The Great Contrarian – Dwight Macdonald

First published in The East Hampton Star (July 19, 2012)

Masscult and Midcult (New York Review Books, $16.95) gives us only one phase of Dwight Macdonald’s storied career as a political gadfly, provocative journalist, nonpareil editor, and embattled critic. It showcases Macdonald as an endlessly entertaining highbrow scold, taking up the cudgels for literary standards, drawing a bead on misconceived cultural projects. His political writings are out of print but this side of his work is well worth revisiting. Macdonald died thirty years ago but, as many reviewers seem to agree, this may be the liveliest collection of essays published this year.

Born to modest privilege but not wealth in 1906, he went to Phillips Exeter and Yale in the 1920s and spent much of his later life trying to live this down. In college he was a precocious troublemaker, mocking a celebrated English professor as unqualified to teach and writing to Yale’s president to object to compulsory chapel for its banal sermons. He and some friends started a little magazine in the early thirties while he was writing mainstream profiles for Henry Luce’s new Fortune magazine. Radicalized by the Depression, he briefly became Trotskyist and in 1937 helped relaunch another quarterly, Partisan Review, devoted to anti-Stalinist radicalism and cutting-edge modern literature.

By the 1940s the horrors of the war had turned him from a pacifist into a libertarian anarchist, and for five years he published his own magazine, the legendary Politics, that became a beacon of cosmopolitan humanism in a dark time. At the end of the decade he despaired of politics and turned instead to the cultural subjects that would soon give him a wider audience. The argumentative Macdonald was a lethal polemicist, and he had come to think of mass culture as the latest enemy of personal freedom and genuine art. Just as totalitarianism exacted a terrible conformity, he thought, the postwar avalanche of bestselling books, Hollywood movies, network television, pop music, and mass-market journalism had grown into a soft totalitarianism, undermining essential standards of language, taste, and creative expression. He signed on as a staff writer for The New Yorker and began mounting double-barreled assaults not so much on pop culture as on the well-meaning middlebrow culture of the 1950s, the world of the Book-of-the-Month Club, bestselling fiction, films with literary pretensions, reference works that did little more than decorate the shelves – all watered down versions of real culture, as he saw it.

Several of these terrifically enjoyable screeds are included here, including his attacks on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which dispensed with some of the poetic, archaic language of the King James Version; on Mortimer Adler’s monumental – and monumentally misconceived – Great Books collection; on James Gould Cozzens’s ridiculously overpraised novel By Love Possessed; and on the remarkably permissive third edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Along with this big game, the book’s editor, John Summers, reprints Macdonald’s sweeping but snobbish 70-page overview, “Masscult and Midcult,” along with some very effective literary essays on James Agee and Ernest Hemingway, whose self-imitating later work made him a ripe target for Macdonald, and two later attacks, on Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism and Norman Cousins’s new magazine, World, a short-lived successor to his echt middlebrow Saturday Review. Only Agee, an old friend of Macdonald’s who had recently died young, gets off easily in a balanced tribute. All the others bite the dust.

Macdonald was a born contrarian who thrived on controversy. When he reprinted his essays he often appended harsh attacks on him along with his own feisty responses, which could be devastating but never bitter or malicious. But as a person, even with his own children (according to his biographer, Michael Wreszin), “he seemed unaware of the intimidating intensity of his verbal aggression.” A jovial, rotund man himself, he delighted in mischief and was surprised when anyone took his attacks personally. He took on his victims in the name of serious cultural ideals, pointing to how their nobler aspirations were betrayed or their style was pretentious, cliched, or riddled with cant. The trouble with popular culture, he felt, was that it was impersonal, mass-produced, mechanical, never the product of an individual vision, a vibrant imagination finding its own form. In both politics and cultural controversy he was the closest American equivalent of George Orwell, appealingly direct in his own writing, seeing himself as a guardian of the language but also of the gift of freedom that made honest language possible.

This double mission leads to a paradox in Macdonald’s work, for as much as he is a democrat and even a radical in politics he is every inch the elitist in culture and the arts. He shares common ground with backward-looking social critics like T. S. Eliot and José Ortega y Gasset, prophets of decline who were implacable foes of mass society. Like them, Macdonald believed that “the great cultures of the past had all been elite affairs, centering in small upper-class communities which had certain standards in common,” encouraging creativity and criticism. He was sure there was a universal standard of excellence that clashed with the needs of a broad, undiscriminating audience. He identified with the minority appeal of early modern art and literature and hated to see its techniques diluted for mass consumption, though he allowed that some great writers of the past, like Dickens, had almost accidentally been popular.

