Macdonald, Dwight

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Dwight Macdonald was born on March 24, 1906 in New York City. He graduated from Yale University in 1928 (B.A.). He served as associate editor of Fortune Magazine (1929-1936) and editor of the Partisan Review (1937-1943). Macdonald joined the Socialist Workers Party (Trotskyist Party), and was a member from 1939-1941. He published numerous books, articles, and essays in addition to publishing a journal, Politics, from 1944-1949. He also wrote for Esquire and The New Yorker, and published Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1956), which was reissued in 1970 as Politics Past. Macdonald died on December 19, 1982 in New York City.

Dwight Macdonald has been for almost fifty years a productive and influential critic of politics, society, and culture in the United States and abroad. He is especially well-known for his writing on film, mass culture, and political ideas, but few subjects of humanistic interest have altogether escaped his attention. At different times he has written regularly for Fortune, Partisan Review, The New International, Politics (which he also edited and published), The New Yorker, Encounter, and Esquire, and his articles have appeared occasionally in dozens of other periodicals. Among his longer works are The Root is Man: A Radical Critique of Marxism, "Masscult and Midcult," several volumes of essays, studies of Henry Wallace and the Ford Foundation, editions of Edgar Allan Poe and Alexander Herzen, and an anthology of parodies. He has also been an important member and critic of a number of political movements and organizations, ranging in time from the Socialist Workers Party in the late 1930s to the anti-war movement in the late 1960s. Since 1948 he has also lectured and taught courses on film, mass culture, politics, and other subjects in colleges and universities.

An education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale (B.A., 1928) provided Macdonald with a strong background in classical literature and reinforced his tendency to rely on his own taste and knowledge as his final measures of value. This self-assurance and skepticism shaped both his early approach to radical politics and his later ventures in cultural criticism. Experiences at Yale, in particular, foreshadowed the characteristic Macdonald protest: in a 1925 letter to President James R. Angell, he argued against compulsory chapel on the ground that the sermons offended his intelligence.

In the 1930s, along with many other disenchanted American intellectuals, Dwight Macdonald read Marx and turned to communism. In 1934 he wrote that he believed it to be the "only way out of the mess our society is in. Whether it's a blind alley is another question but it's the only alley that has any chance of not turning out to be blind." But unlike the majority of those who took this path, he affiliated himself with the Trotskyists rather than the Communists. A leading intellectual in the Socialist Workers Party from 1939 to 1941, he left the Party in the later year because of its lack of internal democracy and intellectual freedom.

Macdonald argued with the Trotskyists over organization and not ideology, but by the time he published "The Root is Man" in 1946, he had completed an ideological break as well. Applying a single measure to politics and culture, he criticized either when it offended his intellect or the principles of his conservatism. Later in the 1940s, when he reflected on his involvement with the Trotskyists, he described the experience with a metaphor that recalled Exeter and Yale: "It really is like the old school tie, this having once been part of the Bolshevist Movement, and no matter how much one's reason and ethical values tell you now otherwise, one still has a sense that one 'belongs to the club.'"

During the Politics period (1944-1949), Macdonald made a transition from socialist politics and literary criticism to anarchism, pacifism, and a broader critique of American culture. This period prepared him for the articles he would write in the 1950s and 1960s for Esquire and The New Yorker essays that retained his earlier concern for social reform and human welfare but defined culture in more elitist terms. He saw the job of a critic as more than reviewing or providing a consumer report on culture. Rather, he would insist on principles and standards; he would evaluate according to his taste and knowledge. He would undertake to distinguish between true culture and the insidious pseudo-culture ("mid-cult") of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Great Books, and The Saturday Review .

Macdonald carried on his defense of principles and morality in culture by insisting on standards of taste and usage in language. Believing that language determines and reflects the strength and level of culture, he sought a balance between style and content. If, as he wrote in 1960, "Great ideas can only be expressed in a great style,"* content and style might serve as mutual upholders of culture. Radical politics (content) and conservative culture (standards of style and taste) coexisted for him in the medium of language.

Macdonald's left-handed attack on American politics and his right-handed critique of American culture have earned him the reputation of being "against" everything and not "for" anything. By way of this distinction, he further. aided the cause of precision in language in an indirect way. A new term, descriptive of his type of criticism, bears his name: macdonaldize, v.i. to find fault, carp.

*"A note on Style," Dissent (January 1960).


These are among the principal events in Dwight Macdonald's personal and public life:

  • 1906: Born on March 24 in New York City to Dwight Macdonald, Sr., and Alice Eliza Hedges Macdonald
  • [1916?] - 1920 : Attended the Barnard School
  • 1920 - 1924 : Attended Phillips Exeter Academy
  • 1924 - 1928 : Attended Yale College
  • 1926: Death of Dwight Macdonald, Sr.
  • 1927 - 1928 : Served as Chairman of the Board of the Yale Record
  • 1928: Spent six months with Macy's Executive Training Squad
  • 1929: Met James Agee; became Associate Editor of Henry Luce's new magazine, Fortune
  • 1930: Published six numbers of a literary magazine, The Miscellany, with Yale classmates George L.K. Morris, Geoffrey Hellman, and Frederick W. Dupee; films replaced literary criticism as his chief cultural interest
  • 1934: Married Nancy Rodman
  • 1936: Resigned from Fortune in dispute over editing of his articles criticizing United States Steel
  • 1937: Became an editor of Partisan Review; published a three-part article on the Luce magazines in The Nation; wrote a letter to The Nation protesting its coverage of the American Writers Congress
  • 1938: Birth of a son, Michael Dwight; began writing for The New International; wrote Fascism and the American Scene
  • 1939: Joined the Trotskyist Party (Socialist Workers Party); became Acting Secretary of the League for Cultural Freedom and Socialism and signed its. cable to French President Daladier protesting the imprisonment of French pacifists
  • 1940: Wrote Jobs, Not Battleships for the Socialist Workers Party; sided with Max Shachtman's Workers Party in its split with James P. Cannons SWP
  • 1941: Resigned from the Workers Party over issues of intellectual freedom and party organization
  • 1943: Resigned from the editorial board of Partisan Review,protesting a shift in emphasis from political to literary content
  • 1944: Began publishing Politics; wrote "A Theory of Popular Culture"
  • 1945: Birth of second son, Nicholas Gardiner
  • 1946: Wrote "The Root is Man" for Politics
  • 1948: Publication of Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth
  • 1949: Discontinued publication of Politics, giving as his reason a "stale, tired, disheartened, and… demoralized" feeling
  • 1951: Joined the staff of The New Yorker
  • 1953: Publication of The Root is Man: A Radical Critique of Marxism; publication of "The Bible in Modern Undress" in The New Yorker
  • 1954: Divorced from Nancy Rodman Macdonald; married Gloria Lanier
  • 1955: Publication of The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions
  • 1956: Lived for a year in London as staff writer for Encounter; publication of Memoirs of a Revolutionist
  • 1957: Death of Alice Hedges Macdonald
  • 1958: "The Encounter Row," in which Dwight Macdonald charged that the Congress for Cultural Freedom wielded extensive editorial control; publication of "America! America!" in Dissent
  • 1960: Publication of "Masscult and Midcult" in Partisan Review; became film critic for Esquire; publication of Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After
  • 1962M: Publication of Against the American Grain
  • 1963: Publication of "Our Invisible Poor" in The New Yorker
  • 1964: Publication of "Fellini's Masterpiece" in Esquire
  • 1965: Publication of Selected Poems of Edgar Allan Poe; left the staff of The New Yorker
  • 1966: dropped the Esquirefilm column
  • 1967 - 1968 : wrote a political column for Esquire
  • 1968: Publication of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen
  • 1969: Publication of Dwight Macdonald on Movies
  • 1970: Reissue of Memoirs of a Revolutionist as Politics Past
  • 1974: Publication of Discriminations

