Mac the Knife: On Dwight Macdonald
If one were to point out that the wider authority of literary criticism is barely discernible today, one could hardly be accused of courting a controversy or kicking up a fuss. There certainly is a coterie of Americans for whom literature and its criticism is a matter of urgency or livelihood or both, but the notion of the literary critic as a cultural gatekeeper, whose judgments shape tastes and move units, sounds either fanciful or anachronistic, depending on whether you believe that such a creature ever really existed. Our culture is now so big and so varied, the population so diverse and so fragmented, that the very idea of anything or anyone having “wider authority” sounds silly, if not absurd.
Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, a selection of Dwight Macdonald’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, includes the kinds of big, critical pronouncements that today would be met with eye rolls of annoyance or, more likely, blank stares of indifference. Macdonald started out as a journalist, and he wrote literary criticism that was as politically informed as it was aesthetically attuned. His voice was cantankerous and opinionated; he provided readers with the larger context as well as the close read. And he wrote much of this biting, caustic criticism for The New Yorker, where he was a staff writer for more than a decade.
Macdonald specialized in the ruthless takedown, targeting the kind of overblown cultural product that had sufficient critical endorsement to tempt his educated and aspirational readers. In 1952 The New Yorker published “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club,” Macdonald’s public shaming of the Great Books project, which culminates in this grand finale: “The problem is not placing these already available books in people’s hands (at five dollars a volume) but getting people to read them, and the hundred pounds of densely printed, poorly edited reading matter assembled by Drs. Adler and Hutchins is scarcely likely to do that.”
More remarkable than Macdonald’s ire (unleashed in a magazine more typically associated with bloodlessness than with blood sport) is that the Great Books project, consisting of fifty-four volumes of “densely printed, poorly edited reading matter” by the likes of Epictetus and Hegel, was at one point selling more than 50,000 sets a year—this, despite a price tag that started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today. The stunning success of these extravagant book sets, as well as the 6,000 words of extravagant fury Macdonald lavished on them, are prime examples of what makes this essay collection so fascinating and strange. The criticism on offer is as much a testament to the exalted claims made for culture in midcentury America as it is a casualty of what has happened since.
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Born in the spring of 1906 to a lawyer father and a family-moneyed mother, Dwight Macdonald spent a comfortable childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Later he would make exacting distinctions that played down the true extent of his privilege: he liked to say that his father came from “a lower-middle-class, shabby-genteel Binghamton, ny, family,” though they had the resources to send his father to Exeter and then to Yale, which were also where Dwight would begin to nurture his ambitions.
After college, Macdonald was hired for a sales job by Macy’s, which he started with a breathless excitement for business: his biographer Michael Wreszin describes how Macdonald’s notebook was “replete with pictures of titans of finance and industry, the captions touting their power, moral probity, and achievements.” Within three months, however, Macdonald had written to a friend that he rose in the morning “with loathing for the day ahead.” His career as a writer began when he left retail, as did his fraught relationship with Henry Luce and his magazine empire. In 1929 Macdonald began writing for Time and became an editor at Fortune, which was launched the next year. He swiftly grew bored with both publications, and in 1936 he wrote an article for Fortune in which he quoted Lenin (approvingly) and depicted US Steel as “bereft of both the social intelligence of Communism and the dynamic individualistic drive of capitalism.” The ensuing battle with “the fawning editorial scalpel of Luce’s rewrite men” prompted him to quit. He walked out of his plum $10,000 a year job, determined to write what he wanted to write while living on the modest inheritance of his wife, Nancy.
When the Macdonalds married in 1934, they already shared a sympathetic interest in communism, but Dwight, ever prone to disillusionment, grew displeased soon enough with the actual communists he encountered, eventually shunning the party and its Stalinist line in favor of Trotsky. (That Macdonald soon irritated his fellow Trotskyists as well as Trotsky himself was a point of intellectual pride.) Philip Rahv and William Phillips invited Macdonald to help them relaunch the new, anti-Stalinist Partisan Review in 1937. Two years later, the journal published a laborious but provocative piece of big-think art criticism by Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Greenberg argued that in modern industrial society—which was no longer organized around a central authority such as religion or tradition, and so ever more fractured—the artist could not rely on the old forms and symbols for his work because they represented values he no longer believed in. The true artist needed to detach himself from the bourgeoisie and make art whose content was inextricable from its form. These true artists were the avant-garde, and “kitsch” was the “ersatz culture” of the rest of society. Urbanized and universally literate, the masses of the industrialized world had lost their taste for the folk art of yore, and, seeing as they were stubbornly “insensible to the values of genuine culture,” they sought instead the easy trappings of kitsch.
Macdonald and Greenberg struggled over edits, but “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” continued to resonate for Macdonald long after he left Partisan Review in 1943, providing him with a framework that would guide his critical approach. He became a gatekeeper, a policer of boundaries, a reaper of wheat and a winnower of chaff; to the distinction between the avant-garde and kitsch, Macdonald added l’avant-garde pompier, “fireman avant-gardism,” the sort of phony pretension he deemed more dangerous than the obviously vulgar, and easily dismissible, specimens of mass culture. When he was hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1952, he was set loose on a literary savanna populated with attractive but slow-moving antelope like the Great Books project and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Macdonald relished hunting them down and hanging their antlers on his wall.
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Macdonald’s targets have long since been stuffed and mounted (who reads James Gould Cozzens anymore?), but the record of his hunt is still exhilarating to read. For instance: “Sincere enthusiasm for a mediocre work is more damaging to literary standards than any amount of cynical ballyhoo,” he wrote, refusing to give “sincere enthusiasm” the pass it typically enjoys; Catherine in A Farewell to Arms is “not a person but an adolescent daydream—utterly beautiful and utterly submissive and utterly in love with the dreamer.” The energy Macdonald devoted to making his case shows just how much he believed was at stake. Art was important, not just as an aesthetic experience but as a form of resistance to the “Lords of Kitsch,” who manufactured products not for a collection of individuals but for a herd of mass men, ripe for manipulation. Macdonald might have considered the best art to be apolitical—the true avant-garde should repudiate political art as a matter of course—but his art criticism was profoundly political, in the sense that he saw power and the submission to it everywhere he looked.
Macdonald was writing at a time when the culture industry was selling the idea that “Culture Is Good for You!” and, much to his horror, people were buying it. The GI Bill had created a postwar cohort of college-educated Americans looking for cultural edification. The burgeoning middle class sought not just economic mobility but also social mobility, and culture was a form of capital. In his introduction to Masscult and Midcult, Louis Menand describes how the “major middle-class culture of earnest aspiration in the 1950s [was] the product of a strange alliance of the democratic (culture for everyone) and the elitist (culture can make you better than other people). Macdonald understood how this culture was contrived and which buttons of vanity and insecurity it pushed so successfully.” It wasn’t the “Masscult” but the “Midcult” that so offended Macdonald. Midcult was what he called “the tepid ooze” of middlebrow culture—neither high nor low, without any depth to redeem it.
Macdonald’s fury is on full display in the collection’s title essay, in which he lays out his cosmology and the strict hierarchy it entails. At the top is High Culture, which reached its apex in the Modernism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Picasso and Matisse in painting, Joyce and Rimbaud in literature. At the bottom is Masscult (Macdonald’s abbreviated term was intended to indicate that “it really isn’t culture at all”), as fabricated by the likes of Norman Rockwell and James Michener. The first half of his 25,000-word essay is devoted to destroying Masscult, even though its general crappiness is evident after the first few paragraphs of his heaping scorn. Menand astutely points out that the essay, which was published in 1960 by Partisan Review and made Macdonald famous, didn’t showcase the critic at his best. “Masscult and Midcult” is made baggy by a Big Idea that he struggles to corral for his purposes, and his talents are more evident in his responses to specific works—nimble yet pointed, alert to specifics—than in his sweeping generalizations, which make him sound at times like a Grand Inquisitor stoking an auto-da-fé. His examination of Midcult is more stimulating and counterintuitive; Masscult was fooling nobody, but Midcult gestured toward High Culture in ways that left even some of the serious critics duped. Midcult was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: “Technically, they are advanced enough to impress the middlebrows without worrying them.” Macdonald gives a vigorous spanking to the poseurs who feed the market for gratuitous antics, devoting special attention to the Beats. “The machinery tempts them to extremes since the more fantastic their efforts, the more delighted are their Midcult admirers. ‘Pour épater les bourgeois’ was the defiant slogan of the nineteenth-century avant-gardists but now the bourgeoisie have developed a passion for being shocked.”
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