This is a key to the major flaw in his work, which struck me even as an undergraduate first reading Partisan Review some fifty years ago. Macdonald’s attachment to tradition, his idealized sense of the past, makes it difficult for him to discriminate – his own favorite word -among new directions in the present. He hated the ponderous but upbeat themes of most ‘serious’ works of the 1950s like Cozzens’s overblown novel, Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B., a verse update of the Book of Job, or Thornton Wilder’s ever-popular Our Town. But he was just as dismissive of the would-be radicals of the era: the Beats in America, the Angry Young Men in Britain. Macdonald claimed to admire Picasso but saw Jackson Pollock and his friends as “drip and dribble” painters.

He loved the avant garde only when it belonged safely to the past, when its spare intransigence was already hallowed by time. He revered the King James Bible as a grave monument of English poetry and prose, deeply integrated into the fabric of later literature, but could not acknowledge how much its archaisms, obscurities, and mistranslations needed respectful correction and clarification, especially where original was pithy, direct. To him such “trivial gains in accuracy” are not worth the loss of “long-cherished beauty of phrasing.” Yet those gains were anything but trivial, and much of the hallowed phrasing was preserved. His attack on the new dictionary, though in many ways justified, was even more of a rear-guard action. Multiplying example after example, Macdonald wins every local skirmish but loses the war. The day was past when a dictionary could serve as the sovereign arbiter of usage rather than an alert recorder of how the living language continued to evolve.

Macdonald was most effective on easier targets. As a matchless critic of style, he could deftly puncture Norman Cousins’s gaseous editorial statements or the other Cozzens’s arch, pompous language. In Cozzens he detects the prig under the cover of the moralist. He calls By Love Possessed a “neo-Victorian cakewalk” and demolishes its gullible reviewers: “Confusing laboriousness with profundity, the reviewers have for the most part not detected the imposture.” The impact of Macdonald’s meticulous takedown was immediate. Rarely has a single review so deflated a writer’s reputation, yet Macdonald happily sent the piece to Cozzens himself – in case he missed it, as if any writer ever missed the current buzz about his work. Macdonald could be ingenious even in overkill, as when he compares the Bible revisers’ work to the saturation bombing of German cities, leaving large monuments intact while leveling all their surroundings.

Macdonald’s one-liners still resonate. He wonders why Hollywood moguls are called producers “when their function is to prevent the production of art.” They charge screenwriters with “licking the book,” like bears licking their cubs, but here “the process is reversed and the book is licked not into but out of shape.” Of Time magazine he writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking.” Anticipating current criticisms of the Internet, he complains about the proliferation of newspapers and magazines which substitute facts and information for thinking and imagination, and even compares reading this mountain of material to the work of a calculating machine, an ancestor of today’s computers. “This gives a greatly extended coverage to our minds, but also makes them, compared to the kinds of minds similar people had in past centuries, coarse, shallow, passive, and unoriginal.” Amid these distractions, he concludes, “the real problem of our day is how to escape being ‘well informed,’ how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information.” Sound familiar?

Macdonald is right to say that the real challenge is not wide reading, which he feels has deteriorated into skimming, but deep reading, “to bring the slow, cumbersome depths into play, to ruminate, speculate, reflect, wonder, experience what the eye has seen.” This is usually the mandate of art rather than journalism or information, and no computer can supply it any more than Time could. But the arts themselves, much like language, were evolving in Macdonald’s day, and his stubborn adherence to the past, his faith in continuity or very slow change, kept him from appreciating this.

The very distinctions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow that he tried so hard to uphold were falling apart. The arts and even the politics of the 1960s made no sense in terms of these cultural hierarchies. The songs of Dylan or the Beatles, the films of Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg of Roy Lichtenstein, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, or Kurt Vonnegut – all these bridged or shattered such jerry-built cultural categories.

Macdonald’s values are sound yet his essays survive less for what they say, which is too often anchored in an idealized past, than for how they say it: their wit and rhetorical verve, their uproarious satire and sheer love of disputation, the way they marshal unanswerable facts and embarrassing quotations. His designated victims often hang themselves as he chuckles from the sidelines. Great satirists and parodists rarely swim with the tide. From Jonathan Swift to Evelyn Waugh, they gained energy, as he does, from their articulate distaste for the newfangled. And as he says about one of his favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe, “while his works are sometimes absurd, they are rarely dull.”