The Magazine

An Apprenticeship

Chronicling Commentary's early years.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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Commentary Magazine 1945-1959

by Nathan Abrams

Vallentine Mitchell, 221 pp., $75

The story of Commentary, one of the most influential opinion magazines in American history, is fascinating in itself. After its surprising turn from early anti-Communist liberalism (1945-60) to a turbulent decade of New Left radicalism (1960s), it even more unpredictably helped give birth to neoconservatism (1970s-present), and to ideas that helped remake America's political landscape.

Regrettably, however, Commentary has not yet had its Boswell--or even its Gay Talese, whose biography of the New York Times masterfully reported on a journalistic institution in transition. This new book by a young British historian aims to fill the gap.

Yet Nathan Abrams's study, rich in research but anemic in interpretation, stops short of the magazine's most exciting years. It chooses, instead, to focus on the man who founded the magazine and edited it until his suicide in 1959. Elliot E. Cohen, a child prodigy from Mobile, Alabama, who entered Yale at 14, emerges here as a talkative polymath who felt intensely protective of his writers even as he bullied them. "Himself badly blocked as a writer," Diana Trilling said, "he tried to turn his more productive friends into his literary spokesmen."

Abrams finds Cohen's politics as troubling as his editorial ventriloquism. Disappointed by Commentary's record on McCarthyism, he says that, by 1952, Cohen "had achieved a complete whitewash" of American anti-Communist hysteria and the accompanying "steady erosion" of civil liberties. He seconds Irving Howe's judgment that Cohen's anti-communism became "a crippling rigidity."

Then he calls into question the motives of that stance itself. After mentioning CIA funding for anti-Communist organizations such as the Committee for Cultural Freedom, Abrams writes:

As a large number of those involved in such covertly funded activities were part of the Commentariat [Abrams's unwieldy term for the editors and writers around the magazine], one wonders if the ascent of Commentary in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the simultaneous onset of the cultural Cold War into which the CIA was pouring billions of dollars, was merely a coincidence. . . . For all their bellyaching and ranting against Stalinism, how much of their motivation was ideological and how much financial?

Abrams has elsewhere joined to this innuendo a critique of the later Commentary:

In his thirst for success, [Norman] Podhoretz destroyed the magazine that Cohen had created. He may have achieved a higher circulation, a greater profile and more influence than Cohen would have, but he did so at the exorbitant price of sacrificing Commentary's quality and critical intellectual independence. . . . The principles of serious journalism, policy, and scholarship were abandoned, as Commentary became a spokes-journal for the Right.

At the end of his book, Abrams puts the matter somewhat more crudely: "If Commentary was chaste under Cohen, it would lose its virginity under Podhoretz."

It is by now a liberal cliché to lament Commentary's "decline" into neocon smugness, sanctimony, and political lockstep. But the cliché, thickened by Abrams's preference for political virginity, obscures clear thinking about the links between the magazine's neocon present and its New York Jewish intellectual past.

It may at first glance appear strange, for instance, that the magazine that helped incubate neoconservatism was founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945 "to meet the need for a journal of significant thought and opinion on Jewish affairs and contemporary issues." It may seem odd that the same little magazine hosted the best of Jewish-American fiction and literary criticism; that it ran Norman Mailer's six-part series on Martin Buber's "Tales of the Hasidim" and Gershom Scholem's essays on kabbalah; that it brought together symposia on "The Condition of Jewish Belief" and that it was the first American publication to excerpt Anne Frank's diary. What has all this to do with the neocons?

Much to the detriment of his account, the essential question slips Abrams's grasp, and with it a fascinating chapter in American political journalism: How did Commentary, by hosting the Americanization of the Jewish mind, in turn release new and potent forces that continue to shape American literature and politics today?

The answer begins in the ways the Commentary crowd dramatically re-envisioned Jewish identity. Though Cohen and his early staff--Clement Greenberg, Nathan Glazer, Robert Warshow, and Irving Kristol--were little acquainted with Jewish institutional life, the magazine they ran came to play no small role in refashioning a transplanted old-world culture into something distinctly American. Cohen predicted as much in 1947: "We Jews in America will live very deeply immersed in the culture of our general American society. This is not only unavoidable--it is eminently desirable."

