Mac the Knife: On Dwight Macdonald

Mac the Knife: On Dwight Macdonald

Dwight Macdonald’s panic about Midcult now seems less prescient than misplaced.


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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

Despite his sharp eye for targets, Macdonald often drew a bazooka when a pistol would do. In part, his overblown rhetoric reflects the exigencies of another time, when the world was divisible into axes and alliances, a Manichaean system set on purging itself of the enemies within. “The enemy outside the gates is easy enough to repel,” he would say in an interview. “But when you have fifth columnists inside culture, inside high culture, then it becomes more difficult tactically.” Another of Macdonald’s metaphors has all the charm of a eugenicist’s manifesto: “The danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former.” By the end of “Masscult and Midcult,” Macdonald’s warnings about “the danger to High Culture” are so noisy and distraught that they bring to mind Dr. Strangelove’s General Ripper, bug-eyed and beaded in a cold-war sweat, squawking about foreign substances poisoning our precious bodily fluids.

Macdonald envisioned two possible solutions to the impasse: conquest or détente. Either the masses would be folded into High Culture (an impossibility, according to everything else he wrote) or High and Low would find a way to live and let live (even in this latter scenario, the “fifth column” of Midcult was still a problem). What he didn’t foresee was how quickly such distinctions would cease to matter. The postmodern blob was coming; artists like Andy Warhol were about to explode the walls Macdonald had been so jealously guarding. Citing the profusion in the ’60s of such unclassifiable works as Sgt. Pepper’s and Portnoy’s Complaint, Menand writes:

The old hierarchical schemes didn’t work on this stuff, and there emerged a fresh critical mode, articulated by critics like Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, that was specifically designed to engage with it, to evaluate it, and to make it interesting to educated people. A great river of pop, camp, playful, performative, outrageous, over-the-top cultural products flooded the scene, and Macdonald’s system of cultural judgment was left stranded on the far shore.

Even before the pop-cultural upheaval of the ’60s, Macdonald clung to art created before 1930, unable to appreciate the strains of Modernism that developed in the decades that followed, scoffing at everything from Abstract Expressionism (“globs and gloobs”) to the lean prose of Samuel Beckett (“minutia”). He also had a predilection, perhaps not surprising for a man of his time, for a certain type of virile authorial presence, which a “lady novelist” like Virginia Woolf failed to satisfy. (He said he preferred George Eliot, “whom I really don’t consider a woman writer at all.”) In interviews and essays, Macdonald used words like “impatient” and “bored” to convey his reaction to any work that didn’t suit his self-described “classical” tastes.

Macdonald’s impatience made for an aesthetic that was clear and self-assured, and he compensated somewhat for the narrowness of his tastes with his vibrant, combative prose and an eagerness to point out when something passed off as great art had more hogwash to it than anyone cared to admit. He revealed how so much edification turned out to be its opposite, the surrender of one’s mind to a marketing ploy rather than the heightening of awareness that genuine art can stimulate. Criticism, like the art it purports to serve, can also cultivate this awareness, yet Macdonald’s essays show a forcefulness that was nevertheless constraining, hemmed in by the perimeter he was desperate to secure. George Orwell, with whom Macdonald maintained a regular correspondence after bringing his London dispatches to Partisan Review, wrote that those who “really cared for the art of the novel” were “neither highbrows nor lowbrows nor midbrows, but elastic-brows.” Orwell’s more dynamic approach was of little use to Macdonald, who seemed determined not to open up the conversation but to dominate it.

In this sense, Menand is too generous when he discusses Macdonald’s “dislike of bullies” without questioning whether it was as forthright and uncomplicated as Macdonald liked to believe. Diana Trilling once challenged this bit of self-serving mythology, pointing out that, for all his complaints about other people’s sermonizing, Macdonald “always had a moral base for all [his] thinking.” His response was that a critic like Clement Greenberg tried to “make people feel guilty,” whereas he most certainly did not. Yet Macdonald never quite let go of the old categories, the old habits of denunciation and rebuke. He insisted that he could “respect somebody even if he hasn’t the faintest interest in ‘culture,’” but this professed respect isn’t borne out by his essays, in which the masses are ridiculed, variously, as “a large body of ignoramuses” and “the ignoscenti.”

