On their best days they were brilliant, the New York intellectuals. There was nobody like them. In the pages of the Partisan Review and other journals, they raised the art of the essay and the craft of the argument to new levels of excellence. They wrote with originality, confidence, and the high energy of mid-century modernist culture. Writers like Clement Greenberg, Lionel Trilling and Daniel Bell deserved their reputations as the most compelling critics in America. But on their worst days (and most of them had such days), the New York intellectuals were painfully self-important, the sort of people who got up in the morning and asked themselves: What would a major thinker, like me, write about this subject? At their worst, they wasted their energy on striking the right pose and wearing the right ideas.
Norman Podhoretz's appalling yet often fascinating new book, Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (Simon & Schuster, 244 pages, $37) is the product of many such bad days. Podhoretz has been a critic, an editor, and a neoconservative polemicist. But for many years he has been, first of all, the curator of his own reputation.
Ex-Friends is his third attempt to explain his role among the New York intellectuals. In 1968, with Making It, he created a scandal by confessing that he was ragingly ambitious and insisting that others would admit the same if they were honest; he called lust for success the "dirty little secret" of American culture. In 1979 he wrote Breaking Ranks, about his political move from left to right. Ex-Friends works the same ground, through interlocking stories of failed relationships with six eminent figures.
Making It was a brave and original book, though widely scorned. Breaking Ranks was provocative, but more predictable. Ex-Friends is the least effective because it suffers even more than the others from intense self-consciousness. It slowly collapses under the dead weight of the author's ego.
The title is the first mistake: clearly, Podhoretz doesn't quite know what he means by "friend." His long Allen Ginsberg section shows that they were never close. They knew each other briefly as students at Columbia University, they exchanged some insults over the years, and Ginsberg often depicted Podhoretz as an Establishment symbol. But they spent little time together and exchanged no confidences. All we learn (and we learn it in excruciating detail) is that Podhoretz has no use for Ginsberg's work or ideas.
Podhoretz was much friendlier with Lillian Hellman, the two of them sharing many confidences and often exchanging visits. Even so, it was a peculiar friendship. Podhoretz didn't like her work but said he did. ("It is a truth universally acknowledged in the literary world that the only way to remain on good terms with a writer whose work one does not admire is to pretend to admire it; and this is what I did with Lillian.") By his own account, he was a kind of Hellman groupie; what he liked was her conversation and her access to the famous. But their diverging political views inevitably separated them.
His close relationship with Mailer ended when Mailer (as Podhoretz sees it) proved himself a false friend: in private he claimed to admire Making It, but criticized it in print. Podhoretz and Hannah Arendt were friendly till he damned her famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Later, reading her published letters, he discovered that during their friendship she had been writing derisively of him to Mary McCarthy. So did she always secretly dislike him? Perhaps not. A kind friend of Podhoretz has suggested that Hannah wrote those nasty passages just to please her friend Mary, who had never forgiven Norman for his review of....Well, these are complicated lives.
Lionel Trilling was the towering figure in Podhoretz's intellectual life, but their relationship plays out in these pages as a comedy scripted by Sigmund Freud. At Columbia, Podhoretz was Trilling's best student (a fact that sounds less authentic every time Podhoretz reports it). For years he remained a disciple, but in the 1950s he moved to Trilling's left, making his old teacher begin to look obsolete. But then he nimbly jumped back over Trilling and shifted rightward--first a little to Trilling's right, then a lot. Trilling, a shrewd reader of Freud, must have known what was going on. Podhoretz managed to kill his father twice, once from the left and once from the right. In generational conflict that's scored as an Oedipal double play, a rare achievement even among the most contentious of intellectuals.