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The Dwight Stuff: The FBI vs. Dwight Macdonald

Spring 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 2

JOHN RODDEN has published Every Intellectual's Big Brother: George Orwell's Literary Siblings (2007), Scenes from an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell (2003) and Lionel Trilling and the Critics (1999), among numerous other books. His most recent Modern Age essay was "A Young Scholar's Encounter with Russell Kirk." JOHN ROSSI is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Modern Age previously published his essay "Two Irascible Englishmen: Mr. Waugh and Mr. Orwell."


If there was one thing that J. EdgarHoover fiercely cherished, it was thereputation of his FBI as the incorruptible,all-powerful guardian of America fromits nefarious enemies, both domestic andforeign. Throughout the 1930s and 1940sHoover carefully honed his proudly heldimage of the honest G-man through apublic relations campaign that portrayedthe Bureau in a flattering light in books,magazine articles, newspaper reports,films, radio programs, and later on televisionshows.

From this sensitivity grew a tradition oftrying to counter any individual or groupthat threatened what Hoover saw as the integrityof the agency that he had craftedinto an Argus-eyed behemoth, indeed intoone of the most powerful national policeforces in the world.

As a result, innocuous though the threatwould seem, it did not pass the Bureau'swatchful gaze unnoticed when a littleknownanarchist-pacifist journalist had theaudacity to scribble a few lines of defiantgraffiti on Hoover's masterwork.

In 1942, the quixotic journalist DwightMacdonald (1906–82) tweaked Hoover'snose in a fl edgling, left-wing, New Yorklittle magazine—and thereby ran afoul ofHoover's massive PR machine. Because ofMacdonald's activities on behalf of variousradical causes and his writings in thequasi-Trotskyist intellectual quarterly PartisanReview—destined to become the leadingliterary journal of the postwar era, yetstill relatively unknown outside New Yorkintellectual circles—FBI agents compiled adossier on Macdonald in the spring of 1942.They tracked his life since 1929, noting theplaces he worked, the articles he wrote,and the political affiliations he established.Their fact-gathering was spotty: for instance,they claimed that Macdonald (usuallyspelled "McDonald") was a registeredCommunist Party (CP) member in NewYork in 1937 and thereafter broke with theParty. In fact, Macdonald was never a CPmember; he despised the Stalinists, chafedat Party discipline, and was a consistentenemy of Communism and its fellow travelersthroughout his long career.

Dwight Macdonald was, however, aheterodox socialist. In September 1939,following the Nazi-Soviet pact in Augustand the subsequent invasion of Poland bythe Germans and Russians, he entered theSocialist Workers Party (SWP), which hadbeen formed from a Trotskyist group thathad split off from the Socialist Party. Afterserving as a staff writer for Henry Luce'sFortune and contributing regularly to variousTrotskyist magazines in the mid-1930s,he joined the editorial board of Partisan Reviewin 1938. During the war, Macdonaldbroke with his Partisan Review colleaguesand in 1944 founded his own magazine,politics (which he always lower-cased). Hehad fallen out with Partisan Review editorsPhilip Rahv and William Phillips oversupport for the Allied war effort and ona variety of cultural matters. Macdonaldwanted to express with unbridled freedomhis own idiosyncratic antiwar views andhold forth on what he regarded as the lamentablestate of American radicalism.1

The FBI began keeping tabs on Macdonaldonce he started raising money forpolitics from like-minded former (and current)Trotskyists and/or SWP members.Probably Macdonald would have beenpleased to know that he remained on theBureau's checklist of political radicals fora quarter-century. He would have agreedwith E. L. Doctorow that an FBI dossierplaced one "on an American 'honors list.' "2He might have been chagrined to learn,however, that he never rose to the augustlevel of "security risk" (unlike his formerassistant, Irving Howe, a onetime politicseditorial board member and Trotskyist).3

The FBI's agents struggled vainly tomake sense of where Macdonald fit in thebroader picture of American dissent. Theycould never quite get a handle on him,though they pursued him for decades, touse Oscar Wilde's phrase, with "all the enthusiasmof a short-sighted detective."

Macdonald's FBI file totals more than700 pages—hundreds more than suspectwriters (such as Ernest Hemingway orDashiell Hammett) or fellow erstwhileTrotskyist intellectuals (such as Howe). Aswe shall see, scrutiny of its contents furnishesnot only a fascinating snapshot ofwhat was happening in one corner of theLeft in the middle decades of the twentiethcentury, but also anatomizes how auniquely gifted—and burdened—intellectualengaged his times as both the politicallandscape altered and his own social andcultural convictions evolved.

