Biographical sketch of Dwight Macdonald

Critic Dwight Macdonald was a brilliant, changeable gadfly

TIME April 4, 1994 Volume 143, No. 14

    In a lifetime of combative journalism, Dwight Macdonald wrote too much and sometimes too carelessly, left many projects half finished and was variously a Trotskyite, a socialist, a pacifist, an anarchist and an aging camp follower of the student lefties of '68. Yet despite his lack of discipline and consistency, many of his essays remain classics: consider his merciless dissection of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Reading that often tin-eared update of the beloved King James, Macdonald wrote, "is like walking through an old city that has just been given, if not a saturation bombing, a thorough going-over." As a satirical gadfly, cultural critic and detector of cant, Macdonald was a worthy successor to the sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken.
    Macdonald, who died in 1982 at age 76, has now been accorded a solid if not definitive biography. A Rebel in Defense of Tradition (BasicBooks; 590 pages; $30) by Michael Wreszin is the kind of academic "lumbering dinosaur" - the author's modest self-appraisal - that might have sent its subject to his typewriter harrumphing with dismay. Wreszin dutifully portrays the man and his times but too often paraphrases rather than quotes directly from a writer whose style was the essence of jaunt and spark. (In fairness, Wreszin does have the good sense to cite Macdonald's lead of a New Yorker profile: "The Ford Foundation is a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.")
    To the writer Diana Trilling, who knew him well, Macdonald was the "most fiery" of the New York Intellectuals, that collection of political and literary eye gougers who hovered around the journal Partisan Review in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. As Trilling wrote in her haunting recent memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, the New York Intellectuals "were overbearing and arrogant, excessively competitive; they lacked magnanimity and often they lacked common courtesy." By now there are probably as many books about this group as there are about the assorted wits and twits of Britain's Bloomsbury circle, but they deserve the attention. Founded in 1934 as an organ of the U.S. Communist Party and reborn independently in 1937, PR for nearly two decades was America's pre-eminent journal of literature and ideas, despite a circulation that seldom exceeded 6,000.
    PR still appears, but it seldom makes waves. At its zenith, though, it was home to some of America's brightest talents, from the novelist Mary McCarthy to the poet Delmore Schwartz to the critic Lionel Trilling. In its pages, tiresome Marxist posturing coexisted with the best of literary modernism; the editors, Macdonald perhaps most of all, believed that politics was of no consequence when it came to high art. Thus PR printed short stories by Kafka and poetry and essays by Anglo-Catholic royalist T.S. Eliot.
    As a middle-class Wasp Ivy Leaguer among Jews who attended New York's no-tuition City College, Macdonald was an unlikely member of the PR crowd. A lawyer's son, he grew up in Manhattan and after graduating from Yale in 1928 became, of all things, an executive trainee at Macy's. Unhappy there, Macdonald signed on with what he disdainfully called "the Lucepapers." He wrote briefly for Time and spent seven years at FORTUNE, quitting after his savage attack on U.S. Steel was eviscerated by editors. He soon joined the reborn PR but left the journal in 1943 after quarreling with its founding editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, over whether it was right for the U.S. to take the Allied side in World War II. Macdonald, who was then in his pacifist mode, started a rival journal called Politics, which built its own cadre of distinguished contributors, including counterculture tablet givers Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills. Later Macdonald became a staff writer at the New Yorker and Esquire's film critic but still wrote occasionally for PR.
    Macdonald, Wreszin observes, "was impossible to pigeonhole, difficult to categorize, wildly unpredictable." He had some nonintellectual eccentricities: at his summer homes in Cape Cod and elsewhere, for example, he was devoted to nude cocktail parties, which sometimes led to furtive infidelities in the sand. Politically, he changed his views about as often as Paris realigns skirt lengths - and had the chutzpah to excoriate others who held to opinions he had but recently abandoned. Indeed, Macdonald reveled in the top-of-the-lungs, ad hominem (and feminam) style of argument for which the New York Intellectuals were infamous.
    A colleague wrote that Macdonald "thought with his typewriter." He was more of a sprinter than a distance runner, and many of his ambitious book-length projects were either left undone or shrank into tantalizingly insightful but incomplete articles. What remained after such a failure, however, could be a landmark essay like "The Triumph of the Fact" or "Masscult and Midcult." In the latter, Macdonald aimed his rage and rhetoric at pompous middlebrowism. In one sense, this jeremiad is dated, since no one now worries about the popularity of Herman Wouk and Pearl Buck. But the problem of high culture sagging into mediocrity has, if anything, grown more serious over the years: consider only that some critics seriously regard Andrew Lloyd Webber as a composer of operas. If only we had a Macdonald now, when we need him most.

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