I first learned of COMMENTARY one day in 1957 when I happened upon it in the periodical room of the William Rainey Harper Library at the University of Chicago. There it was on display in a long wooden rack along with other intellectual journals, or so-called little magazines—little because of their modest circulations—of the time: Partisan Review, Encounter, Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review, Epoch, Antioch Review, and others. I could not know it at the time, but the 1950s was a high time for such magazines. They published stories and poems, literary and cultural criticism. I picked up and glimpsed the contents of a few. Among them COMMENTARY, for me, stood out because of its concentration on things Jewish.
COMMENTARY, I later discovered, had been founded as recently as 1945, under the direction of a man named Elliot Cohen, who had earlier been editor of the Menorah Journal. I knew none of the names on the masthead at the time, but Cohen had assembled an extraordinary, it is not going too far to say an all-star, staff. His managing editor was Irving Kristol, who would go on to found the English magazine Encounter and the Public Interest and become known as the godfather of neoconservatism. Among the associate editors were Clement Greenberg, the art critic and leading proponent of abstract expressionism; Nathan Glazer, who co-authored the most influential work of sociology of the day, The Lonely Crowd; and Robert Warshow, perhaps the most penetrating critic of popular culture the country has known. Cohen, who was bipolar, committed suicide in 1959, at the age of 60, but not before he had set a permanent intellectual seal on the magazine. It was anti-Communist, interested in the widest possible range of culture, and more concentrated on the Jewish people than on Judaism itself. A fanatical editor, known to rewrite entire articles, Cohen also left the magazine a tradition of careful craftsmanship, so that nothing in its pages would ever be abstract, obscure, or in any way incomprehensible.
Reading my first issues of COMMENTARY elevated my spirits and widened my intellectual horizons while bolstering my pride in being Jewish. I became a subscriber. I also picked up back issues. In the magazine’s pages I became acquainted with a cavalcade of writers hitherto unknown to me, among them Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Isaac Rosenfeld, Dwight Macdonald, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, the theologians Eugene Borowitz and Emil Fackenheim, Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Chaim Grade. A section of the magazine I especially prized carried the rubric “From the American Scene” and dealt with such varied aspects of Jewish American life as working in a Queens department store or the life of a Jewish grocer who invested in an Oklahoma wildcat oilman.
Along with Partisan Review and Encounter, to which I also subscribed, COMMENTARY became a source of education to me, one I felt I couldn’t do without. When I was in the (peacetime) army, I had my mother send my subscription copies down to Fort Leonardwood, in Missouri, where I hid them under the mattress of my bunk, for in basic training no reading matter was allowed. Had they been discovered, I should doubtless have been assigned extra KP. The risk was well worth it.
Some people find their education in the classroom, others in the intelligent conversation of friends or in bookstores. I found mine chiefly in intellectual journals. From Sidney Hook I learned about the horrors of Communism; from Isaiah Berlin the richness inherent in serious ideas; from Lionel Trilling how literary criticism can take wing and become cultural criticism; from Isaac Bashevis Singer how to argue with God. Although in the University of Chicago I went to what the world considered one of the better schools, these writers I found in COMMENTARY and other intellectual journals were my real teachers.
In 1963, at the age of 26 and then living in New York, I applied for a job as a sub-editor at COMMENTARY. I was interviewed by Norman Podhoretz, who, following a brief interregnum, had taken over the editorship of the magazine after the death of Elliot Cohen. At the outset of the interview, Norman told me that anything that was good in the magazine I was then working for, the New Leader, was there by accident, which, I sensed, did not exactly suggest I had an inside track for getting the job. He nevertheless gave me, by way of a tryout, a copy of an Irving Howe book to review. A tricky assignment, I knew even then, for Irving Howe was both a valued contributor to COMMENTARY and yet politically less than consonant with the magazine’s politics. To make a short story even shorter, I didn’t get the job, and the review never appeared. Disappointed at the time, today I’m uncertain whether this was a bit of good or ill luck. Fate, that genius trickster, had other things in store for me.
I would soon move down south and become director of the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Arkansas, but I persisted in my attempt to establish a COMMENTARY connection, now as a writer. My first contribution was a review in the December 1964 issue of two books by the admirable integrationist white Southerners James Silver and Charles Morgan Jr. My second, published soon after, was a review of Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro? In 1969, COMMENTARY published “Growing Up in Chicago,” my first personal essay. I had earlier published in the New Leader and in the New Republic, but I took especial delight in having my writing in COMMENTARY. I felt as if I were now playing with the big boys.
I have since gone on to publish nearly 200 essays, short stories, memoirs, literary criticisms, general articles, reviews, and jokes in this magazine. I have written in these pages on writers as various as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Robert Musil, Philip Larkin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Matthew Arnold and Norman Mailer, Michel de Montaigne and Philip Roth. I’ve written about the death of poetry, the closing off of free speech in academic life, the phenomenon of the public (as opposed to the standard) intellectual, cosmetic surgery, Joe DiMaggio, and much else. For a few years, I was the magazine’s fiction critic. I have always had the most pleasing reactions to the short stories I published in its pages. And now I have grown to an age when I am myself one of the big boys, if not perhaps the last of the big boys.
