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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer
Am J Psychiatry 1999;156:2007-2008.
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Houston, Tex.

By Norman Podhoretz. New York, Free Press, 1999, 256$25.00.

With our streets, schools, workplaces (and often our very homes) writhing in a daily fare of cruelty, mayhem, and violence—all graphically depicted by a frenzied media—it may be difficult for many of us any longer to accept even the most passionate intellectual discourse as warfare. From the strengthening of leftist politics in the 1920s, through the period of the Cold War, widening polarities of political positions served to sharpen many of the contentions between and among the intelligentsia. Nowhere was the discourse more vigorously prosecuted than in the metropolitan New York community. Warfare or not, the written and verbal exchanges of activist intelligentsia (honed by their apostasies and adamancies) can be as exhilarating (and horrific) to witness as gladiatorial combat.

Norman Podhoretz, the author of Ex-Friends, retired editor of Commentary, and preeminent man of letters, reports as a fully engaged combatant on the partisan colloquy among some of the poets, novelists, scholars, and playwrights of his day whom he befriended through the affinities of their intellect and a shared leftist philosophy. It is the disintegration of these relationships, coming as he reexamined and disavowed his political convictions, that constitutes the substantive structure of this compelling odyssey. There is a dazzling roll of figures (sometimes with brief informative tidbits) from the author’s world of poetry, prose, politics, and philosophy. The frequency of gatherings and the liveliness of discourse of the "Family" members, their propinquity and contiguity, will excite the reader’s sense of envy. In the five chapters that make up the main body of the volume, the author concentrates in turn on poet Allen Ginsberg, scholars Lionel and Diana Trilling, playwright Lillian Hellman, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and novelist Norman Mailer, choosing "to focus on these half-dozen in particular because they were once, and for a considerable period of time, very close to me."

In "Introduction: How Our ‘Family’ Broke Up," Podhoretz acknowledges, "I have often said that if I wish to name-drop, I have only to list my ex-friends." These were members of the "Family" of "New York Intellectuals" (not all of whom were in New York City and with many of whom the friendship has been preserved), recounted with enlivening historical antecedents, details of his interactions, participation, and transition from radical politics to "neoconservatism," and how all these led to the intimacies and alienations chronicled here.

Chapter 1, "At War With Allen Ginsberg," begins with a reverie occasioned by Ginsberg’s death in 1997. The two first met in 1946, when both were undergraduates at Columbia University. They parted company in "more ways than one" as Ginsberg, "in the process of discovering himself as a homosexual, fell in with an assortment of hustlers, junkies, and other shady or disreputable characters…who were always getting themselves and him into trouble." The chapter is a noteworthy assessment and criticism of Ginsberg’s work and the socially destructive philosophy and lifestyle promulgated by him and like-minded activists.

The undergraduate Podhoretz’s relationship with Lionel Trilling emerged from Podhoretz’s status as the senior scholar’s "star pupil" at Columbia University and continued through their mutual admiration and interests in mentoring and role modeling. Though over several years there developed some distance between them because of their growing political differences and disagreements over literary issues, Zionism, and Jewishness, there was never a complete break, and they visited until shortly before Lionel’s death. Though Podhoretz implicitly rejected Lionel’s Freudian interpretation of their relationship, he later admitted that the mentor had been more of a surrogate father to him than he had earlier believed. A "tidbit" typical of the many edifying personal interjections illuminating the text is that Lionel, one of the foremost literary critics of his time, "loved literature but did not like to read." For a time after Lionel’s death the author’s relationship with Diana Trilling remained friendly, but her acrimony and quirkiness soon made him uneasy with her, and eventually there was an irremediable separation between them.

Lillian Hellman, whom the author first met in the Trillings’ home, is recalled in their many agreeable interactions. Podhoretz is taken by her considerable personal charm and her "glamour and glitter." Her baffling inability to concede to the ghastly realities of the Soviet state and the adamantine allegiance to Stalinism that delineated her politics began the rift between them. His criticism of her memoirs and dismay over the dishonesty and fraudulence manifest in her writing caused a parting for good.

Hannah Arendt’s publications and intellectual brilliance were a natural attraction for the young Podhoretz. Her The Origins of Totalitarianism(1) "threw me into a fever of intellectual exhilaration," and he nurtured an affectionate friendship with her through the "Family." Their relationship took on a discomfiting tension, however, as he began to understand some of her conclusions as mistaken and to feel that her writing was sometimes in the service of "brilliance for its own sake." They also had repeated differences over her published observations on the Adolph Eichmann trial as well as on Israel, Jews, and Jewishness. Podhoretz’s ongoing intellectual offensive (and defensive) exchanges with Arendt about these matters may have hastened their alienation, but they also promoted his own self-examination and coalesced his personal positions on these matters, all of which he shares with us.

The author’s relationship with Norman Mailer, though initially close from "hundreds (or was it thousands) of hours we spent talking" became especially rancorous, to the point of threats (by Mailer) of physical violence as differences arose between them. Podhoretz is obviously pleased that his own early criticism of Mailer’s work has been validated by younger and more contemporary critics who find little relevance or intellectual currency in the novelist’s work. The best one can say of Podhoretz’s depiction of Mailer’s behavior and personal life is that it portrays him as an overindulged, and even dangerous, preadolescent.

An insistent subtheme threading its way through this work is the question of why there was such an assiduous anti-Americanism (and for some, a vindicating of Soviet Communism) among these celebrated intellectuals. It is a question that is not fully answered and will likely leave the reader wishing for a more detailed psychology of the individuals. Another leitmotiv within the book is the thoroughly absorbing account of the philosophical transformation, personal growth, and sagacious career of one of the nation’s reigning men-of-letters and his evolution as a nemesis of the prevailing political left.

In the afterword that rounds out the volume, Podhoretz expresses his rue at his losses but also a positive assessment of what he has learned, his growth, and his effect on our politics and culture. This opus is in many ways an extension of The Intellectuals by Podhoretz’s friend (and fellow apostate leftist) Paul Johnson (2) but with a first-person authentication and, as in that work, the beguiling play of a first-rate intellect. Our own recollections of the repugnant excesses of radical activists, and vivid portrayals by others of their degraded legacy (3), will place many of us in the author’s camp. They will also promote our gratitude that Podhoretz has taken up his courageous and countering combat with a political philosophy he once called his own.

Arendt H: The Origins of Totalitarianism, revised ed. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1966
Johnson P: The Intellectuals. New York, Harper & Row, 1988
Magnet M: The Dream and the Nightmare. New York, William Morrow, 1993


Arendt H: The Origins of Totalitarianism, revised ed. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1966
Johnson P: The Intellectuals. New York, Harper & Row, 1988
Magnet M: The Dream and the Nightmare. New York, William Morrow, 1993

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