Masscult, Midcult, and Macdonald

This conversation with Louis Menand and Daniel Aaron took place at the Harvard Book Store on October 20, 2011, and was broadcast on ThoughtCast.

Jenny Attiyeh: You’re listening to ThoughtCast. I’m Jenny Attiyeh, and I’m at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What you’re about to hear is conversation with New Yorker staff writer and Harvard Literature Professor Louis Menand, the author and Baffler magazine editor John Summers, and the longtime scholar and critic Daniel Aaron. The subject is Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald recently published by New York Review Books Classics. Louis Menand wrote the introduction to the book, and he’s up first.

Louis Menand: Okay. Hi. Thank you very much. It’s great to be here to talk about Dwight Macdonald and this collection, which is being published by New York Review Books, which, as you know, has a tremendous series with hundreds of titles now of reprints of classics that have been unavailable, and collections like this one. This is a project that John Summers really put together with the New York Review editors, and I was asked to write the introduction to it. The collection that John edits is made up mostly of pieces by Dwight Macdonald that were published in a book called Against the American Grain, which came out in 1962, published by Random House. There are a few pieces that were published somewhat later. These pieces being an attack on Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism, which we now have an opportunity to talk about.

                Against the American Grain was the best selling of Macdonald’s books. He was not really a book writer. He struggled to put together this particular book, and it actually began under contract with Random House, the editor was Jason Epstein, to write a book on popular culture, and, in the end, he decided to collect pieces that he had already published. But the book was very popular in its time. It’s fascinating to read it now, both because of the quality of the literary journalism, of which Macdonald was a master, and also because it takes us back to a time before the ’60s and allows us to revisit a lot of the issues that were important in an electoral culture then.

I’m just going to say a few words about the road Macdonald took to get to 1962 and Against the American Grain. We’re very pleased to have Professor Dan Aaron here, who knew Macdonald and has agreed to say a few words about him. Then, John will talk about some of the larger issues that are raised by Macdonald’s journalism.

                So, Macdonald was born on the upper west side of Manhattan. His family was reasonably well-off, though not wealthy. He attended a number of private schools and ended up at Yale, which is a college in southern Connecticut. He, at Yale, was a literary figure, something of a dandy, something of a snob. When he left Yale, he went to work at, of all places, Macy’s department store. He had a kind of romantic idea about business, of which he was quickly disabused.

                He quit Macy’s after less than a year and went to work for Time magazine, which had been started up by Henry Luce in 1923. Then, he moved on from Time to Fortune, where he spent most of his time with the Luce organization. When he joined Fortune, Macdonald doesn’t seem to have had any particular political views or politics, but that changed in the 1930s. As he was writing for Fortune, he began covering the business world. This, of course, is after the crash and during the Great Depression. Interestingly, Fortune magazine, a magazine devoted to business was started in 1930, about three months after the Wall Street crashed, not a very propitious time to start a magazine about business. He also married a woman named Nancy Rodman who did have politics, left-wing politics. She introduced him to Marx, to radical politics in the 1930s and he quickly became interested in leftist politics.

                He quit Fortune in 1936 and, in 1937, he joined with Philip Rahv and William Phillips in repositioning Partisan Review. Partisan Review, you may remember, was started as a magazine of the John Reed Club, which was organization controlled by the Communist Party. It was extremely doctrinal in its early incarnation. Phillips and Rahv wanted to get it out of the control of the Party and to endorse aesthetic points of view that the party disapproved of, specifically avant-garde or modernist art and literature. Macdonald joined, and in this effort, they rescued the magazine from the clutches of the Party and re-launched it in 1937 as the Partisan Review that we all know, and Macdonald came on as an editor. When he was an editor at Partisan Review, he published an essay, in 1939, about Soviet cinema, of which he was very critical. Macdonald always loved movies. In fact later, much later in his career, he was a movie critic for Esquire magazine. He particularly liked the Russian movies of the 1920s, which were very avant-garde experimental films.

                He felt that, under Stalin, Soviet cinema had become a propagandistic and anti-avant-garde. He wrote very long piece, actually, three-part piece, very critical of Soviet cinema under Stalin. This is in 1939. In response to this piece, he got a letter from Clement Greenberg. Now, Clement Greenberg, then, was a 28-year-old aspiring poet who was eager to write for Partisan Review, sent a letter to Macdonald, who was an editor there, quite a long letter, critiquing Macdonald’s article. Macdonald loved to be critiqued., he loved criticism, he loved to provoke people, and he liked to be provoked. He said to Greenberg, wrote back to Greenberg and said, “This is a great letter. Why don’t you turn it to an article?” So, Greenberg with Macdonald’s editorial assistance turned it into a very famous essay called “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” It was published in fall of 1939 at Partisan Review. This is an essay which lays out, essentially, the highbrow lowbrow distinction, which Greenberg called avant-garde and kitsch that really dominated American or New York intellectual life for the next 30 years and was a big influence on Macdonald’s own writing on popular culture.

