The Magazine

Dwight’s Dream

The demise of middlebrow America.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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If I thought of Dwight Macdonald every time I came across a PBS pledge drive, I would think of Dwight Macdonald much more often than I do. But I do think of him now and then, and the pledge drive is usually the occasion for it. When America stares wide-eyed as its intellectual public TV network shills for itself with doo-wop concerts and Suze Orman get-rich pep talks, we can thank Macdonald. He’s the spiritual father to the pledge drive.

Photo of Leonard Bernstein conducting a ‘Young People’s Concert’ in 1958

Leonard Bernstein conducting a ‘Young People’s Concert’ (1958)

Getty Images

A witty magazine writer who thrived from the forties through the early seventies, Macdonald was a steady contributor not only to “little magazines” like Partisan Review and Commentary but also, in a rare instance of journalistic crossdressing, to the high-paying slicks: Esquire, the New Yorker, Fortune. He died in 1982, already well on the way to the boneyard of soon-to-be-forgotten hacks. If he is known today, it is for “Masscult and Midcult,” a long piece published in 1960. It’s still a useful marker for anyone interested in the decline of American culture. The New York Review of Books—where the decline is not only celebrated but seems to occur before your very eyes—has now republished the essay along with nine others, in an eponymous collection assembled by John Summers, editor of the left-wing journal the Baffler. An introduction has been tacked on, too, written by (inhale) the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University, Louis Menand, who has not yet begun his own trip to the boneyard.

Menand takes a weirdly sniffish approach toward the man whose book he’s introducing, but he does a nice job summarizing the theme of Macdonald’s most famous essay. At the time Macdonald wrote, it was common for intellectuals to divide culture phrenologically, into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. Good intellectuals were of course highbrow (The Rite of Spring, Ulysses, the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright); the masses they condescended to, and pretended to champion, were content with the low (Louis L’Amour novels, “Come On-a My House,” Levittown).

But for Macdonald, “the real enemy,” writes Menand, “was the literature, music, theater, art, and criticism of middle-class high-mindedness.” These productions broke down the wall between high and low and created the third category: “a debased form of High Culture,” neither High nor Low, that Macdonald called Midcult. In Menand’s phrase, it was “the culture of middlebrow aspiration.” He took it as an affront. In Midcult, Macdonald wrote, “everything becomes a commodity, to be mined for $$$$, used for something it is not, from Davy Crockett to Picasso. .  .  . [It is] a corruption of High Culture which .  .  . is able to pass itself off as the real thing.”

He could be devastating and cruel in describing its artifacts, and most of the essays that accompany “Masscult and Midcult” are demolition jobs of a high order. Their energy and brass make them splendid reading. Nothing quite like them is being produced today, treating serious questions with rarefied (and funny) wisecracks and a total disregard for collateral damage. He takes down the novels of James Gould Cozzens, the Book of the Month Club, the Great Books Series, and magazines like Horizon, Saturday Review, and the slicks manufactured by Henry Luce and Time-Life.

Life magazine, for example, was designed to appeal to everyone alike by homogenizing its content.

The same issue will present a serious exposition of atomic energy followed by a disquisition on Rita Hayworth’s love life; photos of starving children picking garbage in Calcutta and of sleek models wearing adhesive brassieres; .  .  . nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse. .  .  . Somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous. .  .  . Just think, nine pages of Renoirs! But that roller-skating horse comes along, and the final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.

This is sharp and funny and, in the case of some small number of Life readers, surely true; it’s also wrongheaded and finally destructive. Macdonald wrote at the apogee of America’s middlebrow era. Saturday Review—whose editor, a bag o’ wind called Norman Cousins, was a favorite target of Macdonald’s—had 600,000 American readers; today a magazine with comparable content would be lucky to break 40,000, in a country half again the size. Television networks (all three of them!) set aside time for productions that could educate viewers into a greater appreciation of art: Omnibus, for example, and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Ed Sullivan made sure his audience got to see Topo Gigio or Elvis—but he also gave them, with an instructive reverence, Andrés Segovia and Roberta Peters.