An American Orwell?

Dwight Macdonald and friends at Mary McCarthy's 57th St. apt in the 1940s; Macdonald is at lower left, on his right the actor Kevin McCarthy (of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, brother of Mary); top row, l to r, Miriam Chiaromonte, Nicola Chiaromonte, Mary McCarthy, John Berryman

The great conservative historian John Lukacs is said to have asked in 1957 whether Dwight Macdonald would not soon be recognized as the American Orwell. The answer turned out to be “probably not.” Macdonald never achieved anything like Orwell’s stature or influence. But the question was a measure of Macdonald’s once great prominence in the American intellectual scene.

Macdonald and his friend and colleague Mary McCarthy are our first serious introduction into a crucial feature of New York cultural life in the 1940s–the little world of the anti-Stalinist intellectual left. As we’ve discussed, that world produced a group of writers and critics (along with Macdonald and McCarthy, Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, among many others) who ended up having an enormous influence on many features of postwar American life. Macdonald was in some ways a typical representative of this little world. (He began his political life as a Trotskyist and a highbrow aesthete and then abandoned orthodox left politics to become a non-aligned anarchist, even as he also became a prominent and respected cultural critic and journalist who wrote regularly for The New Yorker.) But Macdonald was also quite atyypical. (Unlike many of his peers, he was a white, anglo-saxon Protestant from a privileged background; he also never really got with the program of the American anti-communist consensus.)

A 1941 edition of The Partisan Review, the legendary anti-Stalinist little magazines that (in its second incarnation) was co-founded by Dwight Macdonald--note the combination of modernist, cosmpolitan aesthetics (Joyce and Kafka) with the anti-Stalinist left (Orwell)

During the 1940s, Macdonald was most influential as the founder and editor of politics magazine (1944-49) (usually spelled lowercase in line with his preference). Along with Philip Rahv and William Philips, Macdonald had been one of the founding editors of the epoch-defining little magazine Partisan Review. But when PR signed-on in support of the Allies in WWII, Macdonald broke with the magazine and founded his own little periodical. Macdonald’s definining animus was always against centralized state power, and he distrusted the vast political apparatus that developed during WWII and the fervent nationalism that surrounded it almost as much as he distrusted Soviet Marxism.

Apart from its unrelenting opposition to the American war effort, politics was most important for its introduction of European anarchist and existential thinkers to American audiences–among them Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Nicola Chiaromonte, and Simone Weil–and for the support it gave to some very young American thinkers who found Macdonald’s anarchist leanings congenial. Along with Mary McCarthy, these included C. Wright Mills and Paul Goodman–both writers who would become favorites of student radicals in the 1960s.

Macdonald as photographed (uncharacteristically without goatee) by Walker Evans, sometime btw '36 and'41 (photo, Metropolitan Museum)

Their later prominence says something important about Macdonald. During later years, many of Macdonald’s colleagues from the 1930s moved to the political center and, in some cases, to the neoconservatve right, and many of them became harshly critical of the young rebels of the 1960s New Left and counterculture. Macdonald, however, always maintained his anarchist convictions. (He was also a highbrow snob to the very end and became famous for his witty denunciations of middlebrow culture–or “midcult”–as much as for his unorthodox politics.) And he can be seen as one of the intellectual godfathers of the 1960s New Left and as an important figure in the elevation of an American brand of intellectually serious anarchism.

After the Reagan revolution, Macdonald’s star declined, but in his own day he was a prominent and influential thinker, as well as a sharp and often witty writer. You can read a very good short essay about his life here. A still shorter and less substantial Time magazine profile is available here. You may also be interested in this short James Wolcott homage.

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