From the guide to the Dwight Macdonald papers, 1865-1984, 1920-1978, (Manuscripts and Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Papers of John Coolidge and Agnes Mongan, 1909-2006 Harvard Art Museums. Archives
referencedIn Harry Levin papers Houghton Library
referencedIn Max Lerner papers, 1927-1998 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Yaddo records, 1870-1980 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf Dwight Macdonald papers, 1865-1984 (bulk 1920-1978) Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn New Directions Publishing records Houghton Library
referencedIn Esquire, Inc. Records, 1933-1977 Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Victoria Ocampo papers, 1908-1979. Houghton Library
referencedIn New Yorker records New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Vanguard Press Records, ca.1925-ca.1985 Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Socialist Workers Party records, 1914-1980 Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Arnold Gingrich Papers, 1932-1975 Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Victor Serge papers, 1912-1994, 1936-1947 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Hannah Arendt Papers 1898-1977 (bulk 1948-1977) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Spanish Refugee Aid Records, Bulk, 1953-1983, 1941-2006, (Bulk 1953-1983) Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Richard Volney Chase Papers, ca.1930-1984. Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn The Nation, records, 1879-1974 (inclusive), 1920-1955 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Jerome New Frank papers, 1918-1972 (bulk 1929-1957) Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Papers of the magazine Transition, 1933-1941. Houghton Library
referencedIn Harry Roskolenko collection, 1933-1952 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Varian Fry Papers, [ca. 1940]-1967 Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Nicola Chiaromonte papers, 1921-1982 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Meyer Greenberg Papers, undated, 1936-1978 American Jewish Historical Society
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Aaron, Daniel, 1912- person
associatedWith Abdel, Lionel. person
associatedWith Agee, James, 1909-1955 person
associatedWith Anderson, Sherwood, 1876-1941 person
correspondedWith Arendt, Hannah, 1906-1975 person
associatedWith Auden, W. H. (Wystan Hugh), 1907-1973 person
associatedWith Baldwin, Roger Nash, 1884-1981 person
associatedWith Bazelon, David T., 1923- person
associatedWith Bell, Daniel. person
associatedWith Bennett, Clifford. person
associatedWith Bettelheim, Bruno, 1903- person
associatedWith Biederman, Charles Joseph, 1906- person
associatedWith Bingham, Alfred Mitchell, 1905- person
associatedWith Bingham, Hiram, 1875-1956 person
associatedWith Blake, Peter, 1920- person
associatedWith Boorstin, Daniel J. (Daniel Joseph), 1914- person
associatedWith Brandeis, Louis Dembitz, 1856-1941 person
associatedWith Buckley, William F. (William Frank), 1925- person
associatedWith Cannon, James Patrick, 1890-1974 person
associatedWith Chase, Richard Volney, 1914-1962 person
associatedWith Chiaromonte, Nicola. person
associatedWith Cleaver, Eldridge, 1935- person
associatedWith Constas, Helen. person
correspondedWith Coolidge, John, 1913-1995 person
associatedWith Day, Dorothy, 1897-1980 person
associatedWith Delecourt, Andreé. person
associatedWith Delecourt, Jean. person
associatedWith Dos Passos, John, 1896-1970 person
associatedWith Dupee, F. W. (Frederick Wilcox), 1904- person
associatedWith Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965 person
associatedWith Elliott, George P., 1918- person
associatedWith Epstein, Jason. person
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associatedWith Farrell, James T. (James Thomas), 1904-1979 person
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associatedWith Frankfurter, Felix, 1882-1965 person
