Dwight Macdonald

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Dwight Macdonald

Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) was an editor, journalist, essayist, and critic of literature, popular culture, films, and politics.

Dwight Macdonald was born in New York City on March 24, 1906, the son of Dwight and Alice (Hedges) Macdonald. Macdonald attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite private school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Yale University, from which he graduated in 1928. After trying his hand at becoming a merchandiser in a training program at Macy's, Macdonald, with the help of a friend from Yale, became an associate editor in 1929 of Henry Luce's FORTUNE, the first issue of which appeared in 1930. Macdonald worked on FORTUNE until 1936, when he resigned to protest alterations that the pro-business magazine made in a series of articles he had written about U.S. Steel Corporation.

Macdonald devoted himself in the mid-1930s to discovering his own political philosophy. He read Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky; became an enthusiastic anti-Stalinist; and, in 1937, became an editor of the radical Partisan Review. Macdonald joined the Trotskyist Party in 1939 and contributed articles to its monthly periodical, the New International. By 1941 Macdonald had broken with the Trotskyists, who had themselves split apart in a bitter factional dispute. In 1943, declaring himself a pacifist and objecting to World War II, he resigned from Partisan Review because of disagreements with its editor, Philip Rahv.

Magazine Editor and Writer

In 1944 Macdonald founded Politics, which appeared first monthly, then quarterly, until Macdonald abandoned it in 1949 to devote more of his time to writing. Politics published essays on politics and culture and included among its contributors James Agee, John Berryman, Bruno Bettelheim, Albert Camus, Paul Goodman, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, and Simone Weil. As editor of Politics Macdonald began to refer to his own politics as "essentially anarchist."

In 1951 Macdonald became a staff writer for the New Yorker. From 1960 to 1966, while retaining his role on the staff of the New Yorker, Macdonald was movie critic for Esquire.

Many of Macdonald's essays on culture and politics have been collected in books that are interesting both for their intrinsic merits and because they record and reflect the ferment of a generation of American intellectuals whose work spanned the Depression, the "Red Decade" of the 1930s, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the birth and death of the New Left in the confusions of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Watergate affair, and the rise of neo-conservatism. Macdonald's Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (1948) is a polemic arguing, in effect, that the former New Deal secretary of agriculture and vice president did not deserve the support of the American Left, primarily because of Henry Wallace's professed admiration for Stalinist Russia. (Wallace was the 1948 presidential candidate of the Progressive Party.) Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1957) includes many of Macdonald's most important political essays, including a brief political memoir, "Politics Past," in which Macdonald comments on his Trotskyist period: "What strikes me most, looking back, is the contrast between the scope of our thought and the modesty of our actions."

The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions (1956), which originally appeared as a series in the New Yorker, describes the "philanthropoid" as an institutional type and the Ford Foundation itself as "a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some."

A Sharp Critic in Many Areas

Against the American Grain (1962) contains Macdonald's celebrated attacks on James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed, on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and on the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary. Against the American Grain also contains the famous essay on "Masscult & Midcult," in which Macdonald argues that mass culture is a parody of high culture and that mass culture serves modern industrial society by transforming "the individual into mass man," turning culture into an "instrument of domination" and making "a pluralistic culture impossible." Midcult, on the other hand, is a more recent and sophisticated phenomenon, according to Macdonald. Midcult is as formulaic and predictable as masscult, but pretends to be high culture, which it waters down and displaces.

Macdonald had by now clearly articulated his own fascination with popular culture and his own unwillingness to abandon high culture as a standard against which to judge it. Against the American Grain contains Macdonald's admiring review of Richard Ellman's biography of James Joyce and displays Macdonald's characteristic suspicion of academic students of literature—but a suspicion overcome by a genuine and generous celebration of Professor Ellman's work and a convincing perspective on the place of biography in literary studies. Despite his frequent invocations of high culture as a standard of judgment and the wide range of literary learning that is frequently evident in his work, Macdonald produced no large body of critical writing on serious or "high" culture and literature, such as was produced, for example, by Philip Rahv or Edmund Wilson.

Macdonald's film criticism, collected in On Movies (1969), continued to work out his lifelong admiration for movies and his unwillingness to overlook or forgive the mediocre or meretricious. Still, as he said in the introduction to On Movies, "I wouldn't want to see a movie made by a director who had to learn to make movies from my reviews."

Macdonald's writing is learned, conversational, sometimes even chatty, digressive, personal, witty, constantly seeking the apt judgment, the appropriate attitude. William Barrett recalls the New York literary culture in which Macdonald moved as a band of passionate debaters. Macdonald, though he had left the core of intellectuals who formed the Partisan Review crowd, stayed in the debate, but, says Barrett, "he was not very good at argument, for he stammered. In his case the pen—or, rather, the typewriter—was mightier than the tongue; and where in written polemic he could spear his victim with a single deadly phrase or sentence, in oral argument he would become excited and reduced to an incoherent stammer" (William Barrett, The Truants, 1982).

Macdonald cheerfully conceded to Paul Goodman's criticism that he "thought with his typewriter," discovering what he thought by writing it down and revising it. And, as he also cheerfully admitted, he tried to reconcile a fascination for popular culture with a taste formed by high culture and a passionate interest in politics with a growing conviction that collective actions led to diminishments of humankind's essential individualism.

Further Reading

Macdonald's books include Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (1948), The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions (1956), Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism (1957), Against the American Grain (1962), On Movies (1969), and Discriminations (1974). Greenwood Reprint Corporation reissued Politics in 1968 with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. For discussion of the tradition within and against which Macdonald worked, see William Barrett, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals (1982), and John P. Diggins, Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (1975).

Additional Sources

Whitfield, Stephen J., A critical American: the politics of Dwight Macdonald, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.

Wreszin, Michael, A rebel in defense of tradition: the life and politics of Dwight Macdonald, New York: Basic Books, 1994. □

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(b. 24 March 1906 in New York City; d. 19 December 1982 in New York City), literary and social critic who was both a conservative defender of high-culture literary values and a radical foe of the U.S. government's policies toward poverty and war.

Macdonald was one of two sons born to Dwight Macdonald, a lawyer, and Alice Hedges, a homemaker. He had an elite education, graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1924 and receiving a B.A. in history from Yale University in 1928. He wrote for Yale's newspaper and literary magazine and edited its humor magazine. Macdonald then went to work as a staff writer for Fortune magazine. The more he studied and wrote about capitalism, the less he liked it, and he began associating with political radicals, including Nancy Rodman, whom he married in 1934. The couple had two sons.

Macdonald left Fortune in 1936 and the following year became editor of the revived Partisan Review. In 1938 Macdonald's revulsion with the political system in the United States led him to examine the communism of the Soviet Union, but he soon found the regime of Josef Stalin equally offensive. He considered a number of political alternatives, including Trotskyism and pacifism, the latter of which inspired him to burn his draft card in 1948. He eventually described himself with the seemingly self-contradictory phrase "conservative anarchist."

Macdonald edited Partisan Review from 1938 to 1943. He then started his own magazine, Politics, which was published until 1949. From then on he wrote articles and columns, most notably for The New Yorker, for which he was a staff writer from 1951 to 1966, and Esquire, for which he wrote film reviews and later a political column in the 1960s.

At the same time, Macdonald became known as something of a lifestyle radical, holding nude parties at his home as early as the late 1940s. He had a number of extramarital affairs, which eventually strained his marriage. In 1954 he and Nancy divorced, and he married Gloria Lanier, with whom he remained for the rest of his life.

