Cover image for A moral temper : the letters of Dwight Macdonald
A moral temper : the letters of Dwight Macdonald
Macdonald, Dwight.
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Publication Information:
Chicago : Ivan R. Dee, 2001.
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xxi, 481 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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Includes index.
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E748.M146 A3 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Dwight Macdonald's biographer has brought together in one volume a comprehensive selection of letters from the correspondence of one of the most astute observers of American politics, society, and culture in the twentieth century. Macdonald's letters span his lifetime, from his education at Exeter and Yale in the twenties through his career as an editor of Partisan Review, founder of Politics magazine, staff writer for the New Yorker, columnist for Esquire, and cultural critic and essayist for other major publications. The scope of his interests was extraordinary as was the diversity of friends and colleagues who became his correspondents. He had an instinctive grasp of the important fact and important thought, and an uncanny ability to bring an issue before the intellectual community, of which he was a prominent member. Macdonald consistently had his eye on what he felt was a change in the moral temper of the times and a prevailing dehumanization of the individual. Few spoke more eloquently against the mechanized terror of the modern world and of the separation of means from ends. His letters, always spirited and engrossing, trace the life of an upper-middle-class white male, schooled in the elite institutions of the WASP establishment, who managed to jettison the prejudices and provincialism of his class and, through the force of an inquiring mind, become a penetrating critic of mid-century American civilization.

Author Notes

Michael Wreszin's is professor emeritus of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

From the Depression through the years after Vietnam, Macdonald was an intellectual force to be reckoned with. In the pages of Fortune, Partisan Review, the New Yorker, and Esquirenot to mention Politics, the short-lived but respected journal he founded in 1944--Macdonald was a partisan in virtually every major political, social, and literary controversy. Macdonald was also a prolific letter writer--and a bit of a packrat! So Wreszin, a biographer of Macdonald, faced an embarrassment of riches in selecting letters for inclusion here. The "New York liberals" --Diana and Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Norman Mailer--are included, along with some New York not-so-liberals, such as William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. But there are also letters from Macdonald's years at prep school and college, correspondence with literary figures such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Ezra Pound, and letters to publications objecting to their editorial stands or grumbling about how little they're paying for his work. A lively collection. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Flattered you think my political philosophy worth a thesis and hopeful you will be able to define it more clearly than I ever have!" wrote critic and philosopher Dwight Macdonald to a graduate student in the 1950s. He then delivered a cogent pr?cis of his political philosophy drawing on anarchists such as Kropotkin, rejecting both British and Russian collectivism and decrying war that negates the last part of his statement and stunningly exhibits his intelligence, wit and moral giantism. Born in 1906, Macdonald attended Exeter and Yale, and became by turns a Marxist, a Trotskyist, a pacifist, an anarchist, a prominent anti-Stalinist and a leading opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Along the way he edited the Partisan Review (1937-1943) and founded the influential magazine Politics in 1944, which introduced such writers as Simone Weil, Albert Camus and Mary McCarthy. The early letters to his parents and, from the 1930s through the '70s, the dozens written to many noted American editors, thinkers and writers (from Henry Luce and Stephen Spender to John Leonard and Harrison Salisbury) range from insightful and witty to cranky (he complains about advances and royalties and gripes about friends). Macdonald is an important American thinker whose work has been much overlooked and whose ever-evolving political philosophies have gone misunderstood. This wonderful collection should do much to remedy the situation and will be vital to students and scholars of American political thought and intellectual history. (Oct. 5) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

An acute observer and critic of American politics, society, and culture from the 1930s to the 1970s, Macdonald corresponded with a vast array of the movers and shakers of his time in the United States and Europe. He is probably best remembered now as a pivotal figure of anti-Stalinist Left politics as well as a seminal analyst of the mass culture of his day. Macdonald made his mark as an editor of the influential left-of-center magazine Partisan Review and later as founder of his own magazine, Politics. All of these activities are illuminated in this generous selection of letters, compiled by Wreszin (emeritus, history, Queens Coll.; A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Mcdonald). Written with verve and gusto, the letters show him to be a penetrating critic of the American scene of his time. Recommended for academic libraries. Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE EDUCATION OF A GENTLEMAN, 1920-1929 "I have trained my mind." -- Exeter Journal, 1923 These prep school and college letters include Macdonald's accounts of his brief and often hilarious experience in the executive training program at Macy's department store. From his first day away, he was an inveterate letter writer and determined to keep his parents and later his very close friend Dinsmore Wheeler up to date not only with his intellectual activities and interests but with his inner life as well. This is particularly evident in the letters to Wheeler. To Theodore Dwight Macdonald [father] October 19, 1920 I hope my other letter did not scare you. I am doing as well as most of my class. On the 18th we had the exam for Oct. I did very well in relation with my class. There are 14 fellows in my class and 9 of them got E-- (that is a failure) or E. One got C and the rest got either D, D+, or D--. I got D--. So as the exam determines your standing to a very large extent, I am among the first 5 of my class! Write me when you get my package of Exonians and exams.     Greek is pretty hard but I am glad I took it. Dr. Jacobi is a peach. There is to be no more golf as the links are so bad. I will write you what I go out for. I should like to take walking there are a lot of good walks around Exeter. I must close now as I have a lot of work to do.     P.S. I like Exeter more every day I think it is a great school I am so busy that I have not had time to be homesick. To Parents April 30, 1923 ... I sent you a copy of the new Monthly yesterday, in which my Dunsany essay appears. Write and tell me what you think of it. Well I didn't get the Lantern Club prize after all, Lamb's story was first and poor little me second. What atrocious taste most fellows have, don't they? (Answer: YES!!)     I am busy on two great opus , or perhaps opa would be better. The first is my Merrill Prize Essay. I have decided to write a comparison of Erasmus and Luther. You can see that since they were the two greatest figures in the Renaissance, and since they were widely different in personal character, they will make a vivid contrast. At present I am reading up on Luther. I have a 400-page tome on his life and letters which I am reading now. It really is absorbing, contrary to my expectations. When I finish that, I will read parts of four or five other books on Luther and then Frat's Erasmus again, and I will be "all set," as the expression is. The other opus is my next story for the Monthly . I have not definitely decided on the details of the plot, but I can tell you that it will be a story of school life--either here, or in some school very similar to it--and will be a sort of study in the struggle of a fellow against the opinions and prejudices of the students and profs at large. This is not at all what I want to say, but I can't seem to express it, you know. To Father February 12, 1923 My very dear Pater: I have just received the correspondence between you and Henry Seidel Canby, the Sat. Rev. editor, and while I very much appreciate the compliment you pay me when you calmly ask Canby for a book for me to review, don't you think that is putting it on a little thickly?     I do! You must think I am an infant Dr. Johnson or Macaulay, or something. Ye Gauds! (As a very dear friend of yours says) I could no more review a book than I could--well, make first base on the Varsity (in spite of my build). All the same don't think that I don't appreciate your ambitions for me and O Boy wait till you see my next story. To Parents November 28, 1923 I am talking up Browning now and really like him immensely. When I get home for Xmas ... I'll show you what to read, how to read and why to read in him. For the present it will be enough if you read the following and report on same in your next letter. Here are the poems: (1) Johannes Agrigola (2) Fra Lippo Lippi (3) The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxid (4) Caliban upon Setebos (5) Confessions (6) Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister (7) My Last Duchess They will probably be hard to understand at first, but just think a little about them and I am sure they will become clear. The ones with a star are more difficult. To Parents CYNICISM ESTHETICISM CRITICISM PESSIMISM THE HEDONISTS Exeter December 6, 1923 Pour epater les bourgeois monocle & dagger ... Is this paper attractive in your opinion? We three Hedonists printed it ourselves at the Academy press. We have also single white sheets for less formal correspondence.     