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Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – October 11, 2011

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159017447X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590174470
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“He was a radical, he was a conservative, he was compassionate, he was scathing. He had exquisite taste in many a literary matter. But his transcendental virtue, that unique quality which sets him far apart from all other literary figures for whom one can feel respect, was that he had the rare gift of always speaking out of his own voice.” —Norman Mailer

“Dwight Macdonald was a generalist whose specialty was capsizing conventional wisdom, exposing highfalutin fraudulence and filing heretical dissents.” —James Wolcott, The New York Times

“Those who read much and care about the quality of what they read ought to be grateful for the consistent tough-mindedness of Dwight MacDonald. . . He is provocative and well worth rereading. The quality of his essays is in direct ratio to
their ambitiousness.” —Larry McMurtry, The Washington Post

"Dwight Macdonald's...real legacy lies in the series of unforgiving, inflammatory and ferociously witty essays he wrote during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Most of his work is out of print now, but this new collection edited by John Summers aims to right this wrong and prove Macdonald's enduring relevance as a cultural watchdog….If, politically, Macdonald was a confused and often erratic radical, intellectually he was a staunch conservative; he was against the grain in more ways than one. It's this unresolved contradiction that makes his essays so thrilling and complex. " — Ermanno Rivetti, The Guardian

"As with all great essayists, his writing had a poetic component, but it was a poetry cleansed of poeticism. No modern American prose writer of consequence ever postured less: compared with him, Mary McCarthy is on stilts, Gore Vidal grasps a pouncet-box, and Norman Mailer is from Mars in a silver suit. At his best, Macdonald made modern American English seem like the ideal prose medium: transparent in its meaning, fun when colloquial, commanding when dignified, and always suavely rhythmic even when most committed to the demotic." - Clive James, The Atlantic

About the Author

Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982) was born in New York City and educated at Exeter and Yale. On graduating from college, he enrolled in Macy’s executive training program, but soon left to
work for Henry Luce at Time and Fortune, quitting in 1936 because of cuts that had been made to an article he had written criticizing U.S. Steel. From 1937 to 1943, Macdonald was an editor
of Partisan Review and in 1944, he started a journal of his own, Politics, whose contributors included Albert Camus, Victor Serge, Simone Weil, Bruno Bettelheim, James Agee, John Berryman, Meyer Schapiro, and Mary McCarthy. In later years, Macdonald reviewed books for The New Yorker, movies for Esquire, and wrote frequently for The New York Review of Books.

John Summers is the editor of The Baffler.

Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Discovering Modernism, The Metaphysical Club, American Studies, and The Marketplace of Ideas.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Gordon Matthews on December 9, 2011
Format: Paperback
The title of this collection made me fear that it would simply be a repackaging of Macdonald's earlier collection, Against the American Grain (in which "Masscult and Midcult" is the lead essay), and to a large degree that's what it is. The last two essays did not appear in the original collection (both were, however, previously collected in the Macdonald collection Discriminations), but all the others did, and a number of the essays from the original collection have been deleted. I'm glad that at least part of that fine book has been brought back into print, but the selection of contents is baffling. Why not either reissue Against the American Grain in its original form or put together a collection of previously uncollected MacDonald pieces?
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 8, 2012
Format: Paperback
(Note: I'm posting my review of the original book "Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture" from 1962 here because even though this book is an abridged version of the original most of it is the same.)

I recall "Against the American Grain" from my youth and recommend it to today's readers primarily for the first essay in the book, "Masscult & Midcult," which first appeared in Partisan Review in 1960. MacDonald, who was on the staff of the New Yorker magazine for many years, sees Masscult as "a parody of High Culture." He identifies "the enormous output of such new media as the radio, television and the movies" as "almost entirely Masscult." (p. 3) The idea is that the product which is fed to the masses is not art at all but instead a kind of ersatz denaturing of art similar to bleached white flour. "Masscult offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience.... The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment...but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate." (pp. 4-5)

Curiously MacDonald was right in the same way that Marshall McLuhan was right in his Understanding Media (1964) in which he famously wrote that "the medium is the message" and in a later work, "the medium is the massage." Masscult massages the couch potato, deadens the critical faculties of the mass mind and renders the average person fit for compliance with the needs of the corporation and the power structure. MacDonald and McLuhan predicted the world of today some 45 years ago.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By JAK on May 14, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you are interested in the literature, politics and history of the USA from the 1930's through the 1960's , you've probably heard of Dwight Macdonald. However, I suspect if you're under 70 you probably haven't read him. Well if you haven't, you are missing out on something. At his best Macdonald was a perceptive and very funny critic.The title essay here is probably his most famous work.Here he lays out the once well known theory of culture as divided into roughly four spheres.Once there was high culture and low or folk culture and that was it.The industrial age gives birth to mass culture and gradually midculture. Mid cult is the hardest to define.I would suggest it's mass cult with pretensions.This stratification of art has everything to do with - in Walter Benjamin's terminology- the rise of mechanical reproduction of art, sound and the image.(Macdonald cites Adorno but not Benjamin).How valid is any of this? As an analytical tool ,I think this type of categorization is useful, if you don't take it too literally.It can function as an antidote to the overdone tendency to blur high and low to such an extent that , there can be no high or low in analyzing art.Yes, distinguishing Bach from Beyonce does have to be done because if you don't , you're lost.On certain specific points Macdonald is simply wrong.To give a striking example, he sees jazz as a somewhat vital holdout from folk culture but dismisses rock as masscult.Well, yes and no.Rock had much deeper roots in both rural and urban folk culture than Macdonald understood.Also while he was still alive rock was rushing headlong in the direction of midcult and at times playing with highcult. Refreshingly,Macdonald is blithely dismissive of art as validated by noble sentiment or good intentions.Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By margot on February 17, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
One of Dwight Macdonald's best books was his 1960 anthology, 'Parodies.' He had a sharp eye for humor, and as a critic and editor, a perfect sense of comic timing. Therefore most of these essays in "Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain" have at least one laugh-out-loud line. Some--at least the ones on Wolfe and Hemingway and the King James Bible--have a good laugh or two on every page.

The only deficiency in the collection is the long title essay itself...slightly sub-par Macdonald. Macdonald was aware of this, and so is Louis Menand, whose Introduction deftly explains why it was a disappointment. Menand's introduction may be the best thing in the book, if only because it's probably the best (only?) summation of Dwight Macdonald ever written.

Macdonald was good at the book review, and excelled at the critical riposte. Drawn-out critical theories and manifestoes were not his game. So the essay "Masscult and Midcult" is a readable, workmanlike statement of theory, but not much more. Macdonald was initially asked to write a whole book on the topic. Wisely, he chose not to, figuring that his 25,000-word essay pretty much exhausted both his own ideas and the readers' interest. (This is one respect in which he differs from Marshall McLuhan, the contemporary to whom he bears the closest parallel; McLuhan would gladly have filled 300 dense pages saying the same thing a hundred different ways.) Critic that he was, Macdonald couldn't help but see the holes and soft spots in his own argument. Still half-steeped in the enthusiasms of his youth, the Macdonald of the 1950s tended to fall back upon Marxist theory when trying to sort out a cultural phenomenon.
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