Although his political views changed over the years, Macdonald remained true to the ideals of high literary culture he had absorbed at Yale. This was highlighted in his well-known essay "Masscult and Midcult," which appeared in two parts in Partisan Review in 1960. Perhaps harking back to his days in radical politics, where the bitterest feuds were often with those of fairly similar views, Macdonald claimed that the greatest foe of high culture was not the mass culture that more or less admitted its trashiness (he praised Zane Gray as an example); rather, the danger came from what he called "midcult," writing that seemingly aimed for high literary goals but fell far short. In this category he listed Nobel laureates Pearl S. Buck and John Steinbeck, as well as such popular favorites as Irwin Shaw and Herman Wouk, charging them with sentimentality and middle-class nostalgia. He insisted, however, that his literary elitism was compatible with political democracy.

In the same vein Macdonald published "The String Untuned," a savage review of Webster's Third International Dictionary and its efforts to report popular usage of words instead of trying to set standards, in The New Yorker in 1962. In the same year, "Masscult and Midcult" and "The String Untuned" were published in a collection, Against the American Grain, in which the theme was further addressed by sharp-edged dissections of two midcult favorites, James Gould Cozzens and Colin Wilson. Macdonald's dry wit was notable, as when he said of the novel that brought Cozzens fame and fortune, "By Love Possessed has enriched my vocabulary, or, more precisely, added to it."

In 1965, when the journalist Tom Wolfe published a slashing attack on The New Yorker, Macdonald leapt to the magazine's defense, describing Wolfe's efforts to enliven journalism with the devices of fiction as an inferior genre, which he dubbed "parajournalism."

Despite his focus on literary standards, Macdonald had not forgotten politics. In 1962 Michael Harrington published The Other America, a startling exposé of continuing poverty in a nation that considered itself well-to-do. Early in 1963, The New Yorker published Macdonald's long essay-review of the book, "Our Invisible Poor." Historians believe it was Macdonald's review that brought the book to the attention of President John F. Kennedy, thus leading to the creation of the War on Poverty program.

Macdonald remained dubious about the government. He was horrified by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the way (he believed) Kennedy had brought the world to the brink of atomic war. He rejoiced at Lyndon Johnson's victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, then watched in dismay Johnson's escalation of the hostilities in Vietnam. In 1965 the White House invited about four hundred intellectuals, including Macdonald, to a festival of the arts. The poet Robert Lowell declined, as a way of stating his opposition to the administration's policy on Vietnam. After some consideration Macdonald decided to attend the festival, but he issued a statement insisting that his presence was not to be treated as approval of the war and solicited signatures for an antiwar petition from his fellow invitees (he received seven).

From then on Macdonald was a committed opponent of the war, appearing at the 1968 March on the Pentagon and other protests. He took public radical stands on other issues, supporting the Columbia University student take-over in 1968 and appearing at their "counter commencement." When the largely African-American school boards in Ocean Hill–Brownsville demanded local control over their schools in 1969, he supported them against the largely white United Federation of Teachers, though this caused a break with his old ally Michael Harrington.

In 1969 and 1970 Macdonald wrote to a number of universities, saying, "I'm tired of writing and might enjoy teaching." Indeed, he took a few visiting professorships and wrote little more. Macdonald was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970, and in 1971 retired from The New Yorker. He died of heart failure in 1982.

Macdonald remains a controversial figure. His literary views are seen by today's postmodernists as the kind of "dead white male elitism" that has been supplanted (although it might be added that the midcultists he criticized have been treated no better by literary history). Macdonald never constructed a comprehensive political theory of his own, but his critiques of established authority remain relevant, and his eloquence and wit keep him worth reading.

Macdonald's papers are kept at the Sterling Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Michael Wreszin published A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, a full-length biography of Macdonald (1994), and A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald (2001). Stephen J. Whitfield, A Critical American: The Politics of Dwight Macdonald (1984), and Gregory D. Sumner, Dwight Macdonald and the Politics Circle (1996), concentrate on Macdonald's political views. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Dec. 1982).

Arthur D. Hlavaty