Although we have emphasized that theFBI's failure to comprehend the Americanradical scene led to a fundamental misunderstandingof Macdonald's politics (andpolitics), that alone does not fully accountfor the Bureau's confusions about him. Thefact is that Macdonald was a gadfly andavowed outsider—and he was sui generis, asCzeslaw Miłosz once noted. Fundamentalto his sometimes puzzling eclecticism andirrepressible distinctiveness—and an abidingsource of his interest for us today—washis conservative ethos. For although Macdonaldwas invariably a left-wing anticapitalistwhose political stands jumpedfrom Trotskyism to anarcho-pacifism toquietism to liberal anti-Communism toborn-again New Left radicalism, he wasfundamentally a cultural conservative anda vocal defender of high cultural standards.Radical by conviction, Macdonald wasconservative in temperament and taste,and this made him a traditionalist and evena curmudgeonly elitist in his later years.He came to hate avant-garde art and lashedout at both the action painting of JacksonPollack and Beat poets such as Allen Ginsbergand Jack Kerouac. Unlike most of hisfellow intellectuals associated with PartisanReview, Macdonald supported the awardingof the Bollingen Prize for Poetry toEzra Pound for his Pisan Cantos in 1948.Macdonald condemned the poetry for itsanti-Semitism, but he praised the judgingpanel for having conferred the prize onthe basis of literary quality, leaving asideall political considerations, including thefact that Pound was accused of treason forhis participation in Italian Fascist propagandaagainst the Allies during World WarII. Macdonald noted approvingly that nosuch state-supported award honoring theautonomy of art could possibly be given ina Fascist or Communist country.

And yet: the ultimate significance of theFBI's misguided pursuit of Dwight Macdonaldfor libertarians and conservativestoday is not the tiresome point that theU.S. intelligence services are a contradictionin terms, let alone that Macdonald is aforgotten literary burnout. Rather, it is firstthat we Americans need to remain wary ofofficial rationales for invading our privacy,invariably in the name of "national security"or "patriotism" or even "the publicgood." 4 Equally important is the freelancingstyle of Macdonald—in life as well as inliterature. For if ever there were an "individualist"whose eclectic career amountedto its own one-man "Individualist StudiesInstitute" 5—it was Dwight Macdonald.Czeslaw Miłosz once called him "a totallyAmerican phenomenon in the tradition ofThoreau, Whitman, and Melville—'thecompletely free man,' capable of makingdecisions at all times and about all things,strictly on the basis of his personal andmoral judgment." 6

It is this Macdonald, the moralist andoutsider, who speaks to libertarians ofour time. His anti-statism, his anarchistimpulse, his Veblerian distrust for theacademy and its pretensions, his impassioneddefense of cultural norms and theWestern literary tradition: these capacitiesare indispensable field artillery in theongoing culture wars of the twenty-firstcentury. For all these reasons, Macdonaldshould still exert a claim on our interestand attention today.


In the course of circulating fund-raisingletters in late 1943 for politics, Macdonaldcaught the attention of the FBI,which opened another dossier on him andlaunched a fresh investigation into his activities.What especially piqued the FBI'sinterest was the correspondence betweenMacdonald and a potential contributor tothe magazine, Victor Serge, whose realname was Kibalchich. The Bureau believedthat Macdonald was trying to arrange forSerge to settle in the United States. Sergewas an ex-Communist and prolific authorwhose rejection of Stalinist orthodoxiesand fierce commitment to democraticsocialism had rendered him persona nongrata in the Soviet Union. Although theindependent-minded Serge was a fearlesscritic of the claim by the Bolshevik state torepresent revolutionary socialism, the FBIregarded him as a dangerous subversive tokeep out of the U.S. at all costs. He wasliving in Mexico when Macdonald contactedhim about contributing an articleto politics. The FBI was compiling a list ofwriters who represented national securitythreats, and Macdonald's name joined thatgrowing number.

The Bureau's probe of Macdonald'sactivities intensified in 1944. With a bureaucraticmix of clumsiness and thoroughness,the Bureau carried out a backgroundcheck on Macdonald—spellinghis name incorrectly as "MacDonald"or "McDonald" even after he became aninternationally recognized writer. Theyalso began to monitor his mail; copiesof Serge's letters to him can be found inMacdonald's dossier. Checking the magazine'soffice, the Bureau discovered to itssurprise that politics' entire staff consistedof just three people: Macdonald; his wife,Nancy; and a secretary/assistant, DorothyFrumm. The Bureau even launched aninvestigation of Frumm; it yielded nothingof significance.

The Macdonald file serves as an ironiccommentary on the FBI of the mid-twentiethcentury, exposing a huge blind spotwhen it came to the Bureau's surveillanceof the American Left. The Bureau tendedto equate everyone on the Left with Communism,since few agents were familiarwith the immigrant origins and Europeancontext of radical politics in America.7The FBI viewed anyone with a liberal orradical past as suspect for tolerating Communistsand defending their constitutionalrights. The Macdonald file reflects littleawareness of the internecine warfare thatraged within the American Left. The lastingimpression is a sense of bewildermenton the part of various agents as they tryto disentangle the complex connectionsamong rival left-wing groups. Macdonald'sdossier possesses significant historicaland political value, for it offers a revealingglimpse of the vicissitudes of postwar U.S.intellectual life—from the veiled side ofthe government intelligence services—asthe American Left lurched along in turmoilduring World War II, through theCold War, and into the era of the VietnamWar protests.


In a letter dated 26 January 1944, J. EdgarHoover ordered a full-scale investigationof Macdonald and his new journal. On 6April 1944, the New York office of theFBI filed a report entitled "Dwight Macdonaldalias McCarthy." The name Mc-Carthy had already appeared occasionallyin the FBI reports on Macdonald, indicatingthat their agents claimed he was awell-known Stalinist in Washington, DC,in 1937. Periodically the FBI would recordthe possibility that Macdonald was (touse the then-current phrase of the day) "acard-carrying member of the CommunistParty." The source for this myth was aninformant who had read (and misunderstood)Macdonald's magazine.

The FBI seldom took these reports atface value. And yet, the very claim thatMacdonald ("alias McCarthy") was aWashington, DC, Stalinist operative in1937 reflects the Bureau's confusion aboutAmerican radical politics. In 1937, whenMacdonald was supposed to be agitatingfor Stalinism in the nation's capital, hewas living in New York and embroiledin literary politics, devising strategies andtactics with his fellow Trotskyists for seizingPartisan Review from the Stalinists whohad founded the magazine in 1934 and stillcontrolled it. He also was involved thatyear with John Dewey's American Committeefor the Defense of Leon Trotsky,which was challenging the accusationsagainst Trotsky emerging from the Moscowpurge trials—scarcely the activitiesone would associate with a Stalinist.

It is not apparent whether the FBI evercleared up its NY/DC "DoppelgängerDwight" identity confusions. Toward theend of Macdonald's file, however, whichcloses in the early 1970s, the references tohim as a "Communist" dwindle. Nonetheless,the mix-up attests to the FBI'suncertain grasp of the nature of the wartimeand postwar American Left.

The April 1944 report also includes anup-to-date thumbnail biography of Macdonald:his various residences, his financialstatus, the names of his wife and children,and a review of the first two issuesof politics.

Subsequent reports gained from whatthe FBI called "confidential informantswhose identity is known to the Bureau"dispute the contention that Macdonald wasa Stalinist or Communist sympathizer. Oneinformant told the FBI that not only CommunistParty orthodoxy repelled Macdonald,but also that he could not abide eventhe milder variant among Trotskyist sects.Indeed he could not stomach the shibbolethsof Soviet ideology, especially afterthe start of the war in September 1939 andTrotsky's murder the following August.The informant stated that Macdonald "leftthe [Socialist] Workers Party in 1941 becausehe could not accept Bolshevism in itsoriginal form. He believed that Leninism aspracticed in Russia had failed and believeda Socialist revolution unlikely but thoughtthat new ways and means would have to bedevised in order to accomplish it." 8

Other examples of Macdonald's oppositionto Stalin's Russia also were gatheredfrom FBI informants. They noted that hehad been arrested for disorderly conduct(30 August 1940) outside the Soviet Consulatein New York for protesting Stalin'salliance with Hitler.

Another "confidential informant" toldthe FBI that Macdonald was secretary ofan organization including influential anti-Stalinist leftists (such as James T. Farrell,Sidney Hook, Norman Thomas, and EdmundWilson), which was created to protestthe 1943 pro-Soviet film Mission toMoscow, a Hollywood drama designed tostrengthen the wartime alliance with "UncleJoe." Based on the memoirs of JosephE. Davies, ambassador to Russia from 1937to 1939, Mission to Moscow was a full-scalewhitewash of Stalin's crimes and his purgetrials. The film also rationalized the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 as a step forcedon Stalin by the West.9 One would thinkMacdonald's anti-Soviet stance would havesatisfied Hoover that politics represented noreal threat to the nation's security. It alsoshould have alerted the Bureau to the complexitiesof American intellectual radicalismand some of the distinctions betweenthe anti-Stalinist Left and the Stalinist Leftat this time.

Unfortunately, it did not. The Bureau'sagents stayed on Macdonald's case. Theyeven took out a subscription to politics"through a confidential mail box maintainedby the New York office." Macdonaldwould probably have been gratified tolearn that the Bureau was a paid subscriber,given that politics struggled throughout itsfive-year history and never gained morethan 5,000 subscribers.

