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Dwight Macdonald: Disturber of the Peace

One of America's most influential critics was a Trotskyist, iconoclast, and gentleman.

Dwight Macdonald was the most influential critic of society, politics and culture during the middle years of the 20th century. Largely forgotten today, in his prime from the 1940s through the mid-1970s his essays could make or break a reputation.

Macdonald (1906-1982) was a curious mix of political radical and cultural conservative, in many ways like the writer he profoundly admired, George Orwell. Like Orwell, Macdonald was a man of the left who was at the same time ferociously anti-communist. He came from a respectable upper middle-class family and received the proper upper middle-class education: Phillips Exeter and then Yale. He was a good student, studied Latin and even some Greek and after graduation found himself working for Henry Luce’s latest brainstorm, Fortune. Having developed leftwing ideas, after seven years at Fortune (1929-1936) writing about corporations that didn’t interest him, Macdonald struck out on his own as a writer. 

He drifted in and out of various left-wing groups that flourished during the Great Depression until he wound up at the Partisan Review in 1937, which was then in the process of dissociating itself from the Communist party. Macdonald was an anarchist at the time, who admired Leon Trotsky’s revolt against Stalinism. As he would do with many others, however, Macdonald quarreled with Trotsky, allegedly inspiring the latter’s remark: “Every man has a right to be stupid on occasion, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” According to Macdonald’s biographer, Michael Wreszin, it is possible that Macdonald made that up himself. It wouldn’t be out of character. He was often a good judge of his own blunders.

Macdonald’s pacifism led to a break with the Partisan Review over its support for the Second World War. In 1944, backed by his wife’s money, he started his own magazine, politics—the lack of caps was his idea, a small blow for egalitarianism. After five years writing mostly political essays critical of the war, capitalism, communism, and the fecklessness of the American liberal establishment, he closed politics, saying he was “disheartened and demoralized” by the state of American society. Most of his writing for politics, it must be said, was forgettable, with one exception: a sketch called “My Favorite General,” which—given an unforgettable reading by George C. Scott—was used as the opening of the movie Patton.

In 1951 he joined the New Yorker, and it was there under the loose hand of the editor William Shawn that Macdonald came into his own. He wrote 40 long pieces for the New Yorker rejecting the political themes that no longer interested him, instead concentrating on cultural criticism. He had a wonderful gift for intellectual vilification, justifying what he admitted was his “snide” tone on the grounds it was necessary to be “merciless to the second rate.” He turned his attention to some of the more pompous productions of the 1950s and 60s: The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Webster’s new international dictionary, Mortimer Adler’s concept of “the Great Books.”  

He thought the new Webster’s dictionary was too democratic and not prescriptive enough and that Adler’s Great Books series was an example of intellectual pretention and a moneymaking boondoggle as well. About the modernizing of the King James Bible—he called it “up-dating” the Bible—Macdonald was appalled at what he labeled the mutilation of the magisterial Shakespearean prose with modern academese. By trying to make the Bible more readable, he declared, the editors ended up just flattening it out. As an example of this flattening, he cited what the editors did to the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:1, which turned “sounding brass” and “tinkling cymbal” into “noisy gong” and “clanging cymbal.” The result of all this tampering, he said, was “like finding a parking lot where a great church once stood.”

Macdonald had an almost unfailing eye for the overrated, especially if his old boss Henry Luce was involved. When in 1956 Time signaled out James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed as a novel that put him among the greats of American literature and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider as the intellectual book of the year—both were on covers of Time—Macdonald went on the attack. He called Cozzens a miserable stylist whose prose was so artificial and complex as to approach the impenetrable. Macdonald attributed the over-praise for By Love Possessed from the literary establishment to feelings of guilt that such a serious author should have been unrecognized till then. He had no such feelings.

Wilson’s The Outsider was taken up by Time, Macdonald argued, because it sounded profound, especially its mixing of religion and philosophy, for which Luce had a weakness. The critics were taken in by what he called Wilson’s cultural wasteland because it was dealing with “the Big Idea.” Macdonald found it third-rate, a shoddy grab bag of intellectual theories written in execrable prose. He predicted the book and Wilson would soon be forgotten, and he was right.

Macdonald occasionally took up causes showing that he could make reputations as well as destroy them. He showed that he wasn’t just a negativist by boosting James Agee’s A Death in the Family as superior to Cozzens’s novel when it appeared that year. Agee, in contrast to Cozzens, “had the poet’s eye for detail,” and “got magic into his writing the hardest way, with precise detail.”  Macdonald’s attack on Cozzens and praise for Agee is considered by many the reason the latter, and not the former, won the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1963 Macdonald came across an obscure book on the state of poverty, Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Harrington’s indictment of how American society had failed the poor brought out the old radical in Macdonald. He wrote a glowing review in the New Yorker (also the longest review in the magazine’s history), which led to booming sales. The paperback version which appeared after Macdonald’s review sold several hundred thousand copies. Ted Sorenson read the book and passed it on to President John F. Kennedy. Whether Kennedy read it is not clear, but the book is often credited with launching what became the War on Poverty.

In 1952 he wrote a two-part profile of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, a Catholic anarchist group in New York. He was captivated by Day, calling her “as close to a saint as anyone I have ever met.” He predicted that she would be canonized, something that is close to happening. He even admitted that if he had known her as a young man, her temperament and politics might have made him “an anarchist instead of a Trotskyist.” He sent her movement a small check every year for the rest of his life.

Macdonald’s essays show that he wanted to be taken seriously as a thinker, not just as a snide intellectual wrecker, or as Paul Goodman, a former friend, put it, “a good journalist”. In 1960 he produced the long essay that he became best known for: “Masscult and Midcult.” Interestingly, it appeared not in the New Yorker but in his old home, Partisan Review. Macdonald argued that high culture, the avant garde, was crucial in any society, and it was being undermined in the modern democratic world by the rise of two challengers, mass literature, and more dangerously, by what he called the “midcult,” the watering down of the high culture. The essay engendered controversy but Macdonald soon tired of it, writing that he wished he hadn’t invented the terms which he admitted were “a little Time-like.”

By the 1960s he was losing his interest in serious writing. His last big blast was an attack on Tom Wolfe’s indictment of the New Yorker for its blandness and boring prose. Macdonald labeled Wolfe’s jumpy writing style, “parajournalism,” arguing that Wolfe was unaware of the distinction between fact and fiction. In truth, it was a sour essay and had elements of journalistic “sore-headedness” about it. Macdonald’s prediction that Wolfe would be forgotten proved wildly wrong.

In 1965, Macdonald joined Esquire, the very model of the midcult magazine he complained about, to write movie reviews. To many of his friends it seemed like another diversion. All his life he wanted to write a major book, but his political journalism and essay writing had always distracted him, and he came to believe that he had wasted his time. He began to suffer from depression, and his drinking, which was always heavy, now began to take a toll on him physically and intellectually.

The Vietnam war protests and the emergence of the student protest movement temporarily revived his interest, reminding him of his early days as a radical in the 1930s. But he virtually stopped writing anything original. Most of his published work now was in gathering collections of his early writings as well as a well-received anthology of literary parodies. He began to spend his time giving lectures on college campuses and serving as a visiting scholar, which he enjoyed, but by the late 1960s his writing days were over. He died in 1982.

Despite his reputation, Macdonald had a softer side. My girlfriend in the early 1960s needed to interview someone for her college literary magazine. Macdonald invited her to his office at the New Yorker and answered her questions for an hour and was a gentleman the entire time. As a young instructor in college, I met him a few times. He would argue with me and treat my innocent and perhaps dumb comments with respect. I found him a very nice man.

John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

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