Sophisticated Kitsch and Mac Attacks

Dwight Macdonald (1906–82) represented the first best example of a critic who could do productive, even transformative, things going in one direction while everyone else went another. Skeptical spectators and aspiring smart alecks drew encouragement not only from Macdonald’s conscientious objections, but from their method.

He could twist the dial from “sarcastic” to “sardonic” with a compound of aggression and elegance potent enough to leave indelible scars. Some of his victims — notably James Gould Cozzens, author of the 1957 hit novel By Love Possessed — never recovered from what we now (though Macdonald never) would characterize as a “Mac attack.”

Indeed, editor John Summers thought enough of “By Cozzens Possessed” to include it in Masscult and Midcult, a freshly minted Macdonald survey. Fifty-plus years after anybody gave a damn about the book, it’s a pleasure to see Macdonald’s near-surgical evisceration: “Slimly endowed as either thinker or stylist, [Cozzens] has succeeded only in fuzzing it up, inverting the syntax, dragging in Latin-root polysyllables. Stylistically, By Love Possessed is a neo-Victorian cakewalk. A cakewalk by a singularly awkward contestant. Confusing laboriousness with profundity, the reviewers have for the most part not detected the imposture.” If I were the novelist, even this shred of a beat-down would keep me in the fetal position for weeks.

Macdonald arrived at the apex of his influence (roughly between the early 1950s to the early ’70s) after decades of riding a professional and ideological roller coaster. Having acquired blue-chip credentials at Exeter and Yale, Macdonald walked away from (of all things) a sales job at Macy’s in 1928 to work at Henry Luce’s Time. He also wrote for Luce’s glossy Fortune and claimed to have been radicalized enough by the titans of Big Business at the height of the Great Depression to evolve, as he later put it, “from a liberal to a radical and from a tepid Communist sympathizer to an ardent anti-Stalinist.”

He parted with Fortune in 1936 over editorial interference on a piece critical of U.S. Steel. Yet for the balance of his career as editor (at Partisan Review and his own short-lived Politics), culture critic (at The New Yorker), and movie reviewer (at Esquire), he retained aspects of the breezy, rhetorically agile Luce house style. He also carried that style’s tendency to mesh words into awkward compounds, as is made evident by this collection’s 1960 title essay; “Masscult” was his definition of industrialized popular culture for the masses, and “Midcult” a kind of co-opted bastardization of High Art embraced by mid-20th mainstream America.

Macdonald more effectively described this bêtenoir in a 1972 critique of Saturday Review publisher Norman Cousins’s World magazine: “The objection to middlebrow, or petit-bourgeois culture is that it vitiates serious art and thought by reducing it to a democratic-philistine pabulum, dull and tasteless because it is manufactured for a hypothetical ‘common man’ who is assumed (I think wrongly) to be even dumber than the entrepreneurs who condescendingly ‘give the public what it wants.’ ” Among his examples of “sophisticated kitsch” was The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, to whose reputation Macdonald applied an astringent yet discerning 1962 postmortem — also included here, along with a display of Macdonald’s oft-overlooked gift for parody.

Macdonald could be cogent, imperious, and funny, but he wasn’t infallible — and his tendency to attach dissenting opinions to his essays suggests that he knew that. Summers’s collection isn’t infallible either. Even Louis Menand, in his introduction, questions the inclusion of the attack on Tom Wolfe’s “parajournalism” and New Yorker blitz; it now reads as “a case of overkill.” Readers would also benefit from a taste of Macdonald’s influential and often uproarious film criticism. If you like Macdonald’s deconstruction of the blandness of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible over King James’, then you’ll love his vitriolic 1965 savaging of Hollywood biblical epics — that is, if you can find it.
Gene Seymour is a critic living in Washington, D.C.