The author’s preface encapsulates my attraction to the subject: “The Dwight Macdonald I knew was a radical intellectual journalist with a splendid prose style and an acerbic, penetrating wit.” As Dwight describes his own dilettantism: “I refuse to become a lifeless lump of clay, dull, uninterested, stupid, sketchily read and impervious to 1001 of the finer sensations and experiences. To be open to all thoughts and experiences… is my one aim.” Dwight had an instant contempt or enthusiasm followed by backtracking throughout his life (sounds familiar!). This bio follows the upward, downward, sideways trajectory of the always interesting Dwight Macdonald.
Once he quits Fortune to focus on his own magazine and writing, he feels like someone discharged from the Army: “How difficult to decide, to act, instead of doing what one is told… Ordering one’s life so as to get something accomplished isn’t easy.” At the same time, he’s drinking too much and waking up with severe hangovers. Wife Nancy complained that the loudness of the conversation far exceeded the quality. With Nancy’s inheritance, he starts Politics, the influential magazine that could. Daniel Bell as an early contributor: “People move about in the huge caverns that modern technology has constructed, with little sense of relationship to meaningful events. They live as atomized human beings no longer controlling [their] lives but carried by events.” Bell later contributes in “The Coming Tragedy of American Labor” that the class had “co-opted by the promise of guaranteed annual wage if they behaved themselves and accepted an imperialist foreign policy.”
Indeed Dwight swings from Trotskyite to anti-Stalinist to anti-liberal and further back to the conservative wing. Turning away from politics, he sets his critical sights on culture. In a letter to his best friend, Chiaromonte:
Americans have been made into permanent adolescents by advertising, mass-culture- uncritical, herdminded, pleasure-loving, concerned about trivia of materialistic living, scared of death, sex, old age – friendship is sending Xmas cards… Anyway we have become relaxed, immersed in a warm bath, perverted to attach high values to trivial things like baseball or football (kids’ games really), and we just don’t function when we get out into the big cold world where poverty, the mere struggle for existence, is important, and where some of the people are grown ups.
It is a picture of a cerebral man frustrated with his own limits, lack of discipline. He wrote no book, in “cold blood”, merely essays (but grand ones at that). His big brain wrestled with WASP stereotypes, Marxist theory, the military-industrial complex and the meaning of the atomic bombs, finally resting on cultural criticism as his brand. Summers at the beach in Long Island, Nantucket, fueled his obsessive workload in the other seasons. He prides himself on being confrontational, a lone wolf.
Overall view of the bio: perhaps too meaty, covered too much detail. Got skimmy with parts towards the end about his descent into liberalism in the 60s with Civil Rights, Anti-War, etc.
Typo p 178: “He conceded that his radical view cold be compatible…” should be “could be compatible…”