Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
Dwight Macdonald
NYRB Classics, 294pp, £9.99

I first read the name Dwight Macdonald in the pages of Pauline Kael's review collections, where it was invoked frequently and always with deadly intent. In a review of Jules et Jim, Kael quotes Macdonald's relief that Stanley Kauffmann also disliked the film - "one doesn't like/want to be the only square" - adding: "If it gives him comfort to know there are two of them." In a piece on Akira Kurosawa, he comes in for a parenthetic bashing: "Movies are, happily, a popular medium (which makes it difficult to see why Dwight Macdonald with his dedication to high art sacrifices his time
to them)." A review of a film by Satyajit Ray makes reference to "Dwight Macdonald, who calls any place outside New York 'the provinces'" and who "condescends promiscuously". Kael doesn't defend Brando against Macdonald's charge that he "has always fancied himself as like an intellectual", but then turns the knife on the attacker - "surely a crime he shares with Mr Macdonald".

It came as a surprise to discover, some years later, that this parochial, promiscuously condescending, pseudo-intellectual square, besides being film critic of Esquire, was an essayist admired by T S Eliot and Isaiah Berlin and a hero to younger journalists, among them Clive James, who remembered being "bowled over" by his work; James Wolcott, whose New York Times piece "Dwight Macdonald at 100" celebrated a "generalist whose specialty was . . . exposing highfalutin fraudulence"; and Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who, also writing on the occasion of Macdonald's centenary, regretted that, for all his influence and significance, his work "cries out for proper reissue".

This anthology of Macdonald's essays probably isn't what Wheatcroft had in mind. Of the two American journalists whose work has been published in a new form and under new titles in the past few months, Kael has received the greater tribute. The Library of America edition of her "selected writings", The Age of Movies, is appropriately large (800-plus pages) and contains most of what it ought to - including a number of her reviews from the 1960s, when she was still writing for magazines and radio programmes in California and when Macdonald, born in New York, educated at Yale, looked like the enemy, a preppy comrade of Bosley Crowther, the genuinely stiff-necked film critic of the New York Times.

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain is a small-scale affair by comparison. It takes its title from a long essay written in 1960 which Louis Menand, in his cheerleading introduction, calls "not Macdonald at his most coherent or persuasive". The subtitle comes from the book that James remembered being "especially" bowled over by - Against the American Grain, a collection of 16 essays that this volume, by virtue of being in print, will no doubt supersede.

Such pieces from that book as "Howtoism", "James Joyce", "Mark Twain" and "The Decline and Fall of English" are not among the ten chosen for this one. And there is nothing here to indicate that before 1952, the date of the earliest item included, Macdonald had been a Trotskyist who helped revive and edited Partisan Review ("Our idea is to make it a Marxist journal of literary criticism and general cultural interest") and who later, when he felt it had become "rather academic" and too narrowly "literary", started his own journal Politics, which he intended to be "a forum and a rallying point for such intellectuals as are still concerned with social and political issues". Macdonald is being presented - to posterity, essentially - as the author of some lively, fist-swinging cultural essays over a 20-year period, rather than as a journalist adept in many forms: polemic, reporting, profile, short review.

But in an age of specialisation it is easy to defend versatility to the point of fetishism. A great deal of journalism is ill-served by being reprinted in anthologies neither portable nor navigable. And although we may wish to have four or five such books to represent not the range of Macdonald's strengths but the glory of his output, a cohesive collection is preferable to a comprehensive selection.

It was Macdonald's preference for "High Culture" over "Masscult", asserted in essays and embodied in film reviews, that prompted Kael to what he called, in a friendly letter, her "implacable harassment". But it was in fact "Midcult", or "petty-bourgeois" culture, that preoccupied Macdonald. To distinguish them, he writes that 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 fig leaf". Most of the essays take aim, in Macdonald's own implacably harassing manner, at projects that in some way reduce "serious art and thought" to a "democratic-philistine pabulum . . . manufactured for a hypothetical 'common man'".

If "Masscult and Midcult" establishes his allegiances by identifying his antipathies, then "The Triumph of the Fact", a dazzling piece of historical argument, outlines Macdonald's way of thinking by deprecating an opposite approach. Exploring "the American habit of reducing large issues to matters of Fact", he writes: "We want to know how, what, who, when, where, everything but why." Macdonald wrote that he "specialised in negative criticism", but his criticism is not just reviewing; it is an inquiry into cultural phenomena. His essays are whydunnits; he looks at the symptoms to identify the syndrome, and past the syndrome to explain its causes.

In "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club", his piece on Encyclopaedia Britannica's 54-volume Great Books of the Western World, he wants to know, after dealing with the project's particular problems: "Why a set at all?" The authors of the Revised Standard Version "mutilated" the King James Version because they aspired to make the Bible "readable" in "an age more used to skimming rapidly over a large quantity of journalistic prose than to dwelling intensively on a few poetic works". In his methodical yet expansive essay on the descriptive (rather than prescriptive) lexicography of Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged), he sets down "several reasons" why "it is important to maintain standards in the use of a language". In the essay on James Gould Cozzens's 1957 novel By Love Possessed, originally presented as "A Review of Reviews", Macdonald is concerned less with why the novel is bad than why the critics and the public thought it was good, ascribing the book's success to
“the American admiration of size and scope" and, more particularly, to "The Middlebrow Counter-Revolution". (A similar piece on Colin Wilson's The Outsider and its reception didn't make the cut.)

The danger with a negative bent is that success becomes nothing more than the avoidance of vice. But Macdonald's discriminations are so richly particular, however, that it does not matter. He sees James Agee's posthumously published autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which concerns "death (not violence) and love (not sex)", as distinct from recent works of realism in being unafraid of sentimentality. "The uneasiness the Victorians felt in the presence of the base we feel in the presence of the noble," Macdonald argued. "It is to Agee's credit that he didn't feel uneasy." Macdonald's passion may be encoded, but only thinly; that double negative is a gold star.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain