Books May 2012

Style Is the Man

Dwight Macdonald shows us that only a great writer can be a great critic.
Sylvia Salmi/Bettmann/CORBIS

Once thought of as being among America’s finest essayists, Dwight Macdonald will be thought of that way again, if his potential readers can get past the title of the current reissue of his best essays. “Masscult” and “Midcult”: such categories are only a secondary way of thinking about where he fits in, and we should get to them later, after taking the measure of his voice. Otherwise we are likely to get hung up on the story Louis Menand tells in his introduction. It is an exciting story, of culture wars in Manhattan. As a clueless visitor, I got in between Commentary and The New York Review of Books once, and it was like Gangs of New York without the knives. Macdonald was a shining young light of Partisan Review before he started his own magazine, Politics. He was the anti-Stalinist who stayed in the center and never went to the far right. His anti-totalitarian position did him credit but was never enough to explain his eminence. He simply wrote better than other people. But how simple is that?

“Agee was a very good writer,” wrote Macdonald two years after his friend James Agee had died. “He had the poet’s eye for detail … He could get magic into his writing the hardest way, by precise description.”

Macdonald only forgot to say that the same applied to his own critical prose. The insertion of magic, not the elaboration of social theory, was its principal business. This distinction is an important one to remember, or we will mistake him.

As with all great essayists, his writing had a poetic component, but it was a poetry cleansed of poeticism. No modern American prose writer of consequence ever postured less: compared with him, Mary McCarthy is on stilts, Gore Vidal grasps a pouncet-box, and Norman Mailer is from Mars in a silver suit. At his best, Macdonald made modern American English seem like the ideal prose medium: transparent in its meaning, fun when colloquial, commanding when dignified, and always suavely rhythmic even when most committed to the demotic.

In fact, he seemed to get his rhythm from ordinary conversation: the hardest trick for a prose writer to pull off, because vulgarity always threatens. Macdonald, however, was poised even when he joked. His wonderful book Parodies—wonderful because the choosing is done with an ear for true wit—was constantly in print up until 1985, so he could never have quite been forgotten, but people did forget that his prose was interesting no matter what he talked about. Right through the war, he railed against the Allied bombing campaign. His humane articles never had a chance of affecting anything, because the Allied effort was dictated by the necessity to win, not by ethics; but the articles are still interesting. A dull paragraph wasn’t in him.

For its best effects, Macdonald’s prose depended on the reader’s ear, which could be the reason why he has been heard about less in the past few decades. People don’t listen that hard when they read anymore. But Macdonald in his heyday could depend on his readers to hear what he was talking about when he said that two styles were different: one good, one terrible. Just such a distinction was crucial, he thought, in the comparison between the King James version of the Bible and the Revised Standard Version of the 1950s.

The recent flurry of books about the Bible could all have done with a chapter on a single contrast drawn by Macdonald as an example. He pointed out that “And why take ye thought for raiment?” in the King James version was simply better than the Revised Standard Version’s “And why are you anxious about clothing?”—and would have been even if the new sentence had been the more accurate one. Macdonald could detect the tone of the time-tested past. It was in his own prose, which was built to last even when written for the moment. In fact, to see that possibility—to talk about the apparently ephemeral in a permanent way—was one of his contributions.

One might almost say it was one of his inventions. Edmund Wilson had done it for years before Macdonald came on the scene, but Wilson’s humor always had a hint of the rhino in ballet shoes. (Except when he wrote parodies: “The Omelet of A. Macleish” was a superb parody, and Macdonald recognized it by giving it a proud place in his anthology.) (Of which I own three copies, but no, you can’t have one of mine. AbeBooks, however, is currently listing a copy at $3.) In Macdonald’s time, the tone of criticism turned toward a seamless blend of the classical and the colloquial. Once, when George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken had done it, the blend had not been smooth: they were too keen to show that they knew they were being outrageous. After Macdonald’s generation worked its alchemical magic, critical prose could contain every tone at once without either beating its chest or begging for favor.

Note the placing of the single low word in Macdonald’s brilliantly high-flown definition of the academic prose that had already begun to jam the college libraries:

The amount of verbal pomposity, elaboration of the obvious, repetition, trivia, low-grade statistics, tedious factification, drudging recapitulations of the half-comprehended, and generally inane and laborious junk that one encounters suggests that the thinkers of earlier ages had one decisive advantage over those of today: they could draw on very little research.

The low word, of course, is junk. But it helps to light up a bravura sentence full of useful noncolloquial phrases: drudging recapitulations of the half-comprehended is a permanently good definition of the danger posed by college courses without standards, and low-grade statistics has the merit of starting another discussion altogether. When pseudoscience invades the humanities, it brings low-grade statistics with it, in the form of rubber figures. Swift got there first, when he noticed that the Projectors, busy promoting their visions of the perihelion of the comet whose tail would soon incinerate the Earth, were forever adding an increment to their estimates to make them sound precise, but Macdonald spotted the same invasion all over again. When we read him today, letting the air out of pretentious academic certainties starts sounding like his main effort.

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Clive James is an Australian poet and critic who has lived in London since the early 1960s.

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