Against the American Grain
Though the essays in Against the American Grain date from the last ten years—a time when Dwight Macdonald substituted literary concerns for political inquiry—his orientation is still basically political. In “Masscult and Midcult” he takes a long look into History, admiring the ordered pre-industrial revolutionary world when there was no bad art or fakery purposely produced. What separated good from bad was degree of talent rather than difference of intent. By the end of the nineteenth century there was a solid market for trash, and at the other extreme, artists and writers who were speaking only to themselves. By the mid-twentieth century the avant-garde, the good, the bad, and the fatal in-between have all become mixed in one indigestible bouillabaisse, and Macdonald has assigned himself the position of pointing out which is which. His concern is “not so much with the dead sea of masscult as with the life of the tide line where the decisive struggles for survival take place between higher and lower organisms.”
This is precisely the spot Macdonald attacks over and over again, getting at a political view through literature. Somewhere in “Masscult and Midcult” Macdonald finds himself in Ortega y Gasset’s bed—the masses are destructive of civilization, the elite, the preservers of tradition. It is a perfectly valid conclusion, and yet once Macdonald arrives at it he shies away from the implications. A world for the elite? It is not easy for a long-time left-winger who is also American to say: “I am Charles de Gaulle.” At least the radical philosophies held out the promise of a super-democracy, room for one and all—but there is a very real problem when one’s sense of moral values and one’s highly developed cultural tastes are in battle with one another. After hastily leaving Ortega y Gasset’s elite in mid-air as being too undemocratic, Macdonald pokes around for a bit in some continental philosophy, but the moody dark-soul-of-the-night approach to making theory out of chaos is not really his way either. Again, he goes along with the ideas of Kierkegaard whom he quotes as representing his own outlook; but again, it is not his temperament to sit too long in darkness.
Finally, he comes full circle and triumphantly finds his method of attack—he is, indeed, at home in “The American Grain.” His way of thinking is closest to those profoundly pessimistic, skeptical men in eighteenth-century America, who, after taking account of man’s ever-continuing potential for evil, busily set about defining, through the “word,” a government which would protect man from other men, man from government, and finally, even government from government. Their style was balanced and rational. The word defined the ideal.
For Macdonald, too, “an idea doesn’t exist apart from the words that express it. Style is not an envelope enclosing a message; the envelope is the message.” Curiously, though Macdonald expresses a personal dislike for the legal mode of inquiry with its undue emphasis on “what are the facts?”—his own method is very legalistic. He destroys middlebrow values, getting rid of this class, if not in actuality, at least literarily, by a merciless breakdown of style which shows just what “the facts” are in what we consider to be good. Behind the fuzzy sentences that fill our literature is the celebration of even fuzzier values. Fortunately, Macdonald’s facts are a lot funnier than most lawyers’. “The disposings of accustomed practice, the preparations of purpose and consent, the familiar mute motions of furtherance” is not a legal document but one of those famous Cozzens echt sex scenes. He delights in following this with another quote from critic Jessamyn West: “…the passages having to do with physical love have a surprising lyric power.” Or, as Cozzens himself says of his hero, “The unbending intricacies of thought…seem to send his sentences into impossible log jams.”
Macdonald does a hatchet job on the updated version of the King James Bible; it commits the double crime of being stylistically inferior to the old version and of obliterating old traditions. The language is dead, Jesus gathering the children unto himself has been replaced by what sounds like a mother calling the kiddies in from a picnic. Things are no better across the Atlantic. Along with rock and roll we have exported the American adolescent genius. Macdonald notes, with horror, that the British were as unthinkingly enthusiastic over Colin Wilson’s The Outsider—a swinging, get-hep-with-pessimism grab-bag of literature and philosophy—as American were over Cozzens. Macdonald does dispose of the mediocre extremely well. But by focusing so much on what is bad taste he risks reducing everything to matters of style and “good taste.”
Macdonald is a great admirer of Norman Mailer—but is it Mailer’s clarity of style that gives him his force? Where does Dostoyevsky fit in among the rational thinkers? I prefer Ralph Ellison’s work to John Updike’s—but Updike writes some very beautiful sentences. One reaction to middlebrow is the romanticism of the beats—the desire to smash the language entirely—and at the other extreme we have our stylists, as epitomized by the current fiction in The New Yorker, who distinguished themselves from middlebrow precisely in the area of “taste.” Their literary manners are perfect, but their work is lifeless.
Now, who is the villain really? Just how destructive is this tasteless middlebrow of the genuine artist? Isn’t the writer concerned with a deeper loss of values than a failure of “taste” on the part of some critic or culture-hopping mama? Shakespeare noticed a long time ago that the majority of people weren’t very bright. As for the artist himself, can Time magazine culture affect him? Or—why is he reading Time magazine?
Macdonald shows his ambivalence toward the real villain in the different standards he applies to Hemingway and Agee. Though he is dismayed by Hemingway’s disintegration as a mature man, he pays him a certain compliment in holding Hemingway responsible for Hemingway. In Agee’s case he says that the times failed the man. Agee, the man, had all the qualities Macdonald admired. “Agee, I think, had the technical, the intellectual and the moral equipment to do major writing. By ‘moral,’ which has a terribly old-fashioned ring, I mean that Agee believed in and—what is rarer—was interested in good and evil.”
But did the times destroy Agee? Macdonald gropes for answers. Agee’s talents were too diverse, too big, he loved life too much…this is an age of specialization. Agee was out of step with the Zeitgeist in America in the way that D.H. Lawrence was out of step with the England he was born into. Then Macdondald stops, recognizing that, after all, D.H. Lawrence did become D.H. Lawrence in a way that Agee did not become Agee. Was the waste of his talents a vice of the times or a personal problem of Agee’s? Macdonald describes his own experiences as well as Agee’s in working for Luce. But Agee was to remain in the Luce empire for fourteen years. “What a waste, what pathetic docility, what illusions!” Then Macdonald very honestly takes a second look at his and Agee’s relationship to Luce and comes up with a far soberer answer than that the times destroyed the man. He finally asks, who used whom? There is a very sad and moving sentence at the end of the Agee essay—the most personal sentence in the whole book. It comes after the letter in which the young Agee thanks Macdonald for helping him get the job with Luce. Agee writes: “Words fail me re: the job: besides the fairly fundamental fact that I don’t want to starve, there are dozens of other reasons why I want uh job and many more why I am delighted to get this one.” And Macdonald says: “But I didn’t do him a favor, really.”
Now Macdonald is doing the rest of us the favor he feels he should have done Agee. Once and for all he is disposing of Time, Inc. and the mentality behind it. He has chosen to do this by recognizing and concentrating on his own special gifts—a fine ear for the English language, a talent as a polemicist and a supreme wit. What is he—and should that really matter? No, he is not a Freudian literary critic, not a sociologist, not an academic, and he has chosen not to be Kierkegaard. Many of his conclusions are debatable—but his essays do not leave the mind like so much mush. And, speaking of good and evil, it would be a very, very great sin to be wasteful of such wit.