Did he fall or did he jump?: Dwight Macdonald walked the high wire of radical opinion
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 May 2004)

For six months Phil and Mary lived together in Greenwich Village and everything was great, Phil thought, until one day he came home from work, whistling merrily, and found a note from Mary on the bureau. It said she was really sorry, ashamed even, but she had run off with Edmund and they were about to be married.

This was a literary event, because Philip Rahv was the Marxist brains behind the Partisan Review, Mary McCarthy was the prettiest and cleverest girl writer in New York (in 1938 everybody said "girl"), and Edmund Wilson was a famous literary critic.

Mary and Phil were friends of Dwight Macdonald, who was in some ways the brightest journalist in America and in some ways the dumbest. Despite having the wrong education (Exeter School and Yale University), he had found a place in radical politics.

Years later he told the story of Phil, Mary and Edmund with the combined relish and disapproval of a true gossip. He developed it a bit, as good gossips always do: He probably invented the "whistling merrily" in my first paragraph. He also expressed sympathy, a redemptive component of gossip. "Well, it was a crushing blow ... I remember Rahv saying, 'My God, why did I ever introduce her to that guy?' "

Macdonald's journalism often contained gossip, and his own life enriched the gossip of everyone who knew him. This didn't end with his death in 1982. Macdonald gossip has been trickling out ever since, usually in memoirs by friends and most recently in Interviews with Dwight Macdonald (University of Mississippi Press), a book edited by Michael Wreszin, his biographer. Macdonald is a gossip who goes on giving.

In one interview he explains his role in the life of Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the 20th century. In 1939 Greenberg, then an unpublished writer, sent a letter to the editor of the Partisan Review, arguing with a piece by Macdonald, one of the editors. It was far too good to be printed as a letter, so Macdonald suggested Greenberg expand it into an article. As "The Avant Garde and Kitsch" it became a famous, much-reprinted piece, the beginning of Greenberg's career.

Four decades later Macdonald said, "I invented Clem Greenberg." He wasn't proud. "I'm in the position of Frankenstein, because I have no regard for Greenberg at all." He disliked the man's insistent moral hectoring. "Clem has many of the aspects of the old-fashioned con man. He made people feel guilty if they didn't like Jackson Pollock."

In The New Yorker and Esquire as well as literary magazines, Macdonald wrote persuasive, dashing and original articles on subjects ranging from the obscenities of General George Patton to the numbing prose in the Standard Revised Version of the Bible. But people talked just as much about Macdonald's capricious politics, his bizarre ability to change views in a twinkling. He often warned his readers against intellectual con games, but he fell for every con that came his way. He puzzled even himself: "The speed with which I evolved from a liberal into a radical and from a tepid Communist sympathizer into an ardent anti-Stalinist still amazes me."

Stalinism, Trotskyism, pacifism, nudism, anarchism, student power -- if it looked like a Big Idea, Macdonald fell for it. He was a dazzling performer on the high wire of radical opinion, except that he kept falling off -- or, more often, jumping. While he amused himself with his changes, he also became something of a drama queen when discussing his disillusionment. In 1949, having been writing on politics for no more than a dozen or so years, he declared: "I have lost my faith in any general and radical improvement in modern society whether by Marxian socialism or pacifist persuasion and ethical example."

He ended as a "conservative anarchist," which meant he believed in tradition, suspected state power and was no longer required to strike noble poses. He saw himself as a serious intellectual, but he was also a comedian of ideas. His career was in essence a first-class intellectual vaudeville act, executed with magnificent style and many pratfalls.

In middle age he decided that group nudity expressed libertarianism, the search for sexual freedom and anti-bourgeois bohemianism. His friends joined in, and intellectual nudist parties were among the pleasures of their summers at Wellfleet, Mass. His first wife recalled one occasion when Freda Utley, a fierce political writer of the day, was arguing with Dwight while clad only in a "small bra to hold her hearing aid." In 1949 Mary McCarthy (by now a fiction writer, after coaching by Edmund Wilson during their brief marriage) modelled one of her characters on Macdonald in her bitchy novella about their community, The Oasis.

The interviews Wreszin has gathered from various publications include plenty of wild Macdonald generalizations on films ("The British overuse the close-up. They douse their movies with close-ups the way people with defective taste buds use ketchup") and his harsh view of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller as witch doctors.

In youth and middle age Macdonald wrote so much that he deserved the adjective "scribacious," that excellent 18th-century word for someone fond of writing. But around age 55, sadly for his readers, he was afflicted by writer's block. Suddenly his Niagara of prose and opinions stopped, started again briefly, then stopped for good. Why? He suffered off and on from depression, and treated it with alcohol, which of course made it worse. Eventually he decided anything on Earth was preferable to writing, and earned his living as a teacher at various universities from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Buffalo, N.Y.

A few years ago Joseph Epstein, writing in The New Criterion, recalled a moment in 1980 when Macdonald took part in a panel at Skidmore College. Everyone there knew they were dealing with a fairly serious boozer. Epstein wrote, "He seemed the intellectual equivalent of the boxer who has taken way too many shots to the head."

Naturally, Macdonald never wrote about any of that. He had carved out an identity as a man of shrewd wit and devastating style, and not even he could have produced a high-spirited article or book on his own misery. So the rest was silence, interrupted now and then by delightful conversations about the escapades of his famous old friends.

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