In Making It, Norman Podhoretz wrote of the group of intellectuals gathered round COMMENTARY and Partisan Review as “the Family.” COMMENTARY had its own family of editors and regular contributors. My first editor there was Werner Dannhauser, a student of Leo Strauss and a Nietzsche scholar and temperamentally more suited to the academy than to intellectual journalism, but who remained a friend decades after his departure from the magazine. When Werner came to live his last years in Chicago, we met for occasional lunches, exchanging gossip and jokes, our food washed down with much laughter. Marion Magid, who was for many years the magazine’s managing editor, was a witty woman—a woman, I thought, with a masculine wit—who could even be amusing about her writer’s block. “It’s more like a blockade,” she told me. I met the Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz only twice, but when we did meet, it was with the understanding that we were both members of the same splendid club, regular contributors to COMMENTARY. I am told that, upon her deathbed, she is supposed to have said that the only good thing about dying was that at least she wouldn’t have to answer another letter from some rabbi in Passaic, New Jersey, arguing with one of her COMMENTARY articles.
During my years writing for the magazine, I rarely dealt directly with Norman Podhoretz. I neither sent him my contributions nor did he edit them. Norman’s reputation was that of an intellectual tough guy, and after the publication of Making It, in which he argued that ambition was nothing to be ashamed of, he became to his enemies the contemporary version of Sammy Glick, the pushing antihero of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run. I have to report that I have never found Norman anything less than a gent. When I came to the end of my days as COMMENTARY’s fiction critic, he wrote me a gracious note of thanks for the job I had done. Later, when I suffered a sad loss, he wrote me the only letter of condolence that was truly condoling. Un–Sammy Glickishly, he is among the least vulgar people I know.
Most of my daily dealings at COMMENTARY were with Neal Kozodoy, or Mr. Corduroy, as Marion Magid and I sometimes referred to him. Neal came to the magazine straight out of Harvard in 1966 and became its editor in chief in 1995, which he remained until 2009. Before he was editor in chief, he and Norman seemed to work with a total rapport, or “rappaport,” as I think of such perfect consonance of feeling among Jews. When one spoke to Neal about COMMENTARY matters, one felt one was simultaneously talking to Norman. I’ve heard Norman refer to Neal as “my right and left hand both,” and I don’t believe he was exaggerating. Theirs seemed to me an extraordinary relationship of perfect cooperation and mutual respect.
Neal had a high standard, and I never sent him a manuscript without worrying about its finding acceptance. In an amusing reversal of normal procedure, he was tough on acceptance and, on the few occasions when he turned down something I had written, gentle in rejection. “I see you don’t know how to spell samizdat” were the first words he uttered over the phone when I called to ask about an essay on Solzhenitsyn I had sent him, which he did in fact accept.
In the Elliot Cohen tradition, Neal was a scrupulous line-editor of manuscripts. He pres-sed down on every sentence. He found points of disorganization in one’s pieces. I believe it was I who gave him the sobriquet of “the Butcher of 56th Street,” during the decades when COMMENTARY made its home inside the American Jewish Committee building on the East Side of Manhattan. I recall once sending him an email announcing that I had that morning written six paragraphs of a piece he had assigned me and was sure four of them he could edit out easily.
Not the least sterling quality in Neal Kozodoy was the impressive terms on which he seemed to live with self-effacement. He rarely wrote for COMMENTARY, and apart from a few translations from the French and a book he helped write with Abba Eban, he published very little under his own name. Norman, his predecessor, was known above all as a writer, author of, apart from his books, such brilliantly controversial essays as “My Negro Problem—and Ours” and “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance.” Neal’s successor, John Podhoretz, appears fairly frequently on cable-television talk shows, writes a newspaper column, and has a reputation as an always lively movie critic. But Neal, for more than 40 years, selflessly gave himself entirely to COMMENTARY and the clarifying of its contributors’ writing. I dedicated a book of my short stories to him, a dedication that reads: “For Neal Kozodoy, The Best in the Business.” I do believe I got that right.
Gertrude Stein once remarked, “I write for myself and strangers.” In my own case, I would alter that to “I write for myself and my editors.” In the case of COMMENTARY, this could be a touch daunting. They set a high standard. I once heard Norman say about an essay on Lenny Bruce he published by a friend of mine named Albert Goldman that he “wished it didn’t have all that psychoanalytic crap.” Neal Kozodoy spoke the plain but always correct English of the former Latin student, free of all jargon and psychobabble. John Podhoretz is immensely knowing and comes equipped with what Hemingway called “a built-in, shockproof, shit-detector.” I like to think that such editors, my COMMENTARY editors over the years, have kept me on my own literary toes and made me a better writer.
In 1958, a year after I first discovered COMMENTARY, the magazine ran an essay called “By Cozzens Possessed,” by Dwight Macdonald. To call the essay a devastation of James Gould Cozzens’s novel By Love Possessed and of his literary reputation would be a slight understatement. By Love Possessed was an immense bestseller that landed its author on the cover of Time when that magazine’s covers were generally given over only to statesmen and movie stars. Macdonald found everything about the book—its style, characters, theme—wanting, and did so with crushing wit. To this day, Cozzens’s literary reputation has not yet regained its former standing. I say this as someone who, fully 25 years later, attempted to revive it in an essay, also in COMMENTARY, called “By Cozzens Repossessed.”
