For a dead man, Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) now looks pretty healthy. All too often during his old age, he found himself dismissed as a self-destructive dilettante. Nowadays, by contrast, he occupies a secure place as America’s best-known “unknown” man of letters (notwithstanding recent ad hominem diatribes, optimistically packaged as literary critiques, in the Washington Times and the Dartmouth Review). We owe this Macdonald revival wholly to Michael Wreszin, Professor Emeritus at Queens College in New York, who has turned himself with Stakhanovite dedication—how the Soviet-hating Macdonald would have shuddered at that adjective—into a one-man Macdonald industry. Wreszin’s aptly titled 1994 book A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald displayed astonishing diligence, and great shrewdness, in chronicling the life of Macdonald’s mind. (Macdonald seems to have had precious little life outside his mind.) Seven years afterwards appeared a Wreszin-edited collection of Macdonald’s letters, A Moral Temper. Neither volume received adequate press coverage, a fact that inspired the fear that public indifference had made Wreszin give up. Happily, here comes the third panel in Wreszin’s Macdonald triptych.
Historian John Lukacs called Macdonald “the American Orwell,” and certainly Macdonald resembled Orwell in several respects. Both men wrote invariably readable prose. Both men grasped, with cold fury, the causal linkage of linguistic corruption and ethical corruption. (Lukacs’s description of Macdonald’s writing process suits Orwell equally: “Every word was not only an aesthetic but a moral choice.”) Both men remain gratifyingly unclassifiable. Orwell the grimy materialist coexisted uneasily with Orwell the crypto-High-Tory romantic who on his deathbed craved Anglican hymns. Macdonald the self-proclaimed leftist loathed proletarian and industrial culture with a passion recalling Action Français leader Charles Maurras’s invective. For proof of his idiom’s Maurrasian elements, see his principal essay collection, Against the American Grain. Like T.S. Eliot—a lifelong hero of his—and like all other civilized people, Macdonald considered “elitist” to be not a swearword but a badge of honor.
He arrived at his cultural conservatism (a phrase he may have coined; he undoubtedly took the credit for being the first to write of “mass culture”) via a circuitous route. A rich, apolitical, WASP Yale alumnus whom the Depression radicalized, he initially sought salvation in Moscow, only to lose his Stalinist faith once the show trials occurred. He reacted, as did other “Partisanskies”—his colleagues at the newborn Partisan Review—by embracing Trotskyism. Yet from 1941 he found the Trot temperament to be almost indistinguishable from the Stalinist one and fled that totalitarianism also.
The mid-1940s to the mid-1960s saw Macdonald at the height of his powers. He edited (1944-1949) his own heterodox little magazine, Politics, an object lesson in how to save the world when almost no one reads you. Politics made no money, its payments to contributors were laughable—he charmed Mary McCarthy into writing for free—and it never had more than 5,000 subscribers; but it published Orwell, Camus, C. Wright Mills, and Simone Weil, as well as The Group’s future author. After Politics, he gave us his most devastating literary articles, originally printed in Partisan Review, Commentary, and the New Yorker but afterwards assembled in Against the American Grain and Discriminations. In 1958, Commentary ran Macdonald’s hatchet job on the once fashionable novelist James Gould Cozzens: “By Cozzens Possessed,” probably the most murderous book review 20th-century America ever produced. From this period, in addition, dates much of Macdonald’s best political analysis, such as Memoirs of a Revolutionist contains; and patchier, though always scintillating, film criticism for Esquire, later republished as Dwight Macdonald on Movies. Once anti-Vietnam campus ferment began, Macdonald returned to leftist activism, his main practical contribution characteristically consisting of public fights with nearly every other leftist activist. This campaigning ended almost as suddenly as it started; during his last decade he drank too much, wrote too little, and became a peripatetic humanities lecturer, in which role he reached a special rapport with trainee policemen at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Macdonald was a broad-gauged thinker—in short, worth arguing with. His agonizings over the issues of collective guilt (which he scorned), the Final Solution, atomic warfare, and militarily purposeless civilian bombings like Dresden’s, are at the very least products of humane and serious—although never solemn—cerebration. Hence their appeal to Camus, who would have resented Macdonald’s jokes elsewhere. They remain free from every trace of that present-day epidemic, Goldhagenitis—a disease inducing in fourth-rate academics the lucrative delusion that most, and probably all, blame for the Nazi genocide rests with Pius XII.
