book cover imageDwight Macdonald on Culture: The Happy Warrior of the Mind, Reconsidered
by Tadeusz Lewandowski.
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 2013.
Hardcover, 149 pages, $41.

So intensely European was the critic Dwight Macdonald’s spirit, so routinely did he use European high culture to weigh American civilization in the balance (and usually to find it wanting), that it comes as an unpleasant surprise to appreciate how few Europeans know Macdonald even by name. One wonders why. Surely language questions are not an issue, since Macdonald’s prose, muscular and often enough backslapping, would lose little if any of its impact amid even the worst of translation’s notorious perils. Besides, whatever might be of lasting intellectual merit in the anti-populist jeremiads of various figures all too familiar to Europeans—T. W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas above all—was anticipated in much sprightlier terms by Macdonald’s onslaughts upon what he called Midcult as well as Masscult. These onslaughts had over Adorno’s the extra advantage that by the time Macdonald came to unleash them, he had long since abandoned the Marxist loyalties that Adorno (whatever might be the case with Habermas) never forsook.

Perhaps that is the entire problem as far as a potential European market for Macdonald is concerned, because well before his fortieth year, Macdonald (born 1906) had abjured not merely Stalinism but Trotskyism. The more prominent a role totalitarianism-nostalgia plays in various twenty-first-century European bien-pensant circles, the less hospitable such circles will be to anyone with Macdonald’s record of prescience. Even at the height of whatever sympathy for the Soviet régime Macdonald had, he recoiled from joining the Communist Party, let alone committing himself to the administration of same. The first Party meeting he attended was also his last; and characteristically, his loathing of it (which he never lost) was deep down emotional rather than logical. In 1979, three years before his death, he told Diana Trilling: “I said to myself, my God, these people, they’re just simply wobbits, they don’t have any brains and they’re scared to death of each other and they have no sense of humor, no life! How could anyone live in this airless atmosphere?” We are here very far from the mindset which (to quote one instance among hundreds) caused an aristocratic ultra-aesthete like Luchino Visconti to agitate on behalf of Italian communism because only communism could ensure his own ability to hobnob with A Better Class of Person.

Nonetheless there remains at least one European nation within which totalitarian-nostalgia is unlikely to operate, and that is Poland. Appropriately enough, then, this short but persuasive and excellently researched new study of Macdonald’s outlook comes from a New York-educated academic of Polish origin, Tadeusz Lewandowski, who now works in the Department of Anglophone Cultures at Opole University in Poland’s southwest. He has furnished a volume that calls to mind Pascal’s celebrated apology for writing his correspondent such a long letter, on the grounds that “I had not the time to write you a short one.” Within 142 pages of abundantly footnoted text (not counting the bibliography and endpapers), Professor Lewandowski has shown an extraordinary gift for close reading of Macdonald’s oeuvre, including the fugitive essays as well as the books that made Macdonald’s wider name.

Even those of us—especially those of us—who have been studying Macdonald ever since our twenties will find that Professor Lewandowski has points to make which we had not considered before, and that he has plentiful primary-source (in addition to secondary-source) justifications for them. As a Yorkshire journalist in 1970 good-naturedly grumbled about A. J. P. Taylor, so it can be said of the much less flamboyant Professor Lewandowski: “Just when he has made some apparently outrageous remark he provides an authoritative footnote in support of his contention.… He must be resolutely resisted. I will not read him again for at least a week.” Overall typographic standards in Professor Lawandowski’s monograph are well above average, though on one occasion Philip Rahv’s surname, regrettably, has been given as “Rhav” (elsewhere its spelling is always correct).

Macdonald led so uneventful a life outside his writing and editing—he was never put into uniform (fortunately for the armed forces), never achieved political office, and did not even travel overmuch—that Professor Lawandowski’s reluctance to devote space to Macdonald’soutward career is understandable. Besides, Michael Wrezsin’s A Rebel in Defense of Tradition (1994) constitutes so stunningly detailed an account of Macdonald’s daily doings that it makes future efforts of the sort redundant. It is the desk-bound Macdonald who most interests Professor Lawandowski; and if Dwight Macdonald on Culture can be said to have an overriding theme, it is its author’s legitimate desire to rescue Macdonald’s latter-day repute from the guilt-by-association potential implicit in the Adorno brigade’s persisting chic.

To quote Professor Lawandowski himself, “Macdonald has, unfairly, borne the brunt of criticism from historians for the haughtiness and theoretical untenability of the collective left-wing, twentieth-century mass culture critique forged by the neo-Marxist critics of Partisan Review and the Frankfurt School, mainly due to his status as the most famous excoriator of mass culture during the period. Disregarding for the moment that he was an animal of another tradition of cultural discourse, Macdonald has been made a whipping boy of sorts by thoseeager to establish their democratic credentials.” Some of this whipping has been administered by beadles of broadly conservative persuasion (Joseph Epstein, England’s Geoffrey Wheatcroft), but the two culprits whose attacks on Macdonald Professor Lawandowski most deplores would both regard themselves as men of the left: Lawrence Levine (Highbrow/Lowbrow, 1988) and Paul R. Gorman (Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America, 1996). “Gorman and Levine,” Professor Lawandowski laments, “hardly address the entirety of Macdonald’s critique and unjustly peg him a mere culture snob, as opposed to a deeply concerned commentator … Finally, both scholars wrongly disregard any possibility that elements of his critique remain forceful.”

