Dwight Macdonald

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In Saul Bellow’s novel “Humboldt’s Gift”, the narrator/protagonist returns to New York and meets an old friend, Orlando Huggins, who is clearly Dwight Macdonald:

“It came back to me that more than twenty years ago I had found myself at a beach party in Montauk, on Long Island, where Huggins, naked at one end of the log, discussed the Army McCarthy hearings with a lady sitting naked and astride opposite him. Huggins was speaking with a cigarette holder in his teeth, and his penis, which lay before him on the water-smooth wood, expressed all the fluctuations of his interest. And while he was puffing and giving his views in a neighing stammer, his genital went back and forth like the slide of a trombone. You could never feel unfriendly toward a man of whom you kept such a memory.”

It seems to have been difficult for anyone in American intellectual life to feel unfriendly toward Dwight Macdonald. In the course of a long career as a political and cultural critic, he took issue with virtually everyone on the scene at one time or another, including (most emphatically and often, whenever he had occasion to ‘reconsider his own previous opinions) himself. Macdonald was a gadfly: a debunker of kirsch and propaganda, of radical, conservative, and mainstream sentimentality, vulgarity and duplicity. Yet this in veterate argufier inspired nearly universal affection. What beguiled his readers (and listeners — as Bellow’s anecdote suggests, he was an indefatigable talker) was less his arguments — though these were never negligible — than the distinctiveness of the voice in which they were delivered: “persnickety, contentious, vain, unafraid, passionate, garrulous, sometimes irritating, always honest,” wrote one reviewer, who might have added “and often extremely droll.” That admirable voice was stilled in December of 1982, but Da Capo press has lately begun to reissue his books, starting with “On Movies” (492 pages, $9.95, paper), a collection of film criticism, and “Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture” (427 pages, $9.95. paper).

Macdonald’s career traced an arc from literature to politics and part way back. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and then Yale, and like a few other gifted adolescents amid the intellectual torpor of upper-class schools in the 1920s, he enlisted for life in the avant-garde. At Exeter he idolized Oscar Wilde, published a short-lived student magazine “of extreme preciosity,” as he later described it, and joined an exclusive club (there were two other members) called the Hedonists, whose motto was “Cynicism, Estheticism, Criticism, Pessimism.” At Yale he hectored the president faculty, and student body about dress codes, compulsory chapel, and professorial dullness. Yet all this flippancy was serious. His friends at Yale later became his colleagues at “Partisan Review”. And when an English teacher at Exeter put him in touch with James Agee who arrived a few months after Macdonald left, they began an ardent lifelong correspondence about literature and film.

After graduating Yale in 1928 he joined a management-training program at Macy’s. “My plan was to make a lot of money very rapidly and retire to write literary criticism.” He didn’t last long. A Yale classmate got him a job on the staff of Henry Luce’s new magazine, “Fortune”. There Macdonald learned the craft of journalism — the research and expository skills he picked up at “Fortune” were the foundation of his later, “higher” journalism — and acquired an intimate, enduring dislike of American business civilization. American business civilization, in the person of “Fortune’s” editors, did not exactly take a shine to Macdonald either, and after his series of articles excoriating the US Steel Corporation was bowdlerized, he quit.

In the late 1930s Macdonald’s political education began in earnest. He read the Marxist classics plus an enormous quantity of economics and sociology, hung out with several Trotskyite groups, and became an editor of the newly revived “Partisan Review” (which had temporarily suspended publication because of the editors’ disillusionment with Stalinism and socialist realism). In the intellectual hothouse that New York was in those years, he evolved “with amazing speed,” as he later commented wryly, from New Deal liberal to neophyte radical to Communist sympathizer to anti-Stalinist Trotskyite revolutionary to unaffiliated, unprogrammatic anarchist-pacifist. When World War II broke out, the other editors of “Partisan Review” supported American participation and tempered their radical opposition to capitalism and bourgeois society. But the logic of the lesser evil did not appeal to Macdonald. In 1943 he left the magazine, and the next year, with his wife, Nancy, he started his own magazine, “Politics”.

“Politics” was a phenomenon. It was published from the Macdonalds’ living room (Dwight was the entire editorial staff), and for the five years of its existence it was arguably the best political journal ever published in the United States. Macdonald’s own varied and prolific commentary (collected in “Memoirs of a Revolutionist”, which is to be reissued by Da Capo next year) was the magazine’s staple, but some of the most remarkable radicals of the time were also contributors: Albert Camus, Simone Weil. Nicola Chiaromonte, Victor Serge, Paul Goodman, George Woodcock, George Orwell. All of them, like Macdonald, were morally fastidious, ideologically heterodox, fed up with brutality and propaganda, both official and oppositional. They made a program and an ideology of honesty; it was an impractical program and they accomplished nothing, but their writing illuminated those dark times better than anyone else’s.

Among many extraordinary articles in “Politics” — including Camus’s “Neither Victims Nor Executioners,” Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” and Bruno Betteiheim’s “Behavior in Extreme Situations” — two by Macdonald stand out. “The Responsibility of Peoples” (1945) asked why, if all Germans were held responsible for Nazi atrocities, all Americans should not be held responsible for Allied atrocities. The latter included the saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities (it took more than a million civilian lives), widespread starvation in “liberated” Europe, bloody repression of the Greek Resistance, refusal to allow more than a few European Jews to immigrate to the United States, and the reckless initiation of atomic warfare. In part the essay was an anarchist argument against the “organic” conception of the State, which underlay notions of “collective responsibility” for war crimes. But equally it was a challenge to national chauvinism, a rebuttal of the tacit assumption that the other side’s atrocities somehow extenuate one’s own. And since his audience consisted largely of leftists, Macdonald felt obliged to address their own chauvinisms: much of his most scathing wartime criticism, in, “The Responsibility of Peoples” and elsewhere, was directed at Soviet crimes and their American apologists. It required an almost heroic disinterestedness to say, or even perceive, such things in an atmosphere of inflamed patriotism and partisanship. That disinterestedness, his apparent lack of any temptation to equivocation or self-deception, was and is the basis of Macdonald’s reputation.

“The Root Is Man” (1946) was more speculative. It was not only the war that had disillusioned Macdonald and his comrades, it was the whole sorry history of the organized left. How had the splendid ideals of the 19th- century socialists been perverted into Stalinist barbarism and Trotskyite scholasticism? Were there ethical values — socialist values — by which Marxism itself might be judged? “The Root Is Man” claimed to find in Marxism a contradiction between two legacies of the Enlightenment: individualism and humanism on the one hand, historical and scientific materialism on the other. Marx had shown that in every society, moral values and property relationships are connected. From this suggestive but ambiguous proposition, most of his followers concluded that morality was irrelevant to “real” politics, i.e., the class struggle, which progressed inexorably according to dialectical laws deducible from Capital. “Pragmatic” liberals drew analogous lessons from John Dewey’s philosophy, and both Marxists and liberals tended in practice, as Macdonald demonstrated at length, to cynicism, opportunism, and state worship.

So Macdonald proceeded to reconsider the Enlightenment, modestly proposing to rethink “Determinism v. Free Will, Materialism v. Idealism, the concept of Progress, the basis for making value judgments, the precise usefulness of science to human ends, and the nature of man himself.” He ended, predictably, perplexed. But he did succeed in arguing one crucial point against the Marxists/pragmatists, or “Progressives,” as he called them: “What can possibly be the content of this future real morality [the one vaguely invoked in the “Communist Manifesto”] if it is not the persisting core of past morality stripped of all class-exploitative per versions?” It was in that “persisting core” of classical and modern humanism, rather than in an undefined (and, as he came to feel, largely mythical) Progress, that radical hope lay. As others were quick to point out, the explication and defense of “past morality” was what conservatives claimed to be up to. Was Macdonald a socialist, a conservative, both, or merely confused? Confused he was, yet “The Root Is Man” (later issued as a book, though not, alas, to be reissued by Da Capo) is worth the entire corpus of 20th-century moral and political philosophy. But for Macdonald it was, politically, the end of the road.

Turgenev remarked about politics that “the honorable man will end by not knowing where to live.” By 1950 Macdonald was politically homeless. “There is very little that we can honestly say in praise of the institutions and culture of Western capitalism,” he wrote in 1949, “beyond the statement that, now that we have seen thirty years of Communist development, the comparison is greatly in favor of capitalism.” And the next year, in an even bleaker mood: “The scale of things is too big, the levers of power too far removed from people like us (and perhaps from people like Stalin and Truman), the mood of the general population, after generations of Pavlovian conditioning by industrialism, world wars, and state bureaucracies, too demoralized and apathetic to respond to our appeals. Even if we could make them with the old fervor and rationality. Which we can’t. For fervor we now have routine moralizing; for reason, the old stock of antiquated abstractions…The pacifist and socialist writings of today are to those of two generations ago as hay is to grass. Which is why I am no longer a pacifist, a socialist, or any kind of ist.”

Turgenev went into exile; Macdonald went to work for the “New Yorker”, writing what he called “social-cultural reportage and analysis.” There were several reasons for this internal migration: ideological burnout; financial burnout — “Politics” had lost a lot of money, and he had children to support; and a conviction — or at least a hope — that “the correction of taste” (T.S. Eliot’s definition of the purpose of criticism) might be a form of political action. Mobilizing the masses was just not on the docket anymore, but perhaps one could begin to counteract, or anyway to document, that “Pavlovian conditioning.”

Macdonald’s essays, profiles, and reviews for the “New Yorker” (collected, along with occasional pieces from “Partisan Review” and other journals, in “Against the American Grain” and in “Discriminations”, to be reissued next year) ranged over the American scene, surveying how-to books, bestselling novels, the careers of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, the state of literary journalism, the culture of poverty depicted in Michael Flarrington’s “The Other America” (which Macdonald’s lengthy review rescued from obscurity), and much else. He punctured Marshall McLuhan, Tom Wolfe, Norman Cousins, and Mortimer J. Adler. He grumbled about the damage to language wrought by Webster’s Third International Dictionary, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and the theory of structural linguistics. He composed a perceptive, slightly querulous meditation on “The Triumph of the Fact” before that theme became commonplace.

The point of all this witty, erudite grousing was to keep American culture honest. That tenuously persisting core of ‘past morality,” of ethical and aesthetic values, seemed encrusted by commercialism and bureaucracy, in need of large doses of critical solvent. Macdonald’s most influential effort of cultural hygiene was “Masscult and Midcult” (1960), an anatomy and theory of popular culture. Actually, Macdonald called his subject “mass culture,” which highlights a fundamental distinction in his essay between “communities” and “masses.” Communities (city states, craft guilds, artistic schools, political factions) have traditions, and their members have individual functions. But masses are “in historical time what a crowd is in space: . . . not related to each other but only to some impersonal abstract, crystallizing factor. In the case of crowds, this can be a football game, a bargain sale, a lynching; in the case of the masses, it can be a political, party, a television program, a system of industrial production.” Art is individuality; so members of a community can produce genuine culture, either High or Folk. But masses are composed of “inchoate and uncreative” atoms capable only of an anonymous and homogenized nonculture, Masscult.

So far, so familiar: Macdonald (and plenty of others) had been making this argument for decades. But there was something new, he claimed, about post-World War II American culture: it was so abundant, various, and flexible as to induce acute anxiety. “The pattern of our cultural lives is ‘open’ to the point of being porous. For a lucky few, this openness of choice is stimulating. But for most, it is confusing and leads at best to that middlebrow compromise called Midcult.” Midcult may be defined as the tribute mediocrity pays to excellence. It was a hybrid, combining the essential qualities of Masscult — “the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity” — with ersatz mimicry of High Culture, employing modern idiom and technique in the service of the banal. Midcult’s intentions were good, but its effect was insidious: unlike Masscult, Mid- cult competed with serious new art for prestige and financial support.

Most of “Masscult and Midcult” was devoted to a review of typical Midcult phenomena: the Book-of-the-Month Club, Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and so on. Macdonald’s detailed criticism was scintillating and salutary, and his historical diagnosis was persuasive. But his prescription was bizarre: to re-create a cultural (though not a social, political, or economic) elite. “Let the masses have their Masscult, let the few who care about good writing, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, etc., have their High Culture, and don’t fuzz up the distinction with Midcult.” Macdonald admitted that this solution was both unattractive and impractical. Still, it seemed to him the only alternative to an even more farfetched (though much more desirable) solution: the creation of real. i.e., decentralized, communities with in which lively popular cultures might flourish. Macdonald was a cultural elitist, but only by default. His democratic hopes were in abeyance, and he thought of High Culture, with its subversive playfulness and its fidelity to noncommercial, nonbureaucratic standards, as a democratic resource, worth defending against the encroachments of Midcult.

