Some people may remember Dwight Macdonald as a disillusioned ex-Trotskyist, a wittily irreverent gadfly or an unapologetic defender of high culture. He played all these roles during a career writing for publications like Fortune, the Partisan Review, Politics (Macdonald’s short-lived but revered journal) and Esquire. But no single description of Macdonald can convey the intellectual nuance and critical acumen that his best work, which exists in far more abundance than his detractors care to admit, still reveals decades after his death. Sadly, ever since the rise of academic cultural studies in the ’80s and ’90s, Macdonald has become persona non grata among the postmodern professoriate, his criticism consigned to the margins of what is intellectually and politically permissible. Tadeusz Lewandowski, whose short book is a bracing reappraisal of Macdonald’s achievement, sees Macdonald as “a casualty of political correctness and new intellectual currents in writing on popular culture.”
Macdonald’s aristocratic distinctions between highbrow, middlebrow (“midcult”), and lowbrow (“masscult”) culture are now usually rejected as elitist and exclusionary. The unpopularity of his work makes perfect sense at a time when the custodians of culture want to erase traditional distinctions by advocating nobrow art. Furthermore, Macdonald—who was decidedly straight, white and male—is unlikely to gain sympathetic new readers when efforts to promote cultural diversity are based on the gospel of Social Justice. Despite these obstacles, Macdonald matters more than ever now because, in the words of Michael Wreszin, he “possessed a pluralism of spirit which enabled him to keep an independent critical intellect alive in a time of strident political orthodoxy.” Anti-dogmatic thinking and aesthetic sensitivity constitute the warp and woof of Macdonald’s “independent critical intellect.” These virtues, too often ignored or dismissed, deserve our keenest attention.
In a 1958 letter to the editors of Dissent, Macdonald responds to animadversions from his former friends Paul Goodman and Harold Rosenberg. Macdonald’s reply to Goodman, in particular, is telling. Goodman had accused Macdonald of “thinking with [his] typewriter”:
I’ve been trying to think, using my trusty Remington portable, why Paul feels so superior to and irritated with me, and I’ve decided it’s because he is a very abstract-type thinker while I’m more on the concrete side; or, to put it another way, he is a wholesaler of ideas while I’m a retailer. Paul goes in for big, basic philosophies of life, which he expounds in a confident way; he’s way up there in the empyrean, and my own earthbound little typewriter-ideas, always limited to some specific aspect of things, must seem intolerably trivial to him. He specializes in answers while I go in more for questions.
Aside from showcasing Macdonald’s sharp and spirited prose, the passage casually announces his critical vision: an opposition to systematized thought and an emphasis on particularity. What mattered above all to Macdonald was the individual, broadly defined: the individual citizen, the individual idea, the individual work of art. Indeed, when it came to art and popular culture, Macdonald judged each work according to its aesthetic value, rather than the purity of its ideological-political content (a peculiar fixation among today’s cultural commentators). As Macdonald writes in his introduction to John Simon’s Acid Test (1963), “A critic is unsafe by definition and by profession. He will betray you at the drop of an adverb. His loyalty is not to friends, ideologies, or movements but only to the quality of the specific work he is considering.” It is this principled, individualistic critical attitude that seems to me worth renewing in an era of deadening intellectual conformity.
Macdonald’s trademark attitude toward art and society came to maturity in the messy aftermath of the Second World War. By war’s end, Macdonald had renounced his obedience to Trotskyism, having concluded that utopian political schemes failed to account for the actual complexities and ironies of human experience. He also grew to see all modern nation states—communist and capitalist alike—as responsible for reducing individuals to the status of things; in the end, however, he cast his lot with the flawed but superior democratic west. As Macdonald recounts in his introduction to Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism (1957), he and other intellectuals had dispensed with their revolutionary sentiments and accepted many of the bourgeois values they had once repudiated:
If tradition, privilege, custom, and legality restrict, they also preserve, and after the Russian experience, it is hard to respond with the old enthusiasm to Bakunin’s “Creative Destruction” or Marx’s “Change the World!” One inclines to endure familiar evils rather than risk unknown and possibly greater ones.
It was during this time that Macdonald fashioned his “conservative anarchism,” a position which allowed him to synthesize what he perceived as the best ideas, even seemingly contradictory ones, from across the spectrum of social, political and cultural thought. His anti-ideological cast of mind was committed to arriving at something approximating the truth, no matter which political lines he had to cross to get there.
Macdonald’s version of anarchism—which, though hopeful, was free from the sentimental platitudes of utopianism—was about individual citizens interacting through free association and voluntary cooperation. He writes in a 1950 letter that politics “is something to be worked from the bottom up, not from the top down.” The great problem of the twentieth century, according to Macdonald,
is how to stimulate the individual to insist on running his own life, on doing things for himself and willingly disciplining himself to work with others for modest, practical human ends, such as educating his children, making his community more attractive, and feeding and clothing his family.
The modern state, with its impersonal institutions working in the service of “mass man,” was not in the least conducive to Macdonald’s idea of autonomous individuals inhabiting organic communities.
