Dwight Macdonald: A Case Study for Great Responsibility

“Macdonald had given the hint that the clue to discovery was not in the substance of one’s idea, but in what was learned from the style of one’s attack.” – Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

Forty-four years ago, on a temperate October afternoon charged by a mass temper, more than 100,000 people occupied the Lincoln Memorial to protest the Vietnam War. Among them were Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, and Dwight Macdonald. A good third of this group, led in part by the literary trio, would soon march upon the Pentagon with the intention of levitating it. Mailer would write one of his best-known volumes from these events, earning both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But Mailer could not have done so without Macdonald, whose fiery approach had helped him “to get his guns loose.”

For the critic Macdonald, such heady protests were old hat. During World War II, he had raised hell through the antiwar Workers Party against the collective failure to condemn Soviet foreign policy. He was also involved in the March on Washington Movement, an effort to end racial discrimination in the armed forces. As the cultural critic James Wolcott has suggested, Macdonald “wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature and affronts to the spirit of liberty.” Yet he was inclusive of any emerging figure who posssessed these virtues. Of an antagonistic young man who challenged the arrogant Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy in the Atlantic‘s pages, Macdonald was to confess that he “could not help liking [William] Buckley.”

After a shaky political start as a waspy young journalist on the make, Macdonald revolted against his employer Henry Luce and began editing Partisan Review, where he raised his pugilistic fists through words. When not attacking Stalinism from the left (later in life, he would identify himself as a “conservative anarchist”) or questioning the responsibility of intellectuals, Macdonald spent time successfully persuading the likes of Edmund Wilson and George Orwell to contribute to his pages. But Macdonald’s contentious personality eventually led him to form his independent journal, Politics, which flourished from 1944 through 1949, until Macdonald’s energies and resources diminished.

Never especially good at mushrooming his ideas and views into books, Macdonald became a pen for hire, directing his attentions to perceived cultural threats: homogenization, dry academic writing, and sundry commercial forces. Many of Macdonald’s best cultural essays have been collected in a recently published volume, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. These pieces permit us to see the varying fluency with which Macdonald applied the political attack dog approach so valued by Mailer.

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Macdonald functioned best when he had a fixed target in his crosshairs. “By Cozzens Possessed,” a career-killing takedown of the novelist James Gould Cozzens, is a merciless exercise, attacking the then revered 1957 novel, By Love Possessed, for its prose style, its use of arcane words, the feverish and often thoughtless critical acclaim, and its inaccurate portrayal of human behavior. It is so brutal and stinging an assessment that it might almost serve as a handbook for any young critic hoping to make a big splash. But Macdonald stood for a clear set of values. He wished to protest “the general lowering of standards” and “the sober, conscious plodders…whose true worth is temporarily obscured by their modish avant-garde competitors.”

Such sectarian language sounds not unlike Macdonald’s political missives from decades before. Sure enough, it was this nexus of self-deception and ascension in status which served as the common whetstone for Macdonald to sharpen his sword. Before Macdonald begins his attack, he establishes Cozzens’s financial and critical success in the first paragraph, showing that Cozzens in a position to take it. (This is very much in the tradition of American hatchet jobs. Mark Twain’s essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” also opens with three epigraphs attesting to the alleged worth of Cooper’s writing.)

Macdonald’s essays also inadvertently raise the question of whether a critic really deserves this much power. In his invaluable John Cheever biography, Blake Bailey made a convincing case that Macdonald’s drive-by impacted the 1958 National Book Award, pushing Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle into the winning slot. (Cheever thought highly of By Love Possessed, calling it “excellent” in his journals. Years later, after learning that Cozzens had revered his work, the guilt-ridden Cheever became so upset that he came close to sending Cozzens a family heirloom.) Did James Gould Cozzens sully culture as much as the Great Books (which Macdonald rightfully chided as “densely printed, poorly edited reading matter”) or the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (which Macdoanld rebuked for destroying the King James’s lexical zest)? Probably not, especially if one values the positive qualities of oddity.

Macdonald sent copies of his essays to his targets, thereby permitting them to respond, if so desired. Thus, in book form, Macdonald’s essays frequently contain appendices, such as George Plimpton lodging his objections and corrections at the end of Macdonald’s attack on Hemingway. Reading such annotations in the early 21st century, which closely resemble today’s blog and comment culture, one gets the uncanny sense that, were Dwight Macdonald around today, he would likely be some wild-eyed blogger operating out of a ramshackle Brooklyn apartment.

In an age when many online enthusiasts think nothing of embedding Amazon links into their blogs or sign away their Goodreads reviews without consideration of the “royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all such User Content and your name, voice, and/or likeness as contained in your User Content,” there are ineluctable connections between culture and commerce. And Macdonald’s lengthy essay condemning Masscult (“a parody of High Culture”) protests a cultural world in which “everything becomes a commodity, to be mined for $$$$, used for something it is not, from Davy Crockett to Picasso. Once a writer becomes a Name, that is, once he writes a book that for good or bad reasons catches on, the Masscult (or Midcult) mechanism begins to ‘build him up,’ to package him into something that can be sold in identical units in quantity. He can coast along the rest of his life on momentum; publishers will pay him big advances just to get his Name on their list; his charisma becomes such that people will pay him $250 and up to address them (really just to see him); editors will reward him handsomely for articles on subjects he knows nothing about.”

Macdonald’s argument may need to be revised to account for recent technological developments, but his general beef with cultural philistines still holds considerable water. This year, we have seen bestselling novelist Lev Grossman, whose books are now being developed into a FOX television series, write a review of George R.R. Martin’s Dance with Dragons, describing it as “the great fantasy epic of our era” without disclosing the fact that Grossman secured a glowing blurb from Martin for The Magicians. Another critic, Laura Miller, openly invites her readers to ban books: “As deplorable as real-life book banning may be, there’s some required reading that those of us at Salon would love to see retired from the nation’s syllabuses simply because we were tortured by it as kids.” Given these affronts to integrity and intellectualism, where is today’s Dwight Macdonald to contend with these two hydrophobic mutts in the woodshed?

It’s certainly easy for a myopic reader to interpret Macdonald’s essays as snark, for Macdonald had a clear enmity for rock music and television. Yet snark, as David Denby has remarked in a book on the subject, involves a contempt for absolutely everyone. While elitist in tone, Macdonald’s cultural essays also commended the proliferation of symphony orchestras and art house movie theaters. He did honor the artistically and intellectually ambitious, although often with brutal paradox. He recognizes Hemingway as a stylistic innovator, yet writes, “I don’t know which is the more surprising, after twenty years, the virtuosity of the style or its lack of emotional resonance today.”

At times, Macdonald’s cultural essays read as if they were more concerned with swimming in a stream of brimstone. His 1972 smackdown of Norman Cousins, editor of a now largely forgotten biweekly magazine, feels more desperate and superficial than Alan Grayson’s recent obliteration of PJ O’Rourke on a recent installment of Real Time with Bill Maher. When he lost his focus, it was easy for Macdonald to reveal hypocrisy. In his 1967 essay “Parajounalism,” Macdonald condemns Tom Wolfe for his cruel assaults on The New Yorker‘s Wallace Shawn, yet lacks the courage to acknowledge his own malicious barbs toward others in the past. And when Macdonald writes about Wolfe’s attack being “more in the kamikaze style – after all he was thirty-three when he wrote it while I was thirty-one when I wrote mine,” one wonders if Macdonald was jealous of Wolfe’s increased attention and his ability to get through to younger readers.

Despite his pugnacity, Macdonald could be kind. In his essay on James Agee not long after Agee’s death, Macdonald writes, “I had always thought of Agee as the most broadly gifted writer of my generation, the one who, if anyone, might someday do major work.” In January 1963, The New Yorker published Macdonald’s essay on Michael Harrington’s The Poverty of America. Macdonald put a considerable amount of work into the piece, which featured an impassioned demand to the upper and middle classes to reverse “mass poverty in a prosperous country.” Macdonald’s essay attracted great attention and helped reverse the book’s flagging sales.

Yet it’s possible that, for all of his righteous exactitude, Macdonald wasn’t kind or motivated enough. His clumsy and alcohol-fueled elitism (according to Michael Wreszin’s page-turner of a biography, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, Macdonald needed a ration of twelve drinks a day) inspired Saul Bellow to savage him in Humboldt’s Gift. In Bellow’s novel, Macdonald appeared as the “lightweight” intellectual Orlando Higgins, where “his penis which lay before him on the water-smoothed wood, expressed all the fluctuations of his interest.”

To offer a Masscult metaphor that Macdonald would loathe: with great power comes great responsibility. If a critic’s responsibility involves standing against the contemptible forces transforming independent voices into soothing consumer-oriented bores who are no different from the hucksters who sell fabric softener, then nearly every working critic in America can learn a lesson from Macdonald. On the other hand, Macdonald’s lack of versatility demonstrates how a prominent tiger can be swiftly forgotten if he doesn’t change his stripes.

Postscript: The above essay was originally scheduled to run in a literary journal. What I did not anticipate was that much of the subtext concerning “style of one’s attack” would be misinterpreted by the estimable editor as a series of attacks. After some lively back-and-forth and many concessions on my part, I was forced to withdraw the piece on amicable terms and publish it on these pages. I still carry great respect for this literary journal and, as far as I’m concerned, the editor is still a sweetheart. But I relate this metafactual episode to demonstrate the distinct possibility that even a quasi-Macdonald approach, one also revealing a distinct arthritic quality in the lunge, may no longer be welcome nor encouraged in our present culture.


Good Books Don’t Have to Be Read

A good book is one that we don’t actually read. And a good book is one that a writer doesn’t actually write. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so guilty. It’s what makes pleasurable guilt so pleasurable. A box of juice reeks of crass commercialism when we insert our straws and revert back to those childhood years when the school bullies beat us up and told us that only sissies read. We crave books the way that we crave boxes of juice. There is a big man holding a gun to our temple. The big man is Anton Chekhov, and he is introducing a gun that must be used later in a story and later in this article. We are not allowed to fire the gun, but maybe we might fire it one of the Grossman brothers. They are, after all, twins. This may involve partial suicide, but I am speaking metaphorically and I am perched on a giant dais. This is too complicated for anybody to understand. This is more complicated than stabbing a box of juice with a straw. This is so complicated that I, Lev Grossman, have been spending the entire morning sobbing in bed. Books make perverts of us all. I am ashamed, but I am not sorry.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to books or the idea that people are supposed to read them. Sure, the importance has something to do with the fact that there are these squiggly lines that are printed onto bits of paper that are glued to a base. But what exactly? Excuse me while I take a toke. Ah, that’s much better, even if I don’t understand my argument and even if I will never ever experience pleasure in reading again. Part of the problem is that to figure out how to read a book you actually have to open one. You actually have to write idiotic essays for the Wall Street Journal because then people will take your folderol seriously. You have to keep your head shaven and demand that all books capitulate to your own sleek reading perspective, which does not exist and which must be simpler than tying your shoe. You have to write silly books about magicians and ignore the interesting shit about genre. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel — a book that frankly I don’t understand — and my tendency to masturbate to it when I can’t find the stack of Hustlers. Also, plot. Simple plot. Plot you can explain to a marsupial, with the marsupial clapping his hands in seeming comprehension.

countryfirstLet’s look back for a second and ponder where the Modernists came from. They came out of my ass. They flew out of my anus like winged monkeys. I assure you that this was a rather unsettling feeling that caused me to apply a good deal of lube when the flesh grew ruddy. They flew out of my ass because I knew they were writing good books and I knew that I couldn’t understand them and I knew that the Modernists were complicated but that they didn’t always think Plot First. Which is a little like Country First. Reading, as we all know, must subscribe to the Sarah Palin doctrine. So forget Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and all those literary heavyweights that people marvel over. They all came out of my ass and still carry that shiny and confused look. This is why they are dead. It has nothing to do with life expectancy. It has everything to do with my ass.

The Modernists went into the antique store and, ignoring the vital Plot First credo, they broke the vase. And now they must pay for their insolence. We are all the vicious and humorless shopkeepers ready to chase the Modernists out with a shotgun. How dare the Modernists make us think! How dare the Modernists improve upon literature!

There was a time when books were exciting. But then I got a job at Time and they became less exciting. And because they are not exciting to me, they cannot be exciting to you. They should not be difficult and they should not be read. I, Lev Grossman, am a drag at parties. Therefore, books must be a drag at parties. Nam Le is a scoundrel because he does not sell well enough. The next time I see Nam Le, I will punch him in the face. I don’t care how nice he is. I don’t care how much of a decent writer he is. Nam Le simply doesn’t sell as well as Stephenie Meyer. Therefore, he flew out of my ass like the Modernists. I am telling all the people who plan the parties not to have Nam Le and Lev Grossman in the same room. Surely, there will be a brawl.

The revolution is under way. And I, Comrades, insist that you do not have to read books. If you love books in any way or fail to consider the Plot First doctrine, then we will send you to the reeducation camps. We must be constantly entertained. We must not think. We must accept unquestionably that I, Lev Grossman, am correct about literature. Just look at Thomas Pynchon. Despite changing his cumbersome calisthenics, he appears on YouTube! Surely, this is a sign that the world is changing and that you don’t even have to read books anymore! If you look hard enough for clues, you too will sound like a conspiracy theorist.

This is the future of fiction. This is also the past and the present of fiction. There will be no more Modernist or Postmodernist writers flying out of my bunghole. We were trained to read good books. Now we must divest ourselves of this propaganda and become Communists!

A good book is one we don’t read. And the only articles you should be reading are written by Lev Grossman.

This article is a little too ad hominem for my tastes.

(For other responses, see Andrew Seal and Matt Cheney.)

Grossman Accepts Fruit Basket

I’ve been informed that Lev Grossman has refused the fruit basket I tried to send him this morning. The receptionist at Time also refuses to accept it because it means “having to go downstairs,” an ordeal apparently as arduous as climbing Everest.

I don’t understand this, because I’m sure Lev would have shared some of the tasty fruit with the receptionist and they might have bonded. I’m positive that the basket would have been shared around the Time office, providing sustenance for many overworked arts journalists.

But no. It was not to be! Lev has refused! The fruit basket remains undelivered, alone, merely wanting Lev’s momentary companionship.

Thanks a lot, Lev!

[UPDATE: It appears that the company was wrong about Lev’s refusal. Lev has, in fact, received the fruit basket.]

Lev Grossman

If you’re coming to this website for the first time because of the Time article, welcome. Please feel free to leave comments, bop around the archives, and, if you have about three days of spare time, check out The Bat Segundo Show, a literary podcast featuring interviews with today’s contemporary writers.

Yes, I’m aware of Lev Grossman’s essay. And I actually think his article is very fair and reasonable. But I should point out three things: (1) Edward Champion is my real name, (2) Contrary to my criticisms, I don’t think Lev Grossman is a complete tool nor a total chickenhead. (3) I am actually getting paid for my review coverage. (See, most recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

In any event, as an olive branch to Lev, he’ll be getting something nice from me soon. And I will try in the future to paint less of a Manichean picture of the man.