The FBI's assiduous monitoring of thewartime politics unearthed no juicy scandalsor bombshell revelations. Much of themagazine's anarchist-pacifist, anti-capitalist,and anti–New Deal editorial lineseemed unexceptional to FBI agents. Still,the FBI was puzzled by Macdonald's leftwinganti-Communism especially duringthe war years, when the USSR was a valuedally. FBI agents continued to deliverperiodic reports of politics' contents, all ofwhich they forwarded to the main officein Washington. Hoover found nothingmuch of interest.


That all changed in the postwar years.Macdonald commissioned an article in1947 on Hoover and the FBI by a freelancewriter, Clifton Northbridge Bennett, aself-declared anarchist and pacifist. Hooverwas thin-skinned about even discreet privatecriticism, let alone public castigationof the Bureau; he made strenuous efforts(with considerable success) through his PRmachine to ensure that only positive storiesappeared.

By the early postwar era, Hoover's closeworking relationship with leading Washingtonpoliticians of both parties and withthe nation's print barons and broadcast medianewsmen guaranteed a constant streamof welcome reports about his intrepid Gmen.One reason was that Hoover also hadenjoyed "a good war." To glamorize theFBI's round-up of Nazis or pro-Nazi sympathizersin the United States, Hollywoodadded to Hoover's aura with a highly successfulfilm about the break-up of a Naziespionage gang in New York: The House on92nd Street (1945). Hoover was so pleasedby the film that he entered into a deal withDarryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century Foxstudios to make a film every year basedon FBI cases. The two men soon clashed,however, and the project fell through.

So the last thing Hoover wanted was forsome muckraking, fellow-traveling Commieeditor with a Leninist (or Trotskyite?)goatee and his hireling hack writer diggingup dirt on him and his beloved Bureau—and then publishing it in their un-Americanscandal sheet. Macdonald and Bennett,however, were not intimidated by the FBI'sreputation or cowed by Hoover's publicitymachine. In April 1947, Bennett wroteto Hoover requesting an interview for hisforthcoming article. Hoover was suspicious,refused to grant the interview, and then orderedthat Bennett be investigated. The ensuinginquiry riveted the FBI's attention onpolitics once more.

The Bureau report on Bennett uncoveredthat he had been arrested by the FBI in1945 for draft-dodging and spent more thana year in jail before being released in December1946. The report also asserted thatBennett was officially connected to politics,though FBI agents weren't yet certain justhow. In fact, he was writing his exposé ofthe Bureau as a freelancer. The Bureau's reportalso noted that Bennett toured the FBIfacility in Washington in 1947 and subsequentlyasked to meet with an FBI agent. Atthe meeting he asked a number of searching,uncomfortable questions that aroused thesuspicions of the agent, who immediatelydrew up a report and sent it to Hoover.

How Hoover dealt with unfavorablepublicity can be gauged from the fact thatthe FBI thereupon contacted Bennett's paroleboard to see if there was any evidenceto recommit him to prison. The paroleboard rejected that step on the grounds"that persons of Bennett's type would welcomethis type of action and would thereforeconsider themselves martyrs." 10 TheNew York office told Hoover that Bennett'sresearch agenda was to write "anothersmear attack against the Director." 11Even gossip columnist Walter Winchell,then at the height of his popularity andquite cozy with Hoover, entered the fray.He got wind of Bennett's article and had hissecretary forward a copy to Hoover—andreceived a "Dear Walter" letter of thanksfrom the Director.

Hoover's ire was now aroused. In an undatedmemo (written in late 1947 or early1948) Hoover ordered Bureau agents to"keep an eye on MacDonald [sic] and hispublication. He must have resources to putthis out. He could easily be used by Commieseven though he may claim to be pacifist." The FBI also checked the funding ofpolitics to determine if any Stalinist frontorganizations were financing the journal.

Hoover was apparently convinced thatpolitics was a Stalinist front, a completemisreading of Macdonald and his magazine.Why the Bureau thought that Stalinistswould back Macdonald—at a momentwhen politics was publishing a series of bitterassaults on Stalin's Soviet Union—ismystifying. Did they deem the series aclever ruse, an instance of Stalinist machinations,or an attempt at a disinformationcampaign? Or was it another mini-versionof a nascent Popular Front strategy thatwould unite Stalinists with anarchist-pacifist intellectuals? Macdonald's dossier furnishesno clear answer.

