This New York Times feature on former Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz reminded me of much I loathed this man back in my English Major undergraduate days at the University of Buffalo. In his essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Podhoretz had written of my literary heroes Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg that their “worship of primitivism and spontaneity is more than a cover for hostility to intelligence; it arises from a pathetic poverty of feeling as well.”
Indeed, he wrote, they and their friends in the so-called Beat Generation wished to “kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.” What a prick.
I was surprised – dismayed, really – at how the years had changed my opinion of this now very old man. I was a long-time professional editor looking at him as an editor, not a young writer looking at him as some literary critic. Here was a man who attracted a very large roster of superb authors to his magazine. It is hard for me to name an equal from his generation. As an editor with most of his career as one behind him, I now find his achievement astonishing.
My comment for the New York Times: “Norman Podhoretz was a very fine editor indeed if judged by the cast of writers he attracted to the pages of Commentary. It seems even by his own accounting, though, that he was far less successful as a friend.” This measured tone might have nauseated me in my youth.