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A Moral Temper

ISSUE:  Summer 2002

The Letters of Dwight Macdonald. Edited with an introduction by Michael Wreszin. Ivan R. Dee. $35.00.

Do read it. It’s fun, oftentimes enlightening, once in a while quite irritating, highly readable. After all, Dwight, in single combat, grappled with most issues of the last century, from the Depression to the nuclear arms race, socialism to kitsch. He was the quirky observer, the cranky polemicist, endlessly, shamelessly inquisitive. He was ever the knightly freelance. It was important, too, that he had the capacity to create friendships and feel love, as well as be a witty, brisk, verbal foe.

He often prevailed in argument, but not always. A sharper intellect could best him, a Harold Rosenberg, for example, as I occasionally noticed.(But Dwight once pinpointed Harold’s weak link, too: “his epigrammatic and gnomic style—if he could just once develop a point he’d become a serious writer.”) This was Dwight’s rejoinder to a Rosenberg Dissent piece that criticized him.

Among his most developed pieces of sustained analysis was his long, celebrated, and influential essay-review in The New Yorker in 1963, of Michael Harrington’s landmark book The Other America, the longest review in the history of the magazine, and widely deemed to be the catalyst for LBJ’s subsequent war on poverty. The unusually wide public response to the review, “Our Invisible Poor,” “amazed” Dwight. This time he had tackled a momentous social problem—the new economics of capitalism reflecting technological advances that had begun to make the unskilled superfluous, unemployable, and underemployed. He wrote me a generous letter of praise for a piece I’d also just written on poverty at the same time, in Commonweal (also one in Harper’s), advocating pertinent vo-ed training, not the senseless U.S. Employment Service nostrum of teaching urban underclass youth how to farm.

A bit too often, though, as voluminously evidenced, Dwight was content to engage in lengthy arguments—some profound, some nitpicking—with his intellectual peers. He indulged what he himself deemed his expertise as “a specialist in abuse,” “a technician of vilification,” “an expert mudslinger.” This was a rather childish, vulnerable side of Dwight. A shocking instance of this was his letter to dearest friend Dinsmore Wheeler about a young actress whose attractions obsessed him, Edith Atwater. “You want MORE (sic) about my latest if not greatest feminine (sic) delusion. Well, she is tall and wonderfully filled out . . .a small rather hard mouth—shaped and insolent, and a pair of large pupilled eyes . . . Any mother would throw a fit if she found her boy within 100 feet of her . . . Her face is unlined—never looks tired, always smooth and fresh. At the most, a faint shadow appears under her eyes, making them even lovelier . . . I am sure that the reason her face is unlined is that she has never experienced a real emotion or fairly met a human situation . . . She is an actress . . .plays the part of “a girl about town” . . .indescribably callous to the feelings of others . . .with the advantages of great beauty and heartlessness she still cannot cope with life—that is with a man. Even a simple fellow like me can see through her artifices. The funny thing is that I can hardly find a good word to say for her except physically. I am as fascinated now as when I first saw her . . . Any deep emotion is practically impossible—thank God! Were I to love her seriously! . . . Last night she remarked out of a fairly clear sky, “I’ m tired of you,” a remark all the more uncalled for since she’s so far allowed me only a few kisses.”

Dwight was then 24. He makes note later, when he was 45, “That is ALL I ever got.”

In fact Edith Atwater was a legendary beauty of Woodstock, the art colony (painters, three summer theaters, concerts, intellectuals, Bohemians), then at its peak, and its mythical icons were idealized snobs looking down at more conventional mortals like Dwight. An idolator of an icon, he was then still, at 24, developing out of his conventional upper-middle-class New York City background, educated at Barnard School for Boys, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Yale. When he was already a deeply read young man at 19 at Yale University, yet still parochial, he wrote Marian Isaacs, a Jewish girlfriend, a critical letter: “And then too there was the fact that you are a Jewess, and rather obviously one, to make me react unfavorably. For I dislike rather violently the Jews as a race, and although you are in my opinion superior to your race, there are certain Jewish characteristics that are present in your makeup . . .1 am afraid this all sounds cocky, patronizing and most offensive and I apologize beforehand for it all.”

These concluding lines were common in Dwight’s letters. As our mutual friend Norman Mailer notes, this style of Dwight “allows one to follow his thought as it emerges from the point of his pen, which so often will pursue a more interesting conclusion with which he began.”