Where Macdonald fails as philosopher is in his sophomoric atheism: he remarked in a 1973 interview, “Religion has nothing to do with people … It’s boring in the most fundamental way.” Thank you for sharing, Dwight. Indeed, several other disappointments mark this new book’s material, which dates from 1958 to 1980. If you have spent a lifetime as non-cinéaste—gainfully occupied in avoiding “Hiroshima Mon Amour” or “Last Year at Marienbad,”—do not look to Macdonald’s animadversions for enlightenment as to why you should repent forthwith. If blow-by-blow reportage of the Partisanskies’ internecine warfare leaves you cold, Macdonald’s 1979 discussion of this warfare with Diana Trilling is unlikely to warm you. His tribute to I.F. Stone’s newsletter makes strange reading after the 1992 revelations of Stone’s KGB background.Nevertheless these pages give a sense of the sheer intellectual freedom that Macdonald and his coevals enjoyed. (OK, we know about all that frightful McCarthyist censorship, yada yada yada.) In 1960, Macdonald lamented that during Mark Twain’s adulthood, “the needs of industry were attracting vast numbers of immigrants, most of whom didn’t speak English. Standards, cultural as well as ethical, were simply swept away in the rush.” That “racist” comment appeared, without protest, in the New Yorker. Today it would probably provoke blue pencils even at the New American.Some nasty enjoyment can indubitably be had from the present tome, despite its surreal proofreading. (Feature-writer Brendan Gill is identified as both “Brendon” and “Brendin” on the same page; “obiter dicta” turns into “obiter dica”; “specialités” has somehow lost its diacritical; and Pevsner, the British architectural historian, becomes “Pesner.” For Macdonald, such “trivia” mattered.) There are swift upper cuts, like his 1967 quip about Bill Buckley’s New York Post columns: “no worse than a bad cold, really.” (He found Robert Novak’s output far preferable.) There are more elaborate verdicts, like his double-edged depiction—in adroit Hemingwayese—of Buckley’s Post colleague Murray Kempton; he charges Kempton with “the goo-goo, bleeding-heart liberal syndrome, his heart bleeds exclusively for the bad guys like Hoffa and even more diabolical clients and it is often boring as any mechanical reaction to a mechanical stimulus is, but he often can’t find any certified public enemy to bleed over … in any case he is a master of the column form, always providing a beginning, a middle and an end in 900 words.”
There are useful, albeit unintended, guides to Disgracing Yourself At Your Next B’nai B’rith Meeting In One Easy Lesson: “What was always strange to me [about Norman Podhoretz’s attacks upon Hannah Arendt] was that all these people that were leftists and Marxists together with me suddenly turned out to be … Jewish nationalists. We wouldn’t have spit on that position when we were Marxists.”
Macdonald’s hatred of neo-Jacobins —a more accurate term, surely, than “neoconservatives”—suggests that the main difference between him and them may not have been ideological but, rather, stylistic. Perhaps they just have a far greater authorial gift than he had (and than most of us ever acquire) for self-congratulating pomposity. Yet he showed no interest in supporting agrarian conservatism either. Macdonald, quite as much as any more conventional Manhattanite, found unforgivable the American heartland’s tendency to contain, you know, Americans. (Had most Nebraskans swilled absinthe while reading Rimbaud, or had most Iowans hummed Schoenberg’s tone-rows while in the bathtub, he might have esteemed them more.)
Do the Big Apple boundaries of Macdonald’s intellect therefore make him irrelevant to John Citizen’s concerns? Not in the slightest. Here is a prophecy he dashed off when corresponding with his Italian friend Nicola Chiaromonte: “If the United States doesn’t or cannot change its mass culture … it will lose the war against the USSR. Americans have been made into permanent adolescents … scared of death, sex, old age.” He feared a crushing American defeat in countries where “the mere struggle for existence is important and where some of the people are grown-ups.” Simply change “the USSR” to “Islam,” and that passage becomes as hideously pertinent now as ever. It dates from 1950, when the very dream of Hugh Hefner’s and Rupert Murdoch’s global pornocracies was still just a cloud no bigger than an onanist’s hand.
Wreszin understandably notes Macdonald’s current appeal to those tired of gutter-media bombast: “At the present moment,” says Wreszin’s introduction, “spring of 2002, with a press described twenty years ago as being on bended knee, it is little wonder that a small band of thoughtful Americans look for a Dwight Macdonald.” Still, to praise Macdonald for his naysaying alone would be to misrepresent him altogether. His sheer erudition remains a model. True, it obstructed his creative powers. Brahms complained that the sound of Beethoven’s footsteps dogged him everywhere. The hapless Macdonald experienced a far graver plight: behind him marched a veritable army of influences, including Proudhon, Herzen, Trotsky, Freud, Joyce, Picasso, Eisenstein, and Buster Keaton, not to mention every master of British prose from Cranmer onwards. (Which Partisanskies except Macdonald had heard of, much less read, Abraham Cowley [d. 1667]?) In a sense very different from that of Hitchcock’s protagonist, Macdonald thus became “the man who knew too much.” Yet how much rarer, more praiseworthy, this title is than that of the man who knows too little.One can now become a best-selling pundit—dozens do—while having read no pre-1960 literature whatsoever, let alone pre-1960 literature in foreign languages. America’s highest-paid magazine editors once expected rather loftier standards of learning; and these standards Macdonald abundantly met. For insights into how he met them, these interviews are valuable. But the newcomer to Macdonald should seek out, first, Against the American Grain, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Discriminations, Dwight Macdonald On Movies, and the Wreszin biography. In that order.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims.