Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (NYRB) collects ten pieces by cultural critic Dwight Macdonald. First published between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, the essays here feature varied subjects, always attacked through the same critical lens. Whether he’s excoriating late-period Hemingway, deriding structural linguistics, lamenting the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or chewing up a now-forgotten bestseller, Macdonald centers the brunt of his attack on the creeping “impostures and vulgarizations” of what he called Masscult and Midcult.
In “Masscult and Midcult,” the longest and perhaps most effective essay in the collection, Macdonald defines, illustrates, and analyzes his neologisms against the historical backdrop of a rising commercial culture. “Masscult is bad in a new way,” he tells us,” it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good . . . It is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.” He continues:
Masscult offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for these demand effort. The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience, for it is “totally subjected to the spectator. And it gives nothing.
Macdonald views Masscult as the unfortunate inevitability of capitalism and the burgeoning middle class—or, more appropriately, Middlebrow class. Macdonald is deeply concerned with the location of brows, referring to himself as Highbrow throughout the collection (even once casually dropping We highbrows, a little bone to the reader, perhaps). He repeatedly points out that the virtue of Lowbrowness is that the Lowbrow know where their brows are in relation to higher brows. Folk art is not just acceptable, it’s good stuff, important in its hierarchical relationship to High Art. It’s those damn Middlebrows that cause confusion. For Macdonald, Midcult is thus the real threat:
…the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form—let us call it Midcult—has the essential qualities of Masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.
Macdonald uses case samples from Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, and Stephen Vincent Benet to demonstrate the creeping vulgarity of Midcult posing as High Art.
Indeed, Macdonald almost always focuses on negative examples, perhaps taking for granted that his audience will be guided to a better understanding of High Culture through…I don’t know? Osmosis? He clearly shows a strong affection for the Modernists (up through Faulkner, with a special love for Joyce and Picasso), but the essays in the collection rarely explore in detail exactly why the good stuff is so good. He comes closest in “Updating the Bible” when he points out that the Revised Standard Version strips too much of the King James Version’s poetic strangeness, poetic strangeness that startles, engages, and demands the attention—the work—of the reader. Elsewhere, he connects the avant-garde of the Modernists to an aesthetic tradition going back to the Renaissance (and Periclean Greece before it), and while these moments are satisfying, they are hardly explored with the same vigor Macdonald applies to pulling away Midcult’s figleaf.
Neither does Macdonald prescribe medicine to go along with his devastating diagnoses. To a reader who felt his criticism should be more constructive, Dwight Macdonald replies: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.” A succinct summary of the entire book, that.
Something of the force of Macdonald’s personality evinces in that reply, a combative, cranky, brilliant personality that asserts the nuances of its own subjectivity as if they were Aesthetic Law. And Macdonald is so, so, so perceptive, building each case thoroughly on textual grounds—citation, history, context—that make me blush here for not attempting his thoroughness in kind. But that would take more space and time than We Postmoderns should like to allot, no? (Maybe this review would gain more rhetorical force were I to simply make it a list of cat gifs).
Macdonald’s diagnoses remain prescient. His 1958 annihilation of James Gould Cozzens’s novel By Loved Possessed takes to task not just the author, but also the Masscult audience that made the book a best seller and the Midcult critics who sanctified the book’s artistic merits. With a few simple substitutions, the essay might be updated to critique Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In “The String Untuned,” ostensibly a review of the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Macdonald complains that the influence of structuralism, whatever merits it may have, has crumbled the authority of lexicography to the point that they “have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up” previous authorities. Essays like “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club” and “The Triumph of Fact” critique the increasing American tendency to look only for self-improvement in Art—to look for not just the digested form, but the predigested form. A footnote to “Masscult and Midcult” puts it plainly: “the Midcult audience always wants to be Told.” Ours is a time of explainer sites, listicles, speed-reading apps, and “curators” who boil entire works of philosophy down to feel-good quotes aimed at the reader’s desire for self-improvement and self-satisfaction.
Some gaps and miscalculations mar Masscult and Midcult. There’s no reckoning with the approach of postmodernism—or if there is, such a reckoning only evinces in the denial that an artful synthesis of the High and Low might be possible. (It’s worth noting here that Macdonald views Ulysses as a critique of vulgar culture, not a synthesis of vulgar culture. What would he make of Pynchon?). And while Macdonald beats up on poor Norman Rockwell, there’s nothing in the collection that deals with the nascent Pop Art movement. (Perhaps Warhol was too Midcult to merit mention; perhaps Macdonald did write about Pop Art somewhere else). His hatred for rock and roll feels purely reactionary, and his insistence that rock’s superior jazz is a folk art (and not a High Art) is just plain wrong. Also, Macdonald, for all his talk of the avant-garde and challenging comfortable conventions, writes exclusively about white men. There are few mentions of persons of color or women in the collection. I wonder what Macdonald thought of Flannery O’Connor, say, who succinctly echoed his own views when she wrote: “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”
At the core of these essays though is a cranky brilliance, a burning, engaging intelligence that seeks to upend simple, comfortable assumptions about how we view, interact with, and think about art. Are we to be mere consumers—and not just consumers, but infantilized consumers, baby birds gulping down material that’s already been predigested for us? Or are we willing to put in the work, to dare strong strangeness—to be confused, to not know, to feel discomfort, alienation, newness? Masscult and Midcult doesn’t just evoke these questions, it formally answers them by challenging and provoking, offering a critical rubric for winnowing the wheat from the chaff, or, to use Macdonald’s metaphor, escaping “not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp.” For all the apparent bitterness, there’s something nourishing here. Macdonald’s essays retain a critical power that transcends their ostensible subjects, a power that rips the poseur’s figleaf away. Great stuff.