Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Abusing the Privilege

with 3 comments

Good morning.  I’m running a little late, but that’s not a surprise.  It’s “reading week” and exam week at my place, and that means I’m inundated by e-mails and text messages from students desperate for me to assure them that they can, indeed, pass the course, even though they haven’t been in class since midterms and haven’t turned in any papers at all.

I’m also being inundated by papers, which come in huge, messy stacks that have never been revised by anybody and whose contents have little or no relation to the assignments as they were given.

This is true for papers handed in for courses for which I did not put up a Blackboard site, and for those which I did.  In the latter, details of every assignment are sitting right there for anybody to read. 

And this is the time of arguments, too–when I explain that you can’t pass the course without at least attempting to hand in the work, I get told, indignantly, that they had to be out of class for a week because they had “a family thing” back home, or–

Well, or anything.  The underlying assumption is that anything, anywhere, is of more importance than school, and therefore school must take a back seat to everything from picking your aunt up at the airport to having a hernia operation.

Putting that aside for the moment–

I’ve spent a fair amount of my time for the last few days reading reviews of the reissue of Dwight MacDonald’s book of essays Masscult and Midcult:  Essays Against The American Grain.

MacDonald is not a writer I know very well, or had even read anything of before this.  For what it’s worth, when somebody says MacDonald my head tends to go automatically to “Ross.”

I had, however, heard of Trotsky’s famous putdown of Dwight–“Every man has the right to be stupid, but Comrade MacDonald abuses the privilege.”–and I’d always thought it was one of those things that I’d like to have had said about me, by the right kind of person.

The reviews I’ve been reading, and what little I’d heard about MacDonald before this, made it seem as if McD was something like a not-so-well-known Edmund Wilson,  a professional snob with the mannerisms and attitudes of a Sheridan Whiteside.

I don’t have much interest in the Sheridan Whitesides of this world.   It was never a pose I found attractive or even interesting, and it was never one that much impressed anybody in the world in which I lived. 

Then one day I went to my porch and found a little package with a small book in it, and the book was Masscult and Midcult. 

And I got a surprise.

Let me give a warning here.  This is the only work of MacDonald’s I have ever seen.  For all I know, everything else he wrote was just as Sheridan-Whitesidish as the reviews I read.

But the simple fact is that this book is not, and the essay Masscult and Midcult especially is not.

I am not saying here that I read MacD’s title essay and found that he really loved detective stories and Edgar Rice Borroughs.

I didn’t, and he doesn’t.

MacD’s take on what he calls “pulp fiction” is fairly knee jerk–it’s all a corporate plot, manufactured by corporations in the same way they manufacture soap. 

He actually has an interesting couple of paragraphs comparing Erle Stanley Gardner with Edgar Allan Poe.  For what it’s worth, he thinks Poe is art.

But the more interesting thing is this–he spends very little time on “pulp fiction.”  His ire is directed not to formula murder mysteries of the Whose Body variety, or even at people like Burroughs.

His ire is directed at…what Robert would call “the Required Reading List.”

It was “Midcult,” not “Masscult,” that drove MacD practically insane–the faux-highbrow, faux-intellectual, faux-high culture of high school English classes and women’s society reading groups.

As far as I can tell, “Midcult” seems to encompass most of the books and stories people say they were required to read in high school and college and that I never was–Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and “Hills Like White Elephants,” for instance.

The idea, according to MacD, was to make it possible for some people to imply that they were better, more intelligent, and more culturally educated than other people without having to do any of the actual work of understanding any great work of art, and especially any great work of art they might actually have to read.

The defining characteristics of Midcult are pseudo-profound language that is often simply incomprehensible, a mania for symbolism and Big Themes, and supposed novels in which…nothing actually happens.

He includes an essay on a publishing project of the 195os called The Great Books Series, in which the Encyclopedia Brittanica produced a more or less unified edition of what its advisory board (including a past President of the University of Chicago) considered to be the Greatest Books Ever Written and the ones everybody should read.

His problem wasn’t so much with the selections themselves–he liked some of them and disliked others, and was left dumbfounded in the face of the scientific ones–but with the idea that Culture with a capital C can be put on like a suit of clothes in order to indicate that you are So Much Superior to the Joneses.

It is, in other words, the use of Culture (capital C) as a class marker that makes MacD crazy, and I have to admit I’m crazy on that point with him.

I’m not trying to say that MacD was a friend to popular culture.  He wasn’t, but my guess is that he wasn’t because he knew little or nothing about it. 

On the actual object of his scorn, however–all those “I read Ann Beattie so I’m superior to you who read Janet Evanovich” people–I think he has a point.

The work used to signal Intelligence and Culture is almost always second rate, and is often downright embarrassing.  It isn’t Culture, and it isn’t Great Art.   It’s just attitude.

And its inclusion in courses anywhere is mostly an attempt to convey attitude. 

But then, with MacD, I’m not sure that courses are the best place to encounter really great novels, or any other kind of art.

I’d better go off and listen to wailing students.

Written by janeh

December 6th, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Abusing the Privilege'

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  1. Oh, drat! Now I’m going to have to read it. Something better informed tomorrow. (Thank you, Amazon!)

    That said:

    “What Robert calls the RRL”? One of the nice things about not being a professional academic is that I don’t have to change my vocabulary every time the Ivy League comes up with a new euphemism. I call it the Required Reading List because that’s what it is. “Course Adoptive Text” be hanged.

    MacD gets no bonus points for Poe. Even a full-bore critic can spot a dead genius after a century. It’s the inability to identify the live ones which sets the prestige critic apart.

    And let’s all keep in mind that MacD hated “pulp” and loved “folk”–that is, art with no contract and no copyright. Evidently it’s virtuous to sit by a begging bowl telling a story and pausing at cliff-hangers for the clink of a coin, or to sing a bar for drinks, but not to write for WEIRD TALES for five cents a word, or sell the paperback rights to Ace. The pulp when he began writing would be, of course, Hammett, Chandler, Lovecraft and Howard–clearly no one with anything to say, and unworthy of shelf space.

    I have, incidentally a decent collection of actual pulps–a pretty good run of ASTOUNDING then ANALOG which brackets the writing of MASSCULT. It has Heinlein near the top of his form, Poul Anderson just hitting his stride, Hal Clement, Christopher Anvil and H. Beam Piper at their best–with Bonestel and Freas illustrating. I would not trade those pulp magazines for the collected works of every author ever published in the NEW YORKER, leather bound, signature sewn with gold edging.


    6 Dec 11 at 5:38 pm

  2. Statements I wish I had made:

    “The work used to signal Intelligence and Culture is almost always second rate, and is often downright embarrassing. It isn’t Culture, and it isn’t Great Art. It’s just attitude.”


    6 Dec 11 at 6:30 pm

  3. OK, last night was “Masscult and Midcult” “Hemingway” “Great Books” and “RSV” If I am not wiser, I am at least better informed.

    And I did not find in MacD’s words, warrant for Jane’s description of midcult, nor the criticism of it. MacD actually liked “Hills Like White Elephants” by the way, which I was assigned, and Dickens (likewise) though he never explains why Dickens isn’t masscult. He condems Steinbeck, who I was stuck with, and “The Old Man and the Sea”–a common problem, but not mine. He–rightly–praises Hemingway’s “The Undefeated.” But it’s not always clear whether particular works are only disliked and when they’re midcult.

    Again, Jane’s description is admirable and a useful definition and criticism. I just can’t footnote it to anything I’ve read of MacDonald.


    7 Dec 11 at 6:10 am

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