By Norman Podhoretz.
New York: The Free Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-648-85594-1

Comments of Bob Corbett, July 2000.

Norman Podhoretz began his career as a bit of a boy wonder with the New York, mainly Jewish, intellectual circle which he calls the Family. This defender of "high culture" in the 1930s through the 70s took him in and furthered his career. This group was sort of leftish, but more 1930s leftist than 1960s counter-culture.

Podhoretz began to slowly have doubts about this intellectual orientation, and especially about the 1960s New Left and the culture it spawned. He slowly moved toward Neo-conservativism, and in that moving created frictions which led to the end of several important and formative friendships. Thus the title of this book. The ex-friends who are the focus of this volume are:

I enjoyed the book a great deal. The chapters on Ginsberg, Hellman and Mailer seemed more gossipy than the others, but even in those chapters Podhoretz tries to get to the intellectual issues which ultimately played into the break of the friendships more than just personal matters. The chapters on the Trillings and Arendt were quite rich in tracing some of the interesting intellectual battles of the 1960s and 70s.

The central issues which seem to have driven Podhoretz away from his leftist early years and into his better known Neo-conservativism are:

  1. Concern that the left was gratuitously anti-capitalist.
  2. Concern that the left was too anti-American.
  3. Concern that the left took too lightly the threat to the world posed by Soviet Communism.
  4. Centrally a concern that the left fostered a popular (and even intellectual) culture in the U.S. which had strong negative impact on life in the U.S.

I found the Podhoretz book just on its own merits internally fascinating, watching these battles being fought out at the highest levels of intellect, as least on his account. But I was fascinated for another reason. I find myself at a MUCH later period of life, coming to have some doubts about central and fundamental positions of the contemporary left. Unlike Podhoretz, none of his central concerns are my own. My concerns center rather around the issues of:

  1. The desire for universality in moral life.
  2. The seeming demise of the notion of individual responsibility.
  3. The central concern in reflection of moral life on public policy rather than personal action and living.
  4. The lack of attention to the moral and personal struggles of individuals in their everyday living.

I found virtually no overlap of my growing concerns with much of the agenda of the contemporary left and those problems which drove Podhoretz to the right, but I was simply fascinated by the descriptions of how making such a move completely turned his former world and all its relationships topsy-turvy.

It's a book I'd welcome discussing with anyone.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu