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Shootout at the New York Corral

books and culture

Shootout at the New York Corral

Tom Wolfe, Dwight Macdonald, and the days when literary disputes made shocking news May 23, 2018
Arts and Culture
New York

The piece of writing that catapulted Tom Wolfe into fame wasn’t written by Tom Wolfe. It was penned by the self-described literary gunslinger Dwight Macdonald, and it was meant to bury Wolfe, not to praise him. Macdonald is virtually forgotten today, but he loomed large on the intellectual scene from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. Macdonald’s writings are regularly reissued by university presses, and he is the subject of no less than five biographies. At different periods, he was a Marxist, a Trostkyite, an anarcho-pacifist, and a critic of mass culture, writing for The New Yorker—but he was never in doubt. 

Like Wolfe, Macdonald was known for his scathing wit, which he directed de haut en bas at the emanations of mid-century middlebrow American culture. A veteran of Henry Luce’s magazine empire, Macdonald later mocked it as the sacred vessel of middle-class received wisdom, quipping, “as smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking.” Macdonald singlehandedly destroyed the literary reputation of the once well-regarded Pulitzer Prize winner James Gould Cozzens. In his lengthy critique of the reviewers of Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, Macdonald lambasted the novel as the epitome of suburban pretension. “One of the consumer’s goods to which every American feels he has a right in this age of plenty is Culture,” Macdonald sneered, “and By Love Possessed on the living-room table is a symbol of the owner’s exercise of this right.”

But for all his wit, Macdonald, a man of contradictions, often had a hard time seeing things clearly. When famed French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir asked him what life in New York was like, he replied, not entirely in jest, “like living in a concentration camp.” Macdonald was a leftist wise enough to denounce the Soviet experiment early on as totalitarian, but his disdain for popular culture made him seem like an elitist snob. His sympathetic biographer Michael Wreszin explains that Macdonald had “a sneaking admiration” for Hitler and Mussolini; his “real villain was the bovine masses” of the American cultural wasteland. While “Europe had its Hitlers,” said Macdonald, “we had our Rotarians.” 

Imagine his horror when Wolfe wrote a series of journalistic forays examining the considerable creativity among those same masses—and considerable decadence among the elites Macdonald saw as the hope for high culture. In The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Wolfe’s first collection of essays written for New York and Esquire, he described the California custom-car culture, where working-class automobile artists suffered mightily for their outré creations. While Macdonald was caught up in the political rediscovery of poverty, Wolfe saw that the 1960s economic boom, the greatest in history, had created a population little interested in taking cues from its betters.  In “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”, Wolfe was the first to write about NASCAR’s roots in the whiskey runners trying to evade the revenuers. But it was his essay on “Baby Jane” Holzer, the hard-partying gal from the Upper East Side whom he dubbed society “The Girl of the Year,” that earned him the most ire in tony Manhattan circles. Wolfe had a good time describing Holzer’s “Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter face brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras.” The people who attacked him in Baby Jane’s defense knew that he had said something wrong but couldn’t put their finger on what it was; they just knew that they were offended.

After Wolfe went after the New Yorker and its eccentric editor William Shawn in his harsh 1965 essay, “Tiny Mummies,” Macdonald was chosen as the good soldier to defend the cathedral of high Manhattan taste. The newly formed New York Review of Books offered Macdonald a two-part opportunity to cut the reprobate Wolfe down to size.

In “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine,” Macdonald sent a hail of bullets at Wolfe. “He is a good observer, with an eye for the city’s style, and he would do very well as a writer of light pieces for, say, The New Yorker,” Macdonald condescendingly allowed. Macdonald was no dummy, and he capably exposed the mechanics of Wolfe’s technique: “Since elaboration rather than development is Wolfe’s forte, anything you miss will be repeated, with bells on.” Wolfe, said Macdonald, has “the essential quality of kitsch, or a pseudo-cultural product manufactured for the market: the built-in reaction.”  He belittled Wolfe as a poor man’s Max Beerbohm, the long forgotten British satirist whose heyday had passed decades earlier. Wolfe, he concluded, was merely a passing fancy. “I don’t think Wolfe will be read with pleasure, or at all, years from now, and perhaps not even next year.”

Macdonald may as well have been writing about himself. Not one literate person in ten today could give you the title of any of his books, yet Tom Wolfe is a cultural touchstone whose books are modern classics.

Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

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