Dwight Macdonald, the critic and essayist who died the other day at 76, was one of my journalistic heroes -- not, I hasten to say, by reason of political affinity. Macdonald's views on politics were delightfully mercurial and eccentric, even dotty. Trotskyism, anarchism, pacifism -- you-name-it-ism: he tried on every West Side New York fad of his time. But these were costumes of a season, soon abandoned to the attic like last year's unsuitable hat.
I once observed him in the flesh, and kept an awed and respectful distance. This was at a New York party in the late 1960s, to which I had been taken as a curiosity by a friend. The city's lit-crit intelligentsia had mustered to hear an appeal for funds from Mark Rudd, leader of the "student strike" at Columbia University. Macdonald stood apart, his long, paunchy frame swaying to and fro, cigarette ashes snowing down his goatee, clearly more bemused than persuaded by the fuzzy-cheeked incendiaries. He called himself a "revolutionist," but ingrained toryism threw up an invisible barrier between him and the young barbarians who invaded deans' offices.
In this mixture--the cultural traditionalist thinly encased in political radicalism--he resembled George Orwell, another "revolutionist" with the crusty soul of a Dr. Johnson. His bristly prejudices, whether you shared them or not, were wonderfully entertaining. Like Mencken, he had the technique of taking the reader into a just-between-us conspiracy against the target. He was arbitrary about every subject and, in my view, dead wrong about some: for instance, the novels of James Gould Cozzens, whose baroque style and conservative political views aroused his radical instincts.
What do I mean when I call him one of my journalistic heroes? Apprentice writers need models, and I was lucky enough to discover Macdonald at an impressionable time. What matters in such things is not the point of view; it is a temper, a tone, a style, a certain slant on the world, a certain set of values leavened with a sense of the absurd.
I still chuckle over the first Macdonald essay I ever read, a piece about Gen. George S. Patton Jr. ("His side arms . . . are as clean as his tongue is foul. He wears special uniforms which . . . are calculated, like the horns worn by ancient Gothic chieftains, to strike terror into the enemy. . . . When Italian mules obstruct the progress of his staff car he had them executed on the spot--doubtless with full military protocol, including bandaged eyes. . . .")
It was odd that a professed "revolutionist" longed for the (doubtless imaginary) golden age when cultural mandarins like himself decreed worthy cultural pleasures for the masses. Elitism was for Macdonald, as for many literary radicals, the common denominator. The difference was that Macdonald's indignation was seasoned with wit and joviality, as if to whisper to the reader behind a cupped hand: "Don't take this too seriously--I don't."
American popular culture went from bad to worse as Macdonald was lashing it. As always, the solid ornaments of the culture coexist with boxcar loads of tinsel and trash. Macdonald tried to keep the genuine and the bogus fenced apart, patrolling the boundary with a big stick and a big grin. How much such watchdogs accomplish is debatable. But the effort was, in his case so entertaining that it finally didn't matter.