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Against the American Grain:
Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture
Discriminations: Essays & Afterthoughts
On Movies; and
Parodies: An Anthology
from Chaucer to Beerbohm...and After
by Dwight Macdonald
(Da Capo Press).

Review by John Gabree (New York Newsday)

In a long career, the late Dwight Macdonald brought a truly radical eye to journals as diverse as Partisan Review, The New Yorker and his own Politics, though he is most widely known for his movie reviews in Esquire. As learned as Edmund Wilson, as opinionated as H.L.Mencken and as forthright as George Orwell, he is unquestionably one of our greatest critics. Macdonald had an enormous influence on journalists and reviewers who came of age in the '50s and '60s. The only limit on his reputation has been that his best books are collections of occasional pieces.

"Against the American Grain" and "Discriminations" are absorbing anthologies of literary and political essays, complaints, commentaries, letters to the editor, etc. "Grain" is his most coherent collection, bringing together pieces that explore the influence of mass culture on high culture. "My interest in mass culture," he writes, "puts the emphasis on 'culture' rather than 'mass.' My subject is not the dead sea of masscult but rather the life of the tide line where higher and lower organisms compete for survival."

Macdonald was an elitist, but not snobbish. He sought to maintain high culture ("a people that loses contact with its past becomes culturally psychotic") and he deplored attempts to make high culture accessible by watering it down -- as he makes clear in famous New Yorker reviews of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible ("the rebuilding of the King James Version...in contemporary ranch-house style") and Webster's Third International dictionary.

In "Discriminations," his last collection, Macdonald included -- from better than 30 years of writing -- the pieces that didn't fit elsewhere, reviewing such authors as Ernest Hemingway, Hannah Arendt and Tom Wolfe, examining such issues and cultural mementoes as the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, the Warren Commission Report, Vietnam and Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media." This miscellany is held together by what Norman Mailer describes in an introduction as Macdonald's method:

"Describe what you see as it impinges on the sum of your passions and your intellectual attainments. Bring to the act of writing all your craft, care, devotion, lack of humbug and honesty of sentiment. And then write without looking over your shoulder for the literary police."

While "Grain" and "Discriminations" deserve places on the library shelf of anyone who follows politics or literature, only devoted film fans will feel obligated to read "On Movies." Although he brought the same intelligence and skill to bear on reviewing films (and was among the very first, in the 1920s, to do so), too often Macdonald seems to be beating a dead horse opera. The elitist critic of movies is asking to be chronically depressed.

As for "Parodies," it is a brilliant anthology of pieces whose appeal will depend on the reader's affection for send-ups. "If burlesque is pouring new wine into old bottles," Macdonald wrote, "parody is making new wine that tastes like the old but has a slightly lethal effect." There can be few parodies, including conscious and unconscious self-parodies, from the late medieval period to the present, that Macdonald overlooks. (1986)



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