The following books have just arrived from Glazier, my English bookseller The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells--that was for you father. I read it myself yesterday afternoon and find it readable; To Let, A Man of Property , and In Chancery , by John Galsworthy--these three compose in part the Forsythe Saga as it is called; Regiment of Women , and First the Blade , by Clemence Dave. I have also just received two copies of Reginald , that book I told you of this summer. It is only 35 [cents] a copy--new with a lemon yellow jacket! So now I am sending this morning for 10 copies which I will use as Christmas presents.... In spite of all my spare time, I find myself kept pretty busy. Writing for the Monthly , attending meetings of the Exonian and Lantern Club, and above all talking, talking, talking--at the Hedonists with Bob Lamb, Eddie Mills, Johnny Seawall, Johnny Haven, Johnny Burr, Anyone! Ye Gods! I should be a most brilliant conversationalist by this time if practice means anything.... To Parents n.d., 1923-1924 ... Well I am glad you liked the story. I am quite a "lion" now with the fellows. They are awfully complimentary about the story, but I suspect that their praise is mostly tact! I have decided I should get a good foundation in the Greek and Latin Classics before tackling modern literature, so I have given up Swift and am now engaged in laboriously translating Livy and Thucydides. I asked Pinks for a good author to read in conjunction with Caesar and he recommended Livy. He was very decent about it--he even lent me a small Latin dictionary to look up the unfamiliar words. Dr. Peacock said Thucydides was a good one to start on, so I bought a Greek dictionary which I will need later on anyway and started. Whew! You never realize how little you know about grammar till you tackle something like Thucydides! ... I sounded out Mc Cann [a classmate he has just met] on the question of books and found that he is not a great reader. He said he would like to read, but always thought books were "dry." I am going to take him over to the library tonight and pick out some good books for him. We have had long talks on religion in which I maintained that there was no God and he said there was. It was quite interesting. I wish I could talk to you about that, I bet you would be on your knees after a few minutes of my irresistible logic. (I hear church bells ringing so I will continue after church.) Went to church where an Andover prof preached! What is the academy coming to!!     I just read a wonderful book about English school life called The Hill . It is by Howard A. Vachell. It isn't the regular "Tom, Dick and Harry at Fairweathers" sort, but a real work of art! The scene is laid at Harrow. One of the leading characters is a fellow named Edgerton who is always well-dressed and immaculate (mother please note) and a regular old aristocrat. He is the type that uses "one" instead of I. He is in my mind the most interesting character in the book. I won't ask you or Hedges [Dwight's younger brother] to read it bec. I realize that you wouldn't (ha! ha!). Seriously, though, I wish you would at least start it and make Hedges read it. To Alice Hedges Macdonald [mother] March 6, [1924] ... According to your oft-repeated advice, I am "cultivating" with more or less success two very fine chaps. (I think I have told you about them in my last letter, but in case I didn't their names are (1) McCann and (2) McVitty. The first has only one serious fault: he comes from Rochester, New York, and he believes he is a descendant of Pepin, the founder of the Carolinian dynasty in France (look him up in the Britannica under "Pay to Pol," (I think). I think he is mistaken after argue,--er discuss[ing] the matter with him. I am trying to get him interested in reading. He has promised to come up to my room between the hours of 8:30 to 9 on Saturday for reading. He is coming up tonight and I am going to start him on Kipling's Drums of the Fore and Aft . Last Tuesday night I went to a lecture by a Frenchman (in English) on "Moliere" with McVitty. After the lecture the Hampton Quartet played with great energy but unfortunately, without a like degree of success. Nevertheless they got quite a hand.     "Business before pleasure," say I, so I'll start off with my marks. In Greek I got B, as I expected. The best scholar in our class only got a B+, so I guess I am not so bad after all! In Latin I got C (comments both unnecessary and undesirable), as usual. In Math I sunk to a lowly B-- since I only got C-- on the big test. Doc is not good at all, I think he wastes hours talking and gassing about everything under the sun and then bawls us out for not knowing enough. Well, enough of that ! Let's pass on to the great surprise I have up my sleeve. IN ENG. I GOT C!!! I almost fell over when I heard it! I don't know why or how I did it, and I don't care! The fact remains--I got a C in English. Now you can't ask me why I only get Ds in my favorite subject--ha! ha! In French I got C+. This is the only mark I am not proud of. I know I should be able to get a B and I am straining every muscle (or perhaps brain-cell would be more appropriate) to get it. To Parents [Spring] 1924 I have just returned from the Prize giving, and find myself--much to my Amazement--owner of (1) $45 in gold, (2) the Stedman Woodberry edition of Edgar Allan Poe, (3) four selected volumes of Rudyard Kipling's works-- Stally and Co., The Jungle Book, The Light That Failed , and Captains Courageous .     