Rebel with a Cause

March 24 marks the centenary of the birth of Dwight Macdonald. From 1940 to 1975, Macdonald was one of America’s best-known literary and cultural critics. He first came to prominence in the late 1920s and early ’30s as a staff writer for Fortune. But his politics turned toward Trotskyism in 1936 (he considered Trotsky the preeminent modern example of an intellectual in politics and remained a Trotskyist until 1943). In May 1937, after tearing Partisan Review away from its origins as a Communist Party organ, he helped reestablish PR as a nonsectarian, independent radical quarterly.

An undogmatic iconoclast, Macdonald could not abide party discipline and grew impatient with the role of doctrinaire follower. As Against the American Grain, the title of his 1962 essay collection, indicated, he was by temperament and conviction both an outsider and a loner. Yet he was also a radical whose notions about politics were “advanced under the banner of morality,” as his comrades at PR wrote in an editorial disagreement. Although they intended this judgment as a reproach, it was true, as Macdonald readily admitted. Historian John Lukacs, in a 1958 America article (“Dwight Macdonald: Another Orwell?”), described Macdonald as “eminently a moralist.” It was this moral sense that gave Macdonald’s writing its power and passion and fueled his endless search for justice and decency. It also accounts for his admiration for two other American radicals with strong moral bents, Dorothy Day and Michael Harrington. In Macdonald’s 1952 New Yorker profile of Day (it ran for two issues, October 4 and 11), he wrote that Day “has no ‘presence’ at all, but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, she is impressive to meet or hear, communicating a moral force compounded of optimism, sincerity, earnestness, and deprecatory humor.” He went on to add that “politically, the Catholic Workers are hard to classify. They are for the poor and against the rich, so the capitalists call them Communists; they believe in private property and don’t believe in the class struggle, so the Communists call them capitalists; and they are hostile to war and to the state, so both capitalists and Communists consider them crackpots.”

In 1942, Macdonald’s own uncompromising antiwar stance led to fierce battles with his PR colleagues, and eventually, in July 1943, to his break with them over their support for America’s entry into the war. As World War II evolved, Macdonald gradually became a pacifist-anarchist who saw little difference between the Axis and the Allies. He argued that to win the war the Allies would have to embrace some form of fascism, a stance that PR labeled “revolutionary defeatism.”

After resigning from PR, Macdonald founded his own idiosyncratic journal, politics, which he and his wealthy wife, Nancy, funded. (A rebel against even linguistic convention, he preferred to lower-case his magazine’s name.) He wanted the new journal to be more political than PR, which steered away from controversial positions during the war out of fear of censorship. For five years (1944-49), largely as a one-man labor of love, politics voiced a radical contrarian view toward the most popular war in American history. Often wrong-headed, it nonetheless demonstrated a side of Macdonald that still holds up: his bold outspokenness, even when crying in the wilderness, and his fundamental human decency, in the face of unrestrained patriotism. Macdonald denounced the bombing of civilians by both the Allies and the Axis, stood among the first to call attention to the Nazi death camps, and railed against the hypocrisy of fighting a war for democracy with a segregated military.

Moreover, even as most of his fellow leftists carried on a love affair with, or gave at least tepid support to Stalin’s Russia, Macdonald derided the Soviet Union’s barbarisms and its persecution of conquered nations. In a series of articles between 1944 and 1946, he was almost alone in publicizing Stalin’s complicity in allowing the Warsaw Uprising to be crushed. He believed that the Left’s failure to speak out against the Soviet betrayal of the Poles compromised its intellectual integrity, a stance that closely paralleled that of George Orwell. Macdonald had an exceptional capacity to go against not only the American grain, but also against the prevailing views of his erstwhile ideological and political allies. Nonetheless, after the war he began to lose interest in political issues. Having drifted away from the Marxism that had once intrigued him, he never found another ideology that fully captured his enthusiasm.

As with many people brought up in the Progressive tradition, there was a core of pessimism in Macdonald’s make-up. In the prosperous postwar years, he grew disenchanted with the masses and their tastes, and had virtually no contact with the American working classes. After closing down politics in 1949, he turned to cultural criticism. His critical focus in the 1950s was on the growing division in a democratic society between what he called “high culture” and the alternative “mass culture.” In his much-discussed essay “Mass Cult and Mid Cult” (PR, 1960), he analyzed how ideas circulate in an open society. He argued that the high culture was being subsumed by the growing influence of the forces of mass taste. Yet despite his public championing of high culture and its elevated aesthetic standards, his liveliest, most provocative criticism was about those books and ideas popular with the mass reading public.

Coming into his own as a cultural critic, Macdonald remained at the peak of his literary powers for the next dozen years. While never losing his radical political sympathies, he showed himself to be something of a cultural conservative and traditionalist. In 1952 he had begun what proved to be a twenty-year association with the New Yorker, a relationship that fostered his most outstanding work and his chief contributions to American culture.

In the pages of the New Yorker, Macdonald showcased his uncanny ability to spot the fraudulent and the faddist in the postwar vogue for the Mid Cult. Throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, he took special delight in deflating the pompous and overpraised. He castigated the Beat movement and once dismissed Jack Kerouac as “a professional ignoramus.” He single handedly demolished such critically inflated works as Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, Mortimer Adler’s Syntopicon (his so-called compendium of all worthwhile knowledge), and James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed.

But Macdonald’s criticism was not just negative. He could champion an author and persuade the intelligentsia to get aboard the bandwagon. His 1958 praise for James Agee’s A Death in the Family in the New Yorker was largely responsible for the latter winning the Pulitzer Prize. His powerful appreciation of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement broadened her appeal outside Catholic radical circles and brought her into the national limelight. A decade later, he took up Michael Harrington’s neglected study of poverty, The Other America, and helped turn it into a bestseller and one of the inspirations for the War on Poverty.

In the mid-1960s, at the height of his cultural influence, Macdonald returned to the political barricades. He seemed revived by the agitation against the Vietnam War and by the growing student protest movement, calling the protesters “America’s best generation.” He became a prominent supporter of the New Left and took part in the 1967 “March on the Pentagon.” For his newfound enthusiasm, he was labeled by some intellectual colleagues on the Old Left (many of whom were beginning their journeys to the right) as a camp follower of the protest movement.

To some degree, Macdonald took to the streets because by 1965 he was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, intensified by heavy drinking. From the mid-1970s on, he produced little of any consequence and spent most of his time lecturing on college campuses. He died of congestive heart failure in December 1982.

Dwight Macdonald has been compared to George Orwell. The two shared much-a hatred of communism, an appreciation of good literature, and sympathy for the downtrodden. But unlike Orwell, Macdonald and his work have fallen into neglect. Too much of his energy was directed at topical issues that mean little to most people today, and he squandered his literary gifts and political passions on polemics, ephemeral reviews and reportage, and alcohol. His work is now largely forgotten.

Yet for anyone willing to read Macdonald, his insouciant prose style and no-holds-barred crusading criticism-particularly his self-appointed role as an aristocratic radical charged with exposing the ersatz and the over-hyped-can still arouse interest and generate attention. He is well worth remembering.

Published in the 2006-02-24 issue: 
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John Rossi

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