Commentary Magazine


Dwight Macdonald

To the Editor:

In her article on Michael Wreszin’s biography of Dwight Macdonald [“The Politics of Dissent,” July], Gertrude Himmelfarb writes: “Mary McCarthy’s ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,’ written in 1942, gives us a barely fictionalized young Macdonald who presages the Macdonald of later years.” As a marginal and very junior member of the intellectual circles around Macdonald’s Politics and Partisan Review in the late 1940’s, I recall that it was common knowledge that McCarthy’s model was John Chamberlain. Miss Himmelfarb was also a member of these circles, so her error is surprising. She knew Macdonald personally much better than I ever did, so it is also surprising that she ignores the clear lack of resemblance between most of the traits McCarthy ascribes to her character, including physical appearance, and Macdonald. It is all the more surprising in that she clearly reread the McCarthy story from which she quotes directly. If it is any consolation to her, Christopher Hitchens made the same mistake in the London Review of Books of June 23, placing the false equation between Macdonald and the McCarthy character at the very beginning of his review.

John Chamberlain started out as a left-wing journalist, became a writer for the Luce publications, wrote a book called A Farewell to Reform, and eventually edited the Freeman, a solidly right-wing journal that was the precursor of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. Dwight Macdonald’s career followed exactly the opposite course: he began as a writer for Luce, went on to contribute to obscure radical periodicals, and ultimately founded his own in Politics. Perhaps Miss Himmelfarb’s error is owing to the fact that today she sees Chamberlain’s career and that of McCarthy’s character—at odds here with McCarthy herself—as a sober and responsible one in contrast to the vain utopian leftism for which she censures Macdonald.

I think it is safe to say that Miss Himmelfarb and Hitchens are not exactly ideological soul-mates. Yet both of them, presumably for quite different reasons, pay little attention to Macdonald’s strong anti-Communism. Miss Himmelfarb mentions a few of Macdonald’s criticisms of the Soviet Union in passing, Hitchens ignores them altogether. Yet Macdonald wrote a book on Henry Wallace and made speeches against him during Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign on the ticket of the Progressive party, which had notoriously been organized by the American Communist party. In the same year, Macdonald put out the largest issue of Politics, devoted chiefly to the exposure of Soviet totalitarianism, including a comprehensive bibliography at a time when Sovietology had yet to be established in the universities.

The next year Macdonald, McCarthy, and Robert Lowell attended sessions of the famous—or infamous—Waldorf Peace Conference in order to ask probing questions of Soviet cultural officials about writers and artists, many of them Jewish, who had been victims of Stalin’s purges. A few years later, at the height of the cold war and the hot Korean war, Macdonald announced that he “chose the West” while in no way renouncing criticism of its manifest injustices and deficiencies.

Gertrude Himmelfarb and Christopher Hitchens pass over all this, although it had a considerable influence on politically-minded young people inclined to the Left such as myself. In fairness, they may be reflecting Wreszin’s lack of emphasis: Macdonald’s son Michael remarked to me the other day that he thought Wreszin had somewhat underplayed his father’s hatred of Stalinism.

Dennis Wrong
Princeton, New Jersey

_____________

 

Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

Dennis Wrong makes much of the one sentence in my review prefacing a quotation from Mary McCarthy’s story, “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” which I associate with Dwight Macdonald. It was “common knowledge,” he says, that John Chamberlain was the model for that “Yale man”; if he (Wrong) knew that at the time, surely I should have as well. As a historian, I am wary of half-a-century-old memories (and rumors). I prefer to rely on the recent authorized biography of Mary McCarthy by Carol Brightman, who describes that character (Jim Barnett in the story) as “reassembled from bits and pieces of a half-dozen men—Chamberlain, yes, but chiefly as ‘a good-looking clothes hanger’ (McCarthy), along with telltale tinctures of Dwight Macdonald, Malcolm Cowley, and Robert Cant-well.” If it was chiefly his appearance that recalled Chamberlain, other aspects of his life and work, according to Brightman—the kinds of articles he wrote for Destiny (i.e., Fortune), and his unsuccessful efforts to write a book after leaving the magazine—clearly derived from Macdonald. Certainly the passage I quoted on his “mind and character” is quintessentially Macdonald.

Mr. Wrong’s account of the later careers of Chamberlain and Macdonald is irrelevant, since McCarthy’s story, as I pointed out in my article, was published in 1942, before the two had diverged so dramatically. (Chamberlain was editor of the Freeman from 1950 to 1952.) He attributes my “error” to my preference for Chamberlain’s politics over Macdonald’s; I can only assure him that I have not given a thought to Chamberlain or his politics for more decades than I like to remember.

Mr. Wrong also accuses me of slighting Macdonald’s anti-Communism. I do, in fact, speak of it several times, and if I do not make as much of it as Mr. Wrong would like, it is because, in Macdonald’s circles, anti-Communism was a given; he was hardly a lone crusader in that cause. Mr. Wrong says that it was Macdonald’s anti-Communism that inspired young people like himself. But he might have taken his inspiration from the many other ex-Trotskyites, Social Democrats, and anti-Communist liberals who contributed to Partisan Review, the New Leader, COMMENTARY, Dissent, and Encounter in those years. What distinguished Macdonald from most of them was not his anti-Communism but his anti-Americanism. As I made clear (and Michael Wreszin did as well), that often led him to equate the evils of Communism and capitalism. Certainly during the 1950’s and 60’s it was his animus against American culture, society, and politics that dominated his writing and political activities.

The more notable fact about Macdonald, which Mr. Wrong does not mention at all, was his adamant opposition to World War II—not on pacifist grounds but because he regarded capitalism as insufficiently superior to Nazism to justify the war. Unlike most of his friends on the Left, he maintained this position throughout the war and afterward, never, so far as I know, regretting or recanting it. If Macdonald did have “considerable influence,” as Mr. Wrong says, over young people like himself, I sincerely hope he did not influence them in this respect.

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