Macdonald looking into the abyss of mid cult.
Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) described himself as a ‘literary journalist’ when he was interviewed by Diana Trilling in 1979, after many decades of writing about politics, literature, and the world at large for magazines and journals on the Left and occassionally on the Right. He is one of the most engaging of the Partisaners, because he was, for the most part, unmanageable. He argued with most people he knew, quit PR to start his own journal of politics, Politics. He was supportive and friendly to most people he also argued with, and he seems to me at times to be compounded, like Ezra Pound, of bombast, acute sensitivity, utopianism, and generosity. There will be many articles and essays to read by Mcdonald from at least 30 years of PR. We will be able to see the intellectual range of his work and its importance to the Partisan Review and to ideas of American culture.
As a journalist, Macdonald’s beat was the world of what he called ‘the urban intelligentsia’– from his first NYC jobs, at Henry Luce’s Time and Fortune magazines, then as an Editor at Partisan Review, the Editor of Politics [his breakaway journal from PR ], a staff writer for a decade at the New Yorker, and contributor to many other journals and magazines of mid-century thought, politics, literature, and the arts. As he moved through the circles of high-end capitalism and revolutionary anarcho-anti-Stalinism, MacDonald wrote with brio, gusto, and passion. Always engaged in the Enlightenment hard work of critique, MacDonald was also able to contradict himself, change his opinions and arguments.
Born somewhere near the middle of the East Coast’s hierarchies of class, money, and power, MacDonald, like his father before him, went to an elite private boarding school, Philips Exeter, and then on to Yale. Its easy to surmise that James Agee learned about the freedoms of thinking and writing and arguing from MacDonald, who was a few years his senior at Exeter, and soon both a correspondent and a friend to Agee.
Macdonald looking into the revolutionary future.
His contribution to this first issue of the Rahv & Philips new style Partisan Review, “Laugh and Lie Down” is a clever and persuasive critique of the New Yorker’s complicity with attempts to ‘de-odorising’ the difficulties of experience, which would later feed into his theories of mass culture, still influential today.
Macdonald’s thesis is that “The typical New Yorker writer has given up the struggle to make sense out of a world which daily grows more complicated. His stock of data is strictly limited to the inconsequential.” He writes that the magazine, when it was first published in 1925, cultivated a kind of humour that was sharper than what was on hand by 1937. It had begun with a kind of wit which made fun of those beyond the Ohio River
not unlike Saul Sternberg’s 1976 map of America, seen from 9th Avenue) , and also found itself that same year with a wonderful case of what would now be thought of as Tea-Party versus the acerbic urbanistas in the the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a high school teacher was fined for having taught Evolutionary theory to his students, contravening a state law which forbade it. “The Editors of the New Yorker sensed complete reader-support. They ran editorials, articles, eye witness accounts of the trial. For a time it almost seemed that the New Yorker had been specially to report on the the Scopes affair.”
But that was an early high-point. Since then the magazine had begun to slide. And the Crash of 1929, while it did not turn the New Yorker away from its satirical writers, certainly vacuumed out much of its snobby hot air:
“The Transition from the self-confident, magisterial satire of the Scopes trial period to the gentle humour of a [James] Thurber, self-confessed ninny and know-nithing, simply reflects a similar change in the position of the ruling class. The present New Yorker formula for pathos and humor is an expression of a deep-rooted uncertainty about itself which this class has come to feel because of it impotence in the late economic crisis.”
What is wonderful about Macdonald’s critique is that it doesn’t impinge on his high-spirited and admiring judgement on Thurber’s cartoons. Thurber’s “is the much the most freely imaginative creation” of the humorists at the magazine. His work “often transcends realistic observation to reach an absolute, personal fantasy. In my opinion, Thurber is the New Yorker’s most important writer…”
This brief introduction to one of Macdonald’s array of styles will, I hope take you to the article itself which you can access: part 2 of the piece is Macdonald’s soi-disant Freudian discussion of the symptoms of the New Yorker’s neuroses — staff and text!:
once there then go to 1937, Vol.4, pages 44-53
And I also hope you will google James Thurber Cartoons to be reminded of his mix of pathos and wit.
“laugh and lie down,’ by the way, is the name of a card game first described in 1655. Dave Parlet writes”
“The title refers to the fact that when you can no longer capture any table cards you must “lay down” by throwing your hand in, whereupon the other players are supposed to laugh at you. Strictly, therefore, it should be “Laugh and lay down”, but one who lays down is said to lie down, which somehow sounds better and in any case is generally preferred” (dave parley. eu)