ometime in the middle of the 1960s, a group of writers began to experiment with form. Newspaper columnists started reporting. Novelists used the techniques of fiction in nonfiction essays. Freelancers brought a literary sensibility to celebrity interviews, magazine features, film and book reviews. And all of this happened seemingly at random. “There were no manifestoes, clubs, salons, cliques; not even a saloon where the faithful gathered, since there was no faith and no creed,” Tom Wolfe wrote a few years later. “One was aware only that all of a sudden there was some sort of artistic excitement in journalism, and that was a new thing in itself.”
Wolfe is the most famous theoretician and practitioner of what came to be called the “New Journalism,” though in a 1973 anthology he edited with E.W. Johnson he admitted he had “no idea who coined the term” and “never even liked” it. His peers included writers as varied in background and style as Jimmy Breslin and Joan Didion, Joe McGinniss and Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. These writers had antecedents, said Wolfe. “Norman Podhoretz had written a piece in Harper’s in 1958 claiming a similar status for the ‘discursive prose’ of the late Fifties, essays by people like James Baldwin and Isaac Rosenfeld.” What made the new journalists distinct, however, was the depth of their reporting. “Here came a breed of journalists who somehow had the moxie to talk their way inside of any milieu, even closed societies, and hang on for dear life.”
In 1967, as the New Journalism took shape, Random House published Making It by Norman Podhoretz. The story of Podhoretz’s journey from poverty in Brooklyn to an upper-middle-class life in Manhattan as editor of Commentary is, in many ways, a traditional memoir. And yet, having recently reread Making It on the occasion of its 50th-anniversary reissue by New York Review Books, I think there is a case to be made that it is also a relative, perhaps a cousin, of the New Journalism. This aspect of the book may have been overlooked because Podhoretz did not have to talk himself inside the New York intellectual community on which he reports. He was already a member.
Wolfe identified four techniques of the New Journalism. The stories, like novels, are told scene by scene. Dialogue is prevalent. Narration is in the third- person. Finally, the work includes details of “people’s status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern of behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be.” No secret that Wolfe is obsessed with status; the concept dominates his worldview. “Even before I had left graduate school,” he said in his 2007 Jefferson Lecture, “I had begun to wonder if somewhere in the brain there might be a center that interpreted incoming data and gave the human beast the feeling he was improving its status, merely maintaining its status, or suffering the grave wound of humiliation.”
By these criteria, Making It does not quite fit Wolfe’s definition of New Journalism. There are several memorable scenes—visiting Manhattan to buy a suit with an early mentor, instructing fellow G.I.s, staying at the Trillings’ summer cottage in Westport—as well as some dialogue, but most of the narrative is first-person description and analysis. What boosts the argument for Podhoretz as a new journalist is his fascination with status. “Every morning a stock-market report on reputations comes out in New York,” he writes. “It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it.” His book is a confessional, slyly humorous, intellectual history of one reputation in particular: his own.
“The main thing was to be esteemed,” Podhoretz writes at the outset, “and one would no more have questioned the desirability of so pleasant an estate in life than one would have wondered about the relative merits of illness and good health.” Making It was controversial precisely because it disclosed the importance of money and reputation to the supposedly detached, alienated, Olympian intellectual circle to which Podhoretz belonged. Among the members of his status sphere, worldly ambition had replaced sex as the “dirty little secret.” Essayists and novelists wanted that house in Connecticut just as much as bankers and lawyers did: “The whole business of reputation, of fame, of success was coming to fascinate me in a new way. Everyone seemed to be caught up in it, and yet no one told the truth about it.” He would.
Blunt, lucid, and absorbing, Making It details the status life of not just one but many subcultures: a Jewish-Italian-black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Columbia and Cambridge, the U.S. Army, and the cloistered, learned, polemical, and fascinating little magazines of the mid-20th century. The method and style are different than Wolfe’s, but the wit, pathos, and insight are the same. Podhoretz’s description of the professional cul-de-sac in which his former Columbia classmates found themselves a decade after graduation, for example, is both funny and piercing:
Except for Steven Marcus, who was in Cambridge that year working on a PhD and had also begun to publish in Commentary, no one in the old Columbia crowd was doing very well. Most, on the contrary, were caught in that niggardly and lugubrious style of life so characteristic of the first postwar decade and which Philip Roth was to evoke so cruelly in Letting Go—the life of the married graduate student dragging his slow length along the endless road to a PhD with an increasingly resentful wife working as a typist to support a makeshift household containing one Herman Miller chair, the reward of heroic self-deprivations, set incongruously down amid the foamland benches and the door-store tables and the glass-brick bookcases.
Not only does Podhoretz relate the manner in which the members of his particular group increase their status while calculating the relative status of their peers. He also relates how one leaves one status sphere for another. Nor is this a simple matter of dropping one’s accent, buying better clothes, hanging out with different friends:
To wean me away from Brownsville, all Columbia had had to do was give me the superior liberal education it did: in giving me such an education it was working a radical change in my tastes, and in changing my tastes it was ensuring that I would no longer be comfortable in the world from which I had come. For taste is an overwhelmingly important sociological force, capable by itself of turning strangers into brothers and brothers into strangers.
Ambition, status, taste, attitude, sensibility—they are the same categories and preoccupations of the writers in Wolfe’s anthology of the New Journalism. Podhoretz’s innovation—to his critics, his sin—was to apply this style of thought not to stock cars, boxers, surfers, bikers, astronauts, hippies, Californians, soldiers, and Frank Sinatra but to the intellectuals themselves.
Fitting, then, that his inspiration was the one New Journalist whose stature was for a time comparable to Wolfe’s:
For several years I toyed with the idea of doing a book about Mailer that would focus on the problem of success, but in the end I decided that if I ever did work up the nerve to write about this problem, I would have to do it without hiding behind him or anyone else. Such a book, I thought, ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought in itself to constitute a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package: otherwise it would be unable to extricate itself from the toils of the dirty little secret.
I just have.
And the world is better for it.