Behind Macdonald’s powerful put-down of Cozzens, as I came to realize, was one of the chief projects of the intellectual journals of the 1950s and a bit beyond, which was that of being the guardian of high culture. “Guardian” here meant not only extolling the highest products of culture but serving as gatekeeper to that same culture, which meant not allowing unqualified works into the temple. Macdonald and Clement Greenberg made careers out of defending high (or highbrow) culture against the depredations of what they then termed, with strong contempt implied, middlebrow culture and sometimes kitsch. Middlebrow culture included commercial, quasi-cultural endeavors such as the Book of the Month Club and all artists and writers who, despite their pretensions, did not qualify as highbrow. For the novelist Mary McCarthy, one of the great scourges of middlebrow writing, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and J.D. Salinger did not come close to making the cut. Neither, for Robert Warshow in COMMENTARY, did the New Yorker, which, in his words, “has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it.” When I was COMMENTARY’s fiction critic, I saw gatekeeping as part of the job: The novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Robert Stone, and John Irving were among those I did not allow entree to the hallowed halls of high culture.
Were the intellectuals gathered round COMMENTARY, Partisan Review, Encounter, and other little magazines essentially talking to themselves and their relatively small numbers of readers? No one knows for certain, but it was said that the editors of Time, Newsweek, U. S. News & World Report read the intellectual journals with great assiduity, conceiving of their contributors as an intellectual avant-garde of sorts, hoping to pick up clues about which way the culture was trending. I recall that when Susan Sontag published her essay “Notes on Camp” in Partisan Review in 1964, it was only a matter of a few weeks before the term “camp” began popping up in the newsweeklies, Vogue, and other magazines that fancied themselves au courant.
But all this speaks to another time, another era. Owing to the Internet, that most mixed of all mixed blessings, much has changed about the role and the ways of doing business of intellectual journals. From the writer’s standpoint, the first thing to have changed is the response time to submissions. Before the Internet, one was prepared to wait two weeks for a decision on essays or stories one sent off to magazines. Now if one doesn’t have a response in two days, anyone of the least anxious tendency—and I qualify nicely here—assumes rejection. John Podhoretz, the fastest editorial gun in the West, is splendid in this regard, often responding to my pieces within an hour of receiving them.
The Internet, with its tweets and squibs, has contributed heavily to the shortening of the national attention span. Magazines that once ran essays and stories of six, seven, eight thousand words seem now to prefer them at three or four thousand words. The older COMMENTARY was, you might say, designer-free. Under John, its formerly plain pages of dense type have been dolled up with pull quotes, colored margins, the occasional photograph, lively covers, and who is to say that, in the age of the Internet, when prose on paper needs all the help it can get, he is wrong to have done so?
Subjects formerly of central concern for intellectual journals have disappeared. High culture, the defense of which was once at the heart of the mission of COMMENTARY and other intellectual journals, scarcely exists in our day, at least in the realm of current artistic creation. (Those of us who cannot do without high culture must content ourselves with the great works of the past, of which, thank goodness, there is no paucity.) So much is this so that the old Book of the Month Club begins to look good; after all, two of its selections included George Santayana’s The Last Puritan and Richard Wright’s Native Son.
The older intellectual journals came at politics at the highest level: revolution, socialism, Communism were their great political subjects. I once told Saul Bellow that Irving Howe and Philip Rahv (the latter one of the two longtime editors of Partisan Review) were engaged in a heated controversy about the nature of revolution in the letters column of the New York Review of Books, to which he replied: “Two old Jews arguing in the back of the synagogue. What are they arguing about? Getting closer, it turns out they are arguing about Lady Astor’s horse.” National politics, the politics of our political parties, were largely eschewed. Dwight Macdonald called our two major parties Tweedledum and Tweedledummer. I’ll leave you to guess which he thought Tweedledummer.
Socialism, Communism, and revolution are no longer up for discussion. All that remain are party politics and foreign policy, which can sometimes seem less than exciting, if not a touch drab. Mitch McConnell is no Leon Trotsky, Nancy Pelosi no Rosa Luxemberg, Donald Trump no Lenin. When I edited the American Scholar (between 1975 and 1997), I deliberately outlawed even the mention of any living American president in its pages, thinking there were other places for writing about such matters. Today, I’m not sure I could, or would want to, do that.
What hasn’t changed is the preponderance of nonsense, nuttiness, utter madness in the world, especially now in a politically febrile time. The pretensions to fairness of heavily biased journalists, the wackiness of academic interests, the grave misconceptions of many contemporary movements and much current thought, the endless plight of Israel in a world seeming to want to renew its lease on anti-Semitism—all this and more are sufficient to keep COMMENTARY in business for at least another 75 years, if not in perpetuity. I, meanwhile, take great pride in having contributed in a small way to the magazine’s first 75 years, and shall always think of myself as a COMMENTARY writer.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.