A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald

Michael Wreszin
New York: Basic Books, 1994
590 pp., $30.00 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

The work of even our best intellectual journalists tends to be forgotten over the years, as interest in the topical issues they address--political, literary, or cultural--invariably fades with the passage of time. If this is Dwight Macdonald's fate, that is tragic, because he is still a writer very worth reading. His oeuvre, written from the 1930s into the 1980s, touched on almost every major concern of twentieth-century thought. As one of the first critics to bring wide erudition and incisive analytical skills to bear on popular culture, he was a pioneer in the currently burgeoning field of "cultural studies." Moreover, Macdonald was a great stylist, unfailingly lucid, witty, mellifluous and quotable. Even when saying silly things, Macdonald said them well. Finally, Macdonald was a fine example of what Russell Jacoby has called a "public intellectual"--one who writes on a range of important topics in jargon-free prose for educated general readers.

If Michael Wreszin's new biography, A Rebel In Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald, inspires a new generation of readers to discover Macdonald's work, that would justify the ten years Wreszin devoted to this encyclopedic study. Wreszin's paradoxical title captures what he sees as the thread that connects all the many political shifts Macdonald negotiated over the course of his long career. To Wreszin, Macdonald was a genuine American rebel, a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist who loathed established authority. Yet he was also an upholder of intellectual standards against what he considered the philistinism of contemporary American culture, as well as a nostalgist, who longed for the simpler, more natural life of an earlier era, free of the mechanized, bureaucratic indoctrination of modern mass society. In the tension between these two seemingly opposed ideologies, one traditionally liberal and the other customarily conservative, Wreszin locates the idiosyncratic core of Macdonald's thought.

In his anarchic radicalism, Macdonald was turning against his own social class. He was born into an upper-middle-class WASP family in a posh section of Manhattan, and schooled at Exeter and Yale. As a young man, he was a dandy and an aesthete, exhibiting little of his later political engagement. What seems to have planted the seeds of his later subversions was his disillusioning job as a well-paid staff writer for Henry Luce's Fortune Magazine. Assigned to pen panegyrics to various captains of industry of the day, Macdonald ended up, like many Depression-era intellectuals, embracing communism. Resolving to put his principles before his paycheck (as he'd do again many times in the future), Macdonald quit Fortune to make a living as a freelance writer.

Shortly afterwards, he joined the editorial board of the newly founded Partisan Review--the voice of the New York intellectuals, who'd eventually dominate American cultural life in the 1940s and '50s. Partisan Review began as an authorized organ of the American Communist Party, but split from the party to align itself with Trotskyism. However, Macdonald soon found the publication insufficiently radical, and, after a bitter row with its editors, he left to found his own journal--Politics.

Wreszin considers Politics one of the best "little magazines" in contemporary American history. Its diverse contributors included the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the cultural critic Paul Goodman, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the art critic Harold Rosenberg, the historian Hannah Arendt, and the poet and literary critic Delmore Schwartz. Macdonald wrote an astounding amount of material himself. In a charmingly whimsical and broad-minded touch, he even penned regular pseudonymous letters-to-the-editor, virulently attacking his own contributions.

It was in Politics that Macdonald also published his most important political essay, "The Root is Man." In it, he eloquently expressed the unwavering cornerstone of his moral and political philosophy: that the only worthwhile government was one devoted to the good not of the state, but of the individual. "We must emphasize the emotions," he wrote, "the imagination, the moral feelings, the primacy of the individual human being once more, must restore the balance that has been broken by the hypertrophy of science in the last two centuries. The root is man, here and not there, now and not then" (491).

By the 1950s, Macdonald had completely abandoned his Marxist past. As with many former fellow-travelers, disenchantment with the Soviet Union transformed Macdonald into an ardent cold warrior, although he never became neoconservative. For awhile, he was a regular contributor to the staunchly pro-Western, anti-communist journal Encounter (which, years later, it was revealed, had been secretly funded all along by the CIA--news that horrified Macdonald). Despite his fervent anticommunism, the '50s marked a period when Macdonald turned away from politics to cultural criticism. Never apolitical, Macdonald just shifted his acerbic attacks away from either capitalism or communism and onto what he began to see as an even greater menace to the future of civilization--popular culture, in his view a banal barbarism that threatened the very survival of high culture in Western society.

One might assume such a disdainful posture would handicap a critic, but Macdonald often exhibited an open-mindedness that belied his doctrinaire principles. Moreover, his mandarin stance enabled him to cultivate his most accomplished rhetorical skill--his genius for wittily ripping to shreds the work under review. Not surprisingly, popular culture provided him with a wealth of targets.

In the '60s, after a decade-long hiatus from politics, Macdonald became active again with a vengeance, as exuberant booster of the counterculture. Wreszin believes his extended review of Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which documented the wretched underclass that America had ignored in the opulent '50s, influenced Kennedy's anti-poverty programs. The Harrington review also exhibited Macdonald's gift for lucidly popularizing complex but important issues and ideas.

