Manual Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York Review Books Classics)

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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. Unlike the Jewish immigrants he eventually circled around, socialism had barely registered on his youth.

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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. 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.


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In the s he visited a work camp housing conscientious objectors to the war, which inspired him again to ponder starting a commune. But it also yielded his little magazine politics , which was extraordinary. 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.

He shuttered his magazine in , his communitarian fantasies unfulfilled, and announced his retreat into exile. He threw up his hands and turned his attention from politics to culture. He spent the s seething with scorn. The deeply engrained egalitarianism of the country meant that nobody respected anybody else.

Dwight, the Passionate Moralist | by Edward Mendelson | The New York Review of Books

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.

Although he supported the West in the cold war, he made it clear that the West only gained his allegiance by a nose. Many other disillusioned Marxists had arrived at the same dim conclusion about the working class.

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That grim assessment formed the basis for some of the monumental works of the s: 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.

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. 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.

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York Review Books Classics)

This classification was not a parlor game or an academic exercise: it was a necessary means of rooting out the infiltrators. Macdonald wrote his best essays of the s and s 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.

Such a lame work would have hardly extracted his cantankerous best. 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. 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. They could revel in their slop, for all he cared.

Masscult & Midcult

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.

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

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He despised almost everything in popular culture; some best-selling books are remembered only because he demolished them in a review. At sixty-two, when he joined the protesters at the campus uprising at Columbia, he lectured to the student rebels on the value of critical standards and high culture. Macdonald was a deeper, more decisive, and more coherent thinker than his reputation—or this selection—suggests. He was consistent in his focus on the moral aspects of books and politics, but in literary essays like these he tended to write about such matters either in passing or in a tone of embarrassment.

He gestured toward them in a memorial essay for James Agee in Slideshare uses cookies to improve functionality and performance, and to provide you with relevant advertising. If you continue browsing the site, you agree to the use of cookies on this website. See our User Agreement and Privacy Policy. See our Privacy Policy and User Agreement for details.

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