Commentary Magazine


Against the American Grain, by Dwight Macdonald

The Politics of Taste

Against The American Grain.
by Dwight Macdonald.
Random House. 427 pp.

For years now Dwight Macdonald has been firing off his gay and spirited salvos against the barbarians in our midst, and it would be ungrateful not to acknowledge a cumulative sense of indebtedness to him. It comes then as a disappointment to find that his essays on mass culture—collected in a volume entitled Against the American Grain—do not stand up on a second reading, that taken together they amount to something less impressive than when they were first read in various periodicals. Mr. Macdonald’s prose is always clear and definite (and very often charmingly witty), but its clarity has been bought by simplification and its definiteness is without depth: it is the best two-dimensional prose now going, the prose of someone who has found what can be at any time the most convenient substitute for taking thought—a position.

Mr. Macdonald’s position usually appears in historical form and can be briefly summarized as follows. In the past, under the dispensation of aristocratic and feudal societies, there was a traditional culture of art and thought which both served and expressed the privileged, educated social minority. Things started to go wrong at about 1750, and as a result of the economic, social, and political revolutions which then began and still continue, a second, or mass, culture was created. This culture is crude, vulgar, and mass-produced, and has exerted pressures of a harmful kind on high or traditional culture, at times even seeming to threaten its continued existence. By confusing traditional standards of value, by trying falsely to “democratize” culture, by making culture and art marketable commodities, it has produced an art that is “not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art,” and a culture that is anti-culture. And if this were not bad enough, in recent years a still worse threat has come into being: middlebrow culture—or Midcult—bred from the “unnatural intercourse” of High Culture with Mass Culture. Midcult “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” It is a corruption of High Culture which has the advantage of being able “to pass itself off as the real thing.” It is against the lords and owners of Midcult—and against the stewards of their non-excellence—that Mr. Macdonald’s attacks are directed.

This thesis has a kind of neo-classic simplicity about it which is in accord with Mr. Macdonald’s literary tastes and preferences. They too are neo-classic: he feels most at home in the literature and culture of the English 18th century and in the avant-garde writing of 1890—1930—the neo-classic period not only of the modern age but of Mr. Macdonald’s own life-span. And we might add that Mr. Macdonald’s essays express this thesis and these tastes in a suitably neo-classic way—to read them is to experience the meaning of the phrase “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Now, it would be an oversight not to recognize that the very limitations and confinements of this set of attitudes are at once the conditions of Mr. Macdonald’s intellectual virtues, and that his best essays spring from them as fully as do his most radical simplifications. His classic demolitions of The Syntopticon and of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary could only have been written by someone who knew exactly what he believed, and whose unshakeable clarity of conviction acted to release the critical energies that made these essays possible. Yet clarity of conviction can be perilously close to prejudice, which is itself a species of false clarity; often Mr. Macdonald mistakes his own prejudices for judgments of a different order, and this in turn leads to the substitution of opinion-mongering for argument. For example, in his long essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” he chooses to discuss Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., and Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body as instances of Midcult writing. But if anything is clear about this list—or at least so it seems to this reviewer—it is that Hemingway’s work does not belong in it. The Old Man and the Sea is a failure by a writer whose work belongs to a different class than the work of the three with whom Mr. Macdonald has included him. And this makes Hemingway’s lapses into vulgarity and coarseness of feeling more interesting and more complex than the mere vulgarity and coarseness of middlebrowism. At least such a view might be argued. But Mr. Macdonald doesn’t argue—at any rate not in this instance—he merely asserts. The assertion is supported only by what must be called Mr. Macdonald’s taste; and for him taste is largely determined by his sense of style.

More than he is anything else, Mr. Macdonald is a critic of style. To be precise, he is a critic of prose style, and he tends habitually to regard writing with the jaundiced but good-humored eye of a teacher of Freshman Composition. In his unwavering regard for the standard, traditional virtues of English prose, Mr. Macdonald takes his place along with Hazlitt and Orwell as one of the caretakers of the language. Yet his sense of prose is less adequate than that of either of them and tends to be merely standard in its insistence upon what can be thought of as the externalities of prose (indicating again both the strengths and shortcomings of the neo-classic temperament of mind). This deficiency of inwardness is characteristic of Mr. Macdonald’s writing in general, and we find it first of all in his own prose. Here is a typical passage:

Lots of writers are fascinated by evil and write copiously about it, but they are bored by virtue; this not only limits their scope but prevents a satisfactory account of evil, which can no more be comprehended apart from good than light can be comprehended apart from darkness.

What is wrong with this passage is not its clarity or simplicity but the absence from it of any sense that clarity and simplicity are in this context misplaced and irrelevant. Unlike the best clear critical prose—one thinks of the style of T. S. Eliot or of Edmund Wilson—Mr. Macdonald’s rarely carries with its clarity the sense of difficulty overcome or of problems so complex that they cannot be reduced to complacent neatness of formulation. (Complacent neatness of formulation, one must observe, is a tendency in Mr. Macdonald’s writing that his years on the New Yorker have unfortunately helped to solidify.)

Mr. Macdonald’s criticism of other writers almost always focuses on their prose. Sometimes this works very well; sometimes it amounts to an evasion. For example, he blows up Colin Wilson’s The Outsider by demonstrating how its barbarous style is inseparable from its philistine attitudes. But then he tries to do the same thing with Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution, stating that Williams “isn’t good at generalizing and this is shown by his appalling prose style—for one cannot conceive of an idea apart from the words in which it is expressed; at least, I can’t.” Simply substitute for Williams the names of Jeremy Bentham, John Dewey, or Thorstein Veblen (not to mention writers in other languages) and the inadequacy of this idea stands revealed. And at another point he asserts that it is a “false distinction” to think that a book can be “important because of what it says, apart from how it says it.” This is exactly the kind of thing one says to freshmen in the hope that they will attend to their own prose but with the awareness that it is only a partial truth. For the fact is that many important writers—even including novelists—have had bad or awkward styles. And perhaps the chief fault of Mr. Macdonald’s criticism is the way in which he consistently regards ideas as if they were aesthetic objects, identifying validity with felicity. Even John Keats, the first of the intellectual aesthetes, was finally forced to entertain the idea that poetry might not be “so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.”

This confusion of beauty with truth is nowhere so evident as in Mr. Macdonald’s essay on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. With a masterly thoroughness he compares the new version with the King James version and shows how the older translation is in point of literary quality superior in every way. “To make the Bible readable in the modern sense,” he writes, “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.” This is of course so, but at no point in the essay does Mr. Macdonald evince the slightest awareness that for several millions of people the Bible is the living Word of God, or that such things as salvation and immortality are abiding realities for the largest part of mankind. And he mourns the passing of the King James version because it was “a great literary monument to which, because it also happens to have a religious function, practically everybody, no matter how unliterary or meagerly educated, was at some time exposed. . . .” The italics are mine. “As it enriches us to leave beautiful old buildings standing when they are no longer functional,” he continues, “or to perform Shakespeare without watering his poetry down to prose, so with the Bible.” So with the Bible only if it matters no more than Chats-worth or Love’s Labour’s Lost. Here Mr. Macdonald ceases to be a literary or cultural critic and functions as a mere aesthete.

In the end, his objections to mass culture and modern society are also aesthetic—that is to say, Mr. Macdonald regards society as essentially a work of art. This is the classic conservative position, and a respectable one; but it must be added that Mr. Macdonald is a conservative only in cultural matters and has not taken to himself the other beliefs which add substance if not final strength to the traditional conservative attitude. He has no use for religion (and as I have tried to show, no sensibility or even appreciation of it), and his politics, having run their course through Trotskyism, anarchism, and pacifism, now appear to be utterly neutral. Furthermore, his sense of history—crucial to the best conservative thought—is woefully underdeveloped. At one point, for example, he asserts that it should be our aim “to restore the cultural distinctions that have become increasingly blurred since the industrial revolution, and that out of such attempts to do this as the 1890—1930 avant-garde movement . . . has come whatever is alive in our culture today.” The innocence of historical fact that such a statement reveals is itself surprising enough; what is even more surprising is Mr. Macdonald’s innocence of knowing that one can’t, in anything like the sense he means, restore a thing—not even the good old times of the avant-garde and one’s intellectual youth. And even granting the possibility of such a cultural restoration, how could it take place without a prior restoration of the social, political, and economic arrangements out of which that culture grew and upon whose existence the existence of that culture almost wholly depended? The truth is that the criticism of mass culture involves a good deal more than aesthetic sense, or taste; it involves firm judgments of a moral and social kind—judgments that, while not ultimately disconnected from judgments of taste, are not identical with them and often must violate them. The idea of equality, for instance, is an aesthetic offense; it has nothing of the charm and grace and style of the ideas of hierarchy, degree, and inherited distinction. Something like this can also be said of the ideas of change, conflict, and compromise as opposed to the ideas of permanence, order, and completeness of form. Yet it would be worse than folly to allow our social and moral judgments to depend on such considerations. There are, we must from time to time remind ourselves, more important values than the values of art.

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