Son of Cults

How much does Dwight Macdonald matter today? The pieces selected by Baffler editor John Summers for Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain seem almost engineered to complicate the question. On the one hand, Macdonald’s demolition job of James Gould Cozzens‘ 1957 novel, By Love Possessed is hilarious, intelligent, forceful, and in its own way very current. This, for instance, remains very true:

It is difficult for American reviewers to resist a long, ambitious novel; they are betrayed by the American admiration of size and scope, also by the American sense of good fellowship; they find it hard to say to the author, after all his work: “Sorry, but it’s terrible.”

On the other hand, who cares about Cozzens today, even if Macdonald is the main reason nobody cares? Many of the battles Macdonald fought have long since been settled. No middle-class families dream of acquiring a set of Great Books, and the release of a new Bible or unabridged dictionary is no longer an intellectually fraught, high-stakes event. (In last week’s New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Nunberg suggested that the outrage over Webster’s Third Unabridged in 1961, of with Macdonald’s New Yorker essay “The String Untuned” was no small part, represented “the last great eructation of cultural snobbery in American public life.”) Macdonald’s attack on Tom Wolfe seems on the surface a fight he lost—Macdonald’s silly coinage “parajournalism” never got traction, and people know Wolfe a lot better than Macdonald today. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist who wants to write anything like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” today. Masscult and Midcult often reads like a set of dispatches from a war in a foreign country that’s long since ended.

Yet the appeal of reading Macdonald today isn’t strictly archival, to see just how pissy a man with Standards could get when forced to experience an act of new journalism. Macdonald’s rhetoric and style still endures—Heidi Julavits doesn’t mention Macdonald once in her 2003 essay against snark in book reviews, but snark is part of Macdonald’s legacy. For Julavits, snark was “a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole” in the publishing industry, and few critics in his time or since have been so insistent as Macdonald on letting you know when he’s been insulted.

He was artful about it, though, and that’s a key distinction between the criticism Macdonald dealt in and the kind Julavits worried about. Your heart sinks for Ernest Hemingway as Macdonald’s imitation of his writing style just keeps on going, annihilating every bit of received wisdom about how great he was. Zingers abound: “If there’s an inexpressive word, Cozzens will find it”; discussing our Fact-obsessed culture, he writes, “we just like to have the little things around, like pets”; “I’ve written for Time and the only respect the editors showed for my prose was to leave my name off the final product that emerged from the assembly line.”

Unlike the modern-day snark-dispensers, though, Macdonald earned his zingers, and he generally deployed them when he was discussing literary issues that struck him as genuinely important; his essay on the Revised Standard Version is a kind of eulogy for the English language, so convinced was he that a shift away from the King James Version would do real harm to the culture. With that discussion now utterly meaningless, what endures from Macdonald’s writing is its husk of withering prose, the kind of gotcha criticism that Julavits described as a “scornful, knowing tone frequently employed to mask an actual lack of information about books.”

It’s not Macdonald’s fault if he has a lot of inheritors who are more zingy than thoughtful. But he could succumb to that problem himself. The closing essay in Masscult and Midcult is a dispiriting 1972 rant about the Saturday Review and World, a pair of populist current-affairs magazines that exemplified Macdonald’s conception of middlebrow aspirational guff. Here, though, the jokes have a bitter edge, the targets are too small to seem worth bothering with, and the only energy in the piece comes from Macdonald glorying in his earlier takedowns of middlebrow titans. “[C]riticizing [World] by the usual standards is both easy and beside the point, like shooting fish in a barrel. Since that’s the only kind of criticism I know, however, I must continue that way, with a feeling which must often afflict anthropologists: that making judgments on tribal mores is useless to the tribe.” It’s sad to see a writer acknowledge that he’s become a cliche; the critic who so ably parodied Hemingway wound up a parody of himself.


For a long time I’ve tried to avoid reading anything by or about Dwight Macdonald. The reason is simple: He’s associated with the word middlebrow, and I get impatient and annoyed whenever I see the word. I recognize that this means I feel implicated by the message baked into the word itself. To be middlebrow is to suffer from status anxiety. To be middlebrow is to read/watch/listen to things that you think qualify as high art but really aren’t, because you don’t have the intellectual chops for high art. To be middlebrow is to fail—and worse, fail for trying too hard.

