Time’s Fifteenth —


Dwight Macdonald, film negative by Walker Evans, sometime between 1934-1941


Having hammered the New Yorker in  PR, vol. IV, no.1, December 1937 with “Laugh and Lie Down,” and contributed to PR, Vol IV, No. 3, February, 1938, a strange and original discussion of  politics through the monuments – both human and of stone – in Washington, D.C., Macdonald claims the first of the editorial columns in  the endpapers, “Ripostes,” for PR, April 1938 with “Time’s Fifteenth.”

Sort of a book-end piece to “Laugh and Lie Down,” “Time’s Fifteenth” is the kind of sardonic critique often best-written by someone who has earlier been in the business themselves.  He didn’t go on to be a Staff Writer at the New Yorker until the 1950s, but back in 1938, he had already been at the birth of the Luce magazine empire. Macdonald was hired in 1929 first as a writer for Time,  and then moved on to Fortune, where Macdonald stayed until 1936, just as he was becoming increasingly politicised in the atmosphere of the Depression.

You have to bear in mind that Macdonald was one of the non-jews of the PR crowd, and he had been educated at elite East Coast schools: Philips Exeter for high school, Yale for his degree. Though he was ground down by the day-to-day tedium of being a jobbing writer at Time and Fortune, he wasn’t riven by the contradictions and confusions of those first-generation born working class New Yorkers who made up the world of the “JIs” – the term for the subset of urban intelligentsia that my parents, their friends, their children, and their friends happily threw at each other around  the argumentative dinner table – when I was young.

At Yale, Macdonald became friends with Fred Dupee (among the first of the PR editors)  and George L.K. Morris (who wrote the “Art Chronicle” in Partisan Review) – neither of whom were Jews and both of whom became frequent contributors to the journal.  And Macdonald had to read and talk himself out of the anti-semitism he had shared with many of his own and his friends’ milieux.  These were the public and private institutions and norms of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Establishment. But the twist in elite education was that many of the rebellious sons and daughters of WASP culture had been educated into the kind of critical analysis that gave them to tools to argue against that establishment and fight against its social norms.

So Macdonald’s remarks on the 15th anniversary of the “Time Community,” are believable because he worked there, amusing because he pushed against Time’s pomposity, self-importance, and its desire to recruit its readers to a “way of thinking” invented by the weekly magazine for the man “who has little time” to find out about whats important for him to know.

Macdonald begins his column with a letter sent to all of Time’s potential subscribers, inviting them all to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the news weekly by learning more about the ‘community’ to which they could all belong. The letter takes on its readers as intimates, and the tone of its persuasion is in “a chatty, intimate vein… from the “able, shrewd, potent publisher of Time: baldish, bumbling Ralph  McAllister Ingersoll,close relative of the late great Ward McAllister, of “Four Hundred.” With that phrase, Macdonald refers to the  Ward McAllister who invented the epithet and meant it to refer to the  most important people in New York’s elite social circles.”If you go outside that number,” McAllister warned, “you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”  That number was also rumoured to be the right capacity for Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.  The hypocrisy of inviting thousands of Americans to be part of a tiny elite community which had always already refused them admission was Macdonald’s first satiric target in his piece, but he also made a more incisive political point.

Macdonald doesn’t only make fun of the Luce magazines, he produces an analytic argument about why they take the stance they do.  He writes:

Time has a ticklish editorial task: to give the news an upper-class angle without appearing to violate the creed of “objectivity” which that class holds so dear. The well-fed well-heeled members of the Time Community insist that their spokesmen fight for their class interests by denying the existence of the class struggle. No one is more adept at this delicate manoeuvre than kinetic, bis-browed, twice-wed Henry Robinson Luce.”    

In the 1930s, Macdonald used to refer to Luce as “Il Luce”, on the pattern of “Il Duce!”

In his Riposte, Macdonald goes on to link the corrupt elitism of the Luce magazines to that of the US Government, in particular the scandals which put the The White House in disarray during the Warren Harding Presidency, and prosecuted after his death in 1923– the year that Time was first published.

Having made his attack witty and riveting,  Macdonald turns to the way Time makes sense of contemporary literature; he was lucky that 1923 was soon after Joyce published Ulysses  and Eliot published The Waste Land.

Macdonald says that the first issue of Time aimed to “Settle the hash of two literary pranksters (James Joyce and T.S. Eliot) in an article headlined: “Has the Reader Any Rights Before the Bar of  Literature?” and he gives us a few paragraphs of the article:

“There is a new kind of literature abroad in the land, who only obvious fault is that no one can understand it. Last year there appeared a gigantic volume entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. To the uninitiated, it appeared that Mr. Joyce had taken some half million assorted words — many such as are not ordinarily heard in reputable circles — shaken them up in a colossal hat, laid them end, laid them end to end…” 

“The Dial has  awarded its $2000 prize for the best poem of 1922 to an opus entitled The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot….It is rumoured that The Waste Land was written as a hoax.”

So, Dwight Macdonald concludes that this is the classic editorial note of the Luce publications:  and “thus have they held it in the thousands of inter-office  memoranda (disguised as magazines called, Time, Life, Fortune) which for fifteen years they have been distributing  among the high-priced, high-powered executive who make up the Time Community. And thus they will continue to hold it, full and true, as long as the Community itself holds together.”  They still do, as far as I can tell. 

Note:I have posted twice so far about Dwight Macdonald: Nov. 5, 2016“Laugh and Lie Down”: Dwight Macdonald — Unmanageable Intellect; and 11 March 2017. Mr. MacDonald goes to Washington. You might want to look at those posts to hear more about the master maverick (is that an oxymoron?!) of the New York Intellectuals…


NEXT:  More on Herbert Solow. — also a fellow of Riposting.