But Macdonald was also a traditionalist who, like Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot before him, believed in conserving and transmitting the western cultural heritage. The conservative Macdonald, according to Michael Wreszin, “longed for the order and civilized limits of an elite community with respect for the traditions of the past.” While he still fought for political reforms—he spent much of the ’60s arguing for wealth redistribution and protesting the Vietnam War—he remained wary of calls to remake society through grandiose ideological systems, stating in a 1973 interview that he agreed “with Edmund Burke about the dangers of applying abstract ideas too logically to society, history and politics.” It was important to Macdonald that people develop “a sense of the limitations of human thought and feeling,” as well as a sense of “the continuity of human existence.”
Macdonald found the mass production and distribution of the arts during the postwar era chaotic. In “Masscult and Midcult” (1960), his most famous (and notorious) essay, he castigates modern mass culture, asserting that “it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good.” Even more worrisome to Macdonald was the rise of what he termed “midcult,” a product flaunting the trappings of high culture and thus “able to pass itself off as the real thing.” But, with the postwar culture boom well underway, contributing to the rapid expansion of new artistic practices and media forms, Macdonald’s traditional hierarchies of art began to appear untenable to a new generation. As Susan Sontag put it in her essay “One Culture and the New Sensibility” (1965), “the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture seems less and less meaningful.” Macdonald also looked on in bewilderment as various theories sprang up to accompany the cultural shifts: media theory, critical sociology, semiology, structuralism and many others. Still, throughout the upheaval, Macdonald was willing to consider any idea or artistic endeavor, but he did not suffer gladly the excesses and pretensions of the newfangled schools.
“The Mills Method” (see Discriminations: Essays and Afterthoughts ), a review of C. Wright Mills’ White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), offers an instructive instance of Macdonald’s approach to post-war intellectual fashions. Much of his critique of White Collar, like his later critique of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, exhibits a profound suspicion of theoretical projects. For one, Macdonald finds Mills’ predictions about the undoing of middle class culture “overdone in the heavy Marxist-apocalyptic style.” More to the point, however, Macdonald chides Mills for his “horribly abstract” prose. Complaints about academic jargon are common enough even today, but Macdonald directly relates his case against abstract writing to the writer’s personality:
It is not just a question of abstract terminology: Veblen used plenty, as does Marx, without ceasing to communicate pleasurably. But their styles express their own personalities, and a person is not abstract but concrete and thus comprehensible, since the reader is also a person.
Macdonald recognizes that good style is more than ornamented communication: it is the expression of a sui generis mind. Abstract prose connotes an abstract person, and an abstract person is no person at all. Mills’ woolly theoretical style, from Macdonald’s perspective, is a betrayal of that which is unique and fully individuated. Macdonald’s own writing—limpid, vibrant, witty and invitingly conversational—is a marvel of twentieth-century American cultural criticism. As Clive James has noted, Macdonald “made modern American English seem like the ideal prose medium: transparent in its meaning, fun when colloquial, commanding when dignified, and always suavely rhythmic even when most committed to the demotic.”
Some of Macdonald’s most memorable post-war writings, often overshadowed by the notoriety of “Masscult and Midcult,” are the penetrating reviews and essays he wrote on literature, the English language and cinema, collected in Against the American Grain (1962) and Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1969). Whether commenting on Hemingway, Hitchcock or the updating of the King James Bible, Macdonald always brings his clear-eyed discriminations to the fore. But his barbed humor and irrepressible sense of irony—traits that Macdonald shares with such predecessors as Wilde, Shaw and Mencken—can sometimes make readers forget how attuned he is to the aesthetic properties of a particular book or film. In his finest pieces, Macdonald effortlessly combines what Lord David Cecil, remarking on Walter Pater in “The Fine Art of Reading,” identifies as “the two qualities essential for critical appreciation: common sense and uncommon sensibility.”
Ever loyal to the concrete and the specific, Macdonald never developed an overarching theory of criticism. In a 1960 response letter to the Mark Twain scholar John Keliher, Macdonald distances himself from theoretical approaches, maintaining that “a work of art has its own logic and structure, its own use of terms, on which I think it must be judged.” Some years later, in the foreword to Dwight Macdonald on Movies, he acknowledges his lifelong lack of a comprehensive theory:
I know something about cinema after forty years, and being a congenital critic, I know what I like and why. But I can’t explain the why except in terms of the specific work under consideration, on which I’m copious enough. The general theory, the larger view, the gestalt—these have always eluded me. Whether this gap in my critical armor be called an idiosyncrasy or, less charitably, a personal failing, it has always been most definitely there.
Franklin Foer suggests that Macdonald’s lack of a “general theory” was indeed a personal failing. He believes that “Macdonald’s essays finally amounted to nothing more than an elegant expression in taste.” Yet, true to his contrarian spirit, Macdonald bravely resisted faddish theoretical elaborations—concerned as he was with the potential distortion of the individual work of art—and relied instead on guiding principles of judgment. And principles, as the literary critic Christopher Ricks has shown, are not the same as theories.
