by Patricia Cohen
The evolution of a tiny group of mostly Jewish New York intellectuals from left-wing radicals in the late 1930s and ’40s to confidants of the Reagan and both Bush administrations continues to fascinate. Those who made the journey from left to right, and those who jumped off the rope swing along the way, have already told their pungent versions of events in books, memoirs, manifestos, documentaries, magazines, newspapers and conferences.
Apparently there is still more to say about Commentary magazine, one of the small-circulation journals with outsize influence that defined the post-World War II intellectual, political and artistic preoccupations, and about Norman Podhoretz, its larger-than-life former editor and a founder of neoconservatism. Three new books on the subject have been or are about to be released.
The authorized account, due out in September, is by Thomas L. Jeffers, who edited a collection of Mr. Podhoretz’s writings in 2004. Thick with pictures and anecdotes, “Norman Podhoretz: A Biography” (Cambridge University Press), announces itself as a chronicle of “a heroically coherent life.”
Nathan Abrams, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Commentary’s early years, published an academic volume, “Norman Podhoretz and Commentary Magazine: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons” (Continuum), in January.
And then there is the new “Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right” (PublicAffairs), by Benjamin Balint, a former editor at the magazine with impressive conservative credentials. Mr. Balint said his aim was to explain how the history of Commentary and its take-no-prisoners approach to politics was also a history of Jews in America, of unprivileged and marginalized outsiders becoming consummate insiders.
For foes and friends, the feverish battles waged by neoconservatives over America’s military engagement and defense of Israel have loomed largest and provoked the deepest passions. But as Mr. Balint also notes, the intense focus on politics has tended to eclipse Commentary’s rich literary history.
“Commentary began by looking at politics through a literary sensibility and using that to enrich the discussion,” Mr. Balint, 34, said by telephone from Jerusalem, where he lives. “Now, the dominant concerns are almost purely political, which is exactly the reverse of the early Commentary, and I think that is to its detriment.”
The first short story that Philip Roth published, “You Can’t Tell a Man By the Song He Sings,” was in a 1957 issue of Commentary. Mr. Podhoretz, a young assistant editor, salvaged it from the slush pile. Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Henry Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Nelson Algren, Alison Lurie, James Baldwin and the future Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also appeared in its pages.
Mr. Balint credits Commentary, founded by Eliot Cohen in 1945, with helping to incubate a “new style of literary criticism,” practiced by contributors like Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, which he describes as “an urgent style that combined scholarly rigor with journalistic flair.” The magazine also opened its pages to serious theological discussion from leading Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“It’s hard to imagine those in today’s Commentary,” said Mr. Balint, who worked at the magazine from 2001 to 2004.
In writing “Running Commentary,” Mr. Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington (where Mr. Podhoretz is an adjunct fellow), said, “I tried not to be polemical.” That comment may surprise those familiar with a journal that frequently has an us-versus-them view of the world and has been unforgiving of family members who publicly air disagreements.
Mr. Balint, however, concludes that such obeisance has hurt Commentary. “Once a magazine’s mind is settled, once it brooks fewer challenges to its certainties, its momentum flags,” he writes, adding that Commentary’s style is “more cramped and crabbed than before, the pages less commodious.”
Asked how he thinks former colleagues at the magazine like the quarrelsome Mr. Podhoretz — who titled one of his memoirs “Ex-Friends” — will react to the book, he said, “I really don’t know.” Since Mr. Podhoretz’s son, John, took over the editor’s chair at the start of 2009, Mr. Balint said, “I’m not so much in touch with Commentary people.”
The only person at the magazine to whom Mr. Balint sent a copy of the book was the former editor Neal Kozodoy, whom he characterized as brilliant and thanked in the acknowledgments.
Asked about his response to the book, Mr. Kozodoy, now the senior director of the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish philanthropy, said: “I’ve looked at it. Let’s just stop right there.”
Mr. Balint said he had always been drawn to the magazine’s contentious, argumentative style. His parents, vigorous Zionists who had a subscription, were very active in helping Soviet Jews immigrate to Israel, and had frequently traveled to the Soviet Union.
“They spoke to refuseniks, and it affected them deeply,” Mr. Balint said. He remembers that his first childhood trip from his home in Seattle to Washington was to march in a rally on the National Mall to free Soviet Jews.
“I was one of the very few kids who knew what the Jackson-Vanik amendment was,” he said, referring to 1974 legislation that two Democrats, Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington and Representative Charles A. Vanik of Ohio, had sponsored to pressure the Soviets into releasing Jews and other religious minorities.
Now that Mr. Balint lives in Israel, he said he was harder pressed to label his politics.
“I wouldn’t know how to classify them,” he said. “The longer I live here, the more I see how complicated it is, and the less the labels of right wing and left wing seem useful to me.”
From The New York Times
The original text of the article may be found here.