associatedWith Frank, Jerome, 1889-1957 person
associatedWith Frank, Waldo David, 1889-1967 person
associatedWith Fry, Varian, 1907-1967 person
associatedWith Gerth, Hans Heinrich, 1908- person
associatedWith Gingrich, Arnold. person
associatedWith Giovanelli, Felix Bruno, 1913- person
associatedWith Glazer, Nathan. person
associatedWith Goodman, Paul, 1911-1972 person
associatedWith Guérin, Daniel, 1904- person
associatedWith Hamill, Esther Dette. person
associatedWith Harrington, Michael, 1928- person
associatedWith Hellman, Geoffrey, 1907- person
associatedWith Hellman, Lillian, 1906- person
associatedWith Herberg, Will. person
associatedWith Howe, Irving. person
associatedWith Jacobs, Jane. person
associatedWith Kazin, Alfred, 1915- person
associatedWith Kennan, George M. person
associatedWith Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968 person
associatedWith King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 person
associatedWith Kissinger, Henry, 1923- person
associatedWith Kluger, Richard. person
associatedWith Kohn, Hans, 1891-1971 person
associatedWith Kristol, Irving. person
associatedWith La Follette, Robert M. (Robert Marion), 1895-1953 person
associatedWith Lasch, Joseph P., 1909- person
associatedWith Lasky, Melvin J. person
associatedWith Lerner, Max, 1902- person
associatedWith Levin, Harry, 1912-1994 person
associatedWith Luce, Henry Robinson, 1898-1967 person
associatedWith Lukacs, John, 1924. person
associatedWith Mailer, Norman. person
associatedWith Malaquais, Jean, 1908- person
associatedWith Manheim, Ralph, 1907- person
associatedWith McCarthy, Mary, 1912- person
associatedWith Mehta, Ved, 1934- person
associatedWith Meyer Greenberg corporateBody
associatedWith Mills, C. Wright (Charles Wright), 1916-1960 person
associatedWith Morris, George L. K., 1905- person
associatedWith Muste, Abraham John, 1885-1967 person
correspondedWith Nation (New York, N.Y. : 1865). corporateBody
correspondedWith New Directions Publishing Corp. corporateBody
correspondedWith New Yorker Magazine, Inc corporateBody
associatedWith Niebuhr, Reinhold, 1892-1971 person
correspondedWith Ocampo, Victoria, 1891- person
associatedWith Orwell, George, 1903-1950 person
associatedWith Perkins, Frances, 1880-1965 person
associatedWith Poe, Edgar Allan, 1809-1849 person
associatedWith Porter, Katherine Anne, 1890-1980 person
associatedWith Pound, Ezra, 1885-1972 person
associatedWith Rahv, Philip, 1908-1973 person
associatedWith Rexroth, Kenneth, 1905- person
associatedWith Riesman, David, 1909- person
associatedWith Rivera, Diego, 1886-1957 person
associatedWith Rodman, Selden, 1909-2002 person
associatedWith Roskolenko, Harry. person
associatedWith Schwartz, Delmore, 1913-1966 person
associatedWith Serge, Victor, 1890-1947 person
associatedWith Shachtman, Max. person
associatedWith Shawn, William, 1907- person
associatedWith Socialist Workers Party. Minnesota Section. corporateBody
associatedWith Spanish Refugee Aid (Organization). corporateBody
associatedWith Spender, Stephen, 1909-1995 person
associatedWith Styron, William, 1925- person
correspondedWith Transition. corporateBody
associatedWith Trilling, Diana. person
associatedWith Trilling, Lionel, 1905-1975 person
associatedWith Trotsky, Leon, 1879-1940 person
associatedWith Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972 person
associatedWith Updike, John. person
associatedWith Vanguard Press. corporateBody
associatedWith Vidal, Gore, 1925- person
associatedWith Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1916- person
associatedWith Wheeler, Dinsmore. person
associatedWith Williams, Myron Richards. person
associatedWith Wilson, Edmund, 1895-1972 person
associatedWith Wollheim, Richard, 1923- person
associatedWith Woodcock, George, 1912- person
associatedWith Yaddo (Artist's colony) corporateBody
associatedWith Yale College (1887- ). Class of 1928. corporateBody
associatedWith Yale University. Students. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States




Ark ID: w6nt2xd9

SNAC ID: 76271020