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The ideal oppositionist

A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald, Edited by Michael Wreszin, Ivan R. Dee: 482 pp., $35

August 10, 2003|Lee Siegel | Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Born into New York aristocracy, into an old WASP family that boasted two presidents of Yale, Dwight Macdonald attended Exeter and then, naturally, went on to Yale. But he still turned out OK.

One-time Trotskyist, lifelong anarcho-pacifist, enemy of big-government liberals and political conservatives alike, dedicated antiwar activist at the time of Vietnam, enemy of bad taste, bad art and bad writing, Macdonald (1906-1982) is often celebrated as the ideal oppositional writer. He is routinely invoked by mediocrities he would skewer if he were alive today, as if banal references to Macdonald could substitute for the kind of rigorous sallies against banality at which he excelled. These breezy fans should read Macdonald more closely. "Mere abuse isn't enough. Logic, wit, coherence, a rational structure are also needed." Those are just two memorable sentences among countless more in these marvelous letters (edited by Michael Wreszin, also the editor of "Interviews with Dwight Macdonald") to, among others, Mary McCarthy, Stephen Spender, Kenneth Tynan, George Orwell, Irving Howe, Harold Rosenberg, T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Victor Serge, Hannah Arendt and Czeslaw Milosz.

Macdonald considered skepticism the mountain path to human happiness, a somewhat depressed attitude. (According to Wreszin's first-rate 1994 biography, a friend remembered the middle-aged Macdonald always having a cold.) His skepticism, though, was based on an almost childlike hopefulness about life. It ripened into a world-weary optimism that became explicit during later years in articles he published as a staff writer for the New Yorker, especially his 1952 profile of the Catholic charity worker Dorothy Day and his long review in 1963 of Michael Harrington's "The Other America," which helped instigate Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

At the age of 40, after having worked as a staff writer for Henry Luce's Fortune and then as co-founder and co-editor of Partisan Review, Macdonald wrote an essay titled "The Root Is Man," which appeared in Politics, a little magazine he published after leaving Partisan Review. The essay's epigraph is from Marx: "To be radical is to grasp the matter by its root: Now the root for mankind is man himself." Characteristically, however, Macdonald's polemic was an all-out attack on Marxism, and its humanistic assault on Marxism's dialectical certitudes outraged many of Politics' small band of subscribers.

Macdonald also laid siege to communism, Trotsky, socialism, FDR and liberals of every stripe. He believed that the enlargement of human possibilities had nothing to do with a materialist faith in historical progress, in the rational application of science and technology to society. His anarchism turned him into an aesthete who cherished art's subtle dialogue with solitude. Not for nothing did he choose "James Joyce" as his Trotskyist alias. Out of this spirit came his classic essay "Masscult and Midcult," lambasting American democracy's vulgarization of high culture.

Yet Macdonald believed that a meaningful life had even less to do with faith in markets, in the rational application of the laws of self-interest and supply-and-demand to society. His aesthetic anti-materialism offered a different door into political radicalism, into his opposition to a military-industrial capitalism gone mad in Vietnam. In 1963 he wrote, "I've never been a liberal (but either a revolutionary or a conservative or my present blend of both)." For Macdonald, the only values that mattered were "those non-historical Absolute Values (Truth, Love, Justice) which the Marxists made unfashionable among socialists." What might seem like Macdonald's inconsistencies are actually his steady allegiance to unchanging values inflected in different ways by multilayered circumstances. "I wouldn't write for a Commie house and I won't write for a McCarthyite one either," he told the right-wing publisher Henry Regnery.

Despite his almost religious language, Macdonald didn't believe in God. He judged everyone and everything by the light of his own intelligence and sensibility, which he never stopped examining. As these thrillingly intimate and articulate letters demonstrate, the root of Macdonald's skepticism toward society was his faith in the human essence, and what kept that faith warm was his mastery of aspects of himself that ran contrary to his own essential humanity. Few people have made themselves over as successfully as Macdonald did. His intuition seemed to convey experience to his mind with the innocence of a country boy carrying a pail of fresh milk to the kitchen. Macdonald's honest style matriculated in his character.

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