While—as even Wheatcroft concedes—“Macdonald wasn’t really cut out for far-left sectarian politics, partly because he had too much sense of the ridiculous,” there is no denying that Macdonald abandoned such sectarianism only after spending rather too much time within it. Professor Lawandowski correctly notes that Macdonald, at his youthful Russophile worst, devoted an entire Partisan Review essay (“Laugh and Lie Down,” 1937) to upbraiding The New Yorker. Yes, the very magazine which during the 1950s would do more than any other (including his own short-lived Politics, which never had a circulation above 5,000) to make Macdonald a nationally celebrated name. It is also strange to see the young Macdonald denouncing Ortega y Gasset for having offered, in The Revolt of the Masses, a cultural manifesto which anticipated in every detail what Macdonald himself would later supply. As Professor Lawandowski observes, “despite Macdonald’s dismissal of Gasset’s arguments, aspects of them—in particular the concept of the mass man and the walling off of aristocratic or high culture from those below—would appear in his later writings, saturated with far less rancor.” And in Macdonald’s earlier writings too: nothing could be more Ortega-like than Macdonald’s sarcastic 1931 reference to America’s “120,000,000 Lords and Masters.” That Macdonald should have worked this taunt into a discussion of Eisenstein and rival director Vsevolod Pudovkin (the latter most famous for his 1927 silent film The End of St. Petersburg) is typical, since the factor playing a greater part than any show-trial to sour Macdonald on Soviet gangsterism was the decline of Soviet movies from what Macdonald called “the [1925–1929] Golden Age of the Russian Cinema.”

Again and again with Macdonald, the aesthetic objection to mass murder preceded the moral one. He once complained that “On the evidence of Stalin’s barbarous oratorical style alone, one could deduce thebureaucratic inhumanity and the primitiveness of modern Soviet society.” An accurate enough quip in all conscience, but a moment’s reflection makes evident its weakness as a guide to geopolitics. Suppose that Stalin’s style had been not at all barbarous, but, instead, Ciceronian in its pulchritude? Would Katyn Forest and the Gulag Archipelago have been rendered one whit less monstrous thereby? Obviously Macdonald did not think for a moment that they would, but we have only to think of certain twentieth-century English writers’ success in glamorizing evil (cf. the Cambridge Spies’ intellectual debts to Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster) for the shortcomings of Macdonald’s instincts to emerge. And shortcomings there were automatically going to be, given that Macdonald’s worldview had no place for what Bernard Shaw—of all unlikely people—called “the iconography of a live religion.”

The drug-of-choice for intelligent and literate pagans is the Matthew Arnold doctrine, which can be cruelly epitomized as “Real religion is too much like hard work, so let’s have a religion of art.” ”Arnoldian discourse,” Professor Lewandowski is right to proclaim, “informs the work of Macdonald in many ways previously unrecognized.” Ultimately Macdonald went down to defeat, not so much because post-Macdonald Masscult surpasses in horror the worst depths it plumbed during Macdonald’s own lifetime—we can only be grateful that he was spared acquaintanceship with Kim Kardashian—but above all because Macdonald’s own philosophy owed so much to Arnold’s that it incurred devastating collateral damage when Arnold’s aestheticism became untenable. Once the archetype of the violin-playing, Schubert-loving S.S. guard entered the popular consciousness (helped in this entry, it must be said, by Adorno’s own insolent but half-plausible “No poetry after Auschwitz” outburst), even the least intelligent commentator could dimly realize that, pace Arnold, mere sheepish blather by the unchurched about “the best that has been thought and said” is simply not going to cut it as an antidote to state-subsidized terror of any ideological stripe. T. S. Eliot had already settled Arnold’s hash well before Auschwitz, amid a tribute (Essays Ancient and Modern, 1936) to his maître à penser, Francis Herbert Bradley; but Macdonald’s knowledgeable admiration of Eliot—as with The New Yorker, so with Eliot, Macdonald arrived at admiration only after initial aversion—seems never to have extended to this particular article, which certainly Professor Lewandowski does not cite. (In 1949, it will be recalled, Eliot devoted part of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture to a respectful discussion of Macdonald’s work. Either he never knew, or else he knew and did not care, that Macdonald had been an early detractor of For Lancelot Andrewes.)

Still, after every possible indictment of Macdonald’s faults is drawn up, Orwell’s summation of Gandhi—“compared with the other political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”—proves at least as fitting for Macdonald’s epitaph. Professor Lewandowski’s conclusion is accurate as well as scrupulous: “he [Macdonald] remained the ‘happy warrior of the mind,’ who fought the ‘errors of his time’ and ‘chaos of modern values.’ Though Macdonald lost his battle, one can appreciate his vigorous attempt to confront the problems of culture, politics, and life, as so few do.” Macdonald not only confronted them, he confronted them in a vivid and amusing idiom that none of his Partisan Review colleagues could come within miles of emulating. Clement Greenberg’s literary motivation, for example, sprang so obviously from obnoxiousness and personal grievance that even when he told the truth, he made it sound dirty. Clare Boothe Luce’s description of Harold Ickes applies to Greenberg’s invective as well: “the mind of a commissar and the soul of a meataxe.” By contrast, Macdonald—in addition to purging himself of all the power-mania which had Greenberg forever in its grip—retained to the end such verbal felicity that he could have written about Lower Slobbovia’s parking lots and still have left his readers begging for more. 

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).