At a glance:
- Author: Michael Wreszin
- First Published: 1994
- Type of Work: Biography/History
- Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
- Subjects: New York, North America or North Americans, Northeast, U.S., United States or Americans, Journalism or journalists, Intellectuals, Communism or communists, Politics, New York City, Social issues, Alcoholism or alcoholics, Substance abuse, Anti-Semitism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Dramatic criticism, Soviet Union or Soviets, Pacifism, Resorts or spas
- Locales: New York, NY, Europe, London, England, Long Island, NY, Northeast (U.S.)
From the struggle against fascism in the 1930’s to the antiwar protests of the 1960’s, Dwight Macdonald always threw himself headlong into the thick of things. Whether as political activist or editor and writer, he delineated major issues and exposed hypocrisies with a scathing honesty and lively lucidity that made him one of the leading cultural figures of his day.
Though briefly a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Worker’s Party, Macdonald was too independent a thinker for the straitjacket of doctrinaire Marxism. With his anarchist bent, he denounced the oppression of all authoritarian governments, whether in Germany, Russia, or the United States.
Consequently, during World War II, he refused to be a cheerleader for the war effort. An outspoken pacifist, Macdonald decried Allied atrocities, such as saturation bombing and the use of the atomic bomb. At the beginning of the Cold War era, his hatred of Stalin led him to support American policies, but only until the advent of McCarthyism.
Gaining celebrity with cultural criticism in magazines like THE NEW YORKER and ESQUIRE, he championed the standards of the rational, humanistic tradition. Though this reflected a long-held antipathy to the dehumanizing effects of mass culture, many people came to think of him as a conservative and were surprised by his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the student protests against the Vietnam War. Despite his cultural elitism, however, he admired the protestor’s rebelliousness.
In this same spirit, he always said what he felt bravely, even brazenly, like the boy who had to point out an emperor’s nakedness. Many honored his honesty; others lamented his inconsistency and immaturity. He relished the role of charming curmudgeon, indulging an exuberant love of debate and argument. Sadly, he could be overbearing, thoughtless, and emotionally distant as well as racially insensitive. With the years, the debilitating effects of alcohol, health problems, and writer’s block produced an ill-disguised bitterness that led some old friends to avoid him.
Although he died believing he had wasted his talents, Wreszin’s thorough if sometimes dry biography makes Macdonald’s harsh self-judgment hard to accept. His celebrity may fade, but the essays, written with moral passion and searing clarity in defense of individual freedom, will certainly endure.
Sources for Further Study
Commonweal. CXXI, August 19, 1994, p. 26.
London Review of Books. XVI, June 23, 1994, p. 7.
The Nation. CCLVIII, June 6, 1994, p. 790.
The New Republic. CCXI, September 12, 1994, p. 27.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, May 1, 1994, p. 15.
Newsweek. CXXIII, May 16, 1994, p. 64.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, February 7, 1994, p. 77.
Time. CXLIII, April 4, 1994, p. 83.
The Times Literary Supplement. July 22, 1994, p. 4.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, April 24, 1994, p. 1.
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