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The Browbeater

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
By Dwight Macdonald
Edited by John Summers
(New York Review Books, 289pp., $16.95)

Dwight Macdonald, the greatest American hatchet man, applied his merciless craft also to himself. When he collected his essays, he added footnotes, appendices, and other forms of addenda taking issue with his own writings. “This paragraph much too dismissive.” “Why I wrote such a false statement, I don’t know.” “Viewed from 1957, much of our behavior appears absurd and even mildly insane.” In the right mood, he could muster sufficient detachment to view himself with complete clarity: “My greatest vice is my easily aroused indignation—also, I suppose, one of my great strengths,” he confided in a letter to a boarding school chum. “I can work up a moral indignation quicker than a fat tennis player can work up a sweat.”

His self-criticisms were paralyzing, so much so that he never could sustain faith in any of his big ideas long enough to unfurl them across a whole book. “I seem unable to sit down and write a book in cold blood, so to speak,” Macdonald publicly flogged himself. In later years he attempted to medicate this torment with alcohol, which of course only exacerbated his blockage.

But these doubts never interfered with his formation and issuance of thunderous judgments about the work of others. There was integrity to Macdonald’s negativity. He might trash a book in print, but he was no kinder in his private correspondence. Jerzy Kosinski had the nerve to send him a mash note, along with a copy of The Painted Bird. “I don’t like your book, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think it is good either as art or as a comment on real life,” Macdonald replied. “It seems to me not on a very different level from the brutalities and horrors you describe.” Those brutalities and horrors took place during the Holocaust!

Most hatchet men stow their weaponry in a trunk after a certain age, after they have earned their reputation by taking swings at prestigious figures. But Macdonald kept on publishing demolition jobs into his sixties, and nothing angered him more than the creeping grade inflation of his fellow critics. Macdonald often looked like a bully. His victories seemed so easy and so complete that you forgot that he had made corpses of texts that had been previously considered critic-proof—the dictionary and the Bible, to name two of his signature assaults. About the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, he wrote: “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.”

John Summers has now orchestrated the re-issue of ten of Macdonald’s essays, which were written mostly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Macdonald fans can argue the merits of these selections, which include most, but not all, of his greatest takedowns. But this volume serves its essential purpose of capturing the pleasures of Macdonald. Even at his most reckless and wrongheaded, it was hard not to crave his voice. Despite his immense capacity for condescension, he was implacably readable. He perfected what Irving Howe once described as “the style of brilliance.” He wrote gregarious sentences that piled up into bouncy paragraphs—an achievement, considering that he often found himself wading through scholarly opinion or theoretical arguments to make his case. His essays always propelled the reader well beyond the subject at hand, using a book or film to level broader arguments about the culture—about, say, our veneration of statistics or the changing style of American journalism.

Although we might quibble with a few of his specific targets—was Burt Lancaster really such an appalling actor? was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. really turgid?—his judgments about specific books and films age beautifully, on the whole. He could, and did, boast that his negative reviews are the reason why a shelf full of overrated books are no longer read. But while his essays stand as monuments to impeccable taste, and to the disputational mode in intellectual life, they also prove how irregularly impeccable taste correlates with good judgment. The same characteristics that made Macdonald such a great critic—his demanding standards, his intolerance of populist hokum—made him a poor analyst of the culture. He railed against any book or magazine or television show that betrayed any hint of kitsch, no matter the other virtues of those works. He seemed to believe that almost any effort to popularize high culture would result in the debasement of it. His disdain was often merited, but his anger also carried him to extreme and illogical conclusions. It turned him into something of a snob and a reactionary—closed off to the possibility that any culture lower than the highest culture could produce fresh works of lasting value; and so fatalistic about the American public that he ceased to imagine that it could ever be improved.

MACDONALD WAS BORN in 1906 in New York, a city he disliked and frequently fled. He adored his ineffectual father and later viewed his failed law career as evidence that he had resisted “conventional, upper-class social forms.” Flaunting social forms would quickly become Macdonald’s own stock in trade.

Most institutions that Macdonald joined he left in a fury. It is true that he ultimately graduated from Yale—two of his distant relatives had been presidents of the school—but he was frequently summoned to the dean’s office to account for his essays ridiculing the anti-intellectualism of his professors. After graduation he took a job at Macy’s, hoping to climb the corporate ladder while writing criticism as a genteel pastime. He did not produce many essays during his brief career with the department store, but the grimness of the experience succeeded in turning him into a heavy drinker. A friend from his days at Exeter rescued him from his misery, convincing Henry Luce to hire him as a writer at Fortune, which was just getting off the ground. When its editors hacked to pieces the last installment of his three-part exposé of the steel industry, Macdonald quit. Henry Luce, also known to Macdonald as “il Luce,” became a target of near-annual abuse.

Unlike the Jewish immigrants he eventually circled around, socialism had barely registered on his youth. He did not read Marx until he was thirty, and the experience hastened a rapid leftward drift, which culminated in Macdonald joining a Trotskyist party. Of course that relationship also soured, with Trotsky himself quipping that “everyone has a right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” His relationship with the editors of Partisan Review fared no better. He had worked with Philip Rahv and William Phillips to revive the magazine after it broke with the Communist Party in 1936, but his unrelenting objections to American intervention in World War II provoked a split with his co-editors, whom he dismissed on his way out the door as “too damn respectable.” He then founded politics, which he called his “one-man magazine.” Even his own outfit predictably came to frustrate him, and he left it, too.

Why couldn’t he ever sit still? Although Macdonald would hate to be tagged with a label, which he considered a prime attribute of kitsch, he was a romantic. He believed in alienation, on both moral and aesthetic grounds. Throughout his life he fantasized about forming his own utopian community, where he could flee with like-minded radicals into domestic exile. At boarding school he hatched a literary clique called the Hedonists, and later tried to convince members of the group to set up their own Brook Farm. In the 1940s he visited a work camp housing conscientious objectors to the war, which inspired him again to ponder starting a commune. Mary McCarthy wrote a whole novel, The Oasis, mocking her friend’s frequent reveries about utopian enclaves. (The goateed protagonist’s ill-disguised name was Macdougal Macdermott.)

This romanticism hardly looks serious when you glance back and trace the full course of Macdonald’s haywire political trajectory—from Trotskyism to pacifism to anarchism to a flirtation with conservatism to serving as a mascot for the New Left. But it also yielded his little magazine politics, which was extraordinary. In the final years of the war, before most others, Macdonald espied the essential political questions of his time—the exhaustion of Marxism, the rise of powerful bureaucracies, liberalism’s fetishistic faith in science, the shattering reverberations of the Bomb and the Holocaust. He grappled with them in a spirit of openness and earnestness, bordering on naïveté—which hardly resembled the all-knowing spirit of his cultural criticism. Paul Goodman sneered that Macdonald “thinks with his typewriter”—not a bad description of his politics essays, which were rife with contradictions and tautologies. He groped for a viable worldview, a quest made all the more dramatic by his willingness to stumble and flail in front of his audience. Despite these shortcomings, however, Macdonald captured a generation’s exhaustion with grandiose theories of history and its newfound respect for the limits of the human mind. “We should not push things too far,” he soberly wrote.

He shuttered his magazine in 1949, his communitarian fantasies unfulfilled, and announced his retreat into exile. He threw up his hands and turned his attention from politics to culture. “Politics is a desert without hope,” he groused. And: “I think no one has a duty to interest himself in politics except a politician.” He took a gig at The New Yorker and began referring to himself as a “money writer,” which has a grain of irony, given he was also about to publish his influential series of wrathful essays about the commercialization of culture.

WHEN MACDONALD WROTE about the masses—always a shapeless abstraction for him—he flitted between revolutionary faith and patrician disdain. He spent the 1950s seething with scorn. In an essay called “America! America!”—made notorious when the editors of Encounter spiked it—he complained that his compatriots were “an unhappy people, a people without style, without a sense of what is humanly satisfying.” They had no manners and no morals. The deeply engrained egalitarianism of the country meant that nobody respected anybody else. He cracked that the national motto should be changed to “I got mine and screw you, Jack!” This bile was made even less attractive by the fact that it was accompanied by panting homages to the glories of English civilization. Macdonald’s attack on American life was often paired with observations such as this: “In London one meets stockbrokers who go to concerts, politicians who have read Proust.” He even described British imperialism as less kitschy than American power projection.

Macdonald wrote about the masses with such derision because they had jilted him. As revolutionary classes go, the American proletariat had proved to be an utter disappointment. Where he had initially championed the masses as harbingers of a beautiful future, he now described them as zombies. They had been conditioned “to want such things as to be fed in return for submission to authority.” He worried constantly that America was headed down the path to totalitarianism. Although he supported the West in the cold war, he made it clear that the West only gained his allegiance by a nose. “The choice is not very stimulating,” he moaned.

Many other disillusioned Marxists had arrived at the same dim conclusion about the working class. That grim assessment formed the basis for some of the monumental works of the 1950s: the masses were anti-intellectual (Richard Hofstadter), or lost in a lonely crowd (David Riesman), or the unwitting agents of totalitarianism (Hannah Arendt), or miserable bureaucrats (C. Wright Mills), and so on. There was, of course, a venerable tradition of intellectuals feeling superior to popular culture—and also a venerable Marxist strain of this argument, which viewed exposure to Hollywood, pulp magazines, and the like as a narcotic that deadened the passageways in the brain that would have otherwise triggered class consciousness. At Partisan Review, Macdonald had edited (which really meant that he had heavily re-written) one of the most important formulations of this Marxist diagnosis, Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.”

But in the 1950s, culminating with his essay “Masscult and Midcult,” he pushed this thesis several crucial paces forward. His innovation was to add a paranoid twist: importing one of the ugliest tropes of the politics of the time into the analysis of culture, Macdonald warned of the enemy within. America had given birth to a pernicious new species of culture, which he called midcult. Midcult is art and literature that seems to share the ambitions of high culture, but uses its faux sophistication as a guise for importing the debased values of commerce. “The intermediate form—let us call it midcult—has the essential qualities of masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural fig leaf.... Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while it in fact waters them down and vulgarizes them.”

Macdonald exultantly sorted American culture into high and middle and low. This classification was not a parlor game or an academic exercise: it was a necessary means of rooting out the infiltrators. Midcult could be most clearly found in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the Saturday Review. Other specimens included the novels of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Pearl Buck, Herman Wouk, and John Hersey, as well as the plays of Thornton Wilder and the poetry of Stephen Vincent Benét. Macdonald wrote his best essays of the 1950s and 1960s to sniff out and shred to bits the most egregious examples of midcult that he could find.

The best of those essays was certainly his attack on By Love Possessed, the novel by James Gould Cozzens—who has the ignominy of being remembered as the subject of the most persuasively devastating review of the century. Despite some attempts in recent decades to restore its reputation, Cozzens’s novel remains only as the dead fish massacred at the bottom of Macdonald’s barrel.

This is not a Horrible Example—we shall have some later—but a typical run-of-the-mill Cozzens paragraph, chosen at random. It seems to me about as bad as prose can get—what sensitive or even merely competent novelist would write a phrase like “the ridiculous impracticalness of his aspirations.”

 And he went on in the same devastating (and pleasurable) vein:

He delights in the tedious complications of lawyer’s talk, the sort of thing one skips in reading the court record of even the most sensational trial.... This fascination with the law is perhaps a clue to Cozzens’s defects as a novelist. It explains the peculiar aridity of his prose, its needless qualifications, its clumsiness.... Confusing [law] with philosophy, he makes it bear too heavy a load, so that reality is distorted and even the law’s own qualities are destroyed, its logic and precision blurred, its technical elegance coarsened. There’s too much emotion in his law and too much law in his emotion.

For all these cutting descriptions of the book, Cozzens was not actually the target of Macdonald’s piece. Such a lame work would have hardly extracted his cantankerous best. He intended, instead, to rake the critics who waxed lyrical about the novel, supplying grandiloquent backflap copy about Cozzens’s genius. Their unwarranted praise highlighted an important corollary of Macdonald’s thesis: critics had become complicit in the rise of midcult, freely issuing credentials to the poseurs. “One can guard against the Philistines outside the gates. It is when they get into the Ivory Tower that they are dangerous.”

Those critics may have written for liberal weeklies and cosmopolitan dailies, but they were, in reality, reactionaries. Taking their lead from Van Wyck Brooks and Archibald MacLeish—those old Popular Front trolls—the critics had joined the backlash against the avant-garde. Macdonald called it the “Middlebrow Counter-Revolution.” The fundamental precept of this counterrevolution was that the effete intellectuals had lost contact with humanity—they had grown solipsistic and destructively negative. This hatred of the avant-garde created a weakness in the critics. They suddenly celebrated any high-minded writer, such as Cozzens, who posed as an antiintellectual, professing to disdain literary cocktail parties, artsy fashions, and petition-signing on behalf of causes. Anxious to avoid the sin of snobbery, the critics had surrendered their capacity to render competent judgments about aesthetic and intellectual quality.

Macdonald’s argument in “Masscult and Midcult” culminated in a plea for highbrows to escape from the mass culture, much like his old fantasies about retreating to a commune. The highbrows—“We Happy Few,” he called them, borrowing from Stendhal—would flee to their own hermetic little world, where they could produce art for one another while resolutely ignoring the masses. This elite cadre would begin to “show some esprit de corps, insisting on high standards and setting itself off—joyously, implacably—from most of its fellow citizens, not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp.” And what about the unsophisticated masses? They could revel in their slop, for all he cared. “This is to recognize that two cultures have developed in this country and that it is to the national interest to keep them separate.”

THE TAXONOMY OF culture is necessarily a pseudoscience—even the classification of “brow” harks back to phrenology, with its fairly blunt implication that avatars of the lower forms have lesser brain capacity, hunched gaits, and hairier knuckles. “Midcult” is, of course, just as splenetic a label, conjuring the image of a horde mindlessly following some pipe-smoking elbow-patched guru toward the poisoned Kool-Aid. (Macdonald cleverly loaded the term with totalitarian echoes by coining it in the Bolshevik style of jamming together words, as in “agitprop.”) But for a fleeting moment these classifications had resonance, and captured the underlying political economy of culture.

We cannot separate the explosion of middlebrow from the explosion of the middle class. The affluence of industrialized, urban America bankrolled the college education of a massive swath of the country. New wealth also created new status anxieties and loftier aspirations—a desire to acquire the cultural trappings that befitted people of greater means. Starting in the 1920s, an industry arose to fill the mass demand for higher culture—the Book of the Month Club, The New Yorker, and radio programs such as “The Town Crier,” where the witty Alexander Wolcott conveyed his literary observations to the easy-chair set. In the boom times that followed the war, this middlebrow movement reached its apex, with art-house cinemas sprouting on the Main Streets of college towns and symphonic orchestras proliferating in midsized cities. Even television, which Newton Minow famously described as a “vast wasteland,” featured Leonard Bernstein on CBS on Saturday nights, explaining how to properly appreciate a sonata.

Macdonald summed up the alchemy of middlebrow by touring the table of contents of Life magazine:

The same issue will present a serious exposition of atomic energy followed by a disquisition on Rita Hayworth’s love life; photos of starving children picking garbage in Calcutta and of sleek models wearing adhesive brassieres; an editorial hailing Bertrand Russell’s eightieth birthday (A GREAT MIND IS STILL ANNOYING AND ADORNING OUR AGE) across from a full-page photo of a matron arguing with a baseball umpire (MOM GETS THUMB); nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse.... Somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous. Defenders of our Masscult society like Professor Edward Shils of the University of Chicago-he is, of course, a sociologist—see phenomena like Life as inspiriting attempts at popular education—just think, nine pages of Renoirs! But that roller-skating horse comes along, and the final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.

The laugh line is so good that you initially fail to appreciate the foulness of the underlying argument. Macdonald considered Life’s readers too dunderheaded to differentiate the achievements of French impressionism from a silly pet trick. While history offers plenty of reasons to estimate ungenerously the intelligence of the common man, this seems particularly nasty, because it banished ordinary people—mid-people, we might say—to the realm of darkness. Reading Macdonald’s cultural imprecations, one wonders how they went with his professions of faith in democracy, or whether he even recognized the dissonance.

Macdonald dreamed of a world without the fuzzying presence of middlebrow culture. It is one thing to assert the importance of making distinctions, but Macdonald made the distinctions fixed and impermeable. He adopted a kind of sacerdotal tone, the dogmatic and intolerant voice of a cultural priesthood. Since he wrote his famous essay, of course, the world he feared has come into being. It has been a long time since glossy magazines devoted space to explaining the relevance of eighty-year-old British philosophers or set aside nine pages to celebrate a long-deceased French painter. American culture has ended up at a far different place than the renaissance Macdonald wanted. It is in many ways stupider than he ever dreamed it could be.

But that is not the end of the analysis. There are further complications. Macdonald argued that intellectual life would flourish once highbrows cordoned themselves off from the rest of the culture, ignoring the masses and huddling in their own communities and institutions, but this vision of romantic isolation and spiritual purity neglected the inconvenient fact that intellectuals themselves had managed to create a healthy symbiotic relationship with midcult. Publications such as Saturday Review and The New York Times Magazine handsomely paid the likes of Clement Greenberg and Randall Jarrell to write columns, which enabled those exceedingly un-midcult intellectuals to pursue far less lucrative ventures such as writing poetry and littlemagazine essays. The attention that mass-market magazines devoted to their work gave them name recognition, helping their serious books reach (and sell) far beyond the microscopic subscriber base of Partisan Review.

Or consider an example closer at hand. After he folded politics, Macdonald’s venues of choice were, for the most part, the quintessential journals of midcult. He wrote his culture criticism for The New Yorker—a magazine he once damned for its “deliberate cultivation of the trivial.” His film criticism appeared in Harold Hayes’s Esquire, which for all its excellence contained glossy page after glossy page of, well, kitsch. And if the ironies are to be fully recorded, credit must also be given to Henry Luce, although it would have killed Macdonald to say so: Time dutifully relayed happenings in politics—running a story on the magazine’s translation of Simone Weil, if you can believe it—to its massive readership. For a magazine such as politics, which did not exactly have what we would now call a direct-marketing arm, such a mention was found money that kept the printing presses moving.

Macdonald dismissed the notion that midcult could educate or elevate the public. (See his attack on Edward Shils above.) To be fair, he leveled this criticism several years before the greatest accomplishment of his career. In 1962, he reviewed Michael Harrington’s The Other America for The New Yorker. His essay appeared eleven months after the book’s publication date, and he compensated for the late review by doting lovingly on it. Macdonald’s piece was one of the longest in the history of the magazine, nearly fifty pages. His review followed a decade of adulation for the American Way of Life, where even liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith viewed poverty as an inevitably vanishing phenomenon. Macdonald’s deeply researched review obliterated that notion. It did more than anything to set the stage for the coming “war on poverty,” not just alerting the reading public to the grim persistence of the problem but also alerting the White House to it. TRB in this magazine reported that Macdonald’s article “roused President Kennedy” to consider a whole new agenda intended to elevate millions into the middle class.

Now, as has been mentioned, consistency was not Macdonald’s forte. Here he made an airtight case for government policy, even though he had recently proclaimed that “the centralized state is the chief danger ... to freedom.” But we should be grateful for some of his lapses in logic. They meant that despite his hatred of midcult, he exploited it to produce lasting work. Macdonald himself proved the positive role that the popular dissemination of “high” ideas could play in American life.

WE KNOW THE things that drove Dwight Macdonald bonkers—kitsch, commercial culture, eroding standards, the pomposity of academics. But what did he admire? He liked Citizen Kane and the early films of Fellini. Like all good editors of Partisan Review, he genuflected before James Joyce, but he also admirably conceded his inability to make heads or tails of Finnegans Wake—“a crossword puzzle of genius often funny or moving but in general a dead end.” He championed Pound, although that seemed mainly a pretext for battling the prigs who, he believed, wanted to judge the poet on the basis of his Jew-hatred rather than the excellence of his work.

Macdonald was a first-rate talent scout. At politics, he opened his pages to young writers such as Paul Goodman, Irving Howe, C. Wright Mills, and Daniel Bell; he published essays by little-known European intellectuals such as Camus, Weil, Chiaromonte, and Arendt. Yet his eye for the undiscovered somehow failed to manifest itself in his criticism. Unlike Edmund Wilson or Susan Sontag, Macdonald never had much desire to trumpet the good news about literature or film. He never used his essays to call attention to an obscure novel. He did nothing to explicate the literary spirit of his time, as Wilson did with high modernism or Sontag did with the European avant-garde, so that he might boost the books that could serve as antidotes to the ersatz intellectualism that he deplored. Macdonald’s energies were overwhelmingly nullifying.

Going through his writings, it is genuinely startling to find him taking unabashed pleasure in describing the virtues of anything published after the Elizabethan age. Those celebratory essays could be compiled into something not much longer than a pamphlet. Macdonald conceded this. He self-mockingly referred to “my small interest in praising the superior,” which he contrasted to his “prurient interest” and “preoccupation” with “the vulgar.” Even when he lauded a book, he would trip over his instinct to attack. Making the case for his recently deceased friend James Agee’s A Death in the Family—on balance, a gorgeous essay of remembrance—he cannot stay his hand. He gratuitously adds that the book “is not a major work” and shatters the solemn mood by noting the emerging “Agee cult.”

Temperament has much to do with his preference for destroying. But he also found himself aesthetically trapped: he intellectually approved of modernism and the avant-garde, but his tastes were far too stodgy to make him a genuine enthusiast. In contrast to his openness to new political ideas, he remained painfully unwilling to consider that new cultural creations might merit praise, too. He can sound a lot like Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and the bitter conservatives who populated the best-seller lists in the 1980s and 1990s with carping tomes about slipping standards, the trashing of beautiful traditions, and the failure to preserve the integrity of language. (Complaining about cultural decline is one of the great middlebrow genres.) None of these conservatives would have entirely approved of Macdonald’s argument, which paid obeisance to the ideal of the avant-garde and decried capitalism’s central role in the homogenization of the culture. Still, there was more than a hint of Irving Babbittry in “Masscult and Midcult”—most evident in his asides grumpily rejecting the Action Painters, belittling the Beats, and dismissing rock ’n’ roll.

Michael Wreszin, his biographer, described Macdonald as a “rebel in defense of tradition,” which does a nice job of coupling his hatred for authority with his cultural conservatism. But it is hard to fashion an aesthetics that both celebrates modernism and seeks to preserve tradition—although T.S. Eliot, perhaps the critic he most admired, gave it a try. Macdonald struggled to articulate a coherent explanation of his aesthetic sensibility. He bluntly admitted that “being a congenital critic, I know what I like and why. But I can’t explain the why except in terms of the specific work under consideration, on which I’m copious enough. The general theory, the larger view, the gestalt—these have always eluded me. Whether this gap in my critical armor be called an idiosyncrasy or, less charitably, a personal failing, it has always been most definitely there.” This gets to the nub. For all the time he spent dabbling in the Frankfurt School—Horkheimer, Adorno, and their colleagues were the other great mid-century analysts (and deplorers) of middlebrow and popular culture and its deformations—Macdonald’s essays finally amounted to nothing more than an elegant expression of taste.

The arbitrariness of an argument based only on the arguer’s tastes emerges in the opinionated asides that populate nearly every paragraph of “Masscult and Midcult.” He keeps cramming the writers, artists, music, and buildings that he dislikes into his definition of midcult. By the end, midcult has expanded to include the Museum of Modern Art, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Reporter, the neoclassical architecture of the Supreme Court, Walter Lippmann, and Max Lerner. And we can watch him contort himself to exempt favorites such as Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens from his indictment, even though they posed the most damning challenge to his snobbish categories. Dickens was a genius and Dickens was popularly revered: he was “high” and “mass.” The same could be said of Shakespeare. Go figure.

MACDONALD COMMITTED A fallacy common to all jeremiads: he exaggerated what he despised and the extent of the decline that he was lamenting, and therefore he always sounded as if things couldn’t get much worse. The Age of Middlebrow has long passed, but so, for the most part, have the little magazines and the freelance intellectuals in the Macdonald mold. And who believes in cultural hierarchy anymore? That quaint idea disappeared in the 1960s, around the time Susan Sontag published her essay celebrating “camp.” On most mornings The New York Times now reviews video games and reality television with the same seriousness as cinema and novels—and often with better placements in the Arts section. It is hard not to feel nostalgic for the days when you could look down your nose at Walter Lippmann and the Museum of Modern Art as the gateways to rampant philistinism. We should have such “philistines”!

These shifts in the culture, of course, can be attributed to forces more powerful than the writings of Dwight Macdonald. Still, one cannot help but be annoyed that the greatest cultural critic of his era spent so much time and energy wringing his hands about how the middle class was too eager to consume weightier forms of culture. He worked himself into a frenzy over a fine aspiration that could help to preserve the things he treasured. What is so terrible, exactly, about broadcasting Don Giovanni into movie theaters around the country?

A thriving culture needs standards, and unstinting critics to insist upon them. But it also needs a humane intellectual elite that cares about the quality of culture consumed by its fellow citizens—a particularly fearsome task in a capitalist society, where the rewards for pandering to the baser instincts of the market are so immense. For a brief moment in the middle of the last century, publishers, studios, and networks found a formula both to make money and to sate a nation’s desire for real art. The shlock that these elites often produced was deserving of all the fury Macdonald sent in their direction. But that they tried to share the blessings of culture in the first place—this is deserving of the sort of gratitude that Dwight Macdonald so woefully lacked. 

Franklin Foer is an editor-at-large for The New Republic and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.