Book Review | The Maker and Breaker of Ideas

By | Sep 11, 2023
Book Review, Fall 2023, Featured

The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center
By Martin Peretz
Post Hill Press/Wicked Son Books, 336 pp.

In 1974, Martin Peretz and his wife Anne bought The New Republic with her money. Peretz was a native New Yorker raised on the Grand Concourse, a turn-of-the-20th-century tree-lined boulevard that was once extravagantly called the Champs-Élysées of New York City. I have seen the street only slightly more modestly described as the Park Avenue of the Bronx.

By whatever comparative measure, living there was a step up for many Jewish immigrants from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn, often accompanied by a step down into a sunken living room, a small hint of luxury. The magazine he bought was 60 years old, with a history of having influenced the course of American liberalism. It had favored U.S. entry into World War I and had gone on to advocate for a robust federal government guided by a modern liberalism, both passionate and analytical. Its stories influenced politicians and policies. The New Republic’s founders included Walter Lippmann, the most influential establishment newspaper columnist of his time. Its books balanced thanks to the generosity of the reform-minded heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney and her husband Willard Straight.

Peretz was in his mid-thirties and, by virtue of the purchase, became an influential intellectual entrepreneur for the next 30 years. The magazine was the dominant journal of the part of the political spectrum located to the right of The Nation and left of the much younger National Review. As such, it was prime intellectual real estate for the Democratic Party. Its pages could make and break ideas. Same-sex marriage went mainstream as a political cause via a 1989 New Republic cover story. Likewise, a notorious hatchet job by a conservative Republican critic helped doom Hillary Clinton’s 1993 healthcare reform plan.

Such influence had not self-evidently been in the cards for Peretz. He was raised to be a Jew and a Zionist in a secular household where Yiddish letters were celebrated; his father was a cousin of the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz. He was a product of New York City public schools (including the Bronx High School of Science), college at Brandeis and graduate school at Harvard, where he went on to teach politics in the Social Studies program. Anne’s family was of the Protestant upper crust, likely more familiar with the original Champs-Élysées than the one near Yankee Stadium. She was an heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Their prior venture in magazine publishing before 1974 was during the Vietnam War, when they owned a piece of the antiwar New Left monthly Ramparts. Peretz got them out of that deal (and out of the New Left) when the magazine criticized Israel. At The New Republic, he reserved the subject of Israel to a kind of editorial droit du seigneur. “Zionism,” he writes, “was the one thing I absolutely would not compromise on, the one way I unilaterally exercised my ownership prerogative.”

Martin Peretz with Henry Kissinger, Bella Abzug and Golda Meir in 1976. (Photo credit: Photo from The Controversialist (c) 2023 by Martin Peretz. Published by Wicked Son Books. Used with permission.)

As the title of his autobiography suggests, Peretz often courted controversy, sometimes stumbled into it, and raised hackles in many quarters, but especially on the left of the Democratic party. As the book itself tells us, the bruises we all saw him inflicting and receiving in public over what the magazine published weren’t the half of it. Being Marty Peretz, apparently, has been no joy ride. While shepherding hundreds of bright future A-listers through Harvard and the magazine, Peretz remained the kid from the Grand Concourse, sensing himself a trespasser on sacred Protestant ground.

His relationship with his father was horrific. “My father never cried. He got angry,” he writes. “He was not a soft man and he didn’t sympathize with softness…The atmosphere he created in our home was a frightening one…” Peretz felt conflicted about his sexual orientation from adolescence, he writes, and both the mores of the 1950s and 1960s and his father’s volcanic temper further complicated his being gay. In 2011, Peretz told The New York Times Magazine, “My sexual life is too complicated for one word, and not complicated enough for 15.” He now writes more openly about his sexual orientation. About Norman Mailer, he comments, “In real life, I liked him because he saw me so clearly. He knew I was gay; I don’t remember how, since I wasn’t so gay then. I didn’t do it or talk about it much.”

