Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“The Dwight Stuff: The FBI vs. Dwight Macdonald,” By John Rodden & John Rossi

J. Edgar Hoover

This essay was authored by John Rodden & John Rossi, and it is republished here with permission from ISL


If there was one thing that J. Edgar Hoover fiercely cherished, it was the reputation of his FBI as the incorruptible, all-powerful guardian of America from its nefarious enemies, both domestic and foreign. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Hoover carefully honed his proudly held image of the honest G-man through a public relations campaign that portrayed the Bureau in a flattering light in books, magazine articles, newspaper reports, films, radio programs, and later on television shows.

From this sensitivity grew a tradition of trying to counter any individual or group that threatened what Hoover saw as the integrity of the agency that he had crafted into an Argus-eyed behemoth, indeed into one of the most powerful national police forces in the world.

As a result, innocuous though the threat would seem, it did not pass the Bureau’s watchful gaze unnoticed when a littleknown anarchist-pacifist journalist had the audacity to scribble a few lines of defiant graffiti on Hoover’s masterwork.

In 1942, the quixotic journalist Dwight Macdonald (1906–82) tweaked Hoover’s nose in a fl edgling, left-wing, New York little magazine—and thereby ran afoul of Hoover’s massive PR machine. Because of Macdonald’s activities on behalf of various radical causes and his writings in the quasi-Trotskyist intellectual quarterly Partisan Review—destined to become the leading literary journal of the postwar era, yet still relatively unknown outside New York intellectual circles—FBI agents compiled a dossier on Macdonald in the spring of 1942. They tracked his life since 1929, noting the places he worked, the articles he wrote, and the political affiliations he established. Their fact-gathering was spotty: for instance, they claimed that Macdonald (usually spelled “McDonald”) was a registered Communist Party (CP) member in New York in 1937 and thereafter broke with the Party. In fact, Macdonald was never a CP member; he despised the Stalinists, chafed at Party discipline, and was a consistent enemy of Communism and its fellow travelers throughout his long career.

Dwight Macdonald was, however, a heterodox socialist. In September 1939, following the Nazi-Soviet pact in August and the subsequent invasion of Poland by the Germans and Russians, he entered the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had been formed from a Trotskyist group that had split off from the Socialist Party. After serving as a staff writer for Henry Luce’s Fortune and contributing regularly to various Trotskyist magazines in the mid-1930s, he joined the editorial board of Partisan Review in 1938. During the war, Macdonald broke with his Partisan Review colleagues and in 1944 founded his own magazine, politics (which he always lower-cased). He had fallen out with Partisan Review editors Philip Rahv and William Phillips over support for the Allied war effort and on a variety of cultural matters. Macdonald wanted to express with unbridled freedom his own idiosyncratic antiwar views and hold forth on what he regarded as the lamentable state of American radicalism.1

The FBI began keeping tabs on Macdonald once he started raising money for politicsfrom like-minded former (and current) Trotskyists and/or SWP members. Probably Macdonald would have been pleased to know that he remained on the Bureau’s checklist of political radicals for a quarter-century. He would have agreed with E. L. Doctorow that an FBI dossier placed one “on an American ‘honors list.’ “2 He might have been chagrined to learn, however, that he never rose to the august level of “security risk” (unlike his former assistant, Irving Howe, a onetime politics editorial board member and Trotskyist).3

The FBI’s agents struggled vainly to make sense of where Macdonald fit in the broader picture of American dissent. They could never quite get a handle on him, though they pursued him for decades, to use Oscar Wilde’s phrase, with “all the enthusiasm of a short-sighted detective.”

Macdonald’s FBI file totals more than 700 pages—hundreds more than suspect writers (such as Ernest Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett) or fellow erstwhile Trotskyist intellectuals (such as Howe). As we shall see, scrutiny of its contents furnishes not only a fascinating snapshot of what was happening in one corner of the Left in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but also anatomizes how a uniquely gifted—and burdened—intellectual engaged his times as both the political landscape altered and his own social and cultural convictions evolved.

