Dwight Macdonald died in December 1982, almost 20 years ago. I went up to New York for his funeral. There were few New York intellectuals, prominent or not, at that gathering—which, properly and decently, had something like a family atmosphere. He had been living in the very middle of New York, and, yes, he was ill and morose for some time; but the interest in him—indeed, the respect—had been largely abandoned by the younger set of public writers and other literati, including those whom he had helped years before. Into their intellectual and social categories, he did not fit. But 15 or more years later, his reputation (a word that he would dismiss, or even despise) has—no matter how slightly—risen. Another generation of thoughtful young people and serious readers, scattered across this vast country, includes men and women who respond to Macdonald’s prose and respect him for the probity of his thinking. They must somehow sense that the outdated and corroding categories of “conservative” and “liberal” really do not (and did not) apply to him. Dwight Macdonald was a radical and a traditionalist—which, in our technological age, is no contradiction. “Traditionalist,” even more than “radical,” perhaps describes him best. That, I think, is the source of what I hope is his slowly growing appeal.
For much of this, Michael Wreszin may take credit. His serious biography of Macdonald (A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, 1994) did not receive the attention it deserved, in spite of the richness of its contents. (I was Macdonald’s friend for 30 years and yet learned much about him from Wreszin’s book.) Now we have his edition of a collection of Macdonald’s letters (again with a very apposite title), which, I think, will be read by more and more people—assuming, that is, that they are made aware of its existence. Wreszin’s selection is very good, and the first paragraph of his Introduction amounts to a masterful summary of what Macdonald was—and means:
Dwight Macdonald’s life story as revealed in his vast correspondence is the story of an American awakening. It is an account of an upper-middle-class white male, schooled in the elite institutions of the establishment, who started out with all the prejudices and provincialisms of his class. . . . and through the force of his inquiring mind managed to jettison a footlocker full of dandyish pretensions and become one of the most penetrating critics of politics, society, and culture in twentieth-century America.
His correspondence was vast, and there his problem resided. (His problem, not that of his biographer—Wreszin had a large job but selected and annotated well). There are great writers and thinkers whose letters are often as valuable as their books. (Tocqueville is one.) But Macdonald never wrote a large book; there are Macdonald books that are collections of essays, extraordinarily consistent and cohesive ones; also small books that are brilliant and profound—one about the Ford Foundation, another about Poe. Macdonald should have—and could have—written a great memoir, since he was in the midst of American intellectual life for nearly a half-century. It would have dwarfed, easily, the (at times unpleasant) memoirs of Alfred Kazin and Edmund Wilson. But he didn’t—not because he couldn’t, but because he convinced himself that he couldn’t. For deep down (or even not so deep down), this strong-voiced, opinionated, and often convinced man suffered from a want of self-confidence. Whether his lack of self-discipline was both cause and effect of this other want, we will never know.
That is why Macdonald wrote those letters—thousands of them. And he (no lack of discipline here?) preserved them all; he made copies of almost every one, including his handwritten notes. (His mental strength, his probity, is somehow present even in his handwriting). A writer for the New York Times Book Review (in a poorly written notice prominently placed, appearing beneath a portrait of the author so badly drawn as to make him unrecognizable to those who knew him) suggested that Macdonald wrote these letters with an eye to posterity. Nothing could be further from the truth. He wrote them because (or, rather, when) he felt he could not, or did not want to, do any other writing. Yet, he had to write. That is why the letters are so valuable—and telling.
They show the man at his best. In 1956, he wrote Frank S. Meyer, then an editor at National Review:
It’s comic when an ultra-nationalist pro-private-enterprise-and-property-rights organ shows the same paranoiac defensism as a Marxist splinter group. (NR, of course, is isolated vis-à-vis the intellectuals, whom it is trying to reach, because it’s on such a low level, and, also, granted, because the intellectuals are mostly liberal; but I’m not a liberal, in fact I’m getting to be more and more of a traditionalist, and it is just the crudity, dullness, and vulgarity of NR that makes me abhor it.)
Seventeen years earlier, Macdonald was a regular critic of Trotsky, who was supposed to have written or said that “Every man has a right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses it.” Wreszin notes that “Macdonald seemed proud of the attack and quoted it often. I think he made it up.” (So do I.)
Macdonald had many faults. His problem with self-discipline was but one of them, though surely the source of not a few others. Though he seems—unlike most intellectuals—to have been seldom untrue to himself, we, of course, cannot tell. What we can tell is that Macdonald was a fierce visionary and hunter of untruths, including fashionable ones, that appeared in the speaking and writing of all kinds of people. The path to great truths that passes through a jungle of untruths did not really attract him. As an American, he did not (probably) quite agree that the pursuit of justice is inferior to the pursuit of truth; but he knew a flower from a weed, no matter what the accepted opinion of horticulturalists may have been. His comment on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (“finding a parking lot where once a great cathedral had stood”) is proof of that.
[A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald, edited and introduced by Michael Wreszin (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc.) 483 pp., $35.00]