The quickest test of whether or not Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Ex-Friends might appeal to you is by your level of interest in the controversy that erupted over Elia Kazan’s honorary Oscar at last year’s Academy Awards. If you were intrigued by the rancorous political arguments that resurfaced after 50 years, then Podhoretz’s memoir will undoubtedly feel like a front-row ticket to the bickering of a half-century ago.
Podhoretz is today a staunch political conservative; he was one of the most visible and outspoken of the Reagan-era "neoconservatives" during the 1980s as editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine. Over the years his politics shifted dramatically. From the 1940s to the late-60s, he was a solid member of the Leftist literary establishment centered in New York City. Ex-Friends, at its best, is an eloquent elegy for a bygone era in our cultural history when politics was the passionate concern of writers, artists, and intellectuals. But it is at its "worst" that Ex-Friends is the most fun to read. Podhoretz has written a catty, self-indulgent, back-stabbing portrait of his former friends on the Left: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.
Mailer is the only individual on this elite list who is still living, but that doesn’t stop Podhoretz from portraying him as a buffoon. Admittedly, Mailer is an easy target in this regard, and the anecdotes in the book are hilarious, but he’s a far more interesting writer and cultural presence than Podhoretz allows. We’re treated to Mailer the loud-mouthed 1960s libertine encouraging Podhoretz to loosen up with pot and amphetamines and sex orgies. The orgy scene in Ex-Friends promises more than it delivers, however, sort of like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with Podhoretz cast in the Tom Cruise role of the innocent outsider. "I was simply not up for it," he writes, "and it turned out to be a total and humiliating disaster for me."
He first met Allen Ginsberg when they both were undergraduates at Columbia University in 1946 and aspiring writers. By 1958, Ginsberg had gained notoriety along with Jack Kerouac, as a founder of the Beat literary movement, while Podhoretz, who was well-established as a critic by this time, penned a disdainful essay in Partisan Review titled "The Know-Nothing Bohemians." Thus began a long-standing feud between Ginsberg and Podhoretz that continued for many years, right up through Ginsberg’s death in 1997. And Podhoretz still hasn’t let up. Ginsberg’s poetry is, in his judgment, "pornographic" and "anti-American."
The 1960s counterculture was "a new kind of plague" in Podhoretz’s opinion, from Ginsberg and Kerouac to Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman. "What they all had in common was a fierce hatred of America," we are told matter-of-factly in Ex-Friends. The book is laughable whenever Podhoretz talks about the 60s. Words fail him and he falls back on mindless generalities about the "America haters" who were seducing young people with drugs and rock music and promiscuous sex.
Fortunately, Podhoretz writes with considerably more insight about the 1940s and 50s. All the factious left-wing debates of the era are detailed here, all the arcane labels deciphered and differentiated: communists, fellow-travelers, Stalinists, Trotskyites, socialists, cold-war liberals. Podhoretz doesn’t just throw these terms around, he gives them context and meaning within the lives of the personalities for whom so much was felt to be at stake.
He is particularly hard on Lillian Hellman for what Podhoretz and others over the years have considered her disingenuous and self-aggrandizing memoirs about the McCarthy era and her appearance before the HUAC hearings. Podhoretz flat out accuses her of "deliberate lies." There appears to be some accuracy to several of his charges, but he clearly has his own ideological bias, not to mention a disregard for Hellman’s writing style, which he finds cheaply derivative of Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway.
The warmest memories in Ex-Friends are reserved for Lionel Trilling, who was one of Podhoretz’s professors at Columbia and "the most intelligent person I have ever known." Little read today, Trilling was an influential literary critic and author for many years, and while he was a model liberal and supporter of left-wing causes, he was also the kind of anti-communist that Podhoretz can admire in retrospect. (Even though Trilling’s wife and fellow-writer Diana had "a wacky sense of reality," in Podhoretz’s estimation.)
Without question, the finest chapter in Ex-Friends revolves around Hannah Arendt and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (in which the phrase "the banality of evil" was famously coined), an account of Adolf Eichmann’s Nazi war-crimes trial in Israel in the early 60s. In tracing the origins of the Nazi atrocities committed against Jews during the Second World War, Arendt arrived at some disturbing conclusions which suggested that Jews were themselves partly complicit in the fate that befell them. Podhoretz was among many intellectuals who took issue with Arendt’s opinions at the time, and his detailed recounting of this debate in Ex-Friends is superbly written.
– Bob Wake