Which is to say that hearing the word called up all sorts of things I didn’t (OK, don’t) like to think about as a cultural consumer. Status anxiety is part of being the child of immigrants, I think—at least it was for me—and it’s deflating to be told that you’re stuck halfway up the ladder no matter what you do. I picked up this lesson as a teenager, when I discovered a used copy of Paul Fussell‘s 1983 book, Class, which laid out the distinctions in upbringing, vocabulary, coffee tables, and overall behavior among American classes, from the top-out-of-sights to the bottom-out-of-sights. Fussell’s book not only literally put me in my place in the class matrix (high prole or firmly middle, depending on how you looked at it), it let me know that class mobility was largely a lie—you may go this far, but no farther, Fussell informed me*. I intuited that Fussell was a being satirical to some degree, but to what degree, exactly? Knowing for certain would require an education that was out of my reach.**

So even as I became a more dedicated reader and more interested in criticism, I figured that Macdonald’s on-high talk about Midcult was the last thing I needed to be lectured about. But with the imminent release of a Macdonald essay collection, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by New York Review Books, I might as well confront the matter head-on.

Reading “Masscult and Midcult” for the first time, I’m struck (and a little reassured) by the sense that Macdonald was writing from a position of anxiety himself. The essay was published in 1960, when World War II was not long over and the Cold War was being fought in earnest, and it didn’t seem a stretch to conflate bad, crowd-pleasing art with totalitarianism. He wasn’t predicting an Orwellian state, exactly, but was ready to point out that “Nazism and Soviet Communism…show us how far things can go in politics, as Masscult does in art. And let us not be too smug in this American temperate zone, unravaged by war and ideology.”

That’s pretty much the only time Macdonald cautions the reader not to be smug—throughout, he eagerly erects walls between High Culture and Masscult, and encourages his readers to do the same. Anxiety about the perils of Masscult drives his contempt for Midcult—bad art that makes High Culture gestures. That’s not just Our Town you’re watching, Macdonald argues—the play’s just-plain-folks sentimentality is a trojan horse for Masscult dehumanization, and dehumanization is the first step to oppression. That’s not exactly how Macdonald spells it out—the essay wouldn’t be as funny as it is if the stakes were that high—but the attributes of Midcult that he lays out are roughly equivalent to the attributes of mass manipulation. Which attributes are those? Macdonald makes them clear by naming them in Condescending Capital Letters—Midcult art makes pleas for Universal Significance, it has a Message, it Profound and Soul-Searching. To admire Midcult is to be a tool.

But what I wonder about is whether arguing over “Masscult and Midcult” (there’s a panel discussion at Politics & Prose on October 22) is strictly an academic exercise now. Macdonald’s sneering at rock music is blinkered and comic; his suggestion that pay TV could be a window into high art is downright hilarious. And totalitarianism doesn’t appear to rank high among the political fates that a red-state-blue-state America is susceptible to; high-schoolers have been mounting productions of Our Town for five decades since Macdonald’s essay appeared, and yet somehow we’re still living in a democracy. Still, much of what Macdonald discusses remains relevant. His concern that reviewers lubricate the engine of consumption more than they trade in ideas is still with us; so is his worry that publishers serve the lowest common denominator.*** And in some ways he predicted the way the audience for culture has atomized. “The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered—and the more it is divided, the better,” he writes.

Would Macdonald take much pleasure in the current divisions, though? At the time, he was expressing optimism about arthouse cinema, off-Broadway theater, and pockets of avant-garde art. Were he to look at America today and see some people nerding out on Criterion Collection DVDs, others reading Twilight, everybody watching American Idol, and the “little magazines” as little as ever, it’s unlikely he’d see the High Culture niches he dreamed of. But would he feel as threatened now by their lack? What would Macdonald think the stakes are in 2011? Does art still have the capacity to be an “instrument of domination”?

I’m sketching all this out as a way to get some general thoughts down as I make my way through the book; I hope to add more as I go along.

* I am certain that I have read Class more than any other book, most recently over the Labor Day holiday. For a long time I paid special attention to the closing chapter on Fussell’s suggested escape hatches, among them journalism.

** For instance, do the childhood bedrooms of upper-middle-class children really have that much nautical crap in them? Please email me privately if you can answer.

*** So are crappy pay rates. In a footnote he mentions that he was offered 50 cents a word to write a version of the essay for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1958.