Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult”

This was originally intended to be a more fleshed-out essay on the preoccupation of current highbrow culture (that which is supposedly good for you) with mass culture, and how the orientation of the critical apparatus to the patently and admittedly braindead mass culture was turning the “public intellectual” scene into a gagging ourobouros. But I lost interest. I got bored with analyses of reality television and Liz Phair’s career that read like ex post facto justifications of the author’s enjoyment of such. I got tired of analyzing them. Someone should, but it won’t be me. I’d rather go back to Musil.

I do think it’s notable that what passes for highbrow content today in Harper’s and the New York Review of Books is so persistent in proclaiming its own worthiness that its attributed value begins to stem mostly from comparison to that which is consumed by the Many. That academia has come to the same state is striking (analysis of the hegemony == watching of the pop culture == more Sopranos please!). When a Washington Post writer is promoting elitism and placing Jonathan Franzen amongst the elect…it’ll take a decade to sort out how the lines got drawn this way. And, well, I still haven’t read Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme.

Since, however, Macdonald comes from the age of the prior intellectual aristocracy in America, full of noble but ineffective spirits like Trilling and Howe, I thought it’d be worthwhile to chart what was hot and what was not in Macdonald’s world. (Some of this is a little unfair since Macdonald charitably admits good qualities in some of the popular stuff, but the categories are still fairly well delineated.)

Highcult (hot)
Edgar Allen Poe
Charles Dickens (at his best)
Evelyn Waugh
Rudolph Serkin
D.W. Griffith
Charlie Chaplin
King James Bible
Rodgers and Hart
Picasso
Jackson Pollock
Schoenberg
Elliott Carter
John Cassavetes
Evergreen Review
Pull My Daisy
New York Review of Books

Midcult (not)
Our Town
By Love Possessed
H.G. Wells
George Orwell
John Hersey
Rodgers and Hammerstein
Atlantic Monthly
Book-of-the-Month Club
Reader’s Digest
The Old Man and the Sea
The Good Earth
Jack Kerouac
Harper’s
Saturday Review
The New Yorker
Colin Wilson

Masscult (not even moreso)
Erle Stanley Gardner
Norman Rockwell
Edna Ferber
James Michener
Norman Vincent Peale
Rock music
Charles Dickens (at his worst)
Grub Street authors
Liberace
Cecil B. DeMille
Revised Standard Bible

It’s not a bad list, though it’s utterly bewildering that the Kerouac-scripted Beatnik-a-thon Pull My Daisy made it onto the A-list given Macdonald’s criticisms of the Beats elsewhere. But it’s ominous how often he retreats to the past for counterexamples of high art. Maybe this was just prudence on his part: he’d look quite the fool had he put Alain Robbe-Grillet on the Highcult list. But it was his job to take that risk.

Instead, he’s cautious. He quotes Adorno in the essay, and like Adorno, he plays it safe by attaching himself to the contemporary establishment avant-garde. For Adorno, it was Schoenberg; for Macdonald, it’s Pollock and Elliot Carter. He’s very generous towards his critical compatriots on other small, unprofitable magazines in holding them up as cultural arbiters, but he doesn’t do a lot of arbitrating. Somehow, the brand of the magazine becomes the mark of quality rather than the individual work in it. The reason is that he is judging largely by intent rather than by result, never a smart move. But by sticking to the establishment avant-garde, he comes off all right. Even his jazz tastes (designated by Jazz on a Summer’s Day) are old-guard.

The punchline is his one concrete suggestion for the future: pay television. He suggests it would reinstate “editorial intent” in the programming rather than pure pandering, and thus restore integrity (and, he concludes, quality) to the airwaves for the select, elevated few who can appreciate it and cough up the dough.

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