Remembering a generous gadfly
The late Dwight Macdonald once devoted a marvelously growly essay to ''The Triumph of the Fact.'' In a style that managed to combine elegance and ferocity, he wrote: ''We are obsessed with technique, hagridden by Facts, in love with information.''
Not Dwight Macdonald. He was obsessed with ideas, hagridden by opinions, in love with convictions.
He knew his Facts though. Few journalists were more scrupulously thorough. He had the goods on history. After World War II, he edited his one-man magazine, Politics, as gloriously wayward as his own philosophical anarchism, which finally led him out of politics (and Politics) altogether.
He qualified as one of the few scholars in that pseudo-scholarly field, film criticism, writing reviews for Esquire.
He became an authority on popular culture, a topic which he handled fastidiously with tongs of his own invention - the terms ''midcult'' and ''masscult.''
Nobody was accepted as an editor of the Partisan Review back in the 1940s without being staggeringly well-read - commanding, to a fault, the prevailing wisdom on every subject from Henry James to Marx, from Jackson Pollock to Jean-Paul Sartre, with lots of Freud for the footnotes.
But facts were only ammunition to Macdonald, stockpiled like snowballs. The purpose - the fun - was to throw them.
New York intellectuals play rough, and Macdonald rejoiced in argument, like a contact sport. He exulted especially when he was a minority of one. The best collection of his essays, titled ''Against the American Grain,'' fairly snarls with defiant subdivisions: ''Pretenders,'' ''Betrayals.''
Nobody could beat Macdonald at polemics. He mixed the high dudgeon of an Englishman writing a letter to the editor with the wisecracking punchiness of an American stand-up comedian.
A masterful gadfly, he liked to begin his assaults with reckless generalizations about what ''we Americans'' are, or are not, leading, in the end , to despairing shakes of his bearded-pixie head over ''bland, flavor-less mediocrity.''
At times, his excesses drove him to self-parody, but more often to parody of others. He caught Hemingway, down to the last manly monosyllable. There is no better-edited volume on the specialty than his ''Parodies: An Anthropology From Chaucer to Beerbohm - and After.''
Macdonald was sorrowed when his victims, whom he loved in his own way, did not roar back. The fact that they - prudent victims! - seldom felt it ''necessary to reply'' struck him as ''a gloomy note'' on the state of national dialogue. What were ''we Americans'' turning into? He is reported to have whinnied with delight whenever he was attacked by friends, like the one who saw Macdonald's vast certainties as a dead giveaway (''Dwight is looking for a disciple who will tell him what to think'').
What Macdonald was looking for, more likely, was a cause worthy of his considerable fervor. In the end, language became his cause. He took lugubrious pleasure in thinking that his mother English was going to pot - dictionaries, Bible translations, and, of course, journalism. Everywhere he looked he discovered ''a veritable lead mine of bad English.'' Of one revised Bible translation he wrote, it was ''like finding a parking lot where a great church once stood.''
This was what he disapproved of about modern life, about modern prose - about the Age of Facts: Everything got flattened.
High spirits and intellectual rigor were Macdonald's gifts for resisting flatness. But for a critic, for a gadfly, he was a wonderfully responsive admirer of flatness-resisting qualities he did not possess, like the ''reverence and feeling'' of his friend, the poet-playwright James Agee. Did Macdonald, searching his mail for the stung, dialectical reply, know how many readers admired the generosity in him as well as all that brilliant prickle?