According to his successor, Cohen's credo represented the magazine's grand design: "To lead the family out of the desert of alienation in which it had been wandering for so long and into the promised land of democratic, pluralistic, prosperous America where it would live as blessedly in its Jewishness as in its Americanness." In so doing, it helped create America's first intelligentsia, one stripped of the anti-bourgeois strains that defined its European models.

Along the way, Commentary transformed Jewish writing by demanding that it conform to the very highest standards. "As to Jewish culture," Cohen said, "the first question we should ask is not whether it is Jewish, but whether it is good. And 'good' means on a par with the best in the culture of society in general."

This new attitude--sometimes taken for irreverence or snobbishness--looked askance at defensive apologetics, sentimentality, and self-congratulation, and it earned Commentary angry attacks from some quarters of the Jewish community.

But the magazine also earned Judaism the attention of intellectuals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Taking Judaism seriously made Commentary home to some of the most sophisticated writing in English on Jewish history, literature, theology, and the Bible, and also made it the embodiment of the proposition that there need be no contradiction between ethnic particularism and participation in the larger culture.

Not all of the barriers to participation were self-induced, of course. Jews were commonly kept out of the highest echelons of American life and letters, and for an example we need look no farther than Elliot Cohen himself. Despite a brilliant academic record, his academic ambitions were dismissed by one of the eminences of his university's English department: "Mr. Cohen, you are a very competent young man, but it is hard for me to imagine a Hebrew teaching the Protestant tradition to young men at Yale."

Somehow, this did not discourage Cohen from declaring in the inaugural issue: "Commentary is an act of faith in our possibilities in America." Those possibilities were soon explosively realized. The new posture--a kind of cultural being-at-ease--stiffened by the conviction that Jews could fully participate in American life as Jews, freed the American Jewish fictional voice, making Commentary vital in launching and advancing such writers as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, Cynthia Ozick, and I.B. Singer.

The Commentary crowd's second contribution, of course, was to American politics. The magazine's founding generation--ex-radicals who had come of age in the shadow of the Great Depression--considered the Soviet Union (in the words of an article the magazine ran in 1946) "the greatest challenge democracy has ever confronted." Commentary served to midwife the notion that the United States ought to wage an ideological campaign by exporting American values abroad. By the time the Korean war brought the Cold War into full chill, the "New York intellectuals" had discovered that their critique of Stalinism bore great relevance to American foreign policy.

The rest, as they say, is history: The magazine's sharp radical turn after Podhoretz took the reins in 1960; its repulsion toward the New Left's shrill anti-Americanism and antipathy to Israel after the 1967 war; its hopes of redeeming the Democratic party--or at least of holding it faithful to the party's (Henry) Jackson wing; the growing awareness of the conservative implications of its own line of thinking; the rise of the neoconservative sensibility--and influence.

As Commentary contributor Alfred Kazin said, "Those who had so long talked of alienation, who had proved the iron necessity of alienation, who had loved the theory of alienation and especially their alienation, were now with the government of the United States as advisers on Communism." But the neocons did not merely trade alienation for blind affirmation. Neoconservatism, one might instead suggest, represents the culmination of the fitful love affair between America and its Jews.

The historian of modern American conservatism, George Nash, puts it this way:

In 1945, Commentary had been born into a marginal, impoverished, immigrant-based subculture and an intellectual milieu that touted 'alienation' and 'critical nonconformity' as the true marks of the intellectual vis-à-vis his own culture. Two generations later, Commentary stood in the mainstream of American culture, and even of American conservatism, as a celebrant of the fundamental goodness of the American regime. . . . It was a stunning achievement.

In chronicling that achievement, a biography of Commentary must explain--as Abrams does not--how the magazine both reflected and contributed to a growing appreciation among Jews of certain American democratic principles and freedoms; how, as sons of immigrants, and beneficiaries of these freedoms, they were well placed to discern them especially clearly, and to defend them especially vigorously. Such a book would tell the story of how a little Jewish magazine, gathering to itself the great American political and literary themes, transformed--and was transformed by--America.

Benjamin Balint is a fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.