Macdonald was an early, increasingly outraged opponent of the Vietnam War, though he never romanticized the totalitarian regime in North Vietnam. However, Macdonald did err, in Wreszin's estimation, when he published a petition in The New York Review of Books, soliciting contributions for "Students for a Democratic Society," at a time when the SDS had already begun to degenerate into the senseless violence that marked its tragic denouement.

Macdonald's most memorable moment as a New Leftist occurred during the 1968 student takeover of Columbia University. Living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, he was just around the corner when students stormed several campus buildings. Racing over to Columbia to investigate, Macdonald was warmly welcomed by the protestors. It's easy, as many of Macdonald's enemies and even some friends did at the time, to accuse him of "radical chic," of desperately seeking fame and lost youth by consorting with glamorous student revolutionaries. However, as Wreszin notes, the ideological commitments which, from the start, linked the many permutations of Macdonald's politics (anarchism, pacifism, radical individualism) echoed perfectly the guiding precepts of the New Left.

Macdonald's last years were rather sad, as he declined into alcoholism, and, after a remarkably prolific career, suffered from writer's block. He lapsed into constant self-criticism, damning himself as a writer who merely popularized the ideas of others, rather than originate any of his own. While Wreszin finds Macdonald's scathing judgments incomprehensible, there was something sadly perceptive about the writer's self-condemnation. For all his brilliance as an essayist, Macdonald lacked the drive and discipline needed to finish longer projects.

The main strength of Wreszin's biography is its exhaustiveness. The author details every major chapter in Macdonald's life, as well as fully portrays the relevant cultural and historical background. Wreszin also deserves credit for his ever-present enthusiasm for his subject. Still, the book isn't perfect. For one, at nearly 600 pages, it's too exhaustive. In particular, the early sections on Macdonald's Marxism could have been condensed, since Macdonald repudiated his communist past. Moreover, despite the biography's size, Wreszin doesn't quote Macdonald enough, or at sufficient length. Instead, Wreszin usually paraphrases his subject's writing in prose that, while workmanlike, captures little of the man's inimitable style, wit, and bravado. Additionally, though generally comprehensive, Wreszin slights Macdonald's career as perhaps the finest film critic of our age, devoting a mere four pages to the subject. (Those eager to sample Macdonald's movie reviews should read On Movies: Dwight Macdonald, published by Da Capo Press.) Finally, Wreszin annoyingly insists on referring to his subject throughout as "Dwight," justifying this odd practice by saying simply that "everyone addressed [Macdonald] by his first name" (xiv). Perhaps everyone did, but the casual touch makes Wreszin sound unscholarly, with insufficient critical distance from his subject.

On one topic, Wreszin, while as a rule no hagiographer, may not have enough critical distance. While Wreszin notes Macdonald's regularly, consistently negative attitudes toward Jews, Judaism and Israel, and while he admits that, as a child, Macdonald absorbed the genteel anti-Semitism that permeated his social class, the biographer insists that Macdonald shed these prejudices when he joined the New York intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish themselves. But careful study of Macdonald's remarks over the years challenges Wreszin's contention.

About the Holocaust, Macdonald wrote, "official murder was not introduced into the modern world by the Nazis. A century ago equally revolting and widespread atrocities were inflicted on millions of beings in peacetime by British capitalism" (145). No doubt the oppression wrought by British capitalists was severe, but can a credible argument be made that such oppression and the Holocaust were "equally revolting and widespread atrocities?" When Jewish colleagues supported the founding of Israel, Macdonald charged them with chauvinism, decrying the Jewish homeland as a state established by "fascist-revisionist Jew" (146). He dismissed the re-identification of many Jewish intellectuals with their religious roots after the Holocaust as before "a neurotic response," a retreat into "primitive clannishness" (229). As for the two-thousand year old culture of the Jews, Macdonald damned it as provincial, second-rate, asking rhetorically (230), "Does the extermination of Jews make the Jewish culture one whit more interesting?" Finally, as a film critic, Macdonald once made the vile charge that Jewish studio heads had whitewashed Jewish responsibility for Christ's crucifixion in Hollywood Biblical epics. Was Macdonald unaware of the genocidal historical consequences of Christian demonization of Jews as "Christ-killers?"

Granted, one must remember that Macdonald's intellectual style was commonly deliberately inflammatory. Moreover, taken individually, some of his anti-Jewish opinions can be credibly defended. However, when viewed together, a picture emerges that surely calls into question Wreszin's flat assertion that the mature Macdonald "was not anti-Semitic" (11).

Still, despite its shortcomings, Wreszin's biography is a lucid, thorough, engaging study of a major American writer who has been unjustly neglected by posterity. There are certain critics and essayists--Montaigne, Dr. Johnson, Thoreau, Orwell, Edmund Wilson--whose "voice" is so brilliant, forceful, and individualistic that you read their work with profit and pleasure whether you agree or not. Dwight Macdonald belongs to that select company.

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