During the late 1950s and 1960s, Norman Podhoretz was influential both as a literary critic and as the editor of Commentary magazine. He wrote a positive review of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a novel for which the early reviews were mixed. He wrote an essay on Norman Mailer's early work that appeared in Partisan Review, which helped Mailer gain credibility within the literary establishment. As an editor, Podhoretz brought the writings of Paul Goodman and Norman O. Brown to the attention of a national audience. He also became the youngest member of "the Family," a group of New York-based writers and intellectuals whose work appeared regularly in various literary and activist journals of opinion.
Podhoretz, like others in the Family, was an "old style liberal" who, as he writes, "participated in the conversion to radicalism" during this period. But gradually, his political views changed. He began to believe "that the revolutionism of the New Left was both futile and dangerous" and that it had caused a "spiritual plague" to descend on many young people. As he saw it, what many of those in the counterculture shared was an intense hatred of America. Even at Podhoretz's most radical, he still loved America, and his "own utopian aspirations were directed at perfecting, not destroying, it."As Podhoretz's Columbia University professor and literary mentor Lionel Trilling put it, there were serious disagreements and broken relationships. In his absorbing new memoir Ex-Friends, Podhoretz shares stories about some of his relationships with major cultural figures during this turbulent time. Each relationship was unique both in the depth of friendship and the issues over which they disagreed. Perhaps of equal importance are the richly drawn portraits of notable figures such as Lionel Trilling, Lillian Hellman, and Norman Mailer. Of Trilling, Podhoretz writes ". . . against very stiff competition, I am still inclinded to rate him . . . as the most intelligent person I have ever known." Mailer called Podhoretz his "foul-weather friend," someone who stood by Mailer during the most difficult times. But Podhoretz can be both generous in his praise and harsh in his criticism of his ex-friends. Despite everything, Podhoretz regrets the loss of the intellectual-literary world that he was part of during that period. He believes "that the absence today of a community like the Family constitutes a great loss for our culture." Anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the literary culture of the '60s will want to read this insightful, at times combative, memoir.