Dwight Macdonald

Dwight MacDonald
Born (1906-03-24)March 24, 1906
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died November 29, 1982(1982-11-29) (aged 76)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Yale University
Phillips Exeter Academy
Occupation writer, editor, essayist, film critic, book critic, social critic, philosopher
Employer The New Yorker (staff writer)
Partisan Review (editor)
politics (founder and editor)
The New York Review of Books (book critic)
The Today Show (film critic)

Dwight Macdonald (March 24, 1906 – December 19, 1982) was a U.S. writer, editor, film critic, social critic, philosopher, and political radical.

Early life and career

Dwight Macdonald was born in New York City[1] to a prosperous Protestant family from Brooklyn and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and at Yale University.[2] At university, he was editor of The Yale Record, the student humor magazine.[3] As a student at Yale, he also was a member of Psi Upsilon; his first job was as a trainee executive for the Macy's department store company.

In 1929, Macdonald was employed at Time magazine; he had been offered a job by Henry Luce, a fellow alumnus at Yale University. In 1930, he became the associate editor of Fortune, then a new publication created by Luce.[4] Like many writers on Fortune, his politics were radicalized by the Great Depression. He resigned from the magazine in 1936 over an editorial dispute, when the magazine's executives severely edited the last installment of his extended four-part attack on U.S. Steel.

In 1934, he married Nancy Gardiner Rodman (1910–1996), sister of Selden Rodman. He is the father of filmmaker and author Nicholas Macdonald; and of Michael Macdonald.[5]

Editor and writer

Dwight Macdonald was an editor of the Partisan Review magazine from 1937 to 1943; but, in the course of editorial disagreements, about the degree, the practice, and the principles of political, cultural, and literary criticism, he quit to establish politics, a magazine of more out-spoken and leftist editorial perspective, which he published from 1944 to 1949.[6]

As an editor, he fostered intellectuals (academic and public), such as Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Bruno Bettelheim, and C. Wright Mills. Besides his editorial work, he also was a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, from 1952 to 1962, and was the movie critic for Esquire magazine. In the 1960s, the quality of his movie-review work for Esquire granted Macdonald public exposure in the American cultural mainstream, as a movie reviewer for The Today Show, a daytime television talk-show program.[7]


In the realm of left-wing politics, Dwight Macdonald broke with Leon Trotsky on the matter of the Kronstadt rebellion (March 1921), which Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had suppressed; he then progressed towards democratic socialism.[8] He was opposed to totalitarianism, including fascism and communism, whose defeat he viewed as necessary to the survival of civilisation.[9] He denounced Joseph Stalin, first for encouraging the Poles to anti–Nazi insurrection in the Warsaw Uprising (August–October 1944) and then for halting the Red Army at the outskirts of Warsaw, to allow the German Army to crush the Poles, and kill their leaders, communist and non-communist.[10][11][12][13]

At the same time, Macdonald was critical of the methods that elected, democratic governments used to oppose totalitarianism. In the course of the Second World War (1939–1945), his health suffered (increased fatigue and psychological depression) as he observed the progressive horrors of the war, especially the commonplace practices of bombing civilian populations, the destruction of entire cities, especially the fire bombing of Dresden (February 1945), and the mistreatment of dehumanized Germans. Hence, by the war’s end, Macdonald’s politics had progressed to pacifism and to libertarian socialism.[10][13][14]

In that vein, in 1952, in debating East–West politics with the writer Norman Mailer, Macdonald said that if forced to choose a side, he would choose the West because he opposed Stalinism and Soviet communism as the greatest threats to civilization.[14] In 1953, he publicly re-stated that pro–West political stance in the revised edition of the essay “The Root is Man” (1946); nonetheless, in light of the anticommunist witch hunts that were McCarthyism (1950–56), Macdonald later repudiated such binary politics.[15][16] In 1955, Macdonald became the associate editor (for one year) of Encounter magazine, a publication sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was a CIA-funded front organisation meant to ideologically influence and control cultural élites in the Cold War (1945–91) with the Soviet Union. Macdonald did not know that Encounter magazine was a CIA front, and when he learned the fact, he condemned CIA sponsorship of literary publications and organizations. He had also participated in conferences sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom.[10][17]

Cultural critic

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, Dwight Macdonald wrote cultural criticism, especially about the rise of mass media and of middle-brow culture, of mediocrity exemplified; the blandly wholesome worldview of the play Our Town (1938), by Thornton Wilder, the commodified culture of the Great Books of the Western World, and the simplistic language of the Revised Standard Version (1966) of the Bible:

To make the Bible readable in the modern sense means to flatten out, tone down, and convert into tepid expository prose what in [the King James Version] is wild, full of awe, poetic, and passionate. It means stepping down the voltage of the K.J.V. so that it won’t blow any fuses. Babes and sucklings (or infants) can play with the R.S.V. without the slightest danger of electrocution.[18]

In The New Republic magazine, in the essay “The Browbeater” (23 November 2011), Franklin Foer said that Macdonald was a hatchet-man for high culture. That, in the book Masscult and Midcult: Against The American Grain (2011), a new edition of Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (1962), Macdonald's cultural criticism “culminated in a plea for highbrows to escape from the mass culture” that dominates the mainstream of American society, and that “the highbrows would flee to their own hermetic little world, where they could produce art for one another, while resolutely ignoring the masses”.[19]

Likewise, in the essay “Dwight Macdonald on Culture: The Happy Warrior of the Mind, Reconsidered” (2013), Tadeusz Lewandowski said that Macdonald’s approach to cultural questions, as a public intellectual, placed him in the conservative tradition of the British cultural critic Matthew Arnold, of whom he was the literary heir in the twentieth century. Previously, in the field of Cultural Studies Dwight Macdonald was placed among the radical traditions of the New York Intellectuals (left-wing anti–Stalinists) and of the Marxist Frankfurt School.[20]

Political radical renewed

As a writer, Dwight Macdonald published essays and reviews in The New Yorker and in The New York Review of Books. His most consequential book review for The New Yorker magazine was “Our Invisible Poor” (January 1963) about The Other America (1962), by Michael Harrington, a social-history book that reported and documented the socio-economic inequality and racism experienced by twenty-five percent of the U.S. population.[21] The social historian Maurice Isserman said that the War on Poverty (1964) derived from the Johnson Administration having noticed the sociological report of The Other America, by way of Macdonald’s book-review essay.[22]

In opposing the Vietnam War (1945–75) Macdonald defended the constitutional right of American university students to protest the public policies that facilitated that war in Southeast Asia; thus, he supported the Columbia University students who organized a sit-in protest meant to halt the university’s functions.[9] Yet, in 1968, as a political radical, himself, Macdonald criticized the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization for insufficient ideological commitment, for showing only the red flag of revolution, not the black flag of Anarchism, his political taste.

In further action upon his political principles, Macdonald signed his name to the “Writers and Editors War-tax Protest" by which he refused to pay income tax to undermine the financing of the undeclared Vietnam War.[23] Likewise, along with the American public intellectuals Mitchell Goodman, Henry Braun, Denise Levertov, Noam Chomsky, and William Sloane Coffin, Dwight Macdonald signed the antiwar manifesto “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” (12 October 1967), and was a member of RESIST, a non-profit organization for co-ordinating grass-roots political work.[24]


Macdonald's outspokenness and volubility garnered many detractors. "You have nothing to say, only to add," Gore Vidal told him. Leon Trotsky reportedly observed, "Every man has a right to be stupid but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege." Paul Goodman quipped, "Dwight thinks with his typewriter." [25]


See also


  1. Menand, Louis. "Browbeaten". New Yorker. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  2. Podhoretz, Norman (1967). Making it. New York: Random House. p. 111. OCLC 292070.
  3. Wreszin, Michael, ed. (2003) Interviews with Dwight MacDonald. University Press of Mississippi. p. 116.
  4. Szalai, Jennifer (12 December 2011). "Mac the Knife: On Dwight Macdonald". The Nation. Retrieved 20 September 2013.
  5. Macdonald, Dwight, ed. (1961) Parodies: an anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm--and after. London: Faber; p. v
  6. TIME 4 April 1994 Volume 143, No. 14 - "Biographical sketch of Dwight Macdonald" by John Elson (Accessed 4 December 2008)
  7. Garner, Dwight (21 October 2011). "Dwight Macdonald's War on Mediocrity". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
  8. Mattson, Kevin. 2002. Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. p. 34
  9. 1 2 Wakeman, John. World Authors 1950-1970: a Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1975. ISBN 0824204190. (pp. 902-4).
  10. 1 2 3 "Dwight and Left: The centenary of Dwight Macdonald's birth should inspire more Americans to read their most crotchety, snobby, and brilliant critic." John Rodden and Jack Rossi. The American Prospect. February 20, 2006.
    • Dwight Macdonald, 'Warsaw', politics, 1, 9 (October 1944), 257-9
    • 1, 10 (November 1944), 297-8
    • 1, 11 (December 1944), 327-8.
  11. Costello, David R. (January 2005). "'My Kind of Guy': George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald, 1941-49". Journal of Contemporary History. 40 (1): 79–94. doi:10.1177/0022009405049267. JSTOR 30036310.
  12. 1 2 Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism (1960). This was later republished with the title Politics Past.
  13. 1 2 Brock, Peter, and Young, Nigel. Pacifism in the Twentieth Century. Syracuse University Press, New York, 1999 ISBN 0-8156-8125-9 (p.249)
  14. Dwight Macdonald, The Root is Man, Alhambra, Calif., 1953.
  15. "Ronald Radosh's Macdonald," Michael Wreszin, New York Times, 18 September 1988
  16. Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Irving Kristol (New York 1995), p. 461.
  17. Foer, Franklin (2011-12-15). "The Browbeater". The New Republic. Retrieved 2011-12-07.
  18. Foer, Franklin (2011-12-15). "The Browbeater". The New Republic. Retrieved 2011-12-07.
  19. Lewandowski, Tadeusz (2013). Dwight Macdonald on Culture: The Happy Warrior of the Mind, Reconsidered.
  20. MacDonald, Dwight (19 January 1963). "Our Invisible Poor". The New Yorker.
  21. Isserman, Maurice (2009-06-19). "Michael Harrington: Warrior on poverty". The New York Times.
  22. "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
  23. Barsky, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. 1st ed. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1998. Web. Ch.4: Marching with the Armies of the Night
  24. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/books/review/dwight-macdonalds-war-on-mediocrity.html?_r=0

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