Books May 2012

Style Is the Man

Dwight Macdonald shows us that only a great writer can be a great critic.

It was part of his main effort. His fears for the health of language spread beyond the academic world into the creative one, and it was there that he fought his main battles. Macdonald was not the only critic to risk pointing out that Hemingway’s later writing had gone soft, but he did the most thorough job, even going so far as to enroll The Old Man and the Sea in his invented category “Midcult” not long after Hemingway got the Nobel Prize for it. When Kenneth Tynan was living out his last years at a house in one of the Los Angeles canyons, I spent a few hours with him, and the subject of Hemingway came up. While we were sitting in the garden, I mentioned what Macdonald had been writing about Hemingway; but Tynan wouldn’t admit that such a critical position was even possible. It had to be better to get out there on the Gulf Stream and write about the elemental world, even if one wrote badly, than to sit in New York like Macdonald and criticize the results. Tynan went inside and came out with a Hemingway book containing a passage about the majesty of the Gulf Stream, which he read aloud. I conceded the point, but mainly because I could see that Tynan, robbed of his health, was reluctant to let go of his esteem for a writer as magnificently physical as Hemingway had been when he was on top. My secret idea of a hero, however, was Macdonald, who was ready to risk Hemingway’s wrath to make a critical point.

Macdonald could be very funny when he bled the hot air from a writer who had attained the status of Great Artist without really meriting the promotion. A pity, perhaps, that nobody now remembers James Gould Cozzens, because a recollection of the publicity bubble that surrounded his name when he published By Love Possessed in 1957 would lend context to what Macdonald was taking on when he took him down. Cozzens, perhaps partly because he had been slogging away for ages as a novelist in only middling regard and had now produced a wodge of a novel that had obviously taken him years to assemble, suddenly got the cover of Time and all the other accolades.

One of them was a comprehensive demolition job from Macdonald, who made a list of the new guru’s qualities, one of which was a severe case of Confucius Say.

A queer strangled sententiousness often seizes upon our author. “In real life, effects of such disappointment are observed to be unenduring.” “The resolve to rise permitted no intermissions; ambition was never sated.” Like shot in game or sand in clams, such gritty nuggets are strewn through the book.

Perfectly placed, sand in clams is there for keeps, but it would probably not have been there if he hadn’t known how to use a word like strewn. However you slice it, this is critical prose miles above the level of the prose being criticized. It’s important, though, to enjoy the specific detail of Macdonald’s onslaught on the un-style of Cozzens without being overly receptive to the general political conclusions that Macdonald draws from it, particularly this conclusion:

That a contemporary writer should spend eight years fabricating a pastiche in the manner of George Meredith could only happen in America, where isolation produces oddity. The American novelist is sustained and disciplined by neither a literary tradition nor an intellectual community.

Those words launched a disquisition mainly about how America was not England, but the argument was only partly true. It was conspicuously untrue in the matter of which nation was worse at manufacturing dud masterpieces. For the purposes of his theorizing, Macdonald had temporarily forgotten that it had been the U.K. that produced Colin Wilson and hailed his The Outsider as a masterpiece of philosophy and prose—a writer and a work Macdonald had excoriated. Macdonald’s ideas of an intellectual class, whether coherent or incoherent, had their origins in Marxism, and often played him false.

Only when we have recognized the discrepancy between Macdonald’s ability to make local points and his tendency to fall into general theoretical traps should we turn to Louis Menand’s informative opening essay. Armed with our knowledge of how good Macdonald could be in a short stretch, we will be able to resist a view of culture that frequently, in its talk of Masscult and Midcult, got perilously close to being the harbinger of the aberration we have come to know and fear as Cultural Studies. Here is our critic, in sage mode, on the cultural drawbacks of having a free society:

For a lucky few, this openness of choice is stimulating. But for most it is confusing and leads at best to that middlebrow compromise called Midcult.

Menand, a well-equipped student of philosophy, should have spotted that paragraph as pure Cultstud, with overtones of Adorno. The use of the word middlebrow is a sure sign. If I may be permitted the liberty of quoting myself, I once defined that word as being good for nothing except to describe the kind of person who would use it. Macdonald never got that bad, but he came close.

Macdonald could be so concerned with the toxic effect of a Norman Rockwell painting radiating from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post that he would start echoing Adorno’s ideas about capitalism creating taste. But Adorno was exactly wrong about, say, popular music. A hit song has never been imposed on the people. The people choose, and record-industry executives knock themselves out guessing where taste will go next.

A supreme author of critically gifted prose, Macdonald at his dazzling best was just as open: anything produced by anyone, he would examine for its true quality. That’s what a cultural critic must do, and there are no shortcuts through theory. But deep down he knew that, or he would never have bothered to coin a phrase. Back again because they never really went away, Dwight Macdonald’s essays are a reminder that while very little critical prose is poetic, great critical prose always is: you want to say it aloud, because it fills the mouth as it fills the mind.

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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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