“He was a radical, he was a conservative, he was compassionate, he was scathing. He had exquisite taste in many a literary matter. But his transcendental virtue, that unique quality which sets him far apart from all other literary figures for whom one can feel respect, was that he had the rare gift of always speaking out of his own voice.” —Norman Mailer
“Dwight Macdonald was a generalist whose specialty was capsizing conventional wisdom, exposing highfalutin fraudulence and filing heretical dissents.” —James Wolcott, The New York Times
“Those who read much and care about the quality of what they read ought to be grateful for the consistent tough-mindedness of Dwight MacDonald. . . He is provocative and well worth rereading. The quality of his essays is in direct ratio to
their ambitiousness.” —Larry McMurtry, The Washington Post
"Dwight Macdonald's...real legacy lies in the series of unforgiving, inflammatory and ferociously witty essays he wrote during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Most of his work is out of print now, but this new collection edited by John Summers aims to right this wrong and prove Macdonald's enduring relevance as a cultural watchdog….If, politically, Macdonald was a confused and often erratic radical, intellectually he was a staunch conservative; he was against the grain in more ways than one. It's this unresolved contradiction that makes his essays so thrilling and complex. " — Ermanno Rivetti, The Guardian
"As with all great essayists, his writing had a poetic component, but it was a poetry cleansed of poeticism. No modern American prose writer of consequence ever postured less: compared with him, Mary McCarthy is on stilts, Gore Vidal grasps a pouncet-box, and Norman Mailer is from Mars in a silver suit. At his best, Macdonald made modern American English seem like the ideal prose medium: transparent in its meaning, fun when colloquial, commanding when dignified, and always suavely rhythmic even when most committed to the demotic." - Clive James, The Atlantic
The liberal highbrow, the person who favored an immediate ban on nuclear weapons and refused to have a television in the house, was a wonderful mid-twentieth-century type. I knew such a person very well: my father. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Metropolitan Opera were the joint deities of his world. I met a lot of people like that growing up, people who managed to combine unequivocal support for principles like equal rights and freedom of speech with flagrant cultural élitism. One way to explain them would be to say that they subscribed to a particular liberal idea: that there is often a discrepancy between public values and private tastes, but as long as these things are kept in separate compartments people have no obligation to justify their personal likes on political grounds. They can be democrats out in the town square and snobs at home.
I wonder how many people actually can compartmentalize that way; in any case, people like my dad did not. They thought of their cultural preferences in exactly the same way that they thought of their political principles: as positions that, if everyone adopted them, would make for a better world. The roots of this mentality go back to the nineteen-thirties, and one of its liveliest cultivators and exponents was the journalist Dwight Macdonald.
Macdonald was a man who had a congenital distrust of authority, but whose talent and charm made this into an appealing trait of temperament rather than a personal or professional liability. Macdonald not only enjoyed provoking; he liked to be provoked. He was therefore nicely endowed to flourish in a provincial culture—the intellectual niche world of New York City from the nineteen-thirties to the nineteen-sixties—where trading attacks and high-minded insults with former or future friends was regarded as simply one of the ways that work got done. Macdonald was vociferous, opinionated, and, when he was drunk, nasty and combative, though this was true of many of his peers as well—it was an alcoholic milieu. He was also, almost serenely, pure of heart. He was easy to quarrel with and, by most accounts, easy to forgive.
Macdonald began his intellectual career in the nineteen-thirties, in the center ring of the great political cockfight between the Stalinists and the Trotskyists in New York City, then, in the nineteen-forties, broke with all sects and sectarians to run his own little magazine, and finally established himself, in the nineteen-fifties, as the Lord High Executioner of middlebrow culture. He published widely—in quarterlies, in journals of opinion, in general-interest magazines, like this one, and in big-circulation monthlies, like Esquire, where he served as the movie critic for six years. He wrote with a lot of salt and pepper, and when he was criticized he joyfully published the criticisms. The English scholar Ian Watt once said of Macdonald that he had “the pugnacious resilience of a Donald Duck.” Watt meant it admiringly.
Macdonald was born in 1906 on the Upper West Side. His family, though not wealthy, was reasonably well off, and he attended a series of private schools, ending up at Exeter and Yale. At Yale, he wrote an editorial for the Yale Record in which he called on the English professor William Lyon Phelps, a campus fixture, not to teach Shakespeare, on the ground that, if Phelps thought it over, he would realize that he was not competent to do so. The dean learned of the editorial before it was printed and suggested to Macdonald that he would be prudent to withdraw it. Macdonald invoked his right of free speech and the prohibition against prior restraint. The dean said that he had no intention of suppressing the editorial; he only wanted Macdonald to know that if it ran he would be kicked out. The editorial did not appear. That dean was one of the last people known to have persuaded Dwight Macdonald to keep an opinion to himself.
A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist. After Macdonald graduated from Yale, in 1928, he first took a job in sales at Macy’s. He had an exalted idea of the heroism of business; three months in retail disabused him. He quit, and began his career as a writer, going to work for Henry Luce, beginning at Time, which Luce had started up (with Briton Hadden) in 1923, and then moving to Fortune, which was launched, unpropitiously, in 1930, shortly after the stock market crashed.
At Exeter and Yale, Macdonald had been a mandarin, literary type, and something of a dandy. He later claimed that he was radicalized at Fortune, where his reporting brought him face to face with the captains of industry, whom he found boorish and contemptible. In 1934, he married Nancy Rodman, a woman with a well-developed politics and a trust fund. She got him to read Marx, which did not mix well with the Luce, and Macdonald seized on the incompatibility with a characteristic combination of righteousness and glee. He saw, possibly, a way of exiting a job he disliked through the doorway of principle. In 1936, he submitted a piece about the U.S. Steel Corporation that began with a quotation from Lenin. The editors rewrote the story, and Macdonald resigned. In the Presidential election later that year, he voted for Earl Browder, the Communist Party candidate.
Macdonald was an unlikely recruit to a political movement notoriously obsessed with doctrinal correctness. The Communists he encountered in political meetings disgusted him; he called them “wobbits.” “They don’t have any brains,” he later said, “and they’re scared to death of each other and they have no sense of humor, no life!” He had become interested in politics just when the Moscow Trials were making news, so it was easy for him to turn against the Party, which he had never joined, and Stalin, whom he had never praised, and become a Trotskyist.
He proceeded to irritate not only the Trotskyist sect he joined—a faction of the Socialist Workers Party led by James Burnham and Max Shachtman—but Trotsky himself, who made Macdonald the object of a famous put-down. “Every man has a right to be stupid,” Trotsky is supposed to have said, “but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” It is unclear whether Trotsky ever expressed just this thought in just this way (though it is certainly the kind of thing that Trotsky was accustomed to saying about his antagonists: “stupid” had specific dialectical force in Marxist polemic). But Macdonald treated it as a wound honorably incurred in intellectual combat, and he repeated the remark against himself throughout his life.
In 1937, Macdonald joined Philip Rahv and William Phillips in the repositioning of Partisan Review. The magazine had been started, in 1934, as “A Bi-Monthly of Revolutionary Literature Published by the John Reed Club of New York,” an organization controlled by the Communist Party. An editorial statement informed readers that “the defense of the Soviet Union is one of our principal tasks. We shall combat not only the decadent culture of the exploiting classes but also the debilitating liberalism which at times seeps into our writers through the pressure of class-alien forces.” By 1936, though, Rahv and Phillips were looking for a way to break with the Party. They found in Macdonald not only a natural iconoclast but a man agreeable to housing the magazine’s editorial offices in his apartment. Nancy Macdonald served as business manager.
Partisan Review was a literary magazine—the John Reed Club was a writers’ organization—and the purpose of the break was to liberate its fiction, poetry, and criticism from Stalinist orthodoxy, particularly from proscriptions against avant-garde art and literature. The editors proposed combining a Marxist political stance with a modernist, or avant-garde, aesthetic. This was an improbable formula, but, for more than a decade, it sponsored an amazing concentration of intellectual firepower. A typical issue (Winter, 1939) included writing by John Dos Passos, André Gide, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Richard Blackmur, Leon Trotsky, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Nagel, Gertrude Stein, F. W. Dupee, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, and Franz Kafka. And by Macdonald, who published, in that issue, the last article in a three-part series on the demise of Soviet cinema under Stalin.
Movies were always an interest of Macdonald’s. His father, a lawyer, had served on the boards of several film companies, and had once lectured at Yale on the movie business. In the nineteen-twenties, some of the most innovative films in the world came out of the Soviet Union. “One went to the ‘little’ movie houses which showed Russian films as one might visit a celebrated cathedral or museum,” as Macdonald described it. “In the darkened auditorium of the theatre, one came into a deep and dynamic contact with twentieth century life.” By the late nineteen-thirties, though, the cinema avant-garde in Russia had been killed off by official demands for a doctrinaire product and official hostility to experimentation. Soviet film under Stalin, Macdonald wrote, had become “something that more and more closely approaches the output of Hollywood,” which he thought was similarly committed to uncritical, generic entertainment, and his articles analyzed the causes of this decline. In response, the magazine received a letter to the editor from a thirty-year-old aspiring poet and literary critic, Clement Greenberg.
Macdonald had been introduced to Greenberg in 1938 by two Partisan Review contributors, Harold Rosenberg and Lionel Abel. Greenberg’s letter took issue with a few of Macdonald’s points, and Macdonald, delighted to have stimulated an antagonist, encouraged him to expand it into an essay, which he edited. The essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” was to some extent a collaboration. (Macdonald later claimed that he “invented” Clement Greenberg.) It appeared in the Fall, 1939, issue of Partisan Review, and became one of the most influential essays of the century. It was only the second piece of criticism Greenberg had published.
Except for an important twist, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is an orthodox Marxist analysis. Greenberg explained that both avant-garde art and kitsch (that is, popular, or commercial, culture) were by-products of the industrial revolution. Art became avant-garde when serious artists turned inward, away from a society they felt alienated from. In the case of painting, artists moved from representation to abstraction, from attention to the world to attention to the paint. Kitsch—the word means trash, or, as Greenberg put it in his letter to Macdonald, crap—was a consequence of the fact that the industrial revolution had made universal literacy possible, and the new technology of mechanical reproduction permitted an ersatz culture to be manufactured cheaply for an audience looking for entertainment and diversion. This manufactured culture killed off folk art, which was a genuine popular culture.
A Marxist ordinarily went on to condemn both avant-garde art (solipsistic and escapist) and kitsch (a mass opiate), but this is where Greenberg introduced his twist. He didn’t denounce abstract painting and modernist poetry; he justified and defended them. They were what genuine culture had to become under the conditions of capitalism. “By no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order,” Greenberg claimed. The people at Partisan loved “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” and no wonder: it elegantly squared the magazine’s apparently asymmetrical allegiances to Marxism and modernism.
One of the jokes at Partisan Review was “Dwight is looking for a disciple who will tell him what to think.” Even in his Marxist period, Macdonald was not a systematic or even a consistent thinker. But he was drawn to Greenberg’s scheme. He adopted the avant-garde and kitsch, or highbrow-lowbrow, distinction, and the historical account that went along with it: a story about the emergence of something called “the masses,” the destruction of folk art, and the rise of a debased commercial culture and its profit-seeking manufacturers—“the Lords of Kitsch,” as Macdonald came to call them.
Macdonald had always been an advocate for modernist writing; he was a great admirer of James Joyce. And although he liked the movies, he had distinctly highbrow tastes—Chaplin, Stroheim, the early Eisenstein. By 1939, all of this was no longer merely a question of taste. It had become a question of politics. When Macdonald equated Stalinist cinema with Hollywood, he was not only saying that Soviet cinema had become a medium of approved crowd-pleasing banality. He was saying that Hollywood cinema was a spurious “people’s art.”
This was a critical standard that one could carry into battle. In 1943, Macdonald quit Partisan Review, complaining that the magazine had become too literary. The next year, he started his own little magazine, Politics. Greenberg, who, through Macdonald’s offices, had come on as an editor at Partisan, had also resigned. He was made the art critic of The Nation; during the rest of the decade, he turned himself into the champion of avant-garde American painting, particularly the work of Jackson Pollock. He and Macdonald remained friendly, though with occasional fallings out, such as after Greenberg beat up Lionel Abel at a cocktail party, an incident that produced a brief two-fisted epistolary exchange. (D.M.: “I don’t see how it will be possible for me in future to have any personal relations with you.” C.G.: “You are a moral busybody. You should think a little more before you open your mouth.”) To Macdonald’s charge that he was always punching people, Greenberg replied that he had formerly punched only surrealists.
Macdonald’s own contribution to the first issue of Politics, which came out in February, 1944, was “A Theory of Popular Culture.” This was a re-statement of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” though without Greenberg’s identification of avant-garde art and literature with formalism and self-reflexivity (painting about painting), an aesthetic value that never appealed to Macdonald. Macdonald now placed the blame for the American worker’s indifference to socialism on “the deadening and warping effect of long exposure to movies, pulp magazines and radio.” T.S. Eliot (no friend of socialism) read Macdonald’s essay, and cited it in his little book “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,” published in 1948. “Mr. Macdonald’s theory strikes me as the best alternative to my own that I have seen,” Eliot wrote, which, for Eliot, was pretty approving. Eliot, a self-proclaimed royalist, and Macdonald, a self-proclaimed anarchist, then began a correspondence, heavy on expressions of mutual respect, that persisted until Eliot’s death, in 1965.
Macdonald was a remarkable editor, and although Politics had, at its peak, only around five thousand subscribers, it was a remarkable magazine, valuable for its unorthodox coverage of, and commentary on, the war, reflecting Macdonald’s antiwar and pacifist point of view. Still, in the end, running Politics led Macdonald to reject politics—or, at least, politics in the progressive, science-of-history sense. His manifesto was a very long essay, “The Root Is Man,” which appeared in Politics in 1946. Macdonald asserted a conviction—borrowed, in part, from Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution” (1941), though he had written critically of the book—that the country was headed toward a social system that was the moral equivalent of German and Soviet totalitarianism. The United States was becoming a “mass-society which implies authoritarian controls and the kind of irrational—subrational, rather—nationalist ideology we have seen developed to its highest pitch in Germany and Russia.”
The idea that, with the correct political philosophy, this process could be reversed Macdonald dismissed as belonging to the progressive politics of Marxism and other utopian schemes. The war, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb showed that humanity is not so reformable. The only hope was “to reduce political action to a modest, unpretentious, personal level. . . . People should be happy and should satisfy their spontaneous needs here and now.” The essay angered some of Macdonald’s old Partisan Review comrades, but it presaged a general migration from the political to the personal in New York intellectual life in the postwar decades.
In 1953, Macdonald published a revised and expanded version of his Politics essay on popular culture, renamed “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in Diogenes, a journal funded by the Ford Foundation. Macdonald now cited, along with Greenberg, critical work on mass culture by writers associated with the Frankfurt School, including Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, and Theodor Adorno, whose analysis of standardization in popular music Macdonald called “brilliant.” For the Frankfurters, too, had made a marriage between anti-capitalist politics and modernist aesthetics.
“Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private little garden,” Macdonald argued in the new essay. “But Mass Culture breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination.” The most insidious development in this process was what he called l’avant-garde pompier, phony avant-gardism. As he put it, “There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch.”
Macdonald eventually categorized this pseudo avant-gardism as the culture of middlebrow aspiration—Midcult. Real kitsch, he decided, could be left to the masses. The true enemy was bourgeois high-mindedness in literature, music, theatre, art, and criticism, and, over the next ten years, he turned much of his critical might to the job of identifying this culture, exposing its calculated banalities, and, often with genuine success, persuading readers of its meretriciousness.
Macdonald was now at The New Yorker. He had written occasionally for the magazine since 1928; not long after closing down Politics, he began contributing regularly. His editor was William Shawn, who took over as editor-in-chief in 1952, following the death of Harold Ross, and made Macdonald a staff writer. One of Macdonald’s first long pieces in this capacity, published in November, 1952, was a demolition job on the Encyclopedia Britannica’s fifty-four-volume edition of the Great Books of the Western World, with Syntopicon (a two-volume index of topics), and on the enterprise’s Aristotle, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. It was easy to have sport with this ponderous production, and Shawn was pleased. He encouraged Macdonald to find more middlebrow monuments to demolish.
Macdonald was happy to do so, in part because, for the first time since his Fortune days, he was getting decently paid for his work. He took on the Revised Standard Version of the King James Bible (in 1953), with its modern updating of sixteenth-century English; the young British writer Colin Wilson’s wildly popular work of popular philosophy “The Outsider” (1956), which purveyed a quasi-existentialist anti-intellectualism; and Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1962), a work dedicated to descriptivism, rather than prescriptivism, about usage. Macdonald was obliged to publish his classic evisceration of James Gould Cozzens’s “By Love Possessed” in Commentary, because the novel had been reviewed enthusiastically in The New Yorker by Brendan Gill. (Macdonald did not fail to mention Gill’s review, and more than once, in his piece. Gill had praised the book, Macdonald wrote, “in terms that might have been thought a trifle excessive if he had been writing about War and Peace.”)
Macdonald did not consider the books he was reviewing to be isolated cases of bad writing or false premises. He regarded them as representative of a formidable and dangerous historical development: the rise of a shallow and pretentious literary and intellectual culture for people who were educated but essentially uncultivated, living, as he put it, beyond their “cultural means.” In politics, Macdonald was a radical democrat, but he worried that middlebrow pieties about tolerance and democracy were undermining what he saw as the basic function of criticism: discrimination. When Webster’s Third listed “disinterested” as a synonym for “uninterested,” on the ground that the former word frequently gets used in this way, it was renouncing a dictionary’s basic function. It was refusing to exercise judgment. Macdonald saw the abandonment of such distinctions, between correct and incorrect diction or genuine and sham art, as a society’s abandonment of its own history and traditions.
Was he right? People still use words like “middlebrow” and “kitsch” as terms of disapprobation, even if they don’t remember the Marxist tree from which those apples long ago fell. This is because aesthetic preferences are always tied up with anxieties about social status. The connection seems virtually primordial. I can’t help judging you by the novel you’re reading on the plane or the wallpaper in your house. (You have wallpaper?) If we had no social invidiousness, we would probably have no art—or, at least, we would have a very different economy of art. People like to debate the merits of what they read and see and hear, and to pretend to think ill of those who differ. It’s part of the game. The college freshman who declares herself a relativist in philosophy class by day will argue all night about whether Band X is better than Band Y.
People also like to feel that they know what’s correct and what isn’t, and thus belong to a privileged minority. It doesn’t matter what Webster’s Third tells me: I will always feel superior to a person who says, “I am totally disinterested in that subject” (though I will also strive to treat that individual with the dignity and respect owed to any human being). I can’t help it; it’s the way I was brought up. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the future of the republic is at stake.
To this extent, Macdonald had nothing to worry about. The general understanding of what’s profound and what’s shallow, proper and improper, cool and uncool will change, but the faculty of critical discrimination is never going to go away. Still, some of the edge has come off those distinctions. There has been a levelling of taste in both directions, down and up—a kind of Unibrowism. People have learned not to rule out any cultural experience in advance. They don’t have a problem with the idea that a television series might be as dramatically involving as a grand opera. It’s not that they think that these cultural forms are equally worthy as art, but they respond with less inhibition to the pop and less intimidation to the avant-garde. And, from the point of view of artists, writers, and filmmakers and their galleries, publishers, and studios, the equation of big box-office with pandering and mediocrity has almost disappeared. About the emergence of this more relaxed and fluid cultural universe Macdonald may have been prescient.
In the mid-nineteen-fifties, Jason Epstein, who founded the original trade-paperback line, Anchor Books, and was now an editor at Random House, gave Macdonald a contract for a book on popular culture. Macdonald struggled with the project. He was never a book writer. He had spent months, back in the nineteen-thirties, taking notes for a book on dictators, and couldn’t get anywhere with it. It was not just that his talent was for magazine pieces. He also distrusted what he called Big Issue books, works such as David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd,” Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media,” and C. Wright Mills’s “White Collar”—which he brutally reviewed (“boring to the point of unreadability”) in Partisan Review. (Mills was an old friend, and had been a close collaborator on Politics.) So it is unsurprising that the two-part essay he produced in lieu of a book, “Masscult and Midcult,” was not Macdonald at his most persuasive. He was obliged to generalize and theorize, and those were not strengths.
But he did have fun in the essay, and scored points, when he got down to cases: Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (“written in that fake-biblical prose Pearl Buck used in The Good Earth, a style which seems to have a malign fascination for the midbrows—Miss Buck also got a Nobel Prize out of it”), Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” (“It is Profound and Soul-Searching, it deals with the Agony of Modern Man, and it has been widely discussed, often by the author, in the Midcult magazines”), Stephen Vincent Benét’s “John Brown’s Body” (“sometimes solemn, sometimes gay, always straining to put it across, like a night-club violinist”), and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (“I agree with everything Mr. Wilder says but I will fight to the death against his right to say it in this way”). “Masscult and Midcult” stands as a kind of summa of the New York highbrow’s contempt for bourgeois culture, and it served as introduction and polemical ballast for the collection “Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture,” which was published, by Random House, in 1962.
And why wouldn’t Shawn have been pleased with Macdonald’s mighty takedowns of middlebrow enterprises like Adler’s Great Books? The subjects made for juicy, witty, intelligent journalism; readers loved the pieces and wrote letters saying so; and they attracted lots of attention. And there might have been another reason lurking somewhere in the shadows. Shawn made a highly successful magazine even more successful by adding some gravitas to its traditionally lighthearted and insouciant pages. In the nineteen-fifties, The New Yorker became an icon of literary respectability for educated readers. It flattered their sense of their own good taste. It’s impossible to know (as it is in the case of most great magazine editors) how much of this was calculation based on canny insight into magazine demographics and how much was simply a reflection of what Shawn unaffectedly liked and didn’t like. Whatever the case, he must have seen that Macdonald’s pieces put just the inch and a half of distance he needed between his glossy and carefully crafted product and the genteel fakery of wannabes and rivals. Macdonald’s attacks on middlebrowism inoculated The New Yorker against accusations of being middlebrow.
The point was brought home to Macdonald forcefully; typically, he included a complete account of the affair in “Against the American Grain.” He explained that he had written “Masscult and Midcult” on commission for the Saturday Evening Post. When the editors there suggested that he ought to list The New Yorker among the examples of Midcult, Macdonald declined. He did not think the magazine was middlebrow. The editors pressed their point; Macdonald pressed back; and, in the end, “Masscult and Midcult” appeared, in 1960, in Partisan Review.
Macdonald’s defensiveness about The New Yorker has a backstory. The New Yorker has always been a foil for quarterlies and opinion magazines, which regularly accuse it of the journalistic equivalent of gentrification. The first piece Macdonald wrote for Partisan Review, in 1937, was an attack on The New Yorker, and what he called its “Park Avenue attitude toward the arts.” (He did not mention that he had occasionally written for it.) By the nineteen-fifties, though, Macdonald had drunk the waters at Forty-third Street, and he believed completely in the official dogma of Ross and Shawn’s New Yorker, which was the absolute separation of the magazine’s business side (the side concerned with advertising and circulation) from its editorial side. The New Yorker did not cater to any class of reader, in its self-accounting; it simply published what its writers and editors wanted to publish. It was blind to the marketplace.
So, in 1965, when Tom Wolfe came out with a drive-by attack on The New Yorker, in the form of a largely fictional “profile” of Shawn, Macdonald was outraged. The attack appeared in the Sunday magazine section, edited by Clay Felker, of the New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper on its financial last legs. With not much to lose, Wolfe and Felker looked around for a sacred cow they might goad to some sort of entertainingly antic reaction.
Wolfe’s two pieces about The New Yorker, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead” and “Lost in the Whichy Thicket,” were mostly, as he later admitted, “sheer rhetorical showboating.” But the cow jumped. Learning that the articles were in the works, Shawn made the mistake of writing to the publisher of the Herald Tribune, demanding that they be suppressed. Felker happily made the letter public, and the pieces got more attention than he or Wolfe likely ever dreamed. (The Herald Tribune did fold soon afterward, but Felker went on to become the founding editor of New York.)
Macdonald’s long, two-part response to Wolfe’s pieces appeared in The New York Review of Books, a paper co-founded by Epstein and then in its third year of publication. Wolfe’s hit jobs were easy enough to discredit. He had made up or slanted most of the facts. But Macdonald also attacked all of Wolfe’s journalism, recently collected in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and he coined the term “parajournalism,” derived from “parody,” to describe it. (That term did not catch on. Wolfe’s term, the New Journalism, did.)
It was all a case of overkill. Wolfe had got under Macdonald’s skin, and there are a couple of possible reasons. The first was Wolfe’s strident, though always cleverly ambiguous, claims for the attractions of, precisely, kitsch: custom cars, beehive hairdos, Las Vegas signage, rock-and-roll dance styles, and so on. Macdonald and his generation of intellectual journalists had marked out this territory as beneath critical consideration—and here was a journalist, with a doctorate from Yale, who had written a best-seller about the stuff.
What really disgusted Macdonald, though, was Wolfe’s flippant letter to the editors of The New York Review in reply to the articles. “I like your Tom Wolfe issues the best,” Wolfe wrote. “I hereby charge and assert that the testy but lovable Boswell who annotates my old laundry slips, Dwight Macdonald, drinks tea. Please print this letter up front in your paper so that he can respond at length and write another Tom Wolfe issue.” “I take this persiflage to be a flag of surrender,” Macdonald replied, “but hadn’t expected the flag to be so white. A depressing victory.” It was not the way intellectual battles were fought in the old days.
Or maybe it was just that the undergraduate popinjay who talked back to the dean had got old and established, and become rather deanlike, himself. The Herald Tribune pieces were sophomoric enough, but they were predicated firmly on the cardinal premise of all journalism, which is that a cat may look at a king. Macdonald had once been such a cat.
“Against the American Grain” was well received, and was the most commercially successful of Macdonald’s books (including his peerless anthology “Parodies,” published, by the Modern Library, in 1960). But 1962 was virtually the last year when a spirited defense of traditional cultural values by a liberal thinker could have carried much credibility. The whole high-low paradigm, so rigorously constructed and maintained by the critics of Macdonald’s generation, was about to end up in the dustbin of history (to borrow a Trotskyism). Before 1962, an educated cultural consumer might understandably have concluded that there was not much in the world of popular entertainment that demanded serious attention. Hollywood was in the doldrums; the broadcast networks, fearful of offending anyone and losing their oligopoly, were locked into a policy of lowest-common-denominator programming; the pop-music industry was plagued by racism and scandal. And in the nineteen-fifties there was a major middle-class culture of earnest aspiration, the product of a strange alliance of the democratic (culture for everyone) and the élitist (culture can make you better). Macdonald understood how this culture was contrived and which buttons of vanity and insecurity it pushed so successfully; and he had no inhibitions about blowing it out of the water—a free-spirited attitude that gave his readers pleasure as well as a sense of self-justification.
Just around the corner, though, a different dispensation was poised to come into being. This was a culture of sophisticated entertainment that was neither avant-garde nor mass, that was popular but had a bit of a brow. It was the moment of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and “All in the Family,” Motown and “Blonde on Blonde,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Hair,” Andy Warhol and Rolling Stone. The old hierarchical schemes didn’t work very well on this stuff, in part because it ignored the distinction between art and commerce that had grounded the high-low system. The new art was smart and enjoyable, and it made lots of money, too. A great river of pop, soulful, demotic, camp, performative, outrageous, over-the-top cultural goods flooded the scene, and Macdonald’s system of critical judgment was left stranded on the far shore.
Still, Macdonald was not a prude. He was not in the business of blaming people for enjoying what they enjoyed or admiring what they admired. His business was getting people to realize that they were often not actually enjoying or benefitting from the cultural goods they had been persuaded to patronize. His attacks on James Gould Cozzens and Colin Wilson, his roasting of Mortimer Adler and “the Book-of-the-Millennium Club,” his disembowelment of the editor Norman Cousins’s genteel Saturday Review and its family-of-man successor, World (one of Macdonald’s funniest pieces), and even his potshots at the Big Issue books were directed as much at the literary establishment as they were at buyers and readers. Macdonald thought that people were being tricked into buying this stuff by being told that they ought to like it, or that it was good for them. He thought that, like kitsch, Midcult was a marketing phenomenon. It was culture manufactured for the aspiring sophisticate.
In the case of kitsch, no one was being fooled. Lowbrow culture was produced in order to make a profit, and it was bought in order to provide simple pleasure and diversion. No one pretended otherwise. What alarmed Macdonald was that in the case of Midcult everyone seemed to be fooled—not only the readers but the writers, the editors, the publishers, and the reviewers. They had all become convinced of their own high-mindedness. They believed that they were engaged in an uplifting enterprise of human betterment, even as they raked in the profits. (As Macdonald pointed out, in 1961 alone the Adler Great Books set grossed twenty-two million dollars.) “No vulgar promotion” was their means of promotion, and readers who aspired to something superior to simple pleasure and diversion were taken in by it.
It all seems to have provoked Macdonald’s lifelong hatred of bogus authority. He saw Midcult as a form of moral and intellectual bullying, and a dislike of bullies had been part of his anti-Stalinism, his pacifism, and his anarchism—even his attack on Professor Phelps of the Yale English Department.
“Clem has many of the aspects of the old-fashioned con man,” Macdonald once said of Greenberg in an interview. “I never knew that he knew anything about art and I’m not so sure that he did know anything about art. But he had something that was very important: a moralistic approach to everything. He made people feel guilty if they didn’t like Jackson Pollock.” This was unfair to Greenberg, who was a genuine critic. And it was unfair to Pollock and to Abstract Expressionism, a style of painting that Macdonald never appreciated. (“Enormous globs and gloobs,” as he described it in the preface to “Against the American Grain.”) But it suggests the remorselessness of Macdonald’s commitment to exposing the self-promotion, self-satisfaction, and self-delusion that are always wrapped up in the business of making and appreciating art. That exposure is one of the foundational tasks of criticism, and Macdonald is one of its great exemplars. ♦