For all Macdonald’s etiological shrewdness, the criticism of popular culture has come a long way since “Masscult and Midcult.” And even in 1960 there was no excuse for lumping Elvis Presley with Zane Grey and Cecil B. De Mille. There was something ancien régime about Macdonald’s radicalism, which produced too many somber and untenable formulations like this: “Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private kitchen-garden walled off from the great formal park of their masters. But Masscult breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of domination.” In fact, kitchen garden and formal park are too cozy a setting for the best pop art. It’s true that industrial civilization has given rise to new and unexpected forms of cultural debasement. But it’s also given rise to new cultural possibilities, to which Macdonald was largely impervious. An increase in scale does not always entail reductiveness: one effect of the best of mass culture is to trace or forge the connections among the unprecedentedly diverse experiences of its unprecendentedly broad audience. When artists find that common ground, the experience, however fleeting, of so enormous a community is visionary and exalting. When they fail, they can retreat into an irony that thrives in the vast range and dense detail of American consumer culture.

Most of mass culture may be junk, but some of its vast wares will be goofy or frenzied or self indulgent in original, unpredictable ways — and more to the point, in ways that are made possible only by the relationship of artist and mass audience. The inevitable commercialism of that relationship offended Macdonald, and rightly. But some times indignation is critical liability. A critic of popular culture needs a large measure of negative capability, i.e., a sense of when to disregard one’s own standards, or in Keats’s definition, the ability to refrain occasionally from “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Like all doctrines, Macdonald’s aristocratic moralism was both enabling and disabling.

Fortunately, he was no doctrinaire. His movie reviews, mostly written for “Esquire “between 1960 and 1966 (and collected in “On Movies”), are much less programmatic than the essays in “Against the American Grain”. They’re wry and informative, and though less tense with polemical energy, they’re still bracing. In 1966 Macdonald switched the subject of his monthly column at “Esquire” to politics, in time to fulminate splendidly against the Vietnam war. Among his later essays were a startlingly detailed program for “Updating the Constitution” (included in “Discriminations”) and a homage to Buster Keaton (in the “New York Review”, October 1980; as far as I can tell, his last major piece). When he died in 1982 he was making dilatory efforts at writing his memoirs.

Did Macdonald matter? Some people (including Macdonald) have disparaged him affectionately (some, like Hilton Kramer, not so affectionately) as a “dandy,” charming and talented but fickle and, finally, lightweight. I think he mattered, in a general way and in a great many particular ways. For one: “The Responsibility of Peoples” directly inspired the finest political essay of the last 20 years, Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals (Macdonald and Chomsky were later founders of Resist, one of the most successful of New Left activities.) That alone is more than most of his contemporaries accomplished. For another, there was Macdonald’s effect on the “New Yorker”. During the Vietnam war, the magazine’s “Notes and Comment” section featured a good deal of surprisingly pungent criticism of American policy. An outsider can only guess, but I’d guess that Macdonald was partly, even if in directly, responsible. And that gracefully phrased, quietly indignant commentary has become a tradition. From week to week, “Notes and Comment” is the best editorializing in America: well-informed, discriminating, magnanimous. Like Macdonald.

He mattered in a larger way, too, at least to those of us trying to be citizen-critics. He was an exemplary amateur. Like Chomsky and Randolph Bourne— his only peers among 20th- century American political writers — Macdonald was aroused by a calamitous war to a passionate moralism. Like them, he was dismissed or derided by “pragmatic” liberals as naïve and unserious. And in each case, while the “realists” were steeped in intellectual disgrace, the naive moralists redeemed, in a small way, the humane promise of the intellectual vocation.

Macdonald despaired of politics — but only of “professional,” organized politics and its ideological sideshows. He remained a political dilettante, in the pristine sense of that honorable old word: someone who prizes and publicizes nobility or skill. In 1968 Nicola Chiaromonte, a frequent contributor to “Politics”, responded to the French student uprising by admonishing the students to adopt “a nonrhetorical form of ‘total rejection”: to approach politics with the integrity of artisans, to apply to social life “the standards of the craft itself, standards that in them selves are the simplest and strictest of moral principles and, by their very nature, cut out deception and prevarication, charlatanism and the love of power and possession.” That was also Macdonald’s creed. He sought to apply to our politics and culture the strict critical standards of an honest intellectual craftsman — standards at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive.

Not his uncommon wit, but his common decency, was Macdonald’s best legacy. Lionel Trilling observed of George Orwell: “If we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.” Like his friend Orwell, Macdonald was not a genius, but he was all the more useful for that. “We admire geniuses, we love them,” Trilling went on, “but they discourage us.” To see this freelance intellectual tilting year after year at the political and commercial barbarities of the age, armed with no system but only some peculiar moral and aesthetic intuitions, was — and still is —encouraging.


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George Scialabba