With “Masscult and Midcult,” he was, in effect, making the claim that the masses were doomed to ignorance; their pitiable attempts to lift themselves above their cultural station was why the abomination of Midcult existed. Literacy and education wouldn’t solve anything—in fact, they were responsible for deluding the masses into thinking they could learn their way into High Culture, when High Culture could never appeal to more than a select few. The avant-garde “was an elite community, a rather snobbish one, but anyone could join who cared enough about such odd things,” Macdonald writes. But this is an evasion, and not of a piece with the rest of his argument; elsewhere he decrees that the masses should be satisfied with their kitschy distractions and leave Real Art to those who truly get it. This small community of connoisseurs is “based not on wealth or birth but on common tastes,” to which one might ask how such “common tastes” are shaped in the first place. Macdonald has already excluded wealth and birth, not to mention education. Which leaves what? A viral infection? An act of God?

* * *

So much of Macdonald’s critical system relies on distinctions of “taste” that it’s curious how uncritically he trusted the term, using it as shorthand whenever he made a tenuous claim he couldn’t argue his way out of. But taste is a slippery concept, one that is informed, arguably or inevitably, by wealth, birth and education. Taste is cultural capital, and making distinctions of what is in good taste and bad is a way for social classes to distinguish themselves from and compete with one another. Macdonald took his Marxist critique only so far; he could see how culture could be commodified and manufactured, and how the masses were buying cultural products they believed could hoist them up into the rarefied ranks of the elite, but he assumed that tastes were a given, which meant he sometimes wrote as if his own good taste were the inevitable result of, well, good taste. This circular reasoning is less a problem in his reviews of specific books or movies, where it was incumbent on him to explain why exactly he liked or disliked the work in question, but in a big essay like “Masscult and Midcult,” he could get swept away by the swell of generalization, as presumptuous of mass taste as he was of his own.

If, as he believed, taste was inviolable, then so much middlebrow striving was bound to be a sad little exercise in futility. Any attempt by the masses to edify themselves was like a children’s game—they were playing dress-up with clothes ten sizes too big. The Great Books project, midlist fiction, publications from the “Lucepapers” to Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly: if it was aimed at a general audience, it was a candidate for his derision. (One of the magazines that employed him seems to have gotten a pass; he refused to classify The New Yorker as middlebrow and, as Menand deftly puts it, “Macdonald’s attacks on middlebrowism inoculated The New Yorker against accusations of middlebrowism.”) And even though the Lords of Kitsch cynically churned out culture for the masses, it was postwar prosperity that was ultimately to blame: “The work week has shrunk, real wages have risen, and never in history have so many people attained such a high standard of living as in this country since 1945…. Money, leisure and knowledge, the prerequisites for culture, are more plentiful and more evenly distributed than ever before.”

These days, it’s hard to recognize that America. The wage stagnation that began in the late ’70s has since bestowed on us the kind of income inequality more typical of a third-world oligarchy. The real minimum wage is less than it was in 1968, and the richest 1 percent of Americans take home nearly 25 percent of the country’s income, as compared with the 9 percent they earned in 1974. All of which gives Macdonald’s complaint the feel of a time capsule, one that contains no foreshadowing of how quickly and completely everything would change. Macdonald failed to anticipate what would happen not only to art but also to its audience. The middlebrow flourished because the middle class was flourishing: this much he got right. Yet he wrote as if the middle class would necessarily continue to prosper, as if the profusion of “money, leisure, and knowledge” could be taken for granted, when in fact he was bemoaning the cultural fallout from the Great Prosperity in the last days before its demise. Middlebrowism is still with us, of course, but its growth required a middle class that was upwardly mobile as well as a link, whether real or perceived, between culture and status. Macdonald’s Midcult shit list—which includes the likes of Saturday Review, The Reporter and the Book-of-the-Month Club—is a catalog of species that are either endangered or extinct.

But it wasn’t the mere existence of Midcult that warranted such outrage, even if Macdonald sometimes wrote as if the very fact of its being was an affront to his own; the real trouble began when a book was praised unduly by the critics, who failed to distinguish between a work that flatters people’s assumptions and a work that unsettles them. The Midcult products that Macdonald railed against merited his attention only because they were critical darlings. In 1959, just one year before he published “Masscult and Midcult,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Harper’s Magazine of the “sweet, bland commendations [that] fall everywhere upon the scene”: “All differences of excellence, of position, of form are blurred by the slumberous acceptance.” It’s the critics, in other words, who allow the middlebrow to pass itself off as something it isn’t. Macdonald may have taken individual critics to task in his reviews, but in “Masscult and Midcult” he directs his anger toward the cultural products themselves, whereas Hardwick locates the problem with the reviewers, who are supposed to be keeping watch. Hers is the sharper, more devastating indictment. The author of a perfectly fine, safe novel may have every incentive to cite Ulysses as an influence (in which case the jacket copy and press release will inevitably do the same), but it’s up to a critic to decide whether and how this claim is reflected by the work. More bullshit calls for more discernment, not less.