Shortly after the Communist coup inCzechoslovakia in February 1948, Mac-donald adopted an even harsher anti-Sovietline. He began castigating HenryWallace, the Progressive Party presidentialcandidate, as a Stalinist dupe. Some ofMacdonald's politics columns on Wallace appearedin Henry Wallace: The Man and TheMyth (1948), a fierce polemic that dismissedWallace and his supporters as Stalinist hacks.Evidence of Macdonald's vociferous anti-Communism and anti-Stalinism, whichoccasionally emerges in the FBI reports,never registered with Hoover, however—and even less so after Bennett's article appearedin the Winter 1948 issue of politics.It represents a classic case of how out-oftouchthe FBI was with the postwar leftwingscene in America.

Bennett's article, "The FBI," is a sustainedcritique of the Bureau. Written inplain prose, it traces the development ofthe FBI under Hoover's leadership since1924. Bennett implies that Hoover builthis reputation falsely, even noting that hislaw degree was conferred without a writtenthesis. Bennett also points out thatmost of Hoover's articles and books, whichBennett describes as "lurid, alarmist, andimaginative with regard to fact," wereghosted by a professional writer, CourtneyRyley Cooper. Here especially, Bennetthit a raw nerve with the publicityconsciousHoover.

If that weren't enough to rankle Hoover,a section of Bennett's article bore the title"Gestapo in Knee-pants." Comparing theFBI to the Gestapo made Hoover apoplectic.Bennett also cast doubt on two ofHoover's proudest accomplishments. First,Bennett claimed that Hoover had exaggeratedhis role in the arrest of Louis Lepke,the head of Murder Inc. Second, he contendedthat the Nazi saboteurs who landedin New York had not been hunted downby an FBI dragnet, but rather had simplybeen betrayed by one of their own.12Hoover was incensed. But he granted thatthere wasn't much he could do about politics—or, for that matter, wasn't much thathe needed to do. Short of funds, politics wasappearing sporadically; with its circulationdeclining, it was near collapse.


Shortly after the appearance of Bennett'spiece in politics in 1948, the FBI's NewYork office informed Hoover that Macdonaldwas planning to close down themagazine in early 1949. After this report,Macdonald dropped off the FBI's radarscreen. He had in any case become disillusionedwith the political scene and wasnow preoccupied with the world of culture,where he would focus his attentionthroughout the next decade, supported byhis well-paid position as a freelance writerwith the New Yorker.

Although his name would occasionallysurface on one of the FBI's periodic investigationsof American left-wing movementsin the 1950s and '60s, the FBI lost interestin Macdonald during these years: he wasnot on any FBI watch list or their SecurityIndex. Nonetheless, he still surfaced occasionallyin FBI reports as a "Communist"or Communist Party member—theFBI reports failed again and again to sortout intelligibly the plethora of socialistfactions, wings, and sects. One frustratedagent wrote Hoover that conducting interviewswith members of the SWP andother Trotskyist groups was difficult, becausethey "tend toward argument"—anunderstatement that Macdonald wouldlikely have affirmed with his trademarkresponse on hearing such amusing ignorance:a loud and long guffaw.13

Throughout the 1950s, the FBI collectedMacdonald's articles from both theNew Yorker and the London-based Encounter,for whom he wrote occasional pieces.But they found little that interested them.Hoover had forgotten him. In an April1958 letter to the FBI's New York officeabout a negative review in the New YorkTimes of his latest book, Masters of Deceit,Hoover noted that the name Dwight Macdonaldwas mentioned in passing in the review."Who is he?" queried the Director.So much for the lasting impression that politicsand Macdonald had made on the FBI adecade earlier.14

The biting review of Hoover's book inthe New York Times, with its reference toMacdonald, triggered yet another investigationof "subversive" intellectuals. TheFBI gathered up its old dossiers on Macdonald,but the only new information enteredinto his file concerns his role in protestingthe pro-Soviet Conference on World Peacein March 1949—generally known as theWaldorf Conference, because it occurredat New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Inits report the FBI describes Macdonald asa well-known "anti-Communist." Theynote that his questions from the floor "attemptedto turn the Conference into ananti-Soviet inquisition." 15

Macdonald's name crops up periodicallyin FBI reports of the 1950s and'60s, primarily when he traveled abroad.For instance, in the mid- and late 1950s,his trips to England and Argentina weretracked by the Bureau—though, hereagain, the FBI agents discover little of interest.Macdonald's name turns up also inconnection with the campaign to secureclemency for Morton Sobell, who wasconvicted in the Rosenberg spy case. ButMacdonald's peripheral role didn't seemto concern Hoover.16


What did get under Hoover's skin anddrew the Bureau back to Macdonald's casein the 1960s was another act of Macdonaldbravado that exposed the gap betweenFBI publicity and reality. Once again, thecircumstances highlight how sensitive theDirector was when it came to his publicimage.

