Dwight and Left

In 1958, writing in the Jesuit weekly America, the historian John Lukacs speculated whether Dwight Macdonald might become “The American Orwell.” Noting that Macdonald's American “reputation is rising,” Lukacs wrote that he was already known among British intellectuals “as one of the most interesting American critics of these times.” In particular Lukacs lauded Macdonald's “lonely and courageous positions” in the mid-1940s -- on Yalta, the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender, the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans -- and argued that Macdonald's political stance “coincides with the often lonely positions taken by George Orwell amidst the leftist intelligentsia in Britain.”

The comparison might seem absurd nowadays. Orwell is a household name who commands an astonishingly broad audience. By contrast, the name Dwight Macdonald often occasions the response, “Dwight who?” -- along with the inevitable misspelling of his surname to match that of the hamburger chain. Back in 2003, the centennial of Orwell's birth grew into an international cultural event that lasted the entire year, with academic symposia and countless feature articles devoted to his writings and legacy. This month brings the centenary of Macdonald's birth (March 24), which is likely to be commemorated by no more than a few diehard fans.

But it does no disservice to Orwell -- whom Macdonald deeply admired and got to know via an extensive correspondence -- to insist that Macdonald (1906 - 1982) has been unjustly neglected. His centennial is a fitting occasion to reflect on his accomplishments. A contributor over the years to The New Yorker, The New Republic, Esquire, and Encounter, among other publications, Macdonald should be honored as an outstanding literary journalist, an important shaper of intellectual and cultural opinion, and a plausible (if more limited) successor to H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson. And while Macdonald was not, strictly speaking, a liberal in the commonly understood sense -- his attacks on liberals, labor, and the New Dealers were relentless; he referred to them as the “liblabs,” a term of sneering ridicule meant to impugn the wishy-washy complacency of post-war liberal democracy -- a renewed appreciation of Macdonald's work is crucial to the task of revitalizing political liberalism in the 21st century. Like Lionel Trilling, Macdonald was a liberal critic of liberalism, a critic of the left from within its own ranks. He would have agreed with Trilling's praise in The Liberal Imagination of Nathaniel Hawthorne's “dissent from the orthodoxies of dissent.”

As liberalism struggles to redefine itself today, that task of redefinition must grapple with and reject the easy orthodoxies of dissent within liberalism itself. Macdonald is a model for liberal intellectuals because he never hesitated to turn the spotlight on liberalism's weaknesses, and indeed on his own shortcomings too. His own incessant self-redefinition can exemplify for liberals today the importance of rediscovering the liberal tradition of healthy self-doubt at a time when many strains of liberalism have ossified into abstract, dogmatic faiths. Macdonald's example may guide us to a new mode of discourse: a language that will reflect and support the supple, self-questioning intelligence essential if fundamental liberal concerns about oppression and the fate of the underclass are once again to be foremost in our agendas. The aim must not be to develop more neoliberalisms, but rather more liberal consciences like Dwight Macdonald's.

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Born into a wealthy upper–middle-class family much like that of Orwell, Macdonald was educated at Exeter and Yale. At Exeter, he was one of the founders of the Hedonist Club, a student group whose members thumbed their noses at the school authorities and traditions. At Yale, as editor of the Yale Daily News, he fought a series of battles with the Yale administration over the quality of the teaching there.

After graduation, Macdonald undertook his lone foray into the business world -- a short, unsuccessful stint as a salesman for Macy's. But the experience eventually led him to Henry Luce's Time Incorporated. Macdonald was one of the bright young men of the 1920s whom Luce hired to create a new magazine, Fortune, which aimed to highlight the success of American business. But Luce's timing couldn't have been worse -- he launched Fortune just as the Great Depression set in.

Macdonald's years at Fortune (1929-1936) were stormy. Dissatisfied with the state of American society, he began a steady drift leftward, pushed by his more politically sophisticated wife, the socialite Nancy Rodman. He resigned to write a major exposé of conditions in the steel industry, a work he never finished.

