Every Latest Spasm
- A Rebel in Defence of Tradition: The Life and ‘Politics’ of Dwight Macdonald by Michael Wreszin
Basic Books, 590 pp, £17.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 465 01739 8
To have been lampooned once by Mary McCarthy might have been considered a misfortune, but to have been ridiculed by her three times must count as some sort of carelessness. In her ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’, she presented Jim Barnett, a likeable boy from a promising background who, in the devil’s decade of the Thirties, could nonetheless suit his own fancy:
From the very first, Jim was an independent in politics, siding now with the Communists, now with the Lovestoneites, now with the Trotskyists, now with the group of middle-class liberals he had known at college who were trying to build a Farmer-Labour party of their own. In anybody else, such behaviour would have been politically suspect: the man would have been damned as a careerist, on the one hand, or a dilettante on the other. Yet neither of these allegations was ever made against Jim. His heterodoxy was received by all factions with paternal indulgence. ‘Let the boy have his head’ was the feeling. ‘A wild oat or two won’t hurt him.’
In her 1949 novel The Oasis, Ms McCarthy had given us Macdougal Macdermott, who – with his lower-case ds – ‘had suffered all his life from a vague sense that he was somehow crass, that he did not belong by natural endowment to that world of the spirit which his intellect told him was the highest habitation of man.’ And to Hannah Arendt in 1962 (I owe this to Carol Brightman, the incisive McCarthy scholar) she chortled over the conceit that Dwight was a hoax, or a species of ambulant practical joke, on himself and others. ‘Quite a funny idea ...’ she wrote, ‘that Dwight is a kind of self-made invention or impersonation masquerading as himself.’
Well, it’s certainly true that Macdonald wore the aspect of a large and shaggy animal, not all that good at judging the master’s mood but nonetheless valued and patronised. Perhaps privately longing to be thought fierce or dangerous, he never quite brought off a convincing snarl. Yet he is remembered for certain qualities which appreciate over time. Michael Wreszin’s biography succeeds in spite of its invocation of the conservative revolutionary.
While a genuine radical like James Cameron could famously say of himself that he was ‘conservative about everything except politics’, and while it’s true that the Anglo-American political culture holds a special niche permanently vacant for those bookish old ranters (Michael Foot, Norman Thomas) who can qualify for that sort of affectionate obituary even while they are still alive, the paradox of the traditionalist rebel does not automatically connote charm or breadth of mind. In the Puritan revolutions of old, and the Islamic ones of today, those prepared to break images for the sake of the ancestral hearth and the immutable faith present a more forbidding aspect: censorious, single-minded and flinty.
Macdonald had nothing of this in his make-up, which was that of the chronic hedonist and lifelong practitioner of dissipation. Born to a family that was even more Yalie than McCarthy’s caricature (the Dwights for whom he was named had produced two presidents of that university), he had a preppie upbringing and adolescence, and seems to have been quite insufferable at the various Anglomaniac schools and colleges he attended. Dandyish in dress, affected in bearing, snobbish in choice of acquaintance, he was the sort of young person who admired H.L. Mencken for the wrong reasons. He seems also to have been interested in impressing a ghastly-sounding Mama, though she would have been less delighted to learn of his amateur homoerotics than of his easy resort to conventional anti-semitism.
It’s an observable fact, however, if not exactly a sociological truth, that Wasps like this, who decided to move to the left, were much less likely to end up as neo-conservatives than the tough-minded, plebeian Jews who, schooled to street-fights and picket lines and canonical disputations in their hot youth, found the lure of Yale less easy to resist than did those who’d always been able to take it for granted. Mocking though ‘Portrait of the Intellectual’ relentlessly is about its gently-bred subject, when Jim breaks up with the Stalinists he does so ‘from the happy centre of things, by a pure act of perception’ (as well as in the embarrassed hope of impressing a comely and spirited girl). Privileged to begin with, Macdonald had the additional huge advantage and distinction of beginning a radical life as a rebel against left orthodoxy – thus sparing himself the mendacity and eventual burn-out which consumed so many of his coevals.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994
Christopher Hitchens begins his review (LRB, 23 June) of Michael Wreszin’s biography of Dwight Macdonald with the claim that Mary McCarthy ‘lampooned’ and ‘ridiculed’ Macdonald no less than three times, the first time in her story ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’. As a marginal and very junior member of the intellectual circles around Macdonald’s Politics and Partisan Review in the late Forties, I recall that it was common knowledge that McCarthy’s model was John Chamberlain. Chamberlain had started out as a left-wing journalist, became a writer and editor for the Luce publications, wrote a book called A Farewell to Reform and eventually edited Freeman, a solidly right-wing journal that was the precursor of William Buckley’s National Review. 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. Hitchens mentions Carol Brightman’s biography of McCarthy, yet Brightman writes of ‘the original model for the Yale Man, John Chamberlain’.
Hitchens quotes a long passage that is vaguely suggestive of Macdonald. But other traits ascribed to McCarthy’s character on the same pages, including physical appearance, bear no resemblance at all to Dwight. Hitchens should have seen this after reading Wreszin’s biography even if he never met Macdonald and knows nothing about New York intellectual life forty or fifty years ago. Gertrude Himmelfarb, however, who makes the same mistake about the McCarthy character in her review of Wreszin in Commentary, lacks such an excuse: she moved in those circles in the Forties and knew Macdonald personally then and later.
Both Hitchens and Himmelfarb pay too little attention to Macdonald’s strong anti-Communism. He 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 the American Communist Party had notoriously helped organise. In the same year Macdonald put out the largest issue of Politics, devoted chiefly to the exposure of Soviet totalitarianism. The next year Macdonald, Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell attended sessions of the famous Waldorf Peace Conference in order to ask probing questions of Soviet cultural officials about writers and artists who had been purged. 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 injustices. Hitchens and Himmelfarb mention none of this, although it had a considerable influence on politically-minded young people inclined to the left such as myself.
Hitchens and Himmelfarb are scarcely ideological soul-mates, so they minimise Macdonald’s anti-Communism for different reasons. Himmelfarb wants to picture him as an utterly irresponsible utopian leftist, while Hitchens chooses to celebrate his reborn radicalism in the Sixties, a period which compares to the Thirties and Forties as farce or burlesque to tragedy. (Incidentally, Macdonald’s participation in what turned out to be the dying flare of a left sub-culture produced not a single piece of memorable writing from his pen.) In fairness, Hitchens and Himmelfarb may be reflecting Wreszin’s lack of emphasis: Macdonald’s son Michael remarked to me the other day that he thought Wreszin had underplayed his father’s hatred of Stalinism.
Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994
There’s no need for Dennis Wrong (Letters, 4 August) to be so literal. Since Mary McCarthy made fun of Dwight Macdonald explicitly on two occasions, and since good things come in trios. I decided to emphasise the Macdonaldish aspects of her ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’. That there are such aspects, Wrong does not deny. It also helped me to glide smoothly into the Yale aspect of Macdonald’s early formation. Very few fictional characters are based solely on one live model, and just because I didn’t show off my knowledge of John Chamberlain is no reason for Wrong to go comparing me to Gertrude Himmelfarb for crying out loud.
As for failing to lay enough stress on Macdonald’s anti-Stalinism, I suppose that by placing him with the Trotskyists in the Thirties and the Encounter set in the Fifties I could have given the impression that his whole life was spent as a fellow-traveller of the Popular Front. But I doubt I would have given that impression to many readers of the LRB. Wrong should have addressed his letter to his former comrades at Partisan Review, who would have been thrilled by his clever detective work about Himmelfarb and myself, and who believe that anti-Stalinism is the whole measure of a man’s character.
Finally, Wrong says that Macdonald’s engagement with the anti-war movement of the Sixties ‘produced not a single piece of memorable writing from his pen’. Depends who’s doing the remembering, doesn’t it? I for one remember with pleasure and edification the essay which Macdonald wrote to introduce a paperback transcript of the trial of the Chicago Seven. It combined solidarity with criticism in just the way I tried to praise in my original review. Agonising as he was at the time, about whether to find the war or the anti-war movement the most objectionable, Wrong may have missed it.
Vol. 16 No. 20 · 20 October 1994
It’s curious that Christopher Hitchens (Letters, 8 September) should accuse me of being ‘so literal’ about a story by Mary McCarthy, whose major limitations as a writer of fiction were regularly attributed to her excessive literalism – ‘she provides everything but the real names and telephone numbers of her characters,’ as was said of her more than once. ‘The Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’ was meant to portray a man who had sold out, in the expression common in those days, contrasted with someone who hadn’t, based on McCarthy herself, with whom the sell-out had once had a brief affair. Dwight Macdonald’s career, most starkly by the early Forties when the story was written, had followed a directly opposite course. Another of Hitchens’s cases of McCarthy’s ‘lampooning’ of Macdonald was a remark in a private letter quoted by McCarthy’s biographer, which leaves standing only one authentic case of his ‘good things that come in trios’.
I didn’t say that Hitchens had ignored Macdonald’s anti-Communism, just that he had failed to mention its most active and influential manifestations at a time in the late Forties and early Fifties when anti-Stalinism really was a measure at least of someone’s political intelligence and morality. Of course it ceased to be that after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech at the very latest.
‘Memorable is as memorable does,’ to paraphrase Forrest Gump. The piece Hitchens likes was included in none of Macdonald’s collections of his writings and is mentioned neither by his biographer nor by any of the reviews, most of them favourable, that Wreszin’s biography has received.
Princeton, New Jersey