Masscult and Midcult

As a Yale undergraduate, Dwight Macdonald made up one-third of the membership of a club called the Hedonists, whose motto was “Cynicism, Estheticism, Criticism, Pessimism.” Later, after a stint writing for Time and Fortune magazines, he became a proponent of various forms of Marxism before adopting a final position of "conservative radical." Still, as Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain suggests, the Hedonists' motto never lost its animating force. Taken together, the book's ten essays, first published between 1952 and 1972, express Macdonald's belief in the value of tradition, the barrenness of Progress, and the impoverishing effect of the come-one-come-all spirit of postwar American culture. He held, further, that rejection of the past is an authoritarian impulse not a liberating one; that the non-specialist has just as much a right to weigh in on a field as a specialist; that facts speak only for themselves; that science and ethics are not commensurate; and that "morality is qualitative…not quantitative."

 

In the long title essay, first published in 1960, Macdonald sets out the cultural terrain upon which even the earlier essays are based. He points out—as had others—that eighteenth-century industrialization spawned the phenomenon of the mass: an aggregation of people who have only accidental connection to each other and no individuality that signifies. Thus, we have "mass man," which, he observes is really "a theoretical construction, an extreme toward which we are being pushed but which we shall never reach. For to become fully a mass man would mean to have no private life, no personal desires, hobbies, aspirations, or aversions that are not shared by everybody else. One's behavior would become entirely predictable, like a piece of coal, and the sociologists could at last make up their tables confidently." With the arrival of mass man comes mass culture, or "Masscult," as he dubs it. It stands in contrast to High Culture, which is idiosyncratic rather than homogenized, and appeals to the educated, discriminating individual.

 

Masscult is culture as a commodity, marketed entertainment created for effortless consumption. To this end, it "includes the spectator's reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses."  This, too, is the defining quality of "Midcult," "a peculiar hybrid," as he calls it, that was "bred from the…unnatural intercourse" between Masscult and High Culture. Like Masscult, it too is a commodity, but one which masquerades as High Culture, a watered-down, sugared-up version of the real thing, even sporting, on occasion, the trappings of the avant-garde (though minus offputting negativity). It wears its message on its sleeve, worthy, solemn, celebratory, portentous, and emptily universal in theme.

 

Macdonald puts four examples of Midcult before us, eviscerating them with cheerful savagery. All Pulitzer Prize winners, they are Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea ("written in that fake-biblical prose Pearl Buck used in The Good Earth, a style which seems to have a malign fascination for the midbrows"), Thornton Wilder's Our Town, ("the final statement of the midbrows' nostalgia for small-town life"), Archibald MacLeish's J.B. ("Profound and Soul-Searching, it deals with the Agony of Modern man…with a Message of the grandest inconclusiveness."), and Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body ("it is impossible not to identify the reaction [Benét] wants to arouse. Sometimes solemn, sometimes gay, always straining to put it across, like a night-club violinist.").

 

The other essays include a further critique of Ernest Hemingway, man and work: part boorish parody, part sound criticism. There is also a tribute to James Agee; a denunciation of America's fact fetish ("It is their respect for The Facts that makes most Americans so touchingly willing to give information to anyone who asks for it"); a fogeyish, tit-for-tat bombast against Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism; and a number of other hatchet jobs: of James Gould Cozzens's By Love Possessed, Norman Cousins's World magazine, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler's Great Books of the Western World series.

 

The remaining two essays, both published in The New Yorker, are preoccupied with language as an integral part of a people's identity and a reservoir for each person's expression of individuality. "Updating the Bible" (1953) is an attack on the modernized style ("flat, insipid, and mediocre") of the Revised Standard Version. "The String Untuned" (1962) is a demolition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary and what amounts to an ad hominem attack on its editor, Philip Gove.

 

Macdonald was appalled by what he took to be the permissiveness of the new dictionary. He pointed out that creativity and art depend on the existence of standards, even if, as with the avant-garde, it is to play off them. This piece, in which he praises 2 and pillories 3—as he calls Webster's Second and Third—is very funny; after all there are so many odious words to be funny about. ("Enthuse is labeled colloq. In 2 but not in 3. It still sounds colloq. If not godawf. to me.") The immensely popular essay was, however, wrong in its most salient points.

 

In leaping to attack Webster's Third, Macdonald had been galvanized by the very thing he so abhorred: the commercialization of culture. Like many other detractors of the new dictionary -- and they made up quite a posse -- he was reacting to a splashy and erroneous press release that claimed the dictionary had been popularized: that it was "entertaining" and that it reflected today's informality of usage ("ain't" was now acceptable, the release reported happily, ignoring the actual text's caveats). In other words, Webster's Third seemed to represent the dumbing-down and contemporizing that Macdonald so despised. While this was certainly true of the marketing campaign, it was not of the work itself. In reality, Macdonald did not know his way around an unabridged dictionary, nor did he understand the aims and apparatus of its much-praised predecessor. (Herbert C. Morton's The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics is the place to go for further illumination.)

 

There is something pretty rich in Macdonald jumping on a market-fueled bandwagon; indeed, he reported that he got more letters in response to this article than to anything he ever wrote. Outrage against the Third was so popular in the press that the dictionary's most eloquent defender, James H. Sledd, could not find a mainstream venue to publish his rebuttal of Macdonald's ill-informed essay. (It finally appeared in deep obscurity in the proceedings of the Ethnology Association.)

 

Though interest in standards of language never dims, the targets of some of the other essays are on the minds of few people today: Where is the reader who is tempted to read By Love Possessed? Be that as it may, cocky, contrarian, presumptuous, and effervescent with comic brio, Macdonald's objections to the market-savvy processing of culture, his distaste for scientific notions of values and motives, and his dismay at the dumping of the past in favor of supposed relevance are just as pertinent as they ever were.

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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