Dwight Macdonald and the Criticism of Culture

This interview by Leonard Lopate took place on The Leonard Lopate Show on October 12, 2011.

Leonard Lopate: For many years, Dwight Macdonald was one of the best read and most feared writers on American culture. Masscult and Midcult Essays Against the American Grain, a new collection of Macdonald’s essays, is being published by New York Review of Books and it reveals not only his not only his dazzling talent for finding the most telling phrase to give his opinion about the latest cultural phenomenon, but also his prescience in regard to politics and society, in general. John Summers, the new editor and publisher of the journal The Baffler has edited this collection and he joins us now to discuss the work of Dwight Macdonald. Welcome.

John Summers: Thank you. Nice to be here.

LL: In the last year, you’ve relaunched The Baffler. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Are you following in the steps of Macdonald, who started politics and was one of the founders or at least one of the original members of Partisan Review?

JS: Yes, I like to think that Dwight Macdonald would have approved of The Baffler. The magazine came to life in 1988 and found its stride, really, found its voice in the 90s, criticizing the ersatz culture that was cooked up in corporate board rooms and sold to America’s youth under the phrases “Generation X” and “alternative culture,” and so on. I like to think that he would approve. We do have a kind of Hall of Fame in The Baffler: critics, social critics, twentieth century American critics. We like H. L. Mencken and Randolph Bourne. Christopher Lasch is our house historian. C. Wright Mills, our sociologist. Thorstein Veblen is our economist. So, in relaunching The Baffler, we’re also trying to champion the revival of social criticism.

LL: Dwight Macdonald went after C. Wright Mills.

JS: He did.

LL: …in one of his reviews. What do the terms he coined—masscult and midcult—mean? Or what did they mean to him?

JS: They used to mean highbrow and lowbrow; middlebrow. Midcult is a rough synonym, I think, for middlebrow. And, Macdonald thought that midcult was kind of where masscult—mass culture—and highbrow converged in this kind of big, ugly stew, where all of these distinctions that used to be familiar to people were sort of blurred. He thought that it was a great mistake, actually.

LL: Well, he went after some of the high-minded, critically-acclaimed works of the day. He went after the Great Books series, Mortem Adler, criticized Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as being “written in that fake biblical prose Pearl Buck used in The Good Earth, a style which seems to have a malign fascination for the middlebrows; Miss Buck also got a Nobel Prize out of it.” Beautifully said, slightly mean-spirited. He went after Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. for being Profound with a capital P; didn’t like Our Town by Thornton Wilder, said, “I agree with everything Mr. Wilder says, but I’ll fight to the death against his right to say it this way.”

JS: Yes, that’s right.

LL: Also, went after By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens’ novel which was, at the time, declared one of the great masterpieces, and now, hardly anybody reads it. I’m not sure it’s even in print anymore.

JS: That’s right. One of the questions that emerges from the book is what happened to the middlebrow? We don’t really have it anymore. Macdonald thought that the middlebrow was a kind of bastard form of masscult, and, like many critics in the post-war period, he thought that institutions—capitalist institutions and the cultural institutions that were behind them—would remain, more or less, stable. So his worry was that midcult would become a kind of permanent low standard, debased standard of culture, whereas, in fact, it was as cheap as he suspected that it would be, and, more or less, vanished.

LL: Well, didn’t it vanish, to some degree, because during the 60s, we had this merging of high and low? So on come the Beatles, and Motown, and Andy Warhol, and All In the Family, and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Portnoy’s Complaintthings that can both be seen as art and also seen as popular culture.

JS: Yes, that’s right. One of the things that Warhol did was to aestheticize the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, or what Clement Greenberg called “avant-garde and kitsch.” So, you know, Warhol’s interesting because he sees mass culture as, really, the only source of personal identity. But nevertheless…

LL: Did Macdonald wright about Andy Warhol?

JS: Not to my knowledge, no.

LL: But he thought that people were being tricked into buying the stuff because they were being told they ought to like it, that it was good for them.

