Every Latest Spasm

Christopher Hitchens

  • 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.

You are not logged in