                Macdonald quit Partisan Review in 1944. There was a power struggle at the journal and he lost out. He also was a pacifist and antiwar, which was not the official politics of the magazine. Greenberg also quit. he had come on as an editor in the 1940s. Macdonald started up his own little magazine called politics, which he edited for about five years. An amazing, very small journal. It had less than 5,000 subscribers, but, amazingly, a well-edited and fascinating magazine, in part because it was antiwar in the 1940s and took a pacifist point of view. Macdonald, then, was a pacifist and described himself as an anarchist.

                When Macdonald shut down politics, finally, he became a staff writer, this in 1952, he became a staff writer in 1952, he shut down politics seven years before that, at the New Yorker. Macdonald had written for the New Yorker since the 1920s, but he had not really been identified with the magazine. But in the late 1940s, he began working with William Shawn, who was an editor there. In 1952, Shawn became the editor-in-chief and made Macdonald a staff writer. This is where Macdonald began writing the pieces that he collects in Against the American Grain and that are reprinted in this New York Review volume. These pieces were great journalistic attacks on what Macdonald called midcult, the middlebrow culture. So, he attacked the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World, published by the Encyclopedia Britannica and edited by Mortimer Adler with an enormous set of introductory notes by Adler. He attacked Webster’s Third International Dictionary, which was a programmatically descriptive rather than prescriptive dictionary about usage. He attacked the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the retranslation of the King James Bible using more modern vocabulary. He attacked, though not in the New Yorker because the New Yorker had praised the book, a prize-winning novel by James Gould Cozzens called By Love Possessed. That’s one of his greatest pieces. He also attacked other paragons of what he thought of as midcult or middlebrow culture, including Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review and its successor magazine called World, also one of Macdonald’s funniest pieces.

                In 1962, as I said, he collected a number of these pieces, along with other work and a big essay supporting them, a theoretical manifesto called “Masscult and Midcult,” which we also reprint in the book, which outlined his theory of the development of mass culture and his argument for its perniciousness, a theory which evolved out of Clement Greenberg’s old 1939 Partisan Review article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.”

                Later, after publishing Against the American Grain, Macdonald published several collections: a great one called Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which collected his political writings. It has a fantastic introduction, a retrospective on his career in left-wing circles in New York City; a volume called Discriminations, another collection of his pieces.

                In 1968, fascinatingly, and to the disgust of most of the old left comrades that he had from Partisan Review days, he became enamored of the student radicals at Columbia, the protesters who occupied Low Library and Hamilton Hall and ultimately were routed by the police, and he participated in an anti-commencement ceremony that was sponsored by the radical students in 1968. It was all part of his anarchism and his siding with anybody who was against authority, very much part of his temperament.

                Just a couple of remarks about the essays and then Dan’s going to say a few things about Macdonald, personally, a writer whom I never met. One is that these essays are wonderful examples of literary journalism at its best. Where Macdonald, I think, tends to be weak, as most magazine writers and literary writer journalists tend to be weakest, is in large historical generalization and theoretical armature. It’s just not the way journalists think. Journalism is very ad hoc, it’s very much about the object in front of you, it’s really much more about that than about coming from a larger paradigm. It’s the opposite of academic criticism in that sense. Academics tend to start with a big historical generalization or theoretical paradigm and then use specific text to elucidate that, and journalist really work the other way around. So, Macdonald is great when he’s given something to chew on and he really goes to town on it, and he has a lot of flavor in his writing, which makes these, still, wonderful to read. But more important than that, they really perform, really, the mission of magazine journalism, literary journalism, magazine criticism, which is to expose pretentiousness and vanity and self-delusion and efforts to bully readers into thinking they should like something that is really meretricious. He’s wonderful at exposing this and that is one of the great functions, I think, of that kind of writing.

                I think the weakness, from our perspective, of the work that he collects in Against the American Grain is the whole highbrow-lowbrow paradigm. I don’t think we have much use for it anymore. It’s really a relic of a period of a combination of left-wing politics and extreme attachment to modernism and art and literature that’s become passé after the 1960s. Not that we still don’t admire the modernist and avant-garde work, but we have a much different attitude about popular culture that Macdonald did. So now, I’m pleased that Dan is here. Do you have a microphone?

Daniel Aaron: I do.

LM: All right. Speak into it.

DA: What I’ll try to do, in a few minutes, is give you some impression of Dwight, whom I first met in the late ’40s. We lived in Wellfleet before the great mass of sociologists, psychiatrists, architects descended on that place, but it was on the eve of that. There was a wonderful little pond, right off near Wellfleet center. They had a series of ponds and he lived in one of those, Slough Pond, a good name I think for the whole scene.

LM: The slough of despond, Dan?

DA: Well, yes. I suppose the slough of despond, but there was very little despondency there and a great deal of fun. He lived in an insouciant way, indecorously. When you called on him, he might be just standing there naked as he opened the door. Of course, swimming was doing good without bathing suits. Then, there was a life on the beach, which is very close by on the ocean, and he would be there as an attendant. He played with the children, would conduct walks and celebrations with them, and became a real character. Everybody knew him, and he knew the locals very well. So, it was always a great pleasure, a tonic feeling, to be with him because he was never lugubrious. He was always happy, jolly, I would say, not necessarily happy. He would, of course, have his acerbic moments. He was very very blunt, very rude, very outspoken. But there was always, I think, what was pleasing about him, a kind of joyousness, a real pleasure he took in life and an interest in the people who he met. He was interested, he was in no way stuck up. He had none of that. You would think of our view of New Haven at that time, as compared with Cambridge, seemed to me a much more stiff and conventional place. Apparently, when he was there, he fit in perfectly well with the general Yale milieu. He served on the Yale newspaper and he was active in activities. But apparently, Luke has ascribed to his move to New York, the great change that he’d made in his disposition, a nice … I think he always retained a kind of Yale quality, a sense that he was comfortable with these people that he disdained. He came from impeccable sources, so he didn’t have to feel any embarrassment at all or anxieties. I’ve been reading just recently the journals of Alfred Kazin. There are also some rather disturbing references in the journals to Macdonald, in Alfred Kazin’s journals, where Alfred was always defensive and angry. Even his humor wasn’t really humorous at all. Alfred liked to talk about … well, one of his favorite words was hilarious, but he was the most un-hilarious man I’ve ever known; [laughter] whereas Dwight was hilarious and, no matter what he was doing, his parties and his lack of … well, his irritation at any kind of pretentiousness, bombast. He was very direct. And everybody, every kind of a group, you never felt that he considered himself an intellectual or any stiffness in his manners with ordinary people, just the people that he met every day. I had one more little reminiscence before I’ll sit down. I organized a group at the Salzburg Seminar on American popular culture and Dwight was one of the people who came to it and it was extremely amusing. Even at that time, he began to quarrel with the director of the of the seminar so much to the point that there were pitch battles and very disagreeable occurrences. But his class was a source of great joy and amusement and shock to these European students who were used to professors, he was called professor, who were not given to the kinds of facetiousness in humor and indecorousness that Dwight did. He would be describing, let’s say, American packaging. Everything that build up was very very difficult to even unpackage anything because of all the elaborate layers and so forth. And then he was searching for a metaphor or an analogy to unwrapping a package of soap or candy or something. Then he would say, well it was just like trying to undress a woman. That kind of thing now seems a little passive, but to these European students, for whom professors were people of a special class and aura around them, it was a shock, but they were terribly amused at the same time, and he was a great favorite. Then, the quarrels between the administration and the student body, he was always with the students. I don’t think I have anything more to say about him. I can think of occasions when … well, no. I think probably the best thing to do is to sit down [laughter, applause].

John Summers: Thanks very much. So, I’ll talk for a few minutes, just first of all, a little bit more about the book, itself, and then in an historical and a little bit more political mode. Then, hopefully, we can talk about some of the issues that you may find crystallized out of our discussion tonight. The book was published, as Luke has said, in 1962. It was called Against the American Grain – Essays on The Effects of Mass Culture. There was a piece, a 70-page theoretical piece, where Macdonald sort of incompletely absorbs an intellectual tradition that I’ll talk about in a few minutes of mass cultural criticism. There’s a piece, which is my favorite piece of the book on James Agee. It’s the reverential heart of the book, I think. There’s a piece on James Cousins. There are attacks on great books, on new editions of the Bible and the dictionary, and a nice piece of cultural criticism that stands on its own called the “Triumph of the Fact.” The original book had essays on Mark Twain, which we deleted, James Joyce, on Colin Wilson’s 1956 novel, The Outsider, another attack Macdonald levels and literary sensationalism, Raymond Williams, his book, Culture and Society, and a couple other essays and cultural criticism, the decline and fall of English amateur journalism, and how-to-ism. We did add two pieces, one on Tom Wolfe and one on Norman Cousins. Norman Cousins, in particular, is a name that most of Macdonald’s readers would have recognized at the time. In fact, most of his readers would also recognize the reference that he was making in his book and the title Against the American Grain. This is a reference to, of course, William Carlos Williams’ book, In the American Grain, which was a series of prose poems or imaginative excursions probing the American unconscious. That book appeared in 1925, and those of you who know your literary history, will recall that this was a particularly poignant moment in the culture, not completely unlike our own moments, where there was a lot of anxiety about the American past, a search for an American grain, a search for an American idiom. Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day appeared in 1926. Mumford championed antebellum literary culture, and then also championed the revival of Herman Melville, who was rediscovered. D.H. Lawrence’s studies in classic American literature appear also at this time. So, Macdonald is writing in the ’50s, and then he publishes in ’62 on the other side of a great divide in an American cultural history, the ideal of Whitmanesque striving being a distant memory. So, Macdonald’s generation has going through fascism and totalitarianism and corporatism. So, Macdonald has to have some of this pace for antebellum literary culture, his favorite writer was Poe, but the book on the whole is, of course, very pessimistic about the chances of revival such that William Carlos Williams had been hoping for.