I hasten to observe here that the more mature Dwight expresses no further anti-Semitic sentiments, indeed is profoundly horrified by the Nazis’ eliminational anti-Semitism. But he is at one point in 1949 savagely criticized by the art critic Clement Greenberg as a “faker” and a “horse’s ass” for “needlessly” using the adjective “Jewish” in describing the delegates at the Waldorf Conference. Dwight responded simply that it was a “sociological fact” since they had “Jewish names” and “looked Jewish.”

Perhaps the most significant, or at least impressive, fact about Dwight’s collected letters is the range and cultural importance of the vast number of his correspondents. As editor Michael Wreszin notes, they include Daniel Aaron, James Agee, Hannah Arendt, W.H. Auden, Daniel Bell, Isaiah Berlin, John Berryman, William Buckley, Nicola Chiarmonte, John Dos Passes, T.S. Eliot, Abbie Hoffman, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, John Lukacs, C. Wright Mills, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, Ezra Pound, David Reisman, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Stephen Spender, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson.

The case can be made, too, as Wreszin does, that it was Dwight who in his writings introduced such “youthful unknowns” to American readers as Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Bruno Bettelheim, Nicola Chiarmonte, Lewis Coser, Victor Serge; and the young American social scientists, historians, and essayists Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, Irving Howe, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Stampp, Richard Hofstadter, Frank Freidel, Mary McCarthy, and so many more who later became leaders of the postwar literary and intellectual scene. Yes, the case might be made, but only speculatively, that Mary McCarthy didn’t need Dwight’s “introduction.”

Besides his celebrated New Yorker essay-review on poverty, vast media attention and praise were given for his putdown, in Commentary, of James Gould Couzzens “By Couzzens Possessed.” He branded Couzzens as a philistine mediocrity, though Norman Mailer was exempt from the praisers, accusing Dwight of using a sledgehammer to kill a flea.

That Dwight made contributions to our literature is indisputable, not only his pioneering theoretical analysis of mass culture— “masscult” and “midcult.” He was in time appropriately made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His “The Root Is Man: A Radical Critique of Marxism” in his Politics journal and his “The Bible in Modern Undress,” his denunciation of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, exemplified his mettle and originality. Similarly, he attacked as “midcult” the Encyclopaedia Brittanica’s edition of the Great Books and the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, in The New Yorker. Louis Menand in The New Yorker (Oct.15, 2001) even drops the word “greatness” on Dwight—essentially for his cocky self-assurance. See the number of top leaders he wrote to, national eminences like university presidents, cultural giants, statesmen. There is naughty fun in these letters, too. Hear Dwight take on William F. Buckley, Jr. as a “pompous prig” for Dwight’s criticizing National Review. For this slight, Buckley asked Dwight for an apology.


“Why you damned whippersnapper, you impertinent pipsqueak, what the hell should I apologize for I gave your magazine hell, and it deserved it. You then wrote a silly, top lofty, would-be venomous attack on me (which I did read at the time—you sent it to me, don’t you remember), which I felt I didn’t deserve, but for which I bore you no grudge. I certainly haven’t been waiting for an “apology.” You apparently have. Sorry to disappoint you. . . . Apologize indeed! Who do you think you are, you wretched solemn little sectarian, a sovereign state? And you used to be fun to argue with.”

Dwight as prophet was downright and amusing to read, but also capable of being shallow and quick-tempered and very mistaken. He wrote in a long letter (one of many) to confidante Nicola Chiarmonte in 1950: “One point I made was (quoting a German friend) that if the US doesn’t or cannot change its mass culture (movies, radio, sports cult, comics, television, slick magazines) it will lose the war against the USSR. Americans have been made into permanent adolescents by advertising, mass culture—uncritical, herdminded, pleasure-loving, concerned about trivia of materialistic living, scared of death, sex, old age—friendship is sending Xmas cards, sex is the wet dream of those chromium-plated Hollywood glamour girls, death—is not . . . made one neat point: the happy ending is de rigueur in Hollywood, but there is no such thing in real life—everybody’s life has an unhappy ending, namely death. . . .”

And he is dumbfounded by President Truman’s temper tantrum (“punch in the nose”) response to the harsh critic of his daughter’s musicianship. He writes: “What kind of human being does it show him to be, and how lovely to have such a person as President!!!!!! Truman’s real lumpen proletarian character like Hitler—no sense of fair play (justice), unable to be objective when his own personal interests are involved (justice also)—and then the gutter language (kind of thing for police courts or the flophouse, but in USA, in our warm bath of mass culture, all these distinctions have been melted away and a President talks like a Bowery bum—and the nastiness, the brutality (you’ll need a new nose)! Really, I think this is one of the big political revelations of the year . . .” This is Dwight in an embarrassing overkill mode.

Dwight was also capable of kindness and of always endowing his letters with telling anecdotes and examples. Take for instance his letter of condolence to Mrs. T.S. Eliot after Eliot’s death. He rejoiced in Eliot’s combination of qualities (overlooking his being a deep reactionary), “intelligence, humor, and of what I can only call a land of reckless, generous nobility.”

He writes, “From the few times I met him, three stick in my mind: his climbing three steep flights of stairs to visit me in my New York flat around 1948 or 1949, appearing in the doorway looking very smart, even raffish, something of the racetrack about him (Joyce made same visual impression on me the only time I met him), in a tight-collared, narrow-striped shirt and black homberg, because he was curious to meet me because he liked my then magazine Politics.” Dwight goes on, “his reply, at a publisher’s party [identified in margin as Roger Straus] here, later, to rather bumptious critic-editor 91 [identified in margin as Norman Podhoretz] who, cigar and glass in hand again, “Well, Mr. Eliot, my name is XYZ and I only dare to introduce myself because I’ve already had three martinis!” To which Mr. E. with that sad, gay smile of his, “Well Mr. XYZ, all I can say is you are more courageous than I am, I should never have dared such a large cigar,” And last, that lunch at the Atheneum (sic) Club (ladies annex) which you may remember, when Gloria and I through traffic miscalculation, kept you waiting, and you were both so nice about it, and the lunch was so lively and pleasant, for us at least. There was some business about Tom’s instructing Gloria in how to peel a plover’s egg (or was it a gull’s egg—no, plover’s) for the first time in her life. She still has the shell. And did you once see Eliot plain? Yes, and here’s the eggshell to prove it!”

We see Dwight “plain” in his letters. His flirtation with Marxism and his distaste for capitalism were probably somewhat responses to the fact he, like most serious writers, staff and freelance, had to hustle to earn a tolerably comfortable income. In her gossipy book on The New Yorker, Gone, Renata Adler recounts an episode when Dwight dropped by her office and she remarked that she’d “just written a long piece about the New York Times Book Review which had been rejected. “Show it to me,” he said, “I’ll steal it.” I did show it to him and he did steal it—all the quotations, for example, from the Book Review. He also used, without attribution, the section on the best-seller lists, which had run, unsigned, as a Notes & Comment. Mr. Macdonald was very jovial and good natured. When his piece came out in Esquire, he came by my office to ask me how I liked it. I said I liked it very much, and I noticed he had even used my piece about the best-seller lists. “Oh, did you write that?” he said. “I had no idea. I thought those Talk pieces were written by editors.” That week, I had lunch with a young writer called Peter Mayer—who, years later, became editor-in-chief of Penguin, and now has his own small publishing house, Overlook. I told him my Dwight Macdonald story. He told me he had been asked, by an editor at Esquire, to write a piece. He had written it and been paid, he felt, very well. When the piece ran, however, it carried not Peter Mayer’s byline, but the editor’s. “Well, Dwight did say he would steal it,” I said. “Well, I did get paid a lot for my piece,” Peter said. It almost seemed fair to us at the time.”

Given the fastidious, witty moralizer that Dwight was, one wonders just how he rationalized this behavior. There is no enlightening correspondence with Renata Adler in this collection. Perhaps there’s a clue in the 73 linear feet of his immense correspondence housed in the Sterling Library at Yale University. Or maybe in his Politics issues (1944—1949) there’s a clue, as Daniel Bell observed, since it was the only magazine of the time “that was aware of and kept calling attention to changes that were taking place in moral temper” (my italics).

Dwight was an iconoclast, to be sure, once narrowly avoiding dismissal from Yale for an intemperate critique (forbidden to be published) of the revered professor of English, William Lyons Phelps. He did serve as a Fortune and New Yorker staff writer, however, and for some time rather liked Fortune and despite his “isms” (anarchism and pacifism) he “found himself generally supporting the main features of Truman’s cold war policies,” editor Wreszin points out. His book Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1956; reissue, 1970) makes some memorable reading. No doubt about it, he overwhelmingly deserved membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. There was nobody quite like him in his time and none since.


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