Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by Dwight Macdonald (NYRB Classics, 272 pp., $16.95)
Dwight Macdonald (1906–82) was a clamorous figure in 20th-century New York intellectual circles. Simply living here, one absorbed anecdotes about him, by osmosis: that an annoyed Trotsky said he favored revolution in one consciousness; that he gave nude cocktail parties on Cape Cod. He was a journalist who, over a long career, wrote pretty much everywhere: Fortune, Esquire, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, a flock of little magazines. Is he worth reading now? Almost. This collection of essays makes the best case for him.
Macdonald was a wayward leftist with a Tory sensibility: In an attack on the young National Review, he said the only feature he liked was Russell Kirk’s column. These essays highlight his Toryish side, as he takes on writers, books, and cultural trends.
Like many good journalists, Macdonald had a savage sense of humor. One of his books was an anthology of parodies, and he begins an essay on Ernest Hemingway by channeling Hemingway’s late manner:
He was a big man with a bushy beard and everybody knew him. The tourists knew him and the bartenders knew him and the critics knew him too. He enjoyed being recognized by the tourists and he liked the bartenders but he never liked the critics very much. He thought they had his number. Some of them did. The hell with them.
This stunt edges from damning to damnable when it ends with Hemingway shooting himself. Macdonald goes on in his own voice to say interesting things about Hemingway’s achievement and its limitations, but the good sense, like the good fun, is marred by killing a man who has already done it.
Macdonald’s other journalistic quality, rarer than humor, was patience. The best pieces here examine cultural artifacts with the care of a TSA patdown. In “The String Untuned,” he compares the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (1961) with the Second (1934), siding consistently with the older. Webster’s Second issued judgments and gave guidance, while Webster’s Third found it “snobbish to insist on making discriminations — the very word has acquired a Jim Crow flavor — about usage.” Macdonald gives examples of the Third’s slackness — bimonthly defined as both “once in two months” and “twice a month”; deprecate/depreciate, disinterested/uninterested, and infer/imply treated as synonyms — and concludes that it “claims no authority and merely records, mostly deadpan, what in fact every Tom, Dick, and Harry is now doing.”
“Updating the Bible,” Macdonald’s analysis of the Revised Standard Version (1952) and the King James Version (1611), rises to the level of artful criticism. He admits the need for repairing the King James Version, either because Jacobean words have disappeared or changed their meaning, or because new textual sources have been discovered. But he shows that the Revised Standard Version went far beyond clarification. Thousands of little tweaks and shuffles combined to level the whole text. Sometimes the modern translators level down, “convert[ing] into tepid expository prose what in [King James] is wild, full of awe, poetic and passionate.” But at other times, they insert a bogus elevation. “The lovely phrase in Ecclesiastes 12:5, ‘Man goeth to his long home,’ with its somber, long-drawn-out ‘o’s, is Spelled Out into ‘Man goes to his eternal home,’ which sounds like a mortician’s ad.” Macdonald angrily compares the Revised Standard Version to an act of war: Reading it “is like walking through an old city that has just been given, if not a saturation bombing, a thorough going-over. . . . Is this gone? Does that still survive? Surely they might have spared that!”
There is a family resemblance between Macdonald’s targets. Hemingway by the time he won the Nobel Prize, the new Webster’s, and the new Bible were all midcentury totems: big-deal, big-ticket items. Macdonald tried to define their common essence in the lead essay of this volume, “Masscult and Midcult,” an exercise in history and sociology. Once upon a time there was culture, and folk art. Then, early in the 18th century, new means of production brought literature — Macdonald wants to survey all the arts, but his interests are mostly literary — to larger and larger audiences. Masscult — junk in bulk — was the result. Avant-garde modernism, a few decades either side of 1900, was a reaction to the result. But by the mid-20th century, enough people had become sufficiently educated to be embarrassed by Masscult pure and simple. So a third thing appeared: Midcult, junk with pretensions. Midcult “has the essential qualities of Masscult — the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity — but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf.” Macdonald’s main modern targets were Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea), Thornton Wilder (Our Town, still ubiquitous), Archibald MacLeish (a forgotten play, J.B.), and Stephen Vincent Benét (John Brown’s Body, once assigned to high-school students), but he ranged far and wide, sorting everyone from Lord Byron to Zane Grey into one or another of his categories.
This has the qualities — bright, sweeping, full of holes — of all historical just-so stories, from Condorcet to Fukuyama. As a guide to art it is disastrous because it substitutes, for judgment, a shortcut to judgment whereby whole classes of things and deeds may be ruled out ahead of time, sight unseen. The most obvious misjudgments in Macdonald’s own essay come when he ventures beyond words. He dismisses rock ’n’ roll as Masscult. Most of it is garbage. But all of it? Every last 45? He consigns most of Hollywood to the same dungheap, with five exceptions: D. W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Chaplin, Keaton, and Orson Welles. What a meager list that is. The Film Forum, one of the temples of haut fandom in New York, recently did a retrospective of Victor Fleming. His achievement was directing Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same year (1939). Macdonald didn’t notice. He liked jazz, which, at the time he wrote, had been commercial popular music for almost half a century. That would make it Masscult, so he tried to save it, absurdly, by calling it folk art.
Macdonald wanted a shortcut because of his need for authority. As a Tory he craved it and as a sensible man he knew it could not come from counting heads. Where then could he seek it? Not in religion. His discussion of Bibles is notably free from any notion that they might impart truths, apart from proverbial or psychological ones, incidentally. His mind was not philosophical and his temperament was anarchic. That meant the only authority could be the critic himself — Macdonald, with perhaps the help of a few friends. But no critic can possibly be authoritative about everything, even everything artistic. Masscult and Midcult offered to lighten his task by clearing the field. But the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we should be willing to notice it wherever it stirs. A host of critics, from George Orwell to Manny Farber to Camille Paglia to Terry Teachout, have suggested as much, but Macdonald could not hear them 50 years ago and would not now.
Sometimes a critic looks straight at something and gets it wrong. That is no crime — once we know we can’t know everything, we also know we make mistakes — but the editors of this book should not have ended with an instance. “Parajournalism” is Macdonald’s takedown of Tom Wolfe, written in revenge for a hit Wolfe did on The New Yorker when it was edited by William Shawn. Macdonald’s rebuttal is a curious case of winning all the battles but losing the war — or wars, for he misjudged both The New Yorker and Wolfe. He shows that Wolfe carelessly got many things wrong about the magazine. Yet the world — or at least the world that cares about The New Yorker – would learn that it was far more cult-like and dysfunctional under William Shawn than even Wolfe depicted it. Macdonald was equally wrongheaded about Wolfe. I am no Wolfe groupie — his art books are gap-toothed, and the “new journalism,” of which he was supposed to be the avatar, was nothing more than a promotional bumper sticker. Yet Wolfe had an eye and a voice — courtly Richmond, strolling amusedly among the glory and detritus of mad America. “I don’t think Wolfe will be read with pleasure, or at all, years from now, and perhaps not even next year,” wrote Macdonald. Oops.
It is a sad thing when a distillate, a best of the best, is longer than it should be. Read “Updating the Bible,” then give this book to the thrift shop.