In his long career as a journalist and critic, Dwight Macdonald exasperated his left-wing friends by changing his political views unpredictably and abruptly, sometimes between soup and dessert. He signed a petition favoring one side in a labor dispute, only to join the other side a few days later. He was a Trotskyite; then he was a pacifist; later he was neither. He wrote to a friend: “My own political views for years…have been tentative, contradictory, and deplorably vague.”
His elitist views on literature and art seemed to undercut his populist politics. He despised almost everything in popular culture; some best-selling books are remembered only because he demolished them in a review. At sixty-two, when he joined the protesters at the 1968 campus uprising at Columbia, he lectured to the student rebels on the value of critical standards and high culture. Even his sympathetic biographer, Michael Wreszin, used the title of his 1994 biography—A Rebel in Defense of Tradition—to point toward Macdonald’s contradictions and emphasized his “split personality, the agitating activist vs. the incisive cultural critic.” The comments on the cover of Masscult and Midcult, John Summers’s new selection of ten of Macdonald’s essays on literature and culture, praise him mostly as a contrarian, provoker, and scourge of mediocrity, memorable less for what he had to say than for having had, as Norman Mailer put it, “the rare gift of always speaking out of his own voice.”
Macdonald was a deeper, more decisive, and more coherent thinker than his reputation—or this selection—suggests. He was consistent in his focus on the moral aspects of books and politics, but in literary essays like these he tended to write about such matters either in passing or in a tone of embarrassment. He gestured toward them in a memorial essay for James Agee in 1957:
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. Lots of writers are fascinated by evil and write copiously about it, but they are bored by virtue…. (Character is another old-fashioned quality that interested Agee.)
Macdonald’s greatest achievement was his magazine Politics (1944–1949), which had a small circulation and a large impact. Czesław Miłosz later told him that his magazine had had a far greater influence in Europe than he could have guessed from America. A typical issue might include Albert Camus’s refusal to choose between evil alternatives, “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” Bruno Bettelheim’s report from the Nazi concentration camps, “Behavior in Extreme Situations”—the first such account to appear—or Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” which transformed the modern view of Homer while illuminating both ancient literature and contemporary morality. The same double focus on aesthetics and morals later became Macdonald’s greatest strength as a critic.
Politics differed from all other political magazines by treating politics as a branch of morals. Near the end of its run, Macdonald compiled a “Subject Index” to its back numbers; the first entry was “Political Morality.” He asked the same questions about political values that he asked about aesthetic ones. His magazine was both an urgent commentary on current events and a patient meditation on the deeper ways those events should be judged. In a typical issue the front pages condemned Roosevelt’s indifference to Jewish refugees, and the back pages analyzed the limitations of Marxist ethics as an approach to interpreting history.
The same monthly issue that reported on French elections and strikes by conscientious objectors also printed an essay in which Macdonald explored basic questions about the values he relied on in both his political critiques and his aesthetic ones:
By “value judgment” I mean a statement that involves the notion of “Good” and “Bad” in either an ethical or an esthetic sense…. The “personal feeling” of the observer not only enters into the judgment but is the chief determinant of the judgment. It is impossible, therefore, ever to solve a moral or esthetic problem in the definite way that a scientific problem can be solved….
A few years later he wrote, “I think that the only serious aspect of politics is its relation to art and morality.”
The ten essays in Masscult and Midcult display Macdonald’s genius for what he called “the genres that one would expect our age to excel in,…rhetoric and comedy.” The title essay, published in 1960, takes gleeful pleasure in deflating The Old Man and the Sea and other earnest, high-sounding books and plays that served an audience who aspired to be intellectual and avant-garde without being either. Unlike mass-produced popular culture, “midcult”—Macdonald’s Soviet-sounding shorthand for middlebrow culture—“pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is an example:
The stage manager is its demiurge. He is the perfect American pragmatist, folksy and relaxed because that’s jest the way things are and if anybuddy hankers to change ’em that’s their right only (pause, business of drawing reflectively on pipe) chances are ’t won’t make a sight of difference (pipe business again) things don’t change much in Grover’s Corners. There is no issue too trivial for him not to take a stand on. “That’s the end of the first act, friends,” he tells the audience. “You can go smoke now”—adding with a touch of genius, “those that smoke.” Don’t do any harm, really, one way or t’other.
Readers who come to this selection without having read Macdonald’s political essays can easily miss his moral point while smiling over his aesthetic one. Our Town is not merely artistically defective; it is morally defective. Grover’s Corners can’t be changed by anyone’s choices; no one’s judgment matters, one way or t’other; the height of wisdom is to accept “the way things are.” At the heart of Macdonald’s career as a political journalist was his hatred of passive acceptance, his contempt for any argument that the “lesser evil” should be endured in order to evade the greater one.