                So, this raises the question of the relevance today. The commentary that we’ve seen so far on the book has been, on the whole, fairly positive, but there’s this quick dismissal, I think, or too quick of a dismissal that the issues that Macdonald was grappling with, however inexpertly or in an unscholarly way, they’re still alive. There’s an assumption that they don’t matter as well.

                One of the questions that emerges is what happened to this midcult, this middlebrow culture that Macdonald was skewering so well in the ’50s? David Brooks says, in a column written in 2005, that back in the late ’50s and ’60s, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character and that a respectful person should spend some time observing the best that has been thought and said. Middlebrow culture in the late ’50s was killed off from opposite directions. One of these directions, Brooks tells us is, of course, the big meanie intellectuals. He says the intellectuals launched assaults on what they took to be middlebrow institutions, attacks that were so vicious, they pick your breath away. So, this is the theory that the conservatives often bring out, that the intellectuals ruin everything. I think Macdonald and Clement Greenberg and some of the others, however well they thought of themselves, would have laughed at the idea that they had such world historical power to kill off all these institutions. There must have been something, in other words, that was wrong with the institutions themselves, wrong with the middlebrow ethos. It may have been, quite possibly, as cheap as Macdonald thought it was. Otherwise, we needed a good explanation to why it managed to disappear so quickly. We don’t have highbrow culture anymore. We don’t have middlebrow, either. We just have mass culture. This, in fact, is one of the reasons I think it’s important to reread the book. Even if we don’t agree that Macdonald gets every issue right, we think he goes too far, which he probably does, as Luke says in his introduction on Tom Wolfe. And, even if we think that he doesn’t exactly get the scholarly apparatus, all the kinks worked out of it. This is just to say that, as a journalist, he has difficulty finding a proper level of abstraction. He’s too high in the early essay and then he’s too low to the ground on the Wolfe essay, and he never exactly worked it out. Nevertheless, if you read it, you’ll be impressed with the moral and political implications, I think, of his critique of culture—mass culture, that is.

                The critique, itself, goes back to the 1830s and 1840s. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, perfectly reputable people these days, all over their writing was this worry that modern commercial society would end up corrupting the democratic potential of the forces that unleashed. This is called the critique of leveling, sometimes; the idea that a society based on equality tends toward mediocrity in its consumer products.

                So, I don’t want to go on too much about this, but would like to … well, let me just raise the question, then. I hope we can talk about, in a moment, the relevance of this critique, if it is of any interest, if it is worth the while to try to distinguish between capitalist modes of production, which produce these cultural institutions and the needs of a democratic society. This is, I think, at the highest level what Macdonald is worried about. He’s worried about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, which is, more or less, a very unfashionable thing these days. They’re assumed to be, more or less, the same.

                Since Macdonald died, it was ’82, I think, we’ve had waves in the Academy of cultural studies programs, that have more or less obliterated these distinctions that Macdonald was working with. I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, the origins of cultural studies in the Academy are very reputable, indeed. They go back to mass communications research by Paul Lazarsfeld and people like that in the ’50s, Stuart Hall at the Birmingham School in the 1960s. Those of you who have been through graduate school maybe recognize these names. But by the ’90s, cultural studies had, more or less, played itself out. The idea of the sovereign consumer, at one level, seems naturalized to a certain kind of intellectual culture, but also from my perspective, and, I think what would be from Macdonald’s perspective, right for criticism. Neuroscience, which takes the place of a former social and political criticism also just obliterates the mass culture tradition. I have in mind a book called Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson, which appeared in 2005. Johnson applies neuroscience to society and says things like video games and television and movies and mass entertainments are making us smarter, he thinks. He mentions Macdonald as someone who wasn’t a good enough a scientist, who couldn’t have known that The Sopranos would be many times more complex than Hill Street Blues and that Hill Street Blues was many times more complex than Three’s Company, which are the examples that he gives. So, between cultural studies in the Academy and, I won’t say sovereignty, but the influence of neuroscience in a certain kind of intellectual journalism, the issues that Macdonald is raising here, in the most abstract and the most political idiom that are represented in book, pretty much don’t exist. So, we think that this book makes very definite, if inevitably flawed and incomplete contribution to discussions about large issues.