The New York intellectuals of half a century ago cherished their reputation as the most disputatious literary people on the planet. Mary McCarthy, Irving Kristol, Clement Greenberg, Daniel Bell -- they and their friends swam in a sea of contention. Intellectual debate was their way of discovering who they were and what they thought. They fought fiercely with the whole world, but they fought most viciously with each other.
Dwight Macdonald (1906-82), who called himself "a specialist in abuse" and "a technician of vilification," was their champion polemicist, a writer and talker of unequalled vehemence. A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald (Ivan R. Dee publishers), edited by Michael Wreszin, is a rich collection of Macdonald's correspondence with Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Pauline Kael and many others. The letters are often affectionate, but the book comes most vividly to life through the arguments Macdonald conducted with friends and enemies.
He claimed that violent exchange among New York intellectuals "doesn't mean anything personally." Actually, it was often personal. Friendships were fractured by political issues, love affairs broke up, sometimes punches were thrown. That's never been a secret, but it's still surprising to find in this collection a 1946 letter from Macdonald chastising Clement Greenberg (then on the way to becoming the century's leading art critic) for beating up philosopher Lionel Abel and leaving his face bruised.
"My greatest vice," Macdonald once wrote, "is my easily aroused indignation," but it was his chief virtue as well: It fuelled his writings in The Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Esquire (for which he wrote a dyspeptic movie column) and the magazine he edited in the 1940s, Politics. When he ran out of indignation, late in life, he lapsed into melancholy, alcoholic silence.
One reason he argued so much was that he kept changing political sides -- and no matter what side he was on, he always knew it was the right one. A friend of the Communist Party in the early 1930s, he soon joined a Trotskyist (therefore anti-Moscow) party, then defected to another Trotskyist party, then withdrew from all parties to become a pacifist, a position he held with dogged passion during the Second World War. In the Cold War he at first considered both sides abhorrent but reluctantly backed the U.S. -- though he never came to like his fellow Americans ("an unhappy people ... without style, without a sense of what is humanly satisfying"). In the 1960s, enraged by the Vietnam War, he joined the student rebels, calling them "the best generation I have known in this country, the cleverest and the most serious and decent," though he wished they would occasionally read a book.
Through it all he desperately protected his intellectual purity. In 1942 Mary McCarthy satirized him in a story, Portrait of the Intellectual as Yale Man: "His mind and character appeared to him as a kind of sacred trust ... It was as if he were the standard gold dollar against which the currency is measured."
The son of a Manhattan lawyer, Macdonald followed his father to Exeter and Yale and began his career under Henry Luce on Fortune magazine, the bible of the rich. Luce, the publisher of Time and Life as well, wasn't bothered by Macdonald's politics. He believed that "Republicans can't write" and staffed his conservative magazines with Democrats, socialists and near-communists.
Macdonald became famous for his attacks on middlebrow culture, which (he argued) was degrading the finest art by watering it down for middle-class consumption. He revered high culture (so he said) but seldom wrote about it. His articles, collected in several volumes, tell us about many books not to read, and many ideas to treat with derision, but not much about what writers and thinkers deserve attention.
In The New Yorker in the 1950s his audacious but careful work influenced a generation of journalists. He had a way of turning impossible assignments into magnificent articles; for instance, he reviewed the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Reading that tin-eared rewrite of the King James Bible, he said, was like touring the bombed ruins of a great old city. In the early 1950s the Encyclopaedia Britannica published a 54-volume set, Great Books of the Western World, with 443 works on 32,000 pages. Macdonald ripped the whole idea to shreds while simultaneously defining how great literature should properly be approached. (As a 20-year-old sports writer, I read that piece with excitement and thought something like, "So that's how it's done.")
Macdonald was always the liveliest of writers, and it's dispiriting to learn how often he was afflicted by depression. In a 1961 letter he wrote that his current depression had lasted three years. Liquor, as usual, intensified it. Asked by his second wife why he drank so much, he replied, "I'm an alcoholic, goddamn it." Alcohol raised his anger and lowered his IQ -- sometimes, alas, to the point where it revived the anti-Semitism of his upbringing. Then it turned out he wasn't just another defender of the Palestinians; he also resented the Jews who were the majority of his friends and colleagues in New York.
In his youth Macdonald was sexually backward, and in middle age he grew anxious to catch up. He happily seized upon theories that linked political freedom and sexual liberation. He began a series of love affairs and adopted what might be called ideological nudism. He and his friends swam naked at Cape Cod and held parties unclothed, all as a matter of principle.
In Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow depicted Macdonald as Orlando Huggins, "a famous bohemian dissenter and revolutionist" who retained all his life the ideological capital stored up in youth, like stocks and bonds inherited from his father. Bellow's narrator writes of a beach party in the early 1950s at which Huggins/Macdonald sits naked at one end of a log, discussing Joe McCarthy. "Huggins was speaking with a cigarette holder in his teeth, and his penis, which lay before him on the water-smooth wood, expressed all the fluctuations of his interest." As he spoke, "his genital went back and forth like the slide of a trombone." Long after, Bellow's narrator remembers that moment with affection: "You could never feel unfriendly toward a man of whom you kept such a memory."