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?