurtful event in Podhoretz’s public life was the extremely negative reception that his first memoir, Making It, got when it was published in 1967, when he was still in his thirties. Making It has the same master narrative as Ex-Friends—it’s the story of Podhoretz’s rise from Brooklyn poverty into full Family membership—but it’s packaged in the somewhat forced premise that ambition “seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” Making It was a direct attack on the ethos of the Family, which claimed to hold itself proudly apart from the national preoccupation with worldly success, and the Family responded by disliking it. The Trillings advised him not to publish it (Diana correctly calling it “completely humorless”). Hannah Arendt didn’t like it. Cruelest blow of all, Norman Mailer, who’d told Podhoretz he liked it, published a negative review of Making It in Partisan Review.

It’s evident that Podhoretz had very high hopes for Making It—it would be his version of the kind of daring, candid, splashily successful confession that was making his friend Mailer famous and celebrated in those days. Why didn’t it work? Alas, not just because the Family found Podhoretz’s truths too uncomfortable. Self-presentation is a delicate art, and Podhoretz has never mastered it. He’s so much inside his own head that he can’t perform the basic move—essential to the work of actors, politicians, and memoirists—of accurately perceiving how audiences will respond to him. Making It is the functional equivalent of the scene in Trilling’s class at Columbia, replayed in Ex-Friends, where Podhoretz’s hand is always up and he can’t understand why that annoys the teacher. This is a minor flaw of self-presentation and empathetic understanding—I don’t mean to make too much of it. Podhoretz was, no doubt, the smartest and best-prepared student in the class; Making It is irresistibly interesting; and he did show courage in being willing to follow his passions where they took him. His tendency to attract mocking criticism is important only because he is the opposite of impervious; if he could have figured out how to avoid being mocked, or not to care when he was, there would have been no problem.

The critical failure of Making It brought to an end a phase in Podhoretz’s life—the phase in which he was invited to the best and most glamorous parties in town, such as Truman Capote’s 1965 masked ball at the Plaza Hotel. Overnight he became uncool, the kind of person who’s made fun of behind his back. Was this treatment unfair, as Podhoretz has complained for years? Absolutely. He got a full dose of the New York literary-intellectual souk at its worst: the refusal to take good ideas seriously if they’re not properly packaged, the reflexive liberalism, the disloyalty to someone who strays outside the charmed circle. His fate was especially cruel for being perfectly ironic: Because he wrote a book admitting to his deep attraction to the high life in New York, he was denied access to it.

It’s true that the worst excesses of the student revolution and the black power movement occurred just after the publication of Making It, but the impression you get in Ex-Friends is that the painful failure of Making It also helped drive Podhoretz to the right. To explain how, I’ll cite another item in Family history, Philip Rahv’s 1938 essay “Paleface and Redskin” This was an update of the old Apollonian-Dionysian distinction, applied to American literature: Walt Whitman was a Redskin, Henry James was a Paleface.

These categories apply well to the young Podhoretz—better than the purely political categories that he uses to explain himself. His soul was a battleground between his Paleface and Redskin impulses, the Paleface determinedly conventional and bourgeois and “good,” the Redskin filled with wild longings (which Podhoretz discusses with surprising candor in Ex-Friends) for sex and fame. This passage, from the chapter on Allen Ginsberg, says it all:

“As against the law-abiding life I had chosen of a steady job and marriage and children, he conjured up a world of complete freedom from the limits imposed by such grim responsibilities. It was a world that promised endless erotic possibility together with the excitements of an expanded consciousness constantly open to new dimensions of being: more adventure, more sex, more intensity, more life. God knows that as a young man full of energy and curiosity, and not altogether averse to taking risks, I was tempted by all this. God knows too that there were moments when I felt cheated and when I dreamed of breaking out of the limits I had imposed upon myself. Yet at the same time, I was repelled by Ginsburg’s world.”

During the ’60s, and especially in writing Making It, Podhoretz ventured into Redskin territory: exciting, expressive, unconventional. He couldn’t have been more badly burned. So he beat a permanent retreat into the Paleface realm, which, to him, was conservatism, with its toughness, its strict limits, its intense awareness of the perils of liberation. As a writer his subject changed from literature (Redskin), which he loved, to politics (Paleface), which he regarded as a grim duty. If you remove the psychological dimension, Podhoretz’s version of his political migration from Cold War liberal to ’60s radical to neoconservative, just doesn’t scan. For example, in Ex-Friends he explains his move to the right partly by saying that in the late ’60s or early ’70s he learned that the Soviet Union was much more dangerous than he had assumed; previously, after Stalin had died, he had been a peaceful-coexistence man. But for this to be the whole story requires that what most people think of as the hottest moment of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, failed to pierce the consciousness of Podhoretz, since by his own account he remained a quasi-radical for another five years. Obviously his political development was a blend of responses to events in the world and events in his own life.

The stated aim of Making It was to induce everyone to stop hypocritically denying the omnipresence of ambition in American life. If you take that at face value, then Norman Podhoretz ought to be delighted with the state of things today. Ambition is by no stretch of the imagination any longer a dirty little secret, including in the intellectual world. It’s right out in the open. The leading writers and thinkers are the objects of bidding wars among universities, book publishers, and magazines. Podhoretzian engagement in politics has proliferated to the point where there is a whole economy employing “action intellectuals” in think tanks. A situation in which America’s most important intellectuals care about nothing so much as what’s in four magazines with a combined circulation of under 100,000 seems impossibly distant.

Is Podhoretz delighted with this turn of events? No, he isn’t. He misses the old days, his literary-critic young manhood and the heyday of the Family. “I regret the loss of the literary-intellectual world in which I used to live,” he says at the end of Ex-Friends. And: “We now have ‘policy wonks’ by the thousands, but we have only a handful of thinkers who are willing and able to examine and critically debate either the assumptions these legislatively oriented minds do not even realize they are making or the intellectual foundations on which they stand.” And: “[W]hat made the Family special . . . was the high concentration of writers and intellectuals who not only had superior minds . . . but whose major passion in life was ideas and the arts, and who could get just as wrought up in an argument over the work of a novelist or painter as they could about political ideologies.” These are poignant words because, as Ex-Friends makes clear, the things Podhoretz now realizes he loved about the Family are just what he personally rejected in the late ’60s: the Family’s apartness from the commercial mainstream (snobbish and hypocritical though it could sometimes be), its high piety about its mission, its aestheticism.

It would be too much to say that the whole tenor of American culture would be different today if Norman Podhoretz’s career hadn’t permuted in the way it did. But Ex-Friends left me with the feeling that at least one precious resource, Podhoretz’s critical intelligence, was sacrificed on the altar of his own thin-skinnedness.

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.