The Magazine

An Apprenticeship

Chronicling Commentary's early years.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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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: