Synopses & Reviews
A New York Review Books Original
Political radical, trenchant essayist, and impresario of the New York intellectuals, Dwight Macdonald was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century American letters. In his most famous and controversial essay, "Masscult and Midcult", MacDonald turns his formidable critical attention to what he sees as a new, and potentially catastrophic, development in the history of Western civilization: the influence—by turns distorting, destructive, and inadvertently ridiculous—of mass culture on high culture. In this new collection of essays, ranging in subject matter from Ernest Hemingway, James Agee, and Tom Wolfe to Webster’s Dictionary and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Macdonald is shrewd, passionate, and bracingly alive to the complexities of his subject, which he defines as being “not the dead sea of masscult but rather the life of the tide line where higher and lower organisms compete for survival.”
"This collection brings together the most memorable writing by influential cultural and literary critic Macdonald. Written in 1960, the title essay argues that American middlebrow culture 'pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.' Macdonald claims that artists like Norman Rockwell and magazines, such as Life and Time, that attempt to make art and culture appealing to a mass audience are 'degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous.' He feels similarly about the 1952 Revised Standard Version of the Bible that altered the poetic language to make the text more accessible. The 1961 third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary is taken to task for its all-inclusive approach to language, including slang and grammatical inaccuracies without qualifiers, such as 'colloquial' or 'erroneous.' In the final essay, Macdonald assails Tom Wolfe's shoddy approach to journalism, calling Wolfe's writing 'parajournalism' a mixture of fact and fiction where 'entertainment, rather than information is the aim of its producers.' Macdonald was a brilliant and influential writer of his time; hopefully this new collection will introduce him to a new generation of readers. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A New York Review Books Original
An uncompromising contrarian, a passionate polemicist, a man of quick wit and wide learning, an anarchist, a pacifist, and a virtuoso of the slashing phrase, Dwight Macdonald was an indefatigable and indomitable critic of America’s susceptibility to well-meaning cultural fakery: all those estimable, eminent, prizewinning works of art that are said to be good and good for you and are not. He dubbed this phenomenon “Midcult” and he attacked it not only on aesthetic but on political grounds. Midcult rendered people complacent and compliant, secure in their common stupidity but neither happy nor free.
This new selection of Macdonald’s finest essays, assembled by John Summers, the editor of The Baffler, reintroduces a remarkable American critic and writer. In the era of smart, sexy, and everything indie, Macdonald remains as pertinent and challenging as ever.
About the Author
Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982) was born in New York City and educated at Exeter and Yale. On graduating from college, he enrolled in Macy’s executive training program, but soon left to
work for Henry Luce at Time and Fortune, quitting in 1936 because of cuts that had been made to an article he had written criticizing U.S. Steel. From 1937 to 1943, Macdonald was an editor
of Partisan Review and in 1944, he started a journal of his own, Politics, whose contributors included Albert Camus, Victor Serge, Simone Weil, Bruno Bettelheim, James Agee, John Berryman, Meyer Schapiro, and Mary McCarthy. In later years, Macdonald reviewed books for The New Yorker, movies for Esquire, and wrote frequently for The New York Review of Books.
John Summers is the editor of The Baffler.
Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Discovering Modernism, The Metaphysical Club, American Studies, and The Marketplace of Ideas.