Although we have emphasized that the FBI’s failure to comprehend the American radical scene led to a fundamental misunderstanding of Macdonald’s politics (andpolitics), that alone does not fully account for the Bureau’s confusions about him. The fact is that Macdonald was a gadfly and avowed outsider—and he was sui generis, as Czeslaw Miłosz once noted. Fundamental to his sometimes puzzling eclecticism and irrepressible distinctiveness—and an abiding source of his interest for us today—was his conservative ethos. For although Macdonald was invariably a left-wing anticapitalist whose political stands jumped from Trotskyism to anarcho-pacifism to quietism to liberal anti-Communism to born-again New Left radicalism, he was fundamentally a cultural conservative and a vocal defender of high cultural standards. Radical by conviction, Macdonald was conservative in temperament and taste, and this made him a traditionalist and even a curmudgeonly elitist in his later years. He came to hate avant-garde art and lashed out at both the action painting of Jackson Pollack and Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Unlike most of his fellow intellectuals associated with Partisan Review, Macdonald supported the awarding of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry to Ezra Pound for his Pisan Cantos in 1948. Macdonald condemned the poetry for its anti-Semitism, but he praised the judging panel for having conferred the prize on the basis of literary quality, leaving aside all political considerations, including the fact that Pound was accused of treason for his participation in Italian Fascist propaganda against the Allies during World War II. Macdonald noted approvingly that no such state-supported award honoring the autonomy of art could possibly be given in a Fascist or Communist country.

And yet: the ultimate significance of the FBI’s misguided pursuit of Dwight Macdonald for libertarians and conservatives today is not the tiresome point that the U.S. intelligence services are a contradiction in terms, let alone that Macdonald is a forgotten literary burnout. Rather, it is first that we Americans need to remain wary of official rationales for invading our privacy, invariably in the name of “national security” or “patriotism” or even “the public good.” 4 Equally important is the freelancing style of Macdonald—in life as well as in literature. For if ever there were an “individualist” whose eclectic career amounted to its own one-man “Individualist Studies Institute” 5—it was Dwight Macdonald. Czeslaw Miłosz once called him “a totally American phenomenon in the tradition of Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville—’the completely free man,’ capable of making decisions at all times and about all things, strictly on the basis of his personal and moral judgment.” 6

It is this Macdonald, the moralist and outsider, who speaks to libertarians of our time. His anti-statism, his anarchist impulse, his Veblerian distrust for the academy and its pretensions, his impassioned defense of cultural norms and the Western literary tradition: these capacities are indispensable field artillery in the ongoing culture wars of the twenty-first century. For all these reasons, Macdonald should still exert a claim on our interest and attention today.


In the course of circulating fund-raising letters in late 1943 for politics, Macdonald caught the attention of the FBI, which opened another dossier on him and launched a fresh investigation into his activities. What especially piqued the FBI’s interest was the correspondence between Macdonald and a potential contributor to the magazine, Victor Serge, whose real name was Kibalchich. The Bureau believed that Macdonald was trying to arrange for Serge to settle in the United States. Serge was an ex-Communist and prolific author whose rejection of Stalinist orthodoxies and fierce commitment to democratic socialism had rendered him persona non grata in the Soviet Union. Although the independent-minded Serge was a fearless critic of the claim by the Bolshevik state to represent revolutionary socialism, the FBI regarded him as a dangerous subversive to keep out of the U.S. at all costs. He was living in Mexico when Macdonald contacted him about contributing an article to politics. The FBI was compiling a list of writers who represented national security threats, and Macdonald’s name joined that growing number.

The Bureau’s probe of Macdonald’s activities intensified in 1944. With a bureaucratic mix of clumsiness and thoroughness, the Bureau carried out a background check on Macdonald—spelling his name incorrectly as “MacDonald” or “McDonald” even after he became an internationally recognized writer. They also began to monitor his mail; copies of Serge’s letters to him can be found in Macdonald’s dossier. Checking the magazine’s office, the Bureau discovered to its surprise that politics‘ entire staff consisted of just three people: Macdonald; his wife, Nancy; and a secretary/assistant, Dorothy Frumm. The Bureau even launched an investigation of Frumm; it yielded nothing of significance.

