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:
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
Death of Dwight Macdonald, Sr.
1927- 1928: Served as Chairman of the Board of the Yale Record
Spent six months with Macy's Executive Training Squad
Met James Agee; became Associate Editor of Henry Luce's new magazine, Fortune
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
Married Nancy Rodman
Resigned from Fortune in dispute over editing of his articles criticizing United States Steel
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
Birth of a son, Michael Dwight; began writing for The New International; wrote Fascism and the American Scene
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
Wrote Jobs, Not Battleships for the Socialist Workers Party; sided with Max Shachtman's Workers Party in its split with James P. Cannons SWP
Resigned from the Workers Party over issues of intellectual freedom and party organization
Resigned from the editorial board of Partisan Review,protesting a shift in emphasis from political to literary content
Began publishing Politics; wrote "A Theory of Popular Culture"
Birth of second son, Nicholas Gardiner
Wrote "The Root is Man" for Politics
Publication of Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth
Discontinued publication of Politics, giving as his reason a "stale, tired, disheartened, andâ€¦ demoralized" feeling
Joined the staff of The New Yorker
Publication of The Root is Man: A Radical Critique of Marxism; publication of "The Bible in Modern Undress" in The New Yorker
Divorced from Nancy Rodman Macdonald; married Gloria Lanier
Publication of The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions
Lived for a year in London as staff writer for Encounter; publication of Memoirs of a Revolutionist
Death of Alice Hedges Macdonald
"The Encounter Row," in which Dwight Macdonald charged that the Congress for Cultural Freedom wielded extensive editorial control; publication of "America! America!" in Dissent
Publication of "Masscult and Midcult" in Partisan Review; became film critic for Esquire; publication of Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohmâ€”and After
Publication of Against the American Grain
Publication of "Our Invisible Poor" in The New Yorker
Publication of "Fellini's Masterpiece" in Esquire
Publication of Selected Poems of Edgar Allan Poe; left the staff of The New Yorker
dropped the Esquirefilm column
1967- 1968: wrote a political column for Esquire
Publication of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen
Publication of Dwight Macdonald on Movies
Reissue of Memoirs of a Revolutionist as Politics Past
Publication of Discriminations
From the guide to the Dwight Macdonald papers, 1865-1984, 1920-1978, (Manuscripts and Archives)
|referencedIn||Papers of John Coolidge and Agnes Mongan, 1909-2006||Harvard Art Museums. Archives|
|referencedIn||Socialist Workers Party records, 1914-1980||Minnesota Historical Society|
|referencedIn||Harry Levin papers||Houghton Library|
|referencedIn||Arnold Gingrich Papers, 1932-1975||Bentley Historica Library University of Michigan|
|referencedIn||Max Lerner papers, 1927-1998||Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives|
|referencedIn||Victor Serge papers, 1912-1994, 1936-1947||Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library|
|referencedIn||Yaddo records, 1870-1980||New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division|
|referencedIn||Hannah Arendt Papers, 1898-1977, (bulk 1948-1977)||Library of Congress. Manuscript Division|
|creatorOf||Dwight Macdonald papers, 1865-1984 (bulk 1920-1978)||Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives|
|referencedIn||New Directions Publishing Corp. records, 1932-2005||Houghton Library|
|referencedIn||Esquire, Inc. Records, 1933-1977||Bentley Historica Library University of Michigan|
|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 an 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||Victoria Ocampo papers, 1908-1979.||Houghton Library|
|referencedIn||Papers of the magazine Transition, 1933-1941.||Houghton Library|
|referencedIn||New Yorker records, ca.1924-1984||New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division|
|referencedIn||Harry Roskolenko collection, 1933-1952||Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library|
|referencedIn||Varian Fry Papers, [ca. 1940]-1967||Columbia University. Rare Book an Manuscript Library|
|referencedIn||Vanguard Press Records, ca.1925-ca.1985||Columbia University. Rare Book an 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|
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