A WRITER'S WIT
America, on one level, is a great old-movie museum.
Born February 25, 1917
Terms We Should Remember: Masscult and Midcult
I became interested in this book when I saw it reviewed in The New Yorker. Then after I received my copy, I found that this blurb from the back cover gives the reader a great introduction to Macdonald, who published most of these essays prior to 1972:
“An uncompromising contrarian, a passionate polemicist, a man of quick wit and wide learning, an anarchist, a pacifist, and a virtuoso of the slashing phrase, Dwight Macdonald was an indefatigable and indomitable critic of America’s susceptibility to well-meaning cultural fakery: all those estimable, eminent, prizewinning works of art that are said to be good and good for you and are not. He dubbed this phenomenon ‘Midcult’ and he attacked it not only an aesthetic but political grounds. Midcult rendered people complacent and compliant, secure in their common stupidity but neither happy nor free.” Wow!
Some Nuggets from a Book Filled with Them
On the Mags:
“This is a magazine-reading country. When one comes back from abroad, the two displays of American abundance that dazzle one are the supermarkets and the newsstands. There are no British equivalents of our Midcult magazines like The Atlantic and the Saturday Review, or of our mass magazines like Life and The Saturday Evening Post and Look, or of our betwixt-&-between magazines like Esquire and The New Yorker (which also encroach on the Little Magazine area). There are, however, several big-circulation women’s magazines, I suppose because the women’s magazine is such an ancient and essential form of journalism that even the English dig it” (59). 1960
“The nearest approach to a ‘center of consciousness’ in our magazines is in the Midcult ones like Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Reporter and the Saturday Review, and the trouble with these is that the editors consistently—one might almost say on principle—underestimate the intelligence of the readers” (62). 1960
On Speculative Thinking:
“Books that are speculative rather than informative, that present their authors’ own thinking and sensibility without any apparatus of scientific or journalistic research, sell badly in this country. There is a good market of the latest ‘Inside Russia’ reportage, but when Knopf published Czeslaw Milosz’ The Captive Mind, an original and brilliant analysis of the Communist mentality, it sold less than 3,000 copies. We want to know how what who, when, where, everything but why” (208). 1957
“The objection to middlebrow, or petty-bourgeois, culture is that it vitiates serious art and thought by reducing it to a democratic-philistine pabulum, dull and tasteless because it is manufactured for a hypothetical ‘common man’ who is assumed (I think wrongly) to be even dumber than the entrepreneurs who condescendingly ‘give the public what it wants.’ Compromise is the essence of midcult, and compromise is fatal to excellence in such matters” (269). 1972
WEDNESDAY: SHORT ESSAY AND PHOTOGRAPH