The occasion was Macdonald's slashingreview in the March 1962 Esquire of a filmsympathetic to the FBI, Experiment in Terror.Released by Columbia Pictures, directed bythe highly regarded Blake Edwards, starringGlenn Ford and Lee Remick, and producedwith the cooperation of the San FranciscoFBI office, the film purported to show howthe Bureau caught a bank robber and kidnapper.The film was a popular and criticalhit. But Macdonald, characteristically,remained unimpressed. He found the filmsimplistic, nothing more than another exercisein Hollywood hagiography, a madeto-order product aiming to beatify the FBI.In their report to Hoover on the Esquirereview, the FBI agents noted that Macdonald"does not like the movie. This is of noconcern to us except that Macdonald usesthe occasion to viciously criticize the FBI."One line from Macdonald's review surelyruffled Hoover's feathers: "It has been clearto me for a long time that J. Edgar Hoover isas adept at public relations as he and his Gmenare inept at actual detective work." 17

So Macdonald was checked out—yetagain. The Bureau retraced the same oldground, but this time Macdonald stayed onthe FBI's radar, if only intermittently. Thismonitoring coincided with Macdonald'srenewed interest in U.S. politics, especiallyelectoral politics. Macdonald was undergoingyet another sea change in his personaland professional life as the 1960s opened.He found his political interests revived inthe new decade by the Vietnam antiwarmovement and the student power movement.Now in his sixties, Macdonald wasradicalized by these twin causes, both ofwhich Hoover was convinced were controlledby the Communists.

For Macdonald, the 1960s became aheady replay of the 1930s. Macdonald admiredthe actions of the student protesterswho closed down colleges, occupied professors'offices, and marched in pro–NorthVietnamese demonstrations. Suffering froma severe writer's block and drinking heavily,he bristled on hearing expressions ofworry from family and friends. Angrily declaringhimself "an alcoholic, damn it," heembraced the Movement, finding a radicalcause again, responding to an inner voicecalling him to mount a new barricade inthe name of Revolution. Macdonald alsocame to the attention of the FBI briefly inanother context in the mid-1960s. The Bureauwas asked to investigate him in 1965when President Johnson decided to hold aWhite House Festival of the Arts that June.Oddly, Macdonald had been placed on theguest list. It turned out to be a major mistakeon Johnson's part to invite Macdonald,who cleverly exploited the event as a highprofile opportunity to militate against thewar by gathering signatures for an anti–Vietnam War statement. Of course, fromthe point of view of the White House andthose sympathetic to America's conduct ofthe war, Macdonald spent his visit makinga general nuisance of himself. 18

Macdonald had displaced his prodigiouscritical energies into antiwar activism: hisreturn to the radicalism of his youth waslargely an attempt to distract himself fromhis literary impotence and dependence onthe bottle. Already by the mid-1960s, andeven more in the 1970s, he found it nearlyimpossible to complete any intellectualprojects he had undertaken—and his journalsshow that he lacerated himself mercilesslyfor this failure. He wrote very littleof any consequence during his last dozenyears. In 1967 he gave up reviewing moviesfor Esquire to write a monthly politicalcolumn; it soon petered out. Instead, hebegan teaching at various colleges and universities,which gave him a perfect excusefor reneging on his prior literary commitmentsand declining new assignments.

Why were antiwar activism and collegeteaching not enough to fulfill Macdonald?By all accounts, he was an excellentteacher. Beginning in 1956, he taught bothat major universities and at commuter campuses,among them Northwestern University,Bard College, the University ofMassachusetts at Amherst, the Universityof California at Santa Cruz, the Universityof Wisconsin at Milwaukee, HofstraUniversity, the State University of NewYork at Buffalo (for several semesters), andJohn Jay College of the City University ofNew York. When he taught in 1966 at theUniversity of Texas at Austin, as a "DistinguishedVisiting Professor" (with feignedpatrician pretentiousness, he delighted tocite his academic title), he was sometimesthe only faculty member at campus ralliessponsored by the local SDS. Excitedto listen to Esquire's movie critic discourseon contemporary cinema, the students enjoyedhis course on film history. Both theDaily Texan and the Austin American-Statesmanwere filled with reports of his politicalpronouncements—and several Daily Texanpieces featured him on the front page.

But this was not enough. For Macdonald'sfundamental identity was thatof a writer. He regarded teaching as asideline—he was "like a tennis bum" atuniversities, he felt, because teaching was"more output than input"—rather "likemining, an extractive industry," not aproductive activity such as farming ormanufacturing. As he wrote in one journalentry in the 1970s:

I am a writer and I must keep in contactwith my mother earth, or likeAntaeus I begin to die. If characteris destiny, MY character is a monochrome=100% writing.19

Macdonald's letter to a Wisconsinfriend, written during one of his frequentrounds of seeking a visiting professorship,was revealing: he wanted desperately toteach because his flow of written wordswas "dammed to a trickle." 20 And Macdonalddamned himself for that. He demandedfrom himself "100% writing."And so—like Antaeus—he began to die.