As for politics, neither the Holocaust nor the tribal divisions of Bronx neighborhoods were recognizable to him in the one-world, Family of Man universalism that was taught—perhaps preached is the better word—in public school. The same idealized universalism would become fashionable among liberal Democrats—who were deficient, Peretz felt, in the pessimism that he took as a given.

He became the cataloger of their excesses, the cop protecting the political center from what he saw as their potentially catastrophic—if idealistic—harebrained schemes. Over the years, he did not lack for critics and enemies.

Peretz has known so many influential figures in American politics, letters and academe that he comes to the task of writing his autobiography with no shortage of tales to tell. Often, he wows us with the star power of his friends and acquaintances only to deflate them with a dyspeptic dismissal. He pals around with Mailer, who, he concludes, was “an immensely talented writer but a bullshit artist and a very pampered guy.” At Harvard, he rubs shoulders with the likes of Herbert Marcuse and Erik Erikson, but calls them out for denial of their Jewishness. Erikson, who was Erik Homburger until he renamed himself after himself, told Peretz over lunch about attending his mother’s funeral in Haifa. “There was never a mention of the word ‘Jew,’” Peretz observes. Of the financier turned conservative philanthropist Roger Hertog, who bought a piece of The New Republic when Peretz and the magazine needed new financing, he writes: “Roger’s tough. I can think of only one person who actually likes him, and that’s Ruth Wisse [professor of Yiddish at Harvard]. But it’s an ideological affinity—she likes Norman Podhoretz, too.” A three-in-one dressing down, that one.

Even Peretz’s closest and most esteemed colleague at The New Republic comes in for the ritual put-down. Leon Wieseltier, before he was sidelined by allegations of sexual impropriety, edited The New Republic’s “back of the book” brilliantly (Peretz writes of him as a genius) and then became a literary celebrity for his book Kaddish. “He was still Leon,” Peretz writes, “only more confident in his evasions: he wouldn’t call you back if you needed something from him, but if he needed you, he’d call you in the middle of the night.” Of onetime New Republic editor Peter Beinart, who went on to criticize unrestricted support for Israel by American Jewish organizations in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Peretz notes, “I’d always known Peter was vain. But now I thought he might be the most self-absorbed person I’d ever met.” He dismisses Beinart’s politics as symptoms of a pampered youth.

There are people Peretz has loved and admired without reservation: the politicians Eugene McCarthy and Al Gore, the sociologist David Riesman, the political philosopher Michael Walzer, the cellist Yo Yo Ma (a man who is simply impossible to dislike). But, despite the comforts of their friendship or the esteem in which he was held by powerful and rich people, Peretz is a haunted figure, not merely forgotten (which is the common fate of nearly all journalists, preoccupied as they are with the present) but undone—canceled, as we have learned to say. His long marriage to Anne ends in divorce. His claim to an understanding of the Middle East and the tough neighborhood where Israel resides is refuted by his joining neoconservatives in the call for the invasion of Iraq, a disastrous miscalculation and unforced error of U.S. foreign policy. His half-century association with Harvard ends with students protesting a ceremony at which he is being honored, accusing him of racism for a blog that, by his own later admission in an apology, implied that American Muslims do not deserve First Amendment rights. It is a sad ending, even if you’re not a Peretz fan.

In fairness to Peretz, as cutting as he can be about former friends and colleagues, he is also tough on himself. “All of the ugliness in me came from two things,” he writes. “One was anger at my father. The other was a kind of anxiety at the things that, imitating or responding to my father, I held at arm’s length so I could get on with my life in the world: my gayness, my lack of intellectual stature on the level of people I was closest to, and the way the Establishment saw me as an outsider.” In his working life, these anxieties went unexamined. The slights he felt, “real or imagined,” would build to a boiling point, and “at that point, I’d explode.” Which provides a good description of his book: half memoir, half explosion.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary contributor. 

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