By tolerating, among much else, the “lesser evil” of Stalinism in the war against the greater evil of Nazism, the Allies had assured “the triumph of the greater evil in a different form.” At the start of the cold war, “the world, having avoided being hanged by Hitler, is being poisoned by the victors.” Once, when writing about the “lesser evil,” he interrupted his own sentence with a dash followed by an exclamation: “the pages and pages of argumentation I have written exposing the illogic and immorality of this position!”
Near the end of his “Masscult and Midcult” essay Macdonald quotes a long passage from Kierkegaard’s The Present Age about what happens when a person becomes a member of that empty phantom, “the public.” He follows the quotation with a single closing sentence: “This is the essence of what I have tried to say.” In other words, Macdonald was writing less about bad art and greedy publishers than about what it means to let oneself disappear into a passive and anonymous public. Reviewers complained that Macdonald didn’t like the masses. What he didn’t like was anyone’s willingness to be submerged into a mass and the culture that profited each time someone sank into it.
These essays are pervaded by Macdonald’s moral sensibility, obscured though this is by the absence of his explicit statements of it. In the famous review in which he marches through James Gould Cozzens’s midcult novel By Love Possessed, devastating not only the book but also its almost unanimously rapturous reviews, he seems to take offense only at Cozzens’s intellectual and aesthetic failures—until the final paragraphs, where he unobtrusively changes the subject. At the end of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he writes, Ilyich “feels free because he is compelled to reject his past as ‘not the right thing’”; he has made a morally decisive choice. At the end of By Love Possessed, Cozzens’s hero Arthur Winner, “for complicated pragmatic-sentimental reasons,…is allowed to accept his past, is even thanked by his best friend for having concealed from him that fact that he had cuckolded him.” The passive acceptance that the novel portrays and performs is the same moral failure that Macdonald saw in Our Town:
The last words of the book are Winner’s…: “I’m here.” It’s all right, nothing has to be changed: “I have the strength, the strength to, to—to endure more miseries,” thinks Winner, gratefully.
Midcult critics, like Stalinist ones, “assumed it was good for writers to identify themselves with their society, which in turn assumed the society was good.” Macdonald valued the modernist avant-garde of Joyce, Eliot, Picasso, and Stravinsky partly because, in his eyes, it had made a moral judgment by refusing to accept its society as good.
In some of the essays in this book, Macdonald refers to literary “standards” almost as if he were a reactionary defender of eternal truths. He makes it clear in only one of these essays (“The Triumph of Fact”) that he was not:
An umpire, like a scientist, deals with measurable phenomena according to generally accepted rules, but the critic works with standards peculiar to himself, although they somehow correspond to standards each of his readers has individually developed…. While Faulkner’s superiority over Marquand cannot be proved, it can be demonstrated. This is a different operation involving an appeal—by reason, analysis, illustration, and rhetoric—to cultural values which critic and reader have in common, values no more susceptible of scientific statement than are the moral values-in-common to which Jesus appealed but which, for all that, exist as vividly and definitely as do mercy, humility, and love.
Politics, like aesthetics, was ultimately moral: “Socialism is primarily an ethical matter. The number of people who want it at any given moment has nothing to do with its validity for the individual who makes it his value.” Because he saw politics as a means of putting moral values into practice, he felt obliged to change his political views—abandoning his pacifism, accepting a lesser-evil argument in the face of postwar Stalinism—when he saw that they had diverged from his ethical ones.
He never expected politics and ethics to coincide exactly. He wrote to a friend:
You are right about the necessity of redefining Justice and other values in the light of concrete historical conditions, but there must also be an absolute, nonhistorically relative content to be redefined…. More and more I come up against the fact that we must face and live with contradictions of this kind (Justice is both historically relative, as Marx said it was, and absolute, as Plato did), must live dangerously intellectually…
Sectarians on the left believed justice to be relative; on the right, absolute. Both views, Macdonald thought, led to injustice; both were tempting because they offered a straightforward solution to an impossible problem. Relative and absolute justice could never be reconciled, and Macdonald believed that real injustice could be resisted only by those who understood this, who refused the safety of sectarian dogma and chose instead to “live dangerously intellectually.” Gandhi—“the last political leader in the world who was a person, not a mask or a radio voice or an institution”—triumphed partly because he was unbothered by the contradiction between his absolute ideals and his “compromised” politics.