Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain

Page after page, the further I got, the more I felt deep in conversation with an old friend. The reviews on this site could learn a thousand things from Macdonald’s insightful eviscerations. He tears apart Hemingway, Cozzens, the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Tom Wolfe, the Great Books, the list goes on. Masterful writing + thinking = new favorite.
The first essay in this collection is Masscult and Midcult, masscult defined as a parody of culture pushed down the throats of the masses because the big bosses know what’s best for ’em. Masscult “is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.” It offers no emotional catharsis or aesthetic experience, “the production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment… but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience… and it gives nothing.” Macdonald points out the cultural shift after 1945 that caused Midcult (a more serious threat than Masscult because of its incorporation of the avante-garde) to flourish: acceleration in wealth, leisure, and college education. On the negative side, this Renaissance is about consuming rather than creating, all those college brains slurp down content without producing anything of note.
Macdonald quotes T.W. Adorno, On Popular Music:

Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which…the masses are subject….People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire.

The second essay is in praise of that famous man, James Agee, dead at forty-five of a heart attack in a taxi. A friend of Agee’s, Macdonald takes his death hard but serves up kind and concise criticism of his postumously published A Death in the Family, comparing it to Agee’s masterful Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Macdonald blames himself for Agee’s death in a roundabout way, having gotten him a job at Fortune, which chained him to that magazine or its cousins for over a decade, precluding other writing he could have been doing. Agee lived big, worked hard, and died young, but at least he had some finished work. Macdonald was unable to say the same (leaving us only essays, but no “big work”). This essay interested me so much in Agee that I’m skipping reading LUNPFM and diving straight into a collection of his letters.
Ernest Hemingway gets flayed in the third essay, Macdonald showcasing ridiculous examples of his prose. George Plimpton comes to Hemingway’s rescue by refuting some of DM’s points in a rebuttal. The entire essay hilarious and worth reading.
The forth essay begins, “The most alarming literary news in years is the enormous success of James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed.” Line by line he dismantles this work, “By Sex Possessed would be a more accurate title. There is very little love, which the author presents as at best a confusing and chancey business, to be patiently endured, like the weather.” Macdonald claims that Cozzens got the nod for this book simply because he’d worked too long without recognition and it would be downright un-American to ignore him any more.

Cozzens’s style is a throwback to the palmiest days of nineteenth-century rhetoric… that a contemporary writer should spend eight years fabricating a pastiche in the manner of George Meredith could only happen in America, where isolation produces oddity. The American novelist is sustained and disciplined by neither a literary tradition nor an intellectual community.

Next to be lain bare are the Great Books put out by the kindly folks at Encyclopedia Britannica (a mind-numbing Syntopicon, “collection of topics,” the reason for publishing this set), the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Macdonald makes a grand case for the lyricism of the King James), and the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. Somewhere along these essays I began to wonder what David Foster Wallace thought about Dwight Macdonald. Was he as big a fan as I was becoming? So far I can find only a speculated reference to Macdonald in Infinite Jest (the Macdonald Chair, referenced on p64). It seems to me these two would have had many lengthy and intense conversations. DM continues to show his fluency with words in these sections, “what Geiger counter will decide who is in fact educated and cultivated?”
Macdonald returns to the theme of Mid/Masscult in The Triumph of the Fact, clearly my favorite essay if I judge by the number of dog-eared pages. His basic assertion is that in the West (esp the US), our mass culture is dominated by “an emphasis on data and a corresponding lack of interest in theory, by a frank admiration of the factual and an uneasy contempt for imagination, sensibility, and speculation. We are obsessed with technique, hagridden by Facts, in love with information.” Oh yes. This rings especially true in today’s world of consuming vast quantities of information online. “(O)ur press lords make millions by giving us this day our daily Fact…” easily corresponds to the $$ made via ads shoving their way closer and closer to our news articles. “(O)ur way of following a sport is to amass an extraordinary amount of data about batting averages, past performances, yards gained, etc. so that many Americans who can’t read without moving their lips have a fund of sports scholarship that would stagger Lord Acton…”

Instead of being interested only in useful information, we now tend to the opposite extreme, valuing Facts in themselves, collecting them as boys collect postage stamps, treating them… as objects of consumption rather than as productive tools…. We just like to have the little things around, like pets.

Imagine a person of the sixteenth century confronted with a copy of Time or The New York Times. He would take a whole day to master it, perhaps two, because he would be accustomed to take the time to think and even to feel about what he read; and he could take the time beause there was time, there being comparatively little to read in that golden age… Feeling a duty – or perhaps simply a compulsion – at least to glance over the printed matter that inundates us daily, we have developed of necessity a rapid, purely rational, classifying habit of mind… making a great many small decisions every minute: read or not read? If read, then take in this, skim over that, and let the rest go by. This we do with the surface of our minds, since we “just don’t have time” to bring the slow, cumbersome depths into play, to ruminate, speculate, reflect, wonder, experience what the eye flits over. This gives greatly extended coverage to our minds, but also makes them… coarse, shallow, passive, and unoriginal. Such reading habits have produced a similar kind of reading matter, since… our writers produce work that is to be read quickly and then buried under the next day’s spate of ‘news’ or the next month’s best seller; hastily slapped-together stuff which it would be foolish to waste much time or effort on either writing or reading. For those who, as readers or as writers, would get a little under the surface, the real problem of our day is how to escape being “well informed,” how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information (never more seductive than when it appears in the chaste garb of duty), and how in general to elude the voracious demands on one’s attention enough to think a little.

The last two essays take apart Tom Wolfe’s brand of “parajournalism” (against or beside journalism, but not actual reportage) and Norman Cousin’s magazine, World, in which he names the two most “eminent global bores I can think of.” Similar to the above essays, he takes these works apart line by line, showing incorrect “facts” (Wolfe) and misplaced egotism (Cousin).
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Found out about Dwight Macdonald through reading The Last Intellectuals. Unlike my take on Lewis Mumford, I want to read DM’s entire oeuvre.