JS: That’s right. Yes. And this is an interesting point where he differs from the conservative critique of culture, and where, I think, he’s distinctive and interesting for us today. So, Macdonald called himself a conservative anarchist, which is a phrase that would probably sound odd to the people occupying Wall Street—most of them are left-wing anarchists. But, in fact, Henry Adams called himself a conservative anarchist, and Robert Lowell, and James Agee, and the term has some integrity and some interest to us, I think. Orwell called himself a tory anarchist at one point in his life. And the anarchist part is fairly easy—Macdonald’s analysis is rooted in the complaint about the techniques of mass production and mass consumption. So he’s interested in this mechanism that produces what Greenberg called a kind of wholly private universal market for cultural goods. Conservatives don’t want to talk about the economics of culture.

LL: But when you say he’s a conservative—he, for much of his life, he traveled in leftist circles. He was a Trotskyist for a long time.

JS: Yes, that’s right.

LL: He was anti-Stalinist only ’cause he, I think, he thought that the art that was coming out of the Soviet Union at the time was awful. It was as bad as, in his mind, as what was coming out of Hollywood.

JS: Yes. Yes, that’s right. But nevertheless, if you look at the way that the essays in this collection appear, he faces both ways at once. So, for example, in the Great Books project, his target is dogma. He thinks it’s ridiculous that you can, kind of, fix the Western tradition in a, kind of distilled essence. And the anarchist in him is rebelling against the authority that’s implied—the kind of absolutist authority that’s implied in this project. But on the other hand, if you read the essays on updating the Bible and also The String Untuned, where he goes after Webster’s New International Dictionary, he faces the other way, completely, and he argues for the preserving traditions against trendiness. So, the question that arises in terms of Macdonald’s posture, for me, is, how could he embrace the anarchist’s disbelief in authority with the conservative’s love of tradition? And I’d like to read you a quote, if I may, that he gave in a book of interviews to Diana Trilling, which is very interesting. He says, “Well, I say, being an anarchist, I don’t believe in taking people by the hand and force-feeding them culture. I think they should make their own decisions. If they want to go to museums and concerts, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be seduced into doing it or shamed into doing it.” It seems to me a quite sensible position.

LL: On the other hand, as you point out, he was upset that Webster’s Third listed “disinterested” as a synonym for “uninterested.” And the dictionaries say they give definitions based on the way that words are used as well as on the way that they were originally intended to be used. So, there was a stop side to all of this. And the fact that he was upset by the democratization of the King James Bible and these revised editions also comes out of a certain amount of snobbery, doesn’t it?

JS: Well, I understand this complaint, but I push back against it a little bit. The question is whether Macdonald is democratic or not, whether he’s anti-democrat, right? It depends on what you mean by democracy.

LL: Well, if Hollywood is creating films that make a lot of people happy, even if intellectuals might think they’re kind of silly, is Hollywood doing the wrong thing?

JS: Well, it depends on what you mean by “making people happy.” I mean, seducing them into a kind of general stupor. Narcosis is a kind of happiness, I guess, but there’s a distinction between making someone happy and making someone free. Freedom and happiness are different things. You know, there’s not a word in the book that would suggest that Macdonald is not a democrat in terms of politics.

LL: Well, he was an admirer of Leon Trotsky for a time, but he seemed to be very proud that Trotsky had allegedly made him the object of a famous put-down. Trotsky said, supposedly, “Every man has a right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.”

JS: That’s right. He liked to repeat that, yes. He had a very, you know, nice personality, and sense of… took himself, sometimes he took himself very seriously, but he managed to make people like him, despite annoying them at the same time.

LL: He worked for Time magazine, Fortune, The Partisan Review, The New Yorker, six years he was the film reviewer at Esquire. He said that he was politically radicalized when he was at Fortune. Meeting all of the people he had to write about, you have to wonder about what his reaction would be to the people who are being vilified today down at Wall Street.

JS: I think he’d be at the protests.

LL: He’d be at the protests?