The Macdonald file serves as an ironic commentary on the FBI of the mid-twentieth century, exposing a huge blind spot when it came to the Bureau’s surveillance of the American Left. The Bureau tended to equate everyone on the Left with Communism, since few agents were familiar with the immigrant origins and European context of radical politics in America.7 The FBI viewed anyone with a liberal or radical past as suspect for tolerating Communists and defending their constitutional rights. The Macdonald file reflects little awareness of the internecine warfare that raged within the American Left. The lasting impression is a sense of bewilderment on the part of various agents as they try to disentangle the complex connections among rival left-wing groups. Macdonald’s dossier possesses significant historical and political value, for it offers a revealing glimpse of the vicissitudes of postwar U.S. intellectual life—from the veiled side of the government intelligence services—as the American Left lurched along in turmoil during World War II, through the Cold War, and into the era of the Vietnam War protests.


In a letter dated 26 January 1944, J. Edgar Hoover ordered a full-scale investigation of Macdonald and his new journal. On 6 April 1944, the New York office of the FBI filed a report entitled “Dwight Macdonald alias McCarthy.” The name Mc- Carthy had already appeared occasionally in the FBI reports on Macdonald, indicating that their agents claimed he was a well-known Stalinist in Washington, DC, in 1937. Periodically the FBI would record the possibility that Macdonald was (to use the then-current phrase of the day) “a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.” The source for this myth was an informant who had read (and misunderstood) Macdonald’s magazine.

The FBI seldom took these reports at face value. And yet, the very claim that Macdonald (“alias McCarthy”) was a Washington, DC, Stalinist operative in 1937 reflects the Bureau’s confusion about American radical politics. In 1937, when Macdonald was supposed to be agitating for Stalinism in the nation’s capital, he was living in New York and embroiled in literary politics, devising strategies and tactics with his fellow Trotskyists for seizing Partisan Review from the Stalinists who had founded the magazine in 1934 and still controlled it. He also was involved that year with John Dewey’s American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, which was challenging the accusations against Trotsky emerging from the Moscow purge trials—scarcely the activities one would associate with a Stalinist.

It is not apparent whether the FBI ever cleared up its NY/DC “Doppelgänger Dwight” identity confusions. Toward the end of Macdonald’s file, however, which closes in the early 1970s, the references to him as a “Communist” dwindle. Nonetheless, the mix-up attests to the FBI’s uncertain grasp of the nature of the wartime and postwar American Left.

The April 1944 report also includes an up-to-date thumbnail biography of Macdonald: his various residences, his financial status, the names of his wife and children, and a review of the first two issues of politics.

Subsequent reports gained from what the FBI called “confidential informants whose identity is known to the Bureau” dispute the contention that Macdonald was a Stalinist or Communist sympathizer. One informant told the FBI that not only Communist Party orthodoxy repelled Macdonald, but also that he could not abide even the milder variant among Trotskyist sects. Indeed he could not stomach the shibboleths of Soviet ideology, especially after the start of the war in September 1939 and Trotsky’s murder the following August. The informant stated that Macdonald “left the [Socialist] Workers Party in 1941 because he could not accept Bolshevism in its original form. He believed that Leninism as practiced in Russia had failed and believed a Socialist revolution unlikely but thought that new ways and means would have to be devised in order to accomplish it.” 8

Other examples of Macdonald’s opposition to Stalin’s Russia also were gathered from FBI informants. They noted that he had been arrested for disorderly conduct (30 August 1940) outside the Soviet Consulate in New York for protesting Stalin’s alliance with Hitler.

Another “confidential informant” told the FBI that Macdonald was secretary of an organization including influential anti- Stalinist leftists (such as James T. Farrell, Sidney Hook, Norman Thomas, and Edmund Wilson), which was created to protest the 1943 pro-Soviet film Mission to Moscow, a Hollywood drama designed to strengthen the wartime alliance with “Uncle Joe.” Based on the memoirs of Joseph E. Davies, ambassador to Russia from