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Norman Podhoretz: A Biography Hardcover – June 14, 2010
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Literature professor Jeffers, editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader (2004), here narrates the life story of a major intellectual anchor of the neoconservative movement. It is, in part, a story of social mobility and intellectual development. Raised in working-class Brooklyn, young Podhoretz studied at Columbia and was noticed by Lionel Trilling, which opened the door to Cambridge and a place among New York’s intellectual elite, whose left-leaning politics he would later famously renounce. Intellectual combat is another major theme: it was the era of serious intellectuals and serious intellectual periodicals, and as editor of the conservative Commentary, Podhoretz was at the center of many of the twentieth century’s most vehement and consequential cultural debates and had the ear of powerful men like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Jeffers notes some of Podhoretz’s more controversial moments—criticism of feminism and homosexuality, support for bombing Iran—but his exuberant praise for his subject seems to take priority over critical examination of his positions. The result is a flawed yet fascinating look at a profoundly influential thinker. --Brendan Driscoll
"Jeffers...skillfully weaves together these and other stories of Podhoretz's dramatic ascent to the peak of influence within the liberal intellectual world." -'David Linker, New York Times'
"In his insightful biography of Norman Podhoretz, Jeffers has captured the substance and conscience of a man difficult to categorize, who has been a figure of consequence in the political and cultural controversies of our time." -Dr. Henry A. Kissinger
"Very few journalists have led lives consequential enough to merit a full-scale biography. Norman Podhoretz is one of the few, and this book--intelligent, thorough, admirably fair-minded--does full justice to the story of his complex and controversial life." -Terry Teachout, drama critic, The Wall Street Journal
"A literate, insightful and well-wrought portrait of one of the most important public intellectuals of the last half century. Thomas Jeffers has served both his audience and his subject well, and in doing so has made an important contribution to the history of our times." -David Horowitz, author of Radical Son and A Cracking of the Heart
"This is a first-class account of one of the most interesting and significant men in America. Norman Podhoretz is a leading intellectual whose contribution to public debate, over many decades, has been unrivalled for incisiveness and force. This biography will delight those already familiar with his work, and serve to introduce him clearly to newcomers." -Paul Johnson, historian and author of Modern Times and A History of the American People
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So that's my perspective in reading this book, which I was able to get used for a dollar or two (plus shipping): a sense of respect for the magazine and its editor in that era (I dropped my subscription long ago) vs a critic or even an antagonist. This book provides a tour of Podhoretz's life narrated by a curator and guide who is sympathetic but also pretty transparent. I wasn't looking for a critique of Podhoretz's opinions or an evaluation of the positions he took or the various behaviors he exhibited, I just wanted to know his history -- personal, social, educational, intellectual, political -- and this book provides that kind of tour. Because he changed his views significantly on significant issues and, as a result, his personal associations and even close friendships, I was curious to see more detail on how those episodes played out -- that is a level of commitment to ideas that can be inspiring or bewildering and I wanted to try to understand the process better just be hearing the stories. I thought the book provided that opportunity.
If your orientation is like mine -- not a critic of Commentary's and Podhoretiz's positions during their era of influence, interested in the story of a remarkable era of conflicts in the world of ideas and social associations and intellectuals dueling in the public square -- then I think you won't be disappointed. If nothing else, it is a reminder during the current presidential campaign (March 2016 right now) of what seems like a very distant and different political culture. I gave it four stars because there were times when it seemed to me a slightly broader take that included a bit more criticism on some topics would have improved the reader's appreciation for both sides of arguments, but that is more a matter of taste.
From a 1970 spring epiphany to a multitude of friendships forged, stretched, and shattered (Trilling, Mailer, Baldwin, Moynihan), Jeffers clearly connects Podhoretz's personal and spiritual life to his writing, editing, and politics. You need not agree with any, much less all of Podhoretz's judgments to appreciate his story and its telling. The canvas as well as the portrait is larger: a fine account of an attempt to speak, work, hate, love, and live with integrity through fractured times. Anyone seeking insight into the tumult and legacy of our recent American past can read it with interest and profit.
A model biography, impressively organized and written .
Robert Kirschten, Ph.D.,
Director of Creative Writing,
Prairie View A&M University