INTERVIEWS WITH DWIGHT MACDONALD
Edited by Michael Wrezin
University Press of Mississippi, $35, 200 pages
REVIEWED BY JEFFREY HART
Born in New York City in 1906, raised in comfortable circumstance, prep school at Exeter and Yale Class of 1928 Dwight Macdonald possessed a sprightly prose style which carried him through a varied career in journalism. He served as an editor of Partisan Review (1937-1943), left to found the one-man Politics (1944-1948) with his wife’s money, and after that wrote for an assortment of other magazines, including the New Yorker as their movie reviewer. He took movies very seriously as they began to be called “films.”
The present volume contains 17 interviews with Macdonald, some quite short, beginning with Yale, and, near the end of the volume comes the most searching one, by Diana Trilling. Even when not with Partisan Review Macdonald was very much part of that circle, was ubiquitous around the parties, good company, and can be called a “New York Intellectual” if you wish. He thoroughly enjoyed that social enclave.
A much more serious member of the circle, the philosopher William Barrett wrote a good memoir about it entitled “The Truants,” its title referring to the essential unseriousness and ephemerality of their activities. For all the show of cerebration and Trotskyist “radical politics,” most of the members were truants, fleeing from point and refusing importance. To this generalization there are a few exceptions such as Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Robert Lowell, Barrett himself (Saul Bellow stayed apart), and a handful of others all of whom had particular disciplines and who made contributions that still stand up.
Macdonald liked the stance of an aristocratic bohemian and man of taste. What one remembers of him perhaps is his once famous distinction between Masscult, Midcult, and High Culture. There’s no mystery about Hugh Culture: Yeats, Matisse. Masscult comes out of a juke box. But Midcult is the enemy: a spurious imitation of High Culture, like, say, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Possibly these distinctions are worth starting with.
In his one-man magazine Politics Macdonald did a surgical destruction of the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign, the destruction lots of fun at the time. In Commentary he performed a hit job on a wildly overrated novel by James Gould Cozzens, “By Love Possessed.” The novel was not good, but in “Guard of Honor” Cozzens had written what might be a great novel, and Macdonald would have done well to register his awareness of this, if, indeed, he was aware of it.
Macdonald survived as a writer on his fluency, but he had no consistent aesthetic, political, or moral standards. He imagined Norman Mailer to be a great writer. Coleridge admired the kind of mind that could entertain contradictory ideas and be energized by them. Macdonald could certainly entertain contradictory ideas but he seems to have been entirely unaware that they were contradictory, so they could hardly be energizing. To say the least, he did not have anything approaching a first-rate mind. Irresponsible would be to put it mildly.
In her interview, Diana Trilling can scarcely control her self face-to-face with Macdonald’s enthusiasm for the uprising of the yahoos at Columbia in 1968. “‘What I like about them [the students},’” he says, “‘was their primitive instinct … the main thing they were revolting against the machine of learning in which the faculty was way up there and they were way down there. I mean, there was just a heartless, stuffy machine of learning and I liked it broken up.’ Mrs. Trilling undoubtedly thought she was listening to a sentimental idiot. She did comment that the University had not yet recovered.” (1979) Her late husband would have been charmed.
She did not remind Macdonald of his proclaimed pacifism and his unconcern that the yahoos had permanently paralyzed a policeman and also shot and wounded Dean Harry Coleman. A pacifist, and also a revolutionary: You figure it. I recall that he did not hesitate to avail himself of expert knowledge from Columbia professors, as in working on his book of “Parodies.”
In this book, useful for period gossip from a gadfly and featherweight, Macdonald is more than once compared with George Orwell. That is breathtaking.
Orwell wrote three classics: “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Animal Farm,” and “Homage to Catalonia.” You can make a strong case that “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the most important political novel in the 20th century. Macdonald never wrote an important anything.
He is in a league immeasurably removed from Macdonald, though Macdonald was good over a martini in Manhattan or in the Hamptons.
Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.