Nobody was tougher on Macdonald'sunproductivity than Macdonald himself.By contrast, his editors and publishers werefar more understanding. This was the caseeven though, by the mid-1970s, Macdonaldseldom delivered on a writing commitment—not the study of mass culture, notthe book on Edgar Allan Poe, and aboveall not his long-planned intellectual autobiography.It was all due to his "Bartlebyneurosis," he told one scholar in 1973, as hebacked out of a promise to write a prefaceto her critical study of Poe, explaining (inhis biographer's words) that he "could notwrite anything more than a letter—andnot many of them either." 21

The coup de grace had been quietly delivereda few months earlier. In 1972, asupremely patient William Shawn, editorof the New Yorker, finally insisted that thelovable "Dwight" relinquish his office;Macdonald had written nothing in themagazine for nearly a decade.

Macdonald's participation in the protestmovement of the 1960s was his wayof investing his life with a new, enlargedsignificance. But he was just a peripheralfigure in the protest scene as far as the FBIwas concerned. Its file on him grew thinneras the decade advanced.

The FBI recorded Macdonald's antiwaragitation of the 1960s, but he was mentionedonly in passing. For instance, whenfifty people marched out in protest againsta 1967 speech by Vice President HubertHumphrey before the National BookConference, the Bureau noted that Macdonaldwas among the protesters. Later, inDecember 1969, along with Dr. BenjaminSpock, Macdonald participated in an antiwarmarch on the Department of Justice.Once there, he beseeched young men toturn in their draft cards as a form of protest.FBI agents investigated him onceagain—this time for draft-dodger organizing—but decided that since Macdonald "isnot a member of any basic revolutionarygroup, no recommendation is being madeat this time for inclusion of his name in theSI [Security Index]." 18

Ironically, it was the same old story as adecade earlier: "Who is he?" Macdonaldcouldn't ever get the FBI to take him seriouslyfor very long. And so, doubtless muchto his disappointment—if he had known—Macdonald quietly faded from the FBI'sattention after 1970, much as he also didfrom the national intellectual and literaryscenes. Sporadically memorialized by thepublications on which he had once servedas a mainstay, he died in December 1982of congestive heart failure, largely a forgottenman. His fame had passed long ago. Hewas an old-fashioned libertarian deemedno longer relevant—neither to his herd offellow New York intellectuals nor even tothe FBI agents who snooped on them all.


Not unlike George Orwell, therefore,Macdonald was a political radical yet a culturalconservative. He would have agreedwith Orwell that "the slovenliness of ourlanguage makes it easier for us to havefoolish thoughts." 23 Macdonald's essaysbemoaning the faddish modernized revisionsof the King James Bible, the turgidprose of Mortimer Adler's Synopticon, andthe jargon-laden rhetoric of Vice PresidentHenry Wallace all reflected his well-justified contempt for lax or slipshod prose.He was a cultural conservative because hefought to preserve the canons of Englishusage and the traditions and norms of literaryexcellence.

Particularly in these respects, DwightMacdonald serves as a model and mentorfor cultural conservatives today. And yet,his ideological follies—which point to theyawning gap between him and Orwellin terms of political acumen and intellectuallegacy—stand also as a warning tocontemporary conservatives. (Here, too,Macdonald fl ummoxed FBI agents—andhis gloried inconsistencies and instinctiveantinomianism kept them, doggedlyif confusedly, on his case.) For in his celebrationof the counterculture of the 1960s,which extended even to enthusiasm for theYippies and for the student demonstratorswho occupied professors' offices and closeddown colleges—Macdonald underminedthe very traditions and norms of excellencethat he otherwise championed.

Such misjudgments represented a politicaland moral surrender that has had longterm,disastrous consequences. For thecounterculture of the 1960s has given riseto the anti-intellectualism that currentlypervades the American academy, which haswitnessed the ascendancy of intellectuallyfashionable theories such as multiculturalism,postmodernism, and post-structuralism.Beyond all this, that decade markedthe beginning of the eclipse of serious printculture by the pop cultures of video andMTV. Today lowbrow taste and debasedlanguage infest our cultural life. One encountersthem everywhere, vomited by anindolent, sensation-seeking media whosebarrages of images and sounds displace thewritten word. The outcome of all this slovenliness,as Orwell feared, is a zombie-likestate of shallow thinking bereft of introspection:"the gramophone mind."