JS: Absolutely, yeah. There’s a nice YouTube clip of Macdonald on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. It’s called How to Protest.

LL: So, did he and Buckley get along? Because Buckley was a conservative who liked high art.

JS: No, they didn’t get along. In fact, we’re having an event tonight and, I think, Jim Wolcott is going to read a letter that Macdonald wrote to Buckley that’s really a kind of put-down.

LL: These days, Macdonald is one of the less-mentioned of the public intellectuals of New York who were so influential from the 20s through the 50s. What happened?

JS: What happened to Macdonald?

LL: To his career. Did he just suddenly start seeming irrelevant to people? Because if you read these essays, many of them still seem to be appropriate today. They seem to be addressing some of the issues that are being discussed again today.

JS: Well, I’m glad you think so. Not everybody has. The book has been out of print for some time now. I think that the importance of it is that it reintroduces us to a tradition of criticizing mass culture that has, more or less, vanished from American intellectual and cultural life for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. But Macdonald was tapping into a tradition that began really in the 1830s and the 1840s, with thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Alex de Tocqueville, and included, in the twentieth century, thinkers like Gasset, a Spanish philosopher who wrote The Revolt of the Masses, and T. S. Eliot. This reached its high point in the 50s.

LL: He actually had a friendship with T. S. Eliot, despite the differences in their politics. But many people have talked about the fact that in countries like France, a public intellectual is still a part of the culture, but we don’t have anything like that anymore in this country.

JS: No, we don’t. I think some of it has to do with the, kind of, universities, which are, more or less, dying at the top and failing to reproduce themselves. They are victims, I think, to trends in the labor market. The universities, more or less, stopped producing full-time positions and, at least, in the Macdonald generation, a lot of the public intellectuals—the writers—they ended up at universities. They’re no longer being supported there.

LL: I noted an issue of the Partisan Review—the Winter 1939 issue—and it included works by John Dos Passos, Andre Gide, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Richard [Blackburn], Leon Trotsky, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, Gertrude Stein, F. W. Dupee, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Franz Kafka…

JS: Not bad.

LL: You can’t imagine anything like that happening today. Macdonald published part of a series he was doing on the demise of Soviet cinema under Stalin. But wow! Either that was an exciting time or publications could get all the best writers of the time.

JS: That’s right. Well, we hope to do something, not exactly similar, but close with The Baffler in the next, you know, couple of issues.

LL: Meanwhile, you have this book, which is a bit of a departure for New York Review of Books because it’s not a straight reprint.

JS: That’s right.

LL: This is, kind of, a new collection of essays from Dwight Macdonald. Did you have to reject some that no longer did seem to have attempted to address anything that anyone today would even care about?

JS: Well, we took out a couple of essays on Mark Twain and James Joyce, and we took out an essay on Colin Wilson’s 1956 novel, The Outsider.

LL: Which was a big sensation at the time. Nobody remembers it anymore.

JS: That’s right. Couple of pieces of cultural criticism, The Decline and Fall of English Amateur Journalism, How-To-Ism. And we added pieces on Tom Wolfe and on Norman Cousins. And Cousins is an example of the fall-off that you’re talking about. You know, in the 50s and 60s, Cousins was not quite a household name, but he was close to it. Nobody’s ever heard of him anymore.

LL: Well, some people remember him as the guy who said that if you keep a positive outlook, you can fight cancer. That was fairly late in his life, before he succumbed to cancer.

JS: But, at the time, also, the title of this book uses the phrase “the American grain.” Most people in the 50s and 60s would have remembered Macdonald’s reference, of course, which is William Carlos Williams’ book, In the American Grain. So there’s been a good deal of fall-off now. I think if people reread this book, they’ll be immersed in debates that are so very important for us today.

LL: New York Review of Books has just published Masscult and Midcult Essays Against the American Grain, a collection of Dwight Macdonald’s essays. And my great thanks to John Summers, who put the collection together—he’s also the editor and publisher of the journal Bafflerfor being on our show. Thank you so much.

JS: Thank you for having me.