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…
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