‘Cross-Country: D.C. 1938’

Dwight Macdonald’s companion piece to Balcomb Greene’s poeticized satire of pseudo and  striving urban political intellectuals, ‘Cross Country,’is less a slice of PR culture than was Greene’s, but it is as peculiarly a-generic.

It’s a kind of State of the Union survey — a dystopic view of the US Supreme Court and the Legislature, though Macdonald, perhaps from a squeamish decision to ignore the FDR’s Popular Frontism, left the Executive/President off to the side with the Stalinists. It isn’t exactly orotund, but it’s a bit above its station. More New Yorker than PR, more PR than the New International of 1938.

“This is the imperial accent, the Roman rhetoric. Columns in rows, pediments loaded with ponderous allegories in stone, massive blocks of masonry – dykes against the foaming tides of popular life. The starlings fling themselves against the stolid facades, life spurts among the pediments, the graven seals and the pompous republican insignia are perching places for masonry, cascading over the tile roofs into the sky, distant rustle of bird voices and the silent stone. These birds are considered a civic pest. The police have tried shooting them, they have tried to poison them. They have posted men to shout at them, to wave things at them, to scare them away. But the starlings persist. They specially haunt the interminable facades built by Hoover and Mellon”.

By turns astringent, bombastic, and eerie, the view of Washington, D.C. is like a shot from Hitchcock’s The Birds. Next comes bathos:

D.C. is the city of spittoons. Big brassbellied monsters squat on the carpeted floors of the Capitol. In the newer buildings, they are small, neatly enameled in dark green and brown, discreet.

We then enter the Chamber of the Supreme Court: Polonius times nine.

The Room is nightmare tall. The light is utterly dead, too dead even to be harsh, a corpse plashed from bowls high above, a light as cold and sterile as the atmosphere of an extinct planet. One sits softly on red plush pew benches. One feels one’s flesh puffing out in corpse-dropsy. The nine old men slip from behind the velvet draperies and settle into their appointed seats. 

Over next to the Senate, where the seats are filled with men-as-school-boys:

This is a school-boy’s paradise, where no one ‘pays attention’ and where special messengers are  provided to facilitate note-passing.  Going from the Senate to the House of Representatives is like stepping from the Ritz into a flophouse. For the Senate’s deep red carpet, a blueberry linoleum. For the individual mahogany desks, rows of theatre seats.  For somnolent, dignified calm,  a monkey-house chatter. One sniffs for disinfectants. 

Democratic government seems to require that those who made the laws and those who interpret them shall spend a large part of their time  listening, or rather not listening , to other people talk. The Senators don’t listen to each other. They confer on leather settees, they send page boys on errands, they inspect their fingernails, they read newspapers. The Supreme Court Justices don’t listen to the lawyers. They sot aloft, glazed with ennui, their relief expressing itself only in the droop of a hand shading a brow……


[of the sculpture in the buildings] It is an alien language: women with ample classical bass ordering their heavy stone limbs according to Beaux-Arts rules; horns of plenty, rams’ heads, fasces, acanthus leaves, olive and myrtle, the symbols and flora of another culture; groups of stone people striking attitudes over the revolving doors of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. The mean in snap-brim hats, the women swaying on high heels who enter their classic portals pay no attention to the myrtle and fasces. They are not part of their lives. They are part of no life except the conservative, defensive, closed life of the buildings they ornament, These buildings are fortresses and the enemy is the life of the people.

First U.S. Shutdown In 17 Years Unavoidable With No Talks


Macdonald wrote the piece, I assume, in 1937, when he was editing this issue of PR, a job he took very seriously and in concert with his wife, Nancy, who served as PR’s Managing Editor.

Dwight and Nancy
Dwight and Nancy MacDonald
According to his biographer, Michael Wreszin, Macdonald was in the midst of considering how much he wanted to be an activist or a literateur. He had become a devoted and polemical supporter of Trotsky, and he was troubled that the PR Editors were not showing any interest in letting him write a report on the Annual Meeting of US Steel.

It was now that Macdonald began to move closer to the more or less ‘official’ organs and journals of the Trotskyist Left, primarily James Burnham’s The New International, the public journal of the developing 4th International, the Trotskyist group  founded first in Paris in 1937 and moved to New York in 1938.

The fact that Trotsky was irritated by Macdonald, and thought he was ignorant of any and everything about the Soviet Union made Trotsky into the most glamorous of Macdonald’s resisters: Dwight Garner, in the NYTimes gathered a few high-quality quotations about Dwight:  Gore Vidal said to him, “You have nothing to say, only to add.” Leon Trotsky reportedly declared, “Every man has a right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” Paul Goodman cracked, “Dwight thinks with his typewriter.”

But Macdonald’s mix of East Coast boarding-school bad boy confidence and his apparent ease in a number of identities: wit, politic0, literary pundit, man of vitality, etc. make his essays a bricolage of styles and aspirations. The Cross Country piece combines a few slogans from the political movement, some satire, a bit of bombast, a layer sentimentality, and a Partisan Review view of 1938 from the refuge of New York.


Next:Report from Rose Stein