The advent of Midcult, then, should have encouraged a vigorous, skeptical criticism to thrive—and, for a time, it did. Hardwick helped found The New York Review of Books, which published its first issue in February 1963; Macdonald and Hardwick were among the contributors, along with Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. Smaller journals such as Partisan Review and Commentary routinely published long essays that treated art as something to be reckoned with rather than a pleasant distraction to be indulged or ignored. But what was truly stunning was the existence of serious criticism intended for a general audience. In his dissection of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Macdonald favorably refers to the work of Dorothy Thompson, who had compared the RSV with the King James Version in a “perceptive article in the Ladies’ Home Journal.” Much of the criticism written for the Ladies’ Home Journal was undoubtedly the sort of dross that prompted Hardwick’s charge, but there was also enough criticism being published to allow for periodic bursts of incisiveness—a Ladies’ Home Journal essay that would draw the attention of a critic as disdainful of the ladies and their magazines as Macdonald himself.

The critical landscape has since been denuded of a whole class of reviewers—the professional critics for those many newspapers and magazines that have cut down their books pages or else eliminated them. Optimists have pointed to the proliferation of online reviews as an indication that criticism is flourishing, but the payment for most reviewing these days is meager to nil. When writing a review becomes a diversion instead of a vocation, or else an arena for book authors to horse-trade and log-roll—the literary world’s penurious equivalent of the financial world’s “revolving door”—then reviewing will list toward clubbiness, bitterness or mushy praise. There are clearly some brilliant exceptions, and even a few determined critics who make a living from reviewing; but like the society of which it is one minuscule part, criticism has largely become a winner-take-all profession. Those who wonder what happened to criticism should wonder what happened to the economics of it.

* * *

Macdonald spent most of the last decade of his life debilitated by writer’s block. When, in 1974, he packed up his office at The New Yorker, more than ten years had passed since he had published a word in the magazine, and the rest of the ’70s was given over to teaching and public speaking, talking about his views on the culture rather than writing them down for people to read. (He wrote one last essay in 1980, for The New York Review of Books, on Buster Keaton.) Wreszin, his biographer, describes how dissatisfied Macdonald was with what he’d achieved: “He was recognized as one of the finest prose stylists of his time, a first-rate intellectual journalist with an ability to describe and make clear complex ideas, make them come alive to intelligent laymen.” Yet “Dwight wanted more renown.”

And here is where the paradox of Dwight Macdonald lies, a paradox that has afflicted countless writers who have a tortured relationship with the age of postwar plenty or even just the memory of it, when a booming market for culture was fueled by a mass audience that was to be disdained and courted by turns. Macdonald was respected already by the avant-garde, by the followers of the serious little magazines, by the heavyweight intellectuals reading and writing for The New York Review of Books. His teaching jobs meant that he didn’t require “more renown” to make a living. Still, he “wanted his books to sell more; he wanted people to recognize him,” and more recognition could only come from the middlebrow audience that he held in such contempt. “More” was the catchword of American consumerism, and there was a part of Macdonald that dearly longed for more.

But he pursued his doomed commitments to the end. He never flattered authors with the blurbable lines that would have made him a popular booster for books, nor did he flatter readers with reassurances that the mediocre, middling novel they had enjoyed was proof of their refinement. He died of congestive heart failure in 1982, just when the Great Prosperity was giving way to the Great Regression and the acquisitive, inquisitive middle class was beginning its long goodbye. Americans today can go a year without reading a book—nearly half of them actually do—and not wonder whether they ought to do otherwise. Midcult’s “agreeable ooze” has no doubt been responsible for many ills, yet I can’t help thinking that its initial ascendance reflected a strain of American hopefulness, an expectation of progress, and a belief that an understanding of art is desirable for all.

No matter how fervently Macdonald avowed that he detested middlebrow consumers, he needed them as much as they needed him. Much of the lucid, cutting criticism he wrote was addressed to that “intelligent layman” who might otherwise succumb to Midcult’s temptations; Macdonald, in turn, was the guide who discriminated between the phony gesture and the real thing. He was a predator who required a steady diet of prey to survive, and for all that he was vexed by middlebrow cultural consumption, he was sustained by it too. His panic now seems less prescient than misplaced. At a time when reading up on Kafka is neither more nor less valid than keeping up with the Kardashians, a thriving demographic of middle-class strivers looks to me less ludicrous or menacing than the vacancy it has left behind.

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