In a review of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (see On Movies), Macdonald makes a strong case for his anti-theoretical evaluative criticism:
[The auteur theorist’s] kind of grading is appropriate to eggs but not to works of art, where the criteria must be more complex because the object judged is more complex. It comes down, ultimately, to value judgments (“taste,” “opinion”) which can never be settled as conclusively as the freshness of an egg. Which is not to say that one man’s opinion is as good as the next one’s. Before the ultimate is reached a critic goes through a process of defining, describing, reasoning, and persuading which is drawn from his own special experience and knowledge and which may or may not persuade his readers that his judgment is more accurate—”true” or “right” would be claiming too much—than other judgments, according to their experience and knowledge. Readers have their own ideas too, if they’re worth writing for.
The essence of criticism for Macdonald, as befits his dedication to particularity, is evaluation—that is, the “process of defining, describing, reasoning, and persuading” that tries to establish an accurate judgment of overall artistic quality. Macdonald knows that a good critic must attempt to persuade others through aesthetic evidence present in the work itself. If one does not agree with the final judgment, one can nonetheless appreciate the process by which the conclusion was reached. There still exist, mercifully, intellectuals who defend Macdonald’s brand of evaluative criticism. One is the accomplished philosopher Noël Carroll, who in his study On Criticism (2009) refrains from advancing “a general or theoretical approach to all artworks, but advocates the evaluation of particular artworks on their own terms.” Carroll proclaims that “criticism is essentially evaluation grounded in reasons.” That’s a maxim Macdonald would have happily endorsed.
Unfortunately, forms of aesthetic criticism practiced by Macdonald and other mid-twentieth-century critics are mostly condemned by theorists of race, class, gender and sexuality. Such theorists determine much of the intellectual tenor in contemporary cultural criticism, especially in academia (though their rhetoric is discernible in much popular criticism as well). Rónán McDonald explains that the usual practitioner of cultural studies “aims to deploy criticism for political, not aesthetic, ends, to expose the operations of imperialism, racism or patriarchy.” In their zeal to right political wrongs, many cultural theorists have taken things to an extreme, seeking to dismantle and discredit the very idea of the aesthetic. Nick Zangwill calls this prevailing critical attitude “aesthetic skepticism” (which he closely associates with “aesthetic historicism”). Any affirmation of “a concept of aesthetic value” is typically deemed “the product of bourgeois or patriarchal society.” The aesthetic skeptic might claim that “good art is progressive or egalitarian, and bad art is counter-revolutionary or sexist.” By this standard of judgment, “good art” should depict only a preferred set of sociopolitical values. Zangwill says that once skeptics have imposed their politics on an artwork, “the aesthetic is either eliminated in favor of the political or reduced to it.” Without denying the sociopolitical dimension of art, we should insist, as Macdonald unfailingly did, that the making of sensible distinctions between art and politics is vital to our cultural flourishing.
Macdonald praised the twelve literary judges who awarded the 1948 Bollingen Prize for Poetry to the disgraced and incarcerated Ezra Pound. The poet’s enthusiastic support for the fascist powers during the Second World War made him a figure of contempt for both liberals and conservatives. Macdonald likewise despised Pound’s politics, but he believed that the decision to award Pound the prize represented the avowal of a higher principle. In “Homage to Twelve Judges: An Editorial”—among the writings gathered in Memoirs of a Revolutionist—Macdonald commends the jury’s refusal to violate “that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” In order for this perception of value to remain strong, Macdonald postulates two preconditions:
The first is that no one sphere of human activity is exalted over the rest. The second is that clear distinctions be maintained between the various spheres, so that the value of an artist’s work or a scientist’s researches is not confused with the value of their politics.
“The horror of Soviet communism,” Macdonald concludes, “is that it reduces the individual to one aspect, the political. The consequence is the obliteration of the boundary lines between the various aspects of culture—or better, the imperialist conquest of all the rest by politics.” Macdonald, with his common sense and uncommon sensibility, understood that the political cannot—and should not be made to—determine and explain every aspect of art and human experience.
We are living in what James Walker describes as a “new politico-Theocratic Age,” an age in which “no art is higher or lower, more or less sophisticated, more or less deserving of canonical induction. There is merely the healthy and the unhealthy, the empowering and the disempowering, the holy and the sinful.” In this era of fundamentalist political allegiances and degraded artistic standards, Macdonald’s work suggests to the thoughtful among us a more civilized and nourishing approach to cultural life. Although we would never know it by reading contemporary theorists, Macdonald has left us a critical inheritance worth salvaging. Part of this inheritance, as James Seaton points out, lies in Macdonald’s tough-minded and searching evaluative criticism, which consistently exemplifies “a critical intelligence willing to risk individual judgments without the protection of a supporting doctrine, an intelligence that, in dealing with popular culture, can discriminate in its judgments and judge by the highest relevant standards.” The other part of this legacy, most evident in Macdonald’s social and political writings, is the author’s “stubborn insistence on the integrity of individual experience and his willingness to revise and correct his own judgments.” These are, I submit, intellectual qualities we would do well to venerate and cultivate—perhaps now more than ever before.