John Summers: On "Masscult" and Snobbery





[John Summers is the author of Every Fury on Earth.]

"Masscult is bad in a new way: it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good,” Dwight Macdonald scolded in Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture. “Those who consume Masscult might as well be eating ice-cream sodas, while those who fabricate it are no more expressing themselves than are the ‘stylists’ who design the latest atrocity from Detroit.” Macdonald wanted to title his book Reactions, but bothering the memory of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain conveyed the new tone of astringency well enough....

Against the American Grain, published in 1962, collected Macdonald’s essays on Mark Twain, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and James Agee and his accusations of cultural malpractice against Webster’s New International Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the University of Chicago, and the Bible. There were minor, trend-spotting pieces such as “Amateur Journalism” and “Howtoism,” as well as prescient ones like “The Triumph of the Fact.” The main idea arrived in the first chapter, “Masscult and Midcult.”...

Macdonald was a snob, but that does not mean he was a fool. His won his insights from experience on the front lines of literary journalism. He went to work for Henry Luce’s Time Inc. soon after graduating from Yale in 1928 (“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”); defected to Partisan Review in 1937; founded and edited Politics in 1944; then spent the 1950s as a staff writer for the New Yorker. From 1960 to 1966, he wrote a film column for Esquire.

Greater snobs, Alexis de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill, for example, had already puzzled over mass culture and produced insights into the moral culture of individuality. Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhardt, and Jose Ortega y Gasset had interpreted mass phenomena as the erosion of European culture. The Institute for Social Research showed how the weed of fascism flourished in depleted soil. By 1944, when Macdonald published “A Theory of Popular Culture” in Politics, most conservatives and socialists and many liberals in Europe and America had abandoned hope for a democracy of culture. The theory of masses reached a dialectical impasse from which it has not returned....

Against the American Grain, against the odds, still has something to say. Who else can connect cable dramas such as "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," and "The Wire" with the midcentury Partisan Review, Politics, and the New Yorker? “One possibility is pay-TV, whose modest concept is that only those who subscribe could get the program, like a magazine; but, also like a magazine, the editors would decide what goes in, not the advertisers; a small gain but a real one,” Macdonald wrote. “The networks oppose this on philanthropic grounds—they don’t see why the customer should pay for what he now gets free. But perhaps one would rather pay for bread than get stones for nothing.”



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