Originally published in the Boston Review in December 2001/January 2002.
A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald, edited by Michael Wreszin, is a history of the mind of Dwight Macdonald, a proud “rebel and bad boy” who wrote for Fortune, Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Esquire, and other magazines in the mid-twentieth century. The letters show a serious man grappling with tragic ideas. In Politics, the antiwar magazine he founded, Macdonald opposed the Second World War from a “revolutionary socialist viewpoint.” During the 1950s he traded left-wing politics for cultural criticism, and became a prominent defender of a “highbrow” sensibility. Macdonald never thought of himself as a liberal, nor as a man of any majority persuasion. For such dedication to free intelligence, he deserves our highest regard.
From a writer so devoted to moral independence and yet so chained to ill-fated ideas, one may hope for lasting insights about the practice of dissent in America. But the pitiless character of his criticism diminishes these letters even as it enlarges them in other ways. “Writers should never be given the tiniest break if we want decent writing,” Macdonald insisted. Maybe his recurrent “writer’s block” indicates that a mind over-exerted in judgment and indignation eventually wearies, and opposes even itself.