Dwight Macdonald

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Dwight MacDonald
Born Dwight MacDonald
(1906-03-24)March 24, 1906
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died November 29, 1982(1982-11-29) (aged 76)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Yale University
Phillips Exeter Academy
Occupation writer, editor, essayist, film critic, book critic, social critic, philosopher
Employer The New Yorker (staff writer)
Partisan Review (editor)
politics (founder and editor)
The New York Review of Books (book critic)
The Today Show (film critic)

Dwight Macdonald (March 24, 1906 – December 19, 1982) was a U.S. writer, editor, film critic, social critic, philosopher, and political radical.

Early life and career[edit]

Macdonald was born in New York City and was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University. At Yale he edited campus humor magazine The Yale Record[1]and was a member of Psi Upsilon. His first job was as a trainee executive for Macy's.

In 1929, Macdonald joined Time magazine, where he was offered a position by fellow Yale alumnus Henry Luce. In 1930, he moved over as associate editor to Luce's newly launched business magazine Fortune.[2] Like many writers on Fortune, his politics were radicalized by the Great Depression. He resigned from the magazine in 1936 over an editorial dispute, when the magazine's executives severely edited the last installment of his extended four-part attack on U.S. Steel.

In 1934, he married Nancy Gardiner Rodman (1910–1996), sister of Selden Rodman. He is the father of filmmaker and author Nicholas Macdonald.

Politics and literature[edit]

Macdonald went on to edit Partisan Review from 1937 to 1943 but quit to start his own rival journal politics from 1944 through 1949.[3] As an editor, he helped foster diverse voices such as Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Bruno Bettelheim, and C. Wright Mills. All along, he contributed to The New Yorker as a staff writer and to Esquire as film critic, gradually becoming famous enough to supply movie reviews on The Today Show in the 1960s.[4]


Macdonald broke with Leon Trotsky by raising the question of the Kronstadt rebellion, which Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks had brutally repressed. He then moved towards democratic socialism.[5] He was opposed to totalitarianism, including both fascism and communism, whose defeat he viewed as necessary. [6] He denounced Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union for first urging the Poles to rebel in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and then halting the Red Army outside of the borders of Warsaw as the German Army crushed the Poles, liquidating its leadership.[7][8][9][10]

At the same time, he was critical of the methods that democratically elected governments were using to oppose totalitarianism. During World War II he complained of increasing fatigue and depression as he observed the progress of the war, particularly the commonplace bombing of civilians and whole cities. The fire bombing of Dresden and the dehumanization and mistreatment of German civilians horrified him. His political beliefs had moved towards pacifism and individualist anarchism by the end of World War II.[7][10] [11]

However, in 1952 Macdonald said in a debate with Norman Mailer that, if forced to choose, he “chose the west” and was opposed to Stalinism and Soviet communism as the greatest threats to civilization.[11] He repeated this position in a revised version (published in 1953) of a 1946 essay, “The Root is Man.” [12] However, he later repudiated this sort of either/or position.[13] In 1955 he became associate editor (for one year) of the magazine “Encounter”, sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a front organisation for CIA-funded control of cultural elites in the Cold War, though MacDonald knew nothing of this and condemned CIA sponsorship of such publications and organizations when it later became known; he also participated in conferences sponsored by the Congress.[7][14]

Mass-cult and mid-cult[edit]

During the later 1950s and the 1960s, Macdonald wrote cultural criticism, particularly of the rise of mass media and middle-brow culture, such as Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and the Great Books of the Western World. In a December 15, 2011 review of a New York Review of Books re-issue of Macdonald's Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, the New Republic’s Franklin Foer writes that Macdonald's effort in that work “culminated in a plea for highbrows to escape from the mass culture.” “The highbrows,” Foer writes, “would flee to their own hermetic little world, where they could produce art for one another while resolutely ignoring the masses.”[15] Tadeusz Lewandowski has argued that this approach to the culture question places Macdonald within the conservative tradition of cultural criticism as the twentieth-century heir to the English social critic Matthew Arnold. Previously the field of Cultural Studies associated Macdonald with the radicals of the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School.[16]

Renewed radicalism[edit]

Primarily a writer for The New Yorker, Macdonald also published more than thirty essays and reviews in The New York Review of Books. His most famous and influential review, of Michael Harrington's The Other America, helped to spur the Kennedy Administration's War on Poverty.[17] A reprint of Macdonald's Politics elicited a brief introduction by Hannah Arendt in the New York Review of Books on 1 August 1968.

Later still, he opposed the Vietnam War and defended many student radicals of the 1960s such as the Columbia University students who organized a sit-in, during which university property and a professor's research were destroyed.[6] However, during the 1968 Columbia protests, he rebuked Students for a Democratic Society for carrying only the red flag of revolution, and not black flags that would reflect "my anarchist tastes." In 1968, he signed the pledge of the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest", vowing to refuse to pay taxes in protest against the Vietnam War.[18]

Macdonald was a signer of "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority" and founding member of the anti-war collective RESIST along with Mitchell Goodman, Henry Braun, Denise Levertov, Noam Chomsky, and William Sloane Coffin. [19]


  • Fascism and the American Scene (1938) pamphlet
  • The war's greatest scandal; the story of Jim Crow in uniform (1943) pamphlet, research by Nancy Macdonald
  • The Responsibility of Peoples: An Essay on War Guilt (1944)
  • Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (1948)
  • The Root Is Man: Two Essays in Politics (1953)
  • The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions - an Unauthorized Biography (1955)
  • The Responsibility of Peoples, and Other Essays in Political Criticism (1957)
  • Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism (1960) This was later republished with the title Politics Past.
  • Neither Victims nor Executioners by Albert Camus (1960) translator
  • Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm - and After (1960) editor
  • Against The American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (1962)
  • Our Invisible Poor (1963)
  • Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1965) editor
  • Politics Past (1970)
  • Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1971)
  • Discriminations: Essays and Afterthoughts 1938-1974 (1974)
  • My Past and Thoughts : The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen (1982) editor
  • A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald (2001) edited by Michael Wreszin

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wreszin, Michael, ed. (2003) Interviews with Dwight MacDonald. University Press of Mississippi. p. 116.
  2. ^ Szalai, Jennifer (12 December 2011). "Mac the Knife: On Dwight Macdonald". The Nation. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  3. ^ TIME April 4, 1994 Volume 143, No. 14 - "Biographical sketch of Dwight Macdonald" by John Elson (Accessed 4 December 2008)
  4. ^ Garner, Dwight (21 October 2011). "Dwight Macdonald’s War on Mediocrity". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
  5. ^ Mattson, Kevin. 2002. Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. p. 34
  6. ^ a b Wakeman, John. World Authors 1950-1970 : a companion volume to Twentieth Century Authors. New York : H.W. Wilson Company, 1975. ISBN 0824204190. (pp. 902-4).
  7. ^ a b c "Dwight and Left: The centenary of Dwight Macdonald's birth should inspire more Americans to read their most crotchety, snobby, and brilliant critic." John Rodden and Jack Rossi. The American Prospect. February 20, 2006.
  8. ^
    • Dwight Macdonald, 'Warsaw', politics, 1, 9 (October 1944), 257-9
    • 1, 10 (November 1944), 297-8
    • 1, 11 (December 1944), 327-8.
  9. ^ Costello, David R. (January 2005). "'My Kind of Guy': George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald, 1941-49". Journal of Contemporary History 40 (1): 79–94. doi:10.1177/0022009405049267. Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
  10. ^ a b Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism (1960). This was later republished with the title Politics Past.
  11. ^ a b Brock, Peter, and Young, Nigel. Pacifism in the Twentieth Century. Syracuse University Press, New York, 1999 ISBN 0-8156-8125-9 (p.249)
  12. ^ Dwight Macdonald, The Root is Man, Alhambra, CA, 1953.
  13. ^ "Ronald Radosh's Macdonald," Michael Wreszin, New York Times, 18 September 1988
  14. ^ Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Irving Kristol (New York 1995), p. 461
  15. ^ Foer, Franklin (2011-12-15). "The Browbeater". The New Republic. Retrieved 2011-12-07. 
  16. ^ Lewandowski, Tadeusz (2013). Dwight Macdonald on Culture: The Happy Warrior of the Mind, Reconsidered. 
  17. ^ MacDonald, Dwight (January 19, 1963). "Our invisible poor". The New Yorker. 
    • Reprinted in collection:
    Macdonald, Dwight (1985) [1974]. "Our invisible poor". Discriminations: Essays and afterthoughts 1938-1974 (reprint ed.). Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80252-2. 
  18. ^ "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
  19. ^ Barsky, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: a life of dissent. 1st ed. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1998. Web. <http://cognet.mit.edu/library/books/chomsky/chomsky/4/5.html>


  • Bloom, Alexander. Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals & Their World, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-19-505177-3
  • Sumner, Gregory D. (1996) Dwight Macdonald and the Politics Circle: The Challenge of Cosmopolitan Democracy
  • Whitfield, Stephen J. (1984) A Critical American: The Politics of Dwight Macdonald
  • Wreszin, Michael (1994) A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight MacDonald
  • Wreszin, Michael. editor (2003) Interviews with Dwight Macdonald
  • Lewandowski, Tadeusz. (2013) Dwight Macdonald on Culture: The Happy Warrior of the Mind, Reconsidered ISBN 978-3-631-62690-0

External links[edit]