In 1937, Macdonald joined hands with editors Philip Rahv and William Phillips to wrest Partisan Review (PR) from the control of the American Communist Party, which had founded it three years earlier. During this time, Macdonald was jubilant: He had momentarily discovered a hospitable milieu -- the PR “herd of independent minds,” in Harold Rosenberg's memorable phrase. And despite his subsequent dissatisfaction with his PR colleagues, Macdonald's encounter with this like-minded literary species also furnished him with his vocation. Influenced by his PR colleagues, all of whom were socialists of varying shades, and by the radical friends he gained via his wife, Macdonald flirted with Trotskyism in the late 1930s. He vehemently denied in later years that he was ever a Communist. He admired Trotsky as an example of the politically engaged intellectual, but he was too much of a contrarian to remain loyal to Trotskyist ideology for long.

Macdonald's political education parallels that of Orwell in key respects. Like Orwell, he was a consistent opponent of Stalinism. The bitter political and ideological infighting in the late 1930s among the PR crowd deepened Macdonald's contempt for the Communist Party's abrupt shifts in policy. He was active in the protests against Stalin's show trials during 1936-1938 and served on John Dewey's committee to investigate the charges against Trotsky and the old Bolshevik elite, which convened in Mexico in 1937. Macdonald's years with PR (1937-1943) were formative, though Rahv and Phillips always regarded him as naive and lacking a coherent political philosophy. Because of the dizzying divagations of his political course, occasioned by his numerous, abrupt ideological about-faces, Macdonald frequently wasn't seen as a serious political mind but was instead regarded as something of a jokester. The approach of war created a crisis for him. He viewed the coming conflict with horror; when the war broke out in September 1939, his position could best be described as anarcho-pacifism. Eventually this brought him into conflict with Rahv and Phillips, who believed that Nazism had to be defeated if Western civilization were to survive. Macdonald's refusal to endorse this view began his process of withdrawal from PR, where leading editors regarded his outlook on the war as “revolutionary defeatism.”

Macdonald left PR in 1943 to found his own magazine. He christened his new journal politics (proudly contrarian, he always lowercased its name). Its existence (1944-1949) marks the high-water mark of his political journalism career, and its birth allowed him to pursue a unique political trajectory for the next five years in full public view. Macdonald wanted politics to become the vehicle for an intellectual exchange between America and Europe, and, as such, he enlisted a distinguished group of European writers of the left to contribute to his new magazine -- Orwell, Albert Camus, Lewis Coser, Simone Weil, and Nicola Chiarmonte, the last of whom became Macdonald's close friend and tutor on European political and cultural affairs. Possessing a clearly defined internationalist as well as radical stance, politics would become (in Macdonald's words) a “transplanted spore of European culture” in the American body politic. Macdonald was something of a snob about European intellectuals, and the function of politics was in effect to Europeanize provincial American culture.

The last months of the war profoundly depressed Macdonald. He was disgusted by the massive Allied bombings with their terrible civilian casualties, a disgust that reached sickening levels when the United States used atomic bombs against Japan. Macdonald rushed out a special article for the August issue of politics, which trumpeted that “the concepts ‘war' and ‘progress' are now obsolete,” and that “the bomb is the natural product of the kind of society we have created.” The latter point reflected the fact that Macdonald was rapidly losing his residual faith in the political sense and decency of the American people. He was also disgusted by the Allied betrayal of the Poles in the Warsaw Uprising, the Allied intervention in the Greek Civil War on the side of the rightists, and the discovery of the Nazi death camps. Probably politics was the first journal to discuss in full detail the horrors of the Holocaust, when Macdonald published an essay by then-unknown Bruno Bettelheim in 1944 on the behavior of prisoners in the concentration camps.

