Dwight Macdonald

Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) was an editor, journalist, essayist, and critic of literature, popular culture, films, and politics.

Dwight Macdonald was born in New York City on March 24, 1906, the son of Dwight and Alice (Hedges) Macdonald. Macdonald attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite private school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Yale University, from which he graduated in 1928. After trying his hand at becoming a merchandiser in a training program at Macy's, Macdonald, with the help of a friend from Yale, became an associate editor in 1929 of Henry Luce's FORTUNE, the first issue of which appeared in 1930. Macdonald worked on FORTUNE until 1936, when he resigned to protest alterations that the pro-business magazine made in a series of articles he had written about U.S. Steel Corporation.

Macdonald devoted himself in the mid-1930s to discovering his own political philosophy. He read Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky; became an enthusiastic anti-Stalinist; and, in 1937, became an editor of the radical Partisan Review. Macdonald joined the Trotskyist Party in 1939 and contributed articles to its monthly periodical, the New International. By 1941 Macdonald had broken with the Trotskyists, who had themselves split apart in a bitter factional dispute. In 1943, declaring himself a pacifist and objecting to World War II, he resigned from Partisan Review because of disagreements with its editor, Philip Rahv.


Magazine Editor and Writer

In 1944 Macdonald founded Politics, which appeared first monthly, then quarterly, until Macdonald abandoned it in 1949 to devote more of his time to writing. Politics published essays on politics and culture and included among its contributors James Agee, John Berryman, Bruno Bettelheim, Albert Camus, Paul Goodman, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, and Simone Weil. As editor of Politics Macdonald began to refer to his own politics as "essentially anarchist."

In 1951 Macdonald became a staff writer for the New Yorker. From 1960 to 1966, while retaining his role on the staff of the New Yorker, Macdonald was movie critic for Esquire.

Many of Macdonald's essays on culture and politics have been collected in books that are interesting both for their intrinsic merits and because they record and reflect the ferment of a generation of American intellectuals whose work spanned the Depression, the "Red Decade" of the 1930s, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the birth and death of the New Left in the confusions of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Watergate affair, and the rise of neo-conservatism. Macdonald's Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (1948) is a polemic arguing, in effect, that the former New Deal secretary of agriculture and vice president did not deserve the support of the American Left, primarily because of Henry Wallace's professed admiration for Stalinist Russia. (Wallace was the 1948 presidential candidate of the Progressive Party.) Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1957) includes many of Macdonald's most important political essays, including a brief political memoir, "Politics Past," in which Macdonald comments on his Trotskyist period: "What strikes me most, looking back, is the contrast between the scope of our thought and the modesty of our actions."

The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions (1956), which originally appeared as a series in the New Yorker, describes the "philanthropoid" as an institutional type and the Ford Foundation itself as "a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some."


A Sharp Critic in Many Areas

Against the American Grain (1962) contains Macdonald's celebrated attacks on James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed, on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and on the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary. Against the American Grain also contains the famous essay on "Masscult & Midcult," in which Macdonald argues that mass culture is a parody of high culture and that mass culture serves modern industrial society by transforming "the individual into mass man," turning culture into an "instrument of domination" and making "a pluralistic culture impossible." Midcult, on the other hand, is a more recent and sophisticated phenomenon, according to Macdonald. Midcult is as formulaic and predictable as masscult, but pretends to be high culture, which it waters down and displaces.

Macdonald had by now clearly articulated his own fascination with popular culture and his own unwillingness to abandon high culture as a standard against which to judge it. Against the American Grain contains Macdonald's admiring review of Richard Ellman's biography of James Joyce and displays Macdonald's characteristic suspicion of academic students of literature—but a suspicion overcome by a genuine and generous celebration of Professor Ellman's work and a convincing perspective on the place of biography in literary studies. Despite his frequent invocations of high culture as a standard of judgment and the wide range of literary learning that is frequently evident in his work, Macdonald produced no large body of critical writing on serious or "high" culture and literature, such as was produced, for example, by Philip Rahv or Edmund Wilson.

Macdonald's film criticism, collected in On Movies (1969), continued to work out his lifelong admiration for movies and his unwillingness to overlook or forgive the mediocre or meretricious. Still, as he said in the introduction to On Movies, "I wouldn't want to see a movie made by a director who had to learn to make movies from my reviews."

Macdonald's writing is learned, conversational, sometimes even chatty, digressive, personal, witty, constantly seeking the apt judgment, the appropriate attitude. William Barrett recalls the New York literary culture in which Macdonald moved as a band of passionate debaters. Macdonald, though he had left the core of intellectuals who formed the Partisan Review crowd, stayed in the debate, but, says Barrett, "he was not very good at argument, for he stammered. In his case the pen—or, rather, the typewriter—was mightier than the tongue; and where in written polemic he could spear his victim with a single deadly phrase or sentence, in oral argument he would become excited and reduced to an incoherent stammer" (William Barrett, The Truants, 1982).

Macdonald cheerfully conceded to Paul Goodman's criticism that he "thought with his typewriter," discovering what he thought by writing it down and revising it. And, as he also cheerfully admitted, he tried to reconcile a fascination for popular culture with a taste formed by high culture and a passionate interest in politics with a growing conviction that collective actions led to diminishments of humankind's essential individualism.


Further Reading on Dwight Macdonald

Macdonald's books include Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (1948), The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions (1956), Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism (1957), Against the American Grain (1962), On Movies (1969), and Discriminations (1974). Greenwood Reprint Corporation reissued Politics in 1968 with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. For discussion of the tradition within and against which Macdonald worked, see William Barrett, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals (1982), and John P. Diggins, Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (1975).

Additional Biography Sources

Whitfield, Stephen J., A critical American: the politics of Dwight Macdonald, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.

Wreszin, Michael, A rebel in defense of tradition: the life and politics of Dwight Macdonald, New York: Basic Books, 1994.