Few essayists deliver the goods like Dwight Macdonald. Reading his collection of cultural criticism Against the American Grain (1962), one is immediately seduced by the tone—authoritative, learned, humorous, and formidable. Only George Orwell wrote a prose as lucid and jargon-free, a prose sweeping and succinct enough to cut through to the heart of an issue with a few decisive thrusts.
It is no wonder that Macdonald participated in every major political and social debate in the United States from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, framing salient points and exposing cant with a relentless rigor few could match. He was never afraid to be the lone voice in opposition, as when he attacked the United States’ involvement in World War II. Fifty years later, he is still accused of treason by the Right and of self-righteous grandstanding by the Left, but conviction and clarity imbue his writing with a high moral gloss.
Some consider the gloss as deep as it goes, but Macdonald remains a significant figure in American social history, worthy of a full-scale biography. Michael Wreszin has gone about the job in a dedicated, competent manner, but the result may not fully satisfy either Macdonald’s opponents or his admirers—perhaps inevitably, since Macdonald’s character seems to be as divided as the opinions about him.
For all of his stylistic brilliance, he was neither a systematic thinker like Leon Trotsky nor a scholar like Edmund Wilson, two of the contemporaries he most admired. Full of rectitude and insecurity, quick to trumpet his own brilliance and dismiss protests and hurt feelings as equally immaterial while being extremely eager to please, he resembled a precocious adolescent, with all the attendant charms and irritations. A tall man with goatee and glasses, he was physically prepossessing despite his screech-owl voice and nervous giggle, and he dominated social situations with his gleeful delight in exuberant discussion.
Reading this biography makes it clear, however, that he hid behind his intellectual brilliance, using it to satisfy his voracious need for attention and approval while protecting himself from intimacy and the need to own up to feelings. With a characteristic lack of self-awareness (despite all his self-scrutiny), Macdonald rarely questioned his own rectitude. He insisted that rational, objective debate could not be personal, though people were often shocked by the insensitivity of his attacks, especially against his children, whom he saw as rivals.
That he was so insecure hardly seems surprising given his upbringing. His ineffectual but loving father raised himself up from his lower-middle-class origins, but never high enough for Macdonald’s domineering mother, daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her social insecurity imprinted itself heavily on her son, along with a countervailing resentment. Dwight became the perpetual rebel against his mother’s authority, an anarchist bent on personal liberation, a gadfly exulting in contrariness. At the same time, he embraced many of her cultural values and prejudices, in particular about Jews. Just how completely he overcame his anti-Semitism is a matter Wreszin does not resolve completely, but there is no doubt that Macdonald always championed his mother’s elitist standards.
His certainty of the superiority of those standards (and himself for defending them) was the one constant in his life, around which Macdonald tried to construct a self-assured and effectual personal identity, whether as a husband or writer or political activist. Nevertheless, he remained forever disengaged from the world, privileging intellectual life over political activism. This was true of most New York intellectuals, Marxist hair-splitters who waged vicious factional infighting long after history had rendered them all superfluous. An inveterate rebel, Macdonald had little trouble throwing himself into active protest, but he could not believe that he had achieved anything, since he accepted only the most radical change as change enough.
When Macdonald was graduated from Yale University, he joined Macy’s, a convert to business, convinced that he had escaped the ineffectual world of the university. When business turned out to be as much a bog as academia, rapture turned to repulsion. From Macy’s Macdonald jumped ship to Fortune, a magazine in Henry Luce’s Time empire, a bastion of big business that encouraged Macdonald’s natural rebelliousness. The Great Depression further weakened his faith in capitalism, but a more crucial influence in his radicalization was Nancy Rodman, whom he met and married in 1934. Their relationship, however, remained more intellectual and collegial than romantic. She bore him two sons and provided...