Macdonald remained a pacifist with anarchist leanings until the time of the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949), when he reluctantly accepted the lesser-evil theory, supporting the West against the growing threat of Soviet imperialism. The blockade solidified his development toward a liberal anti-Communist stance, which crystallized with the approach of the 1948 presidential campaign. Macdonald's last great political crusade was an attack on Henry Wallace's presidential run as the Progressive Party candidate. Macdonald expanded a two-part article in politics into a book, Henry Wallace: Man or Myth, which exposed the Progressive Party as a front for communists and their “Stalinoid” (a favorite Macdonald barb) sympathizers. During his last years editing politics, Macdonald fell into despair about the fate of humanity. He lost any positive political vision. He even lost faith in his own ability to substantially influence the direction of political affairs, which seemed to him beyond the control of men, in the wake of the bomb and the division of the world, between the two super states: America and the Soviet Union. Still, he grudgingly took a side, affirming in a debate with Norman Mailer in 1952 that, if forced to pick, “I choose the West.”

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At this point, Macdonald channeled his full energies into literary and cultural criticism, which he had neglected during the war in favor of politics, and politics. Although he continued to contribute political pieces occasionally to the little magazines and quarterlies, Macdonald wrote increasingly for mass publications such as Esquire and The New Yorker, where he joined the staff in early 1952. His feisty criticism in their pages amounted to a running commentary on what he regarded as the shabby “midcult” of post-war America and the middlebrow literature that thrived in the 1950s -- literature that he despised.

Once he turned to cultural criticism, Macdonald's judgments took on a new sense of self-confidence. His positions on culture and art were firm and, in contrast to his political writings, witnessed no sharp reversals. Characteristically written with passion, authority, and certitude, Macdonald's cultural criticism also reveals his conservative side and his mistrust in the judgment of the American public. A streak of elitist pessimism about American society and its preference for midcult and low-cult runs through Macdonald's criticism of the 1950s and early 1960s -- a pessimism that differed markedly from the Marxist-induced revolutionary idealism and optimism of his Trotskyist phase. Here, Macdonald diverged sharply from Orwell, who no more believed in the wisdom of the literary-intellectual elite than he did in Burnham's managerial elite. Despite his philosophical skepticism and dark vision in his last two books, Orwell never placed his trust in any scientific-intellectual aristocracy. “If there is hope,” wrote Orwell in 1984, “it lies in the proles.”

Part of the reason Macdonald took pleasure in assaulting cultural artifacts -- such as Mortimer Adler's pretentious Syntopicon (the governing midcult concept in his Great Ideas series), or Webster's New Third International Dictionary, or the modernizing of the Revised Standard Bible -- was his belief that the low-cult indulgences of the American demos had undermined the nation's taste. “Democracy” in the Eisenhower era had come to mean dumbing down. Serious essays on Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and James Agee show Macdonald becoming more and more disenchanted as the decade advanced. His pessimism deepened because he could find no repository for his hope: Political affairs had turned sour for him and seemed futile and boring, and he found little to cheer in the world of literature.

Macdonald's disenchantment with American life had two consequences. First, surely influenced by Orwell's example, he became enamored of English cultural life. He formed a connection in the mid-1950s with Encounter, which was edited in London. He resided in London in 1956-1957 near Orwell's widow, Sonia, whom he befriended. (In an unsuccessful attempt to convince Sonia to let him write Orwell's official biography, Macdonald emphasized his admiration for her deceased husband, calling him, “my kind of a guy.”)

Macdonald believed the English literary scene and political culture were superior to anything in America. He admitted that he was “absurdly Anglophile, intellectually speaking.” But his enthusiasm for English culture was old-fashioned. His Anglophilia did not extend to any esteem for the Angry Young Men (John Osborne, Colin Wilson, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and John Braine), and he lumped them all with the Beat Generation in America as talentless poseurs and whiners. Their willingness to trash the past infuriated the traditionalist in Macdonald.

