Dwight Macdonald, the Man
Jennifer Szalai’s “Mac the Knife” [Dec. 12], on Dwight Macdonald, perpetuates the intellectual’s self-righteous concern about Macdonald’s acerbic and near academic theories about movies in particular and life in general. I knew a quite different Dwight Macdonald.
I met Dwight when he was admitted to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, where I was chief X-ray technician. Like all kidney stone patients, he was in agony. When I saw his name on the requisition slip I went to his cot and said, “The famous Dwight Macdonald. Now I get back at you for all those nasty comments in The New Yorker.” Dwight’s response, through screams: “Oh God! A literate X-ray technician!”
His inscription in the copy of Parodies he gave me: “For Chet Aaron—in alphabetic altabatic friendship—from Dwight—June, 1964.” We became friends. During recovery, Dwight and his wife, Gloria, stayed at our (my wife’s and my) home. We shared meals and stories about past and current experiences. Dwight was funny, indulgent, loving and attentive to Gloria at all times.
I had worked in Hollywood in the ’50s and had spent much time with several émigré film people, including Bertolt Brecht, Salka Viertel and Christopher Isherwood. My stories—especially about Brecht—often reduced Dwight to shouts of laughter. He made pages of notes and pleaded for my permission to relay the stories. I told him about meeting Garbo (thanks to Salka), and he memorized and repeated the story word for word. I do not think he ever wrote those stories.
For years after his and Gloria’s return to New York we remained connected via mail and phone. He sent me letters—witty and insightful and unpretentious. Mary McCarthy, in Berkeley for a lecture, called me to inform me that Dwight had insisted she meet us. She accepted our invitation to dinner. She raved about Dwight’s wit and warmth even more than we did. Her concern: his critics ignored these qualities because having no experience with such qualities in themselves, they could not recognize them in others.
I have the galleys of Dwight’s manuscript of his movie book, and I have somehow preserved (and recently found) a letter from Dwight during his last year at The New Yorker. I wrote to inform the editors of the letter and asked if they wanted it for their files. Never heard from them.
That letter (on New Yorker stationery, dated June 8, 1964): “…tomorrow we are going to Middletown, Conn. Where Wesleyan University is presenting me with an honorary degree. I’m going to sign my movie column from now on ‘Dwight Macdonald, B.A., Litt. D. (Hon.).’ Let Sarris match that!… What is your position on The New Yorker? If you’re foolish enough to want to read it regularly (despite complete absence of DM for last year and a half and probably for next ditto) I can get you a sub at half price. Let me know. How did you like Mary McCarthy? She liked you. Aff’ly. Dwight.”
Photos in Dumbo
Jana Prikryl’s “Erosion” [Dec. 12], on documentary photography, raises some interesting questions about the genre. But she tries to sum up what she sees as an overarching trend away from the decisive moment and toward an impersonal omniscience, a kind of giant all-seeing eye in the sky (rather than the “unique perspective” of a witness who seeks telling moments), which has a corollary in the swallowing up of personal “Kodak moments” by the great maw of Facebook.
She bashes the photographers who exhibited last summer at St. Ann’s Warehouse during the NY Photo Festival, curtly dismissing their works and their ideas about photography, before trying to shoehorn them all into her thesis, basically because some of them chose to make large prints. You can tell that Prikryl is aiming for the kind of revelatory criticism of Walter Benjamin or Susan Sontag, but her ideas never take flight. Moreover, the separate elements of the essay—the group examined at the beginning, then Errol Morris, and finally Luc Delahaye and others who owe their perspective to the work of Gursky et al.—are not unified very well.