A Rebel in Defense of Tradition
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.
A Rebel in Defense of Tradition
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,...
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