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.