Second, after his return to America in the late 1950s, Macdonald conceived a major project on the impact of mass culture on contemporary society. “Mass Cult and Mid Cult,” his most famous essay, had originally appeared in PR in 1960. Republished in 1962 as the lead essay in his collection Against the American Grain, the piece represented Macdonald's bid to be taken as a serious thinker and not just a clever journalist or cultural pundit. By the middle of the 20th century, argued Macdonald, the nation's high culture was being debased by the growing influence of middlebrow trash. He identified authors such as Stephen Vincent Benet, Archibald MacLeish, James Gould Cozzens, and the Hemingway of The Old Man and the Sea as exemplars of this “oozing midcult.” Cultural taste in a democracy, he maintained, operates according to Gresham's Law: It drives out the finest (“highbrow”) work and thus inexorably destroys a literary tradition. As a man of the left, Macdonald was rejecting the public's taste in cultural matters -- a far cry from his stance in the 1930s.

Macdonald was at his weakest in trying to describe what is necessary to protect society from being inundated with mediocre art and literature. Ever the contrarian's contrarian, the best he could come up with was to be vigilant and stand “against the American grain.” Moreover, Macdonald had his own faddish blind spots. He had high praise for Norman Mailer, whose work in the 1950s was often just a faux existentialist, “hipster” version of precisely the middlebrow trash that Macdonald dismissed. But Mailer was a close friend.

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It is interesting to ponder what Orwell's reaction to “Mass Cult and Mid Cult” would have been. Orwell had a fondness for popular literature and was a believer in the concept of “good bad books.” As the modern originator of the serious pop-cult essay (comic postcards, boy's magazines, the detective story, the crime thriller), Orwell might well have been receptive to the middlebrow artworks of the 1950s -- at least as artifacts for his “semi-sociological criticism,” as he once called it. They might provide precisely the material he would want to analyze for what it could tell him about society.

This difference between Macdonald's and Orwell's approaches to popular cultural criticism can be traced to differing attitudes toward values in a democracy. Orwell always retained an abiding trust in “common decency” (his signature phrase) and in the “common people.” (Of course, whether he would have continued to do so if he had lived into the prosperous “You Never Had It So Good” days of England in the late 1950s is another matter.)

Macdonald's last big literary success came in 1962. He took up the cause of Michael Harrington's The Other America, a study of the invisible poor and their plight amid the nation's post-war prosperity. In the longest review-essay in the history of The New Yorker, Macdonald single-handedly turned Harrington's book into a best-seller. He even got his old friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to bring it to the attention of President Kennedy. Numerous historians credit Macdonald's campaign for The Other America as the intellectual launch of the War on Poverty.

After 1962, Macdonald entered a steep decline. He wrote a few minor pieces for The New Yorker until the early 1970s. He also did a movie column for Esquire. But he was spent. He published nothing thereafter to match his best work of the past. He also became a virtual parody of his old 1930s self when drawn back into political action in the mid-1960s by the anti-war protest movement. Like many aging, born-again leftists of the 1960s (Jean-Paul Sartre was the most notable example), he was seeking the romantic radical experience he had missed out on during his youth. Where left-wing fashions were concerned, his normally sharp judgment began to fail him. He was taken in by the kind of poseurs that he exposed in the past: Eldridge Cleaver, Barbara Garson's Johnson-hating MacBird!, and the vulgarities of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies.

For the last decade and a half of his life, Macdonald led a peripatetic existence, lecturing at various colleges and universities throughout the United States. He was urged by friends to write his autobiography, which could have served as a history of American intellectual life in the mid-20th century. His writer's block and heavy drinking stopped him. Macdonald died in December 1982 at the age of 76.

“Dwight” (as even his enemies called him, with genuine affection) is unjustly forgotten today. Even though most readers are unaware of his absence, the reality is that American culture is poorer without a brilliant gadfly critic like Macdonald. Indeed, his disappearance has left a sizable hole in American intellectual life. For although the void is far smaller, the fact remains that -- like Orwell in Britain -- no American intellectual has replaced Dwight Macdonald. His centennial ought to remind us of this.

John Rodden is the author of several books on George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, and Irving Howe, among other works. Jack Rossi is professor of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.