So Macdonald's career is both an exemplarand an omen for us today. It is unsurprisingthat the FBI, whose agents wereseldom versed in the details of internecinewarfare within the sectarian Left, let alonein the nuances of New York intellectualdebates, did not comprehend such a nonpareilindividualist as Macdonald. They failedto appreciate how he was—if not "A GoodAmerican"—indeed "A Critical American"(in his phrases).24 They failed to appreciatehow his stance "against the Americangrain" (in his 1962 essay collection of thattitle)25 steadfastly maintained critical supportfor the U.S. They failed to appreciatethe value of his libertarian vision, especiallyhis trenchant critiques in politics of both liberalismand totalitarianism.

Yet conservatives today can and shouldappreciate all this about Macdonald. Aboveall, we need to keep alive the unbowed criticalspirit and lonely intellectual courage,notwithstanding his sometimes unfortunatepolitical judgment and misplaced social idealism,that Dwight Macdonald exemplifiedat his best. And his best—in his politics andhis politics, as he both lived it and wrote it—was very good indeed. It remains a summonsand inspiration for concerned citizenstoday.


  1. The definitive biography of Macdonald is MichaelWreszin, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life andPolitics of Dwight Macdonald (New York: Basic Books,1995). See also the collection of Macdonald's letters editedby Wreszin, A Moral Temper (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,2001).
  2. Cited in Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous Dossiers:Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors(New York: Donald I. Fine, 1988).
  3. See Irving Howeand the Critics, ed. John Rodden (Lincoln, NE: Universityof Nebraska Press, 2004) and John Rodden, TheWorlds of Irving Howe (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005).
  4. Fast-forward from Macdonald's case to the present:If FBI agents have traditionally lacked the competenceto comprehend the parties and issues on the AmericanLeft, imagine: how much trouble—linguistically andculturally, as well as politically—must they doubtlesscurrently face when it comes to investigating allegedpost-9/11 threats posed by diverse Arab and Muslimgroups?
  5. Readers of Modern Age and other ISI publicationswill doubtless recall that the Intercollegiate Stud-ies Institute was originally named the IntercollegiateSociety of Individualists. The organization was foundedunder the latter title in 1953 and was rechristenedthe former in 1966.
  6. Miłosz expressed this observationin his review of the 1953 edition of Macdonald's TheRoot Is Man, originally published in 1946 and reprintedas a pamphlet. See Miłosz's Beginning with My Streets:Essays and Reflections, quoted in Gregory D. Sumner,Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle: The Challengeof Cosmopolitan Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell UniversityPress, 1996).
  7. See John Rodden, "Lionel Trillingand the FBI," Shofar, Winter 2008 and John Rodden,"Wanted by the FBI: Irving Howe a.k.a. 'Irving Horenstein,'" Dissent, Winter 2002.
  8. Report on DwightMacdonald, 6 April 1944. Bureau File (a.k.a. Bufile)100-268519-8.
  9. Ibid.
  10. New York to Hoover, 3September 1947. Bufile, 100-268519-SAC.
  11. Tolsonto Hoover, 23 April 1947. Bufile, 100-268519-C. Attachedto this memorandum is a notation in Hoover'shandwriting, "Let us make a discreet investigation ofthis outfit."
  12. Bennett, "The FBI," politics, Winter1948, 19–26.
  13. New York to Hoover, 20 December1957. Bufile, 100-268519-70, SAC.
  14. New York toHoover, 4 April 1958. Bufile, 100-268519-74.
  15. A. H.Belmont to L. V. Boardman, 6 April 1958. Bufile, 100-268519-75. Macdonald's report on the Waldorf Conferencecan be found in the April 1949 politics. It wasreprinted in the London journal Horizon the followingmonth. For an overview of the Waldorf Conference,see John P. Rossi, "Farewell to Fellow-Traveling: TheWaldorf Peace Conference of 1949," Continuity: A Journalof History 10, Spring 1983, 1–31.
  16. Memorandumfor Hoover, 31 January 1961. Bufile, 100-268519.
  17. A. Jones to C. DeLoach, 5 November 1962. Bufile,100,-268519-80.
  18. For Macdonald's role at the WhiteHouse Conference on the Arts, see John Rodden andJohn Rossi, "Kultur Clash at the White House," KenyonReview, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Fall 2007, 161–81.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Memorandum from SAC(Special Agent in Charge) New York to Hoover, 30April 1970. Bufile, 100-268519-92.
  23. See GeorgeOrwell, The Orwell Reader (London: Harcourt Trade,1956).
  24. Dwight Macdonald, "A Critical American,"Twentieth Century, December 1958.
  25. See DwightMacdonald, Against the American Grain (New York:Random House, 1962).