The evening began very pleasantly, and the Greek and Bible prizes (Hedges got one of the latter!!) were run off. Then Tuffie read "The Pits-Duffield Prize, awarded to that member of the Senior English Class who shall do the best in a written examination, awarded to (long pause) Dwight Macdonald." As I wrote you, I did not have very much hope of getting it, so I was more or less unprepared. I dashed up, however, and received a warm, moist handshake by Doc Perry, (2) a "dummy" set of Poe (the real set had not yet arrived), and (3) a parting smile. A few more prizes were read off and then--"The [Seighton] prize to be awarded to that student who does the most towards furthering interest in creative writing in the Academy. Awarded to (pause) Dwight Macdonald." I did not even suspect that I would get that, and so I was totally unprepared. I went up amid much clapping, and, feeling very much stunned and surprised, received four leather-covered volumes of Kipling. The very next prize was the Chesterfield prize, so you can imagine how foolish I felt going up again. There was a great demonstration and much laughter as I pocketed the money. I certainly was "quite the boy" raking in (3) prizes!.... AT YALE: "To be fair, the administration did not prevent us from using the library." To Parents October 2, 1924 ... I have been in New Haven a week now. The Exeter men here are pretty terrible; the Robbinshowardcornishthomas type; the rest are Lamonclendenninmichaels, if you get what I mean. Just now I rather envy you and Pinny--at least you can whisper the name of Anderson without someone saying, "Oh, yeah! That Dry League feller that's in the jug." Most of the past week has been consumed in standing in line waiting to see Deans, Advisors, Inspectors, and Officers of one sort or another who, when one finally does come face to face with them, growl something and push a pink card at you to fill out. Then you go to another room and give the card to someone else, etcetera ad inf. I'm beginning to hate the whole damned business of officialdom and authority as much as you do--a large order. Classes here are imperceptibly less boring and childish than at E, the teachers are more intelligent, I believe. The one ray of sunshine in the whole Plutonian outlook is the great prestige of the Lit and the News among even the gin-soaked....     I have just received 10 copies of France's Penguin Island and 5 of his The Red Lily from England. I'm going to spread them about where I think they will do the most good--so to speak. Have you them? If not, say so and I'll send you a pair. Penguin Island , especially, is superb. No one of sound intellect could read this--not even Pinny, by the way--and fail to see the ridiculous side of the Roman Catholic Church. I don't wonder they put him on the index. To Dinsmore Wheeler October 19, 1924 ... Your letter was really very absorbing. I ran into two peanut-stands and almost got run over myself twice in the attempt to read it while on my way to History class. Seriously though, AS SOMEONE WE BOTH KNOW IS FOND OF OBSERVING, I enjoyed the perusal of it almost as much as if I had written it myself--than which there is no higher praise! ... Penguin Island is something to thank the gods for--not The God, that chill bungling, "silent Cal" person, but the jolly pagan gods, who at least took some sort of interest in the men who danced and groaned at their feet. I suppose you know France's dictum: "the highest form of writing is that which combines irony and pity," or something like that. How utterly true that is! And also how hard to attain For irony vide Aldous Huxley, Bodenheim, Dean Swift, Voltaire, Shaw, etc.; for pity vide "Elizabeth," Frederick Niven, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Dickens, Harold Bell Wright. For both vide Anatole France; and ... W. M. Thackeray.     Speaking of irony, remember that story about Exeter I told you ... that I have written called "Mr. Townley"? I think I have a little irony in it, but no pity--as is usually the case with young barbarians like you and me. It's a study of a very hateful prof. (he is a half-breed, part F. N. Robinson, part E. A. Barret [two of Macdonald's teachers]--mostly F.N.R.) and I'm sure you will agree with the thesis of the story--which is simply that some prep. school profs are, to use my own words, "mere Tyrants of Boys, whose heart and spirit are alike dust." Anyway, I handed it into the Lit., and--Allah be praised--it was accepted! So you see I seem in a fair way to "arrive" up here as far as writing is concerned. Probably from now on I will meet with a series of rebuffs, and become so discouraged that I'll never touch a pen again! I will send you a copy of the December Lit when it comes out.... It's 8:45 P.M. and I have had three experiences, so to speak, since I laid down my pen at 5 to go to the President's reception. (1) was, of course, the reception, which was crowded and boring--altogether a silly affair: people trying to be pleasant to me with about as much comprehension as a bachelor uncle trying to amuse an infant nephew. I met President Angell himself, and was reminded of Lou Perry, not in size, for Angell is small, but in a certain flushed joviality, which must be very effective in securing funds. I also talked for a long-too long-time with a Mary Cabot, who lives here and who is a cousin to Blake Cabot, and one of the Boston Cabots.... [I went to the talk] by Professor Jack Crawford, director of the Playcraftsmen, author of I Walked in Arden .... He spoke on "A Philosophy of Life." He said much that was original and much that was sound, but unfortunately what was original was not sound and what was sound was not original (a bon mot of Richard Brinsley Sheridan). Fortitude, tolerance, curiosity, humor, and something else constituted his right little, tight little philosophy. Very admirable, a bit whimsical, and quite respectable--but not for me.     Your verses to the little waitress are very good. I mean this. You have expressed in what seems to me an effective, lucid, and original way a feeling that I myself have often experienced: a sort of delight in knowing something or someone who is perfect in dainty frailty. Poe's To Helen has the same emotion as your II verse: "Thou wast that all to me, love. For which my soul did pine; A green isle in the sea, love, Where every tree was mine." This is from memory, and may be wrong in places. But you see the sense: the aching for something absolute, beautiful, and unbreakable to which you can turn and be refreshed and renewed--and which shall be yours only. Call it Helen of Troy, Utopia, Penelope, or a fat bank balance, the idea is the same. Still commenting on the little waitress, I observe that she is dainty, petite, fragile, etc. And precisely the opposite of you yourself. You are attracted by your opposite, but I am drawn to tall, slender, long-legged girls--now isn't that strange.... I really can't break off without a word about the main theme of your letter. So you are toujours miserable , eh? Much as I disliked his talk, I can't help referring you to Prof. Jack Crawford. Fortitude, humor, tolerance, and curiosity. The first two you possess in some measure, the third not at all, the fourth--I once did think--in abundance. Now the first three aren't 1/2 so necessary for wellbeing in a place like Yale or Harvard as the last. And it seems that the last must be greatly restricted. Curiosity about how Paris looks in the winter or what the Australians really are like (VIDE Kangaroo, of course) cannot obviously be satisfied. But curiosity--or I think interest would be better--interest, then, in books, people (not necessarily all male), and ideas can be very well satisfied. As you saw from my last letter I am not exactly a Smiling Sam all the time, but I owe the fact that I am not a Dismal Jenny all the time to my interest in such things as Browning, The Lit. , China, Morris, Mrs. Noyes (wife of my English Prof. and possessed of the simplest, freshest, most human soul in the world; she is also young and handsome), several fellows I've met this fall, my Victrola and collection of records, and my bloomin' self. This sounds whimsical and professorial. Ah well! You know, I desire to be just what you write: broad-minded, free from prejudice, and clean in body and--oh, hell--soul. I also refuse to become a lifeless lump of clay, dull, uninterested, stupid, sketchily read, and impervious to 1001 of the finer sensations and experiences. To be open to all thoughts, experiences, loves, etc. Is my one aim. To become thus, one must read much and eagerly thrust himself into contact with all things, and preserve his own integrity. D. H. Lawrence said a very profound thing I think when he said that sin is something which violates one's personal, spiritual integrity. If the mirror is flawed and cracked, one can get no truth from it.     But how I rave on. This letter is written, as you may have perceived, in one of my exalted moods while the last one was written in one of my black despair moods. I would give a lot to help you out of your Doubting Castle, but I feel I haven't done much in the pages above. I'm really just as badly off as you, except that I am only quelquebois miserable . But when I am, all the savor of life is gone. I wish to hell I could see you soon, but it is too close to the Christmas Holidays to make a trip down East, so I will have to wait till next term.... Next time I will write you some letters that will arouse your interest in something at least. Damn, I talk like a Y.M.C.A. director.     Of course you haven't any talent . If you possess anything, it is (loud crescendo of music offstage) GENIUS. This is a rather abrupt way of putting it, but I think I am right. Twenty years from now--etc. (Continues...) Excerpted from A MORAL TEMPER by . Copyright (c) 2001 by Michael Wreszin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Chronologyp. xix
1 The Education of a Gentleman, 1920-1929p. 3
2 From Luce to Lenin, 1929-1936p. 33
3 Among the Partisanskis and Trotskyists, 1936-1943p. 79
4 Politics and the Search for Responsibility, 1943-1949p. 119
5 Criticism as a Substitute for Politics, 1950-1959p. 189
6 Back to the Barricades, 1960-1969p. 293
7 Circuit-Rider Professor, 1970-1982p. 427
Indexp. 465