Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Liter’y Life: Yet Another Macdonald

In the September 5 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote eloquently about Dwight Macdonald, the critic and essayist whose career spanned the 1930s to the 1970s—an era when public intellectuals were respected and cultivated within a broader circle than today, and elitism* and liberal had not been transformed by the Tea Party and Fox News into words connoting treachery. Consider that Gore Vidal appeared numerous times on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and Carson gleefully encouraged Vidal to loose his wit at the expense of the American Empire. Can you imagine Jay Leno doing that?
Macdonald (1906—1982) came of age in the glorious days of the Partisan Review and the battles raging through intellectual circles (including the famous CCNY cafeteria) between Trotskyists and Stanlinists. Educated at Yale, Macdonald worked for numerous publications, small and large, including Time, Fortune, Esquire (where he wrote about movies, a favorite topic), and The New Yorker. Menand (whose New Yorker piece is the introduction to a forthcoming collection of Macdonald’s work titled “Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain”) writes that Macdonald “claimed that he was radicalized at Fortune, where his reporting brought him face to face with the captains of industry, whom he found boorish and contemptible” (what would Macdonald make of the current crop of Wall Street and corporate leaders? Imagine Macdonald writing about Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide—and asking why that crook has never served a day in prison).
As the title of the new collection implies, the writer’s lingering (albeit vaporizing) fame rests on his essays defining what he labeled Masscult and Midcult. But as James Wolcott wrote in an admiring essay on Macdonald in The New York Times in 2006: “Masscult, midcult—who cares anymore? It’s all one big postmodern mishmash.” Ain’t that the truth?
As I read Menand’s essay and a more critical review of Macdonald’s work by Kerry Howley in the current Bookforum, I realized that somewhere in the Berkeley house or the book-packed office in the backyard resided a Macdonald paperback I’d read many years ago (1971) in a galaxy far, far away (Queens). It took less than five minutes to find “On Movies,” a collection spanning some 40 years. Although I was saddened that Macdonald and I did not share the same enthusiasm for Doris Day (“Miss Day has only one expression beside her usual bovine one: she opens her eyes wide”), he at least appreciated Day's “Lover, Come Back,” particularly Tony Randall and even Rock Hudson’s performances. As I skimmed “On Movies,” what struck me most was Macdonald’s singular voice: intelligent, of course, but also witty and stylish. In fact, he reminded me somewhat of Pauline Kael (or, to be fair, she of him since he had been at the game longer). I’m talking style here—not critical consensus. A quick glance at the index revealed that Macdonald had favorably reviewed Kael’s first book, 1965’s “I Lost It At The Movies,” admitting how it was “exhilarating to come across film criticism that is both sophisticated and readable, lively without being nutty . . . Miss Kael writes with wit, clarity and precision . . . she is sensible and knows her subject thoroughly.”
Take that, Renata Adler.
Most remarkable is that Macdonald later observed that Kael referred to him 13 times: “five are neutral while eight are hostile, and in most cases, unfair.” Despite Kael’s jibes, Macdonald earlier in the review noted that Kael expressed her “admiration and respect for Dwight Macdonald” in her Acknowledgments.
Macdonald ends the review slightly wounded but with tongue in cheek: “Maybe ‘I lost It At the Movies’ isn’t as a good a book as I thought it was when I began this review. And the hell with that ‘respect and admiration.’”
“Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain” appears next month. It's about time Dwight Macdonald was back in print.
*A bit of explaining. Elitism in my opinion has nothing to do with where you went to college, how big your Wall Street bonus is or how many stock options you lucked into at the job. Degrees and money may confer on the bearer a certain sense of delusional superiority, but what I'm talking about is an elitism of thought, and a college degree or bulging portfolio are no guarantees of intellect. Nor are "achievements" like that exclusionary--it all depends on the person's ability to think critically for himself, to widen their vision through reading and analysis, to parse what "experts" say on radio and television, and to never take anything at face value. As any decent newspaper editor will advise a rookie reporter: "Assume nothing, question everything." That's that kind of thinking that defines elitism for me, and more Americans need to start using their intelligence (those who are intelligent) and stop listening to meaningless rhetoric that turns them into raging idiots embracing corrupt ideologies.
End of sermon, shipmates--go in peace.


Post a Comment

<< Home