- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

Over the past few years the publishing house of Ivan R. Dee in Chicago has brought out a number of much-to-be-welcomed writings by writers currently neglected. In progress are six volumes of the essays of Aldous Huxley; in hand is a satisfyingly fat collection of Dwight Macdonald's letters, bringing us smack up against major arguments among American intellectuals about politics, society, and literature, from the 1930s to the 1980s. Of these intellectuals, most of them operating out of New York journalistic circles, none was more outspoken and for all his wrong calls (depending on who makes the call) more tonic to the spirit than Dwight Macdonald.
Macdonald scarcely saw an assumption or a belief he couldn't at least imagine entertaining to see if it entertained him nor one he didn't want to argue with. For examples, his flip-flops into and out of socialism and pacificism; his opposition to America's role in World War II, then his support for President Truman and anti-Stalinism; his substitution in the 1950s of culture for politics as a center of interest, then his strong anti-Vietnam stance in the late 1960s. These taken together testify to what some called his unreliability; with more justice they may be thought of as an extraordinary responsiveness to choices that needed to be made about matters of import.
The editor of these letters, Michael Wreszin, published a biography of Macdonald eight years ago, but interested readers should go to the letters in "A Moral Temper" first, unfailingly lively and combative as they are. While Mr. Wreszin's devotion to his subject is patent, some of his editorial practices are puzzling indeed. For instance, he systematically omits the place from which the letter is written as well as its closing sign-off. Frequently the recipient is characterized only by his last name ("Dr. Sills," "Ted Jacobs," "Mr. Mayfield"), and only certain of the recipients are identified, usually with a brief bracketed phrase after the name.
Explanatory footnotes are at a minimum, so one doesn't know which book of C. Wright Mills Macdonald has reviewed and is referring to in his letter, or exactly where the "here" is where he's just had a good meal with Stephen Spender. Still, the assembling of this collection from the 73 linear feet of correspondence Macdonald gave to Yale's Sterling Library is an act for which gratitude outweighs any omissions.
Each of the book's seven sections begins with a photograph of Macdonald (and friends), the first an elongated-with-pipe, all-dressed-up one taken his senior year at Exeter with two other members of what evidently was the Hedonist Club. Determined by age 15 to be a writer and scholar, he raked in the prizes at Exeter, then went on to Yale where he made friends with such people as F.W. Dupee, Wilder Hobson, George L.K. Morris, and Dinsmore Wheeler, the last of whom received the bulk of these early letters. Writing to Wheeler from Yale Macdonald says he feels "self-sufficient and careless" and is less interested in the academic system than convinced that he can't fail as a writer "I know damn well that I have the creative power and that I am good." This Emersonian capacity for self-reliance (he doesn't mention Emerson in letters but is surely a type of the American Scholar) never left him throughout a variegated career of intellectual tasks.
What's impressive and distinctive about Macdonald, and what distinguishes him from other New York intellectuals who would be his editorial colleagues on Partisan Review between 1937 and 1943, was not only his equal seriousness about literature and politics, but also his practical training as a journalist at Henry Luce's Fortune magazine. Between 1929 and 1936 he was an editor at Fortune (receiving at one point the then impressive salary of $10,000) and did hands-on reporting that culminated in a piece about U.S. Steel, which the magazine eviscerated. Macdonald, now married to Nancy Rodman whose strongly leftist politics helped radicalize him resigned, but never left behind the probing, skeptical habit of mind with which he approached every subject. His fondness for expansive footnotes and for printing later reflections on his earlier pronouncements only increased with age.
From the outset he took both politics and literature personally. Early in his term at Fortune he was busy making literary discoveries on his own. Letters to Dinsmore Wheeler in 1930 report on his admiration for Turgenev's "Sportsman's Sketches" (suggested to him by Sherwood Anderson), which he contrasts favorably with Dostoevsky and Proust. He is enthusiastic about Stendhal's "Le Rouge et Le Noir," preferring it even to "Madame Bovary" and praising its detachment from its characters, by contrast with Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. Yet his admiration is almost always seasoned with a qualifying note or two: Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" is very impressive, but "a little too conscious, a little too perfect in structure rather precious, in short." His positive appraisals are strengthened by a willingness to entertain as well what might be said against the work in question.
Macdonald never lost this "elitist" high seriousness about literature, and as he fell away during the years 1943-49 when he edited his own magazine Politics from pacificism and other panaceas, his belief in the integrity of art never wavered. Two letters from June 1949 provide strong demonstration of this, the first to a Politics subscriber who was annoyed at Macdonald's anti-Soviet position and to whom Macdonald writes, "I have lost my faith in any general and radical improvement in modern society, whether by Marxian socialism or by pacifist persuasion and ethical example." A week previously he wrote another correspondent, apropos of the award to Ezra Pound of the Bollingen prize, that "the indisputably great names [among the moderns] (James, Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, Shaw, Pound) … all held social and political views that were … deplorably reactionary. Yet they wrote great literary works. Ergo, bad politics does not result in bad novels or poems. Ergo, reality is not constructed as neatly as one might wish. Ergo, the only way to find out if a poem is good or not is to consider it by itself …"
The best, if still inadequate, capsule description of Macdonald's temperament is radical conservative, a compound his friend Norman Mailer liked to apply to himself. His very interesting letters to George Orwell and T.S. Eliot, both of whom were published in Partisan Review during World War II, suggest that he found affinities with their (quite different) brands of radical conservative thinking about literature and society. He could be on friendly terms with contemporaries on the right with whom he disagreed, but had no fear of telling them off when they misbehaved: So to William F. Buckley, who had reprimanded him for unfriendly words written about Mr. Buckley's National Review, Macdonald fired back, "Why you damned whippersnapper, you impertinent pipsqueak, what the hell should I apologize for? I gave your magazine hell and it deserved it … Who do you think you are, you wretched solemn little sectarian, a sovereign state? And you used to be fun to argue with." It's hard to believe that Mr. Buckley (and others) didn't take some pleasure in being so roundly abused.
Few readers of this volume will dutifully read through each of the letters. For example, a long one of 1958 to the editors of Partisan Review, responding to adverse remarks made about him in the last issue by "two old friends, Harold Rosenberg and Paul Goodman," would appear to be water very much over the dam. But Macdonald's humorous spirit as he sets out to "demonstrate their incompetence" (since "they have quite failed to discover my real weaknesses") is charming and infectious. Eventually if we keep reading the letter the temperaments of the writers in question are accurately described: "If Harold is pontifical, Paul is messianic while mine is that of the artist or, to be more modest, the craftsman."
Macdonald's craftsmanship will be remembered for, among others, his memorable essays on the Revised Standard Bible and Webster's 3rd International Dictionary; for his wonderfully chosen anthology, "Parodies"; and for his valuable, always engaging movie criticism. That at one point he wanted to write a book either on Edgar Allan Poe or Alexander Pope (or perhaps one on each) is appealing, yet in view of the mass of distinguished journalism he turned out seen in "Memoirs of a Revolutionist," "Against the American Grain," and "Discriminations" we can't too much regret what he failed to do. He was a great complainer even about the good causes he participated in like the anti-nuclear march at Aldermaston in England (" I could have done with a leetle more passion … something wrong about such a VEGETARIAN mob").
And when in 1968 he kept back 25 percent of his income tax payment that percent he assumed went to military operations in Vietnam he adds politely but firmly, "If 25% is too high, please let me know, with supporting figures, and I will remit the balance due. If it is too low, I shall expect a refund." Such original sentences, surprising and inevitably pleasing in their bite, await the reader of this splendid collection.

William H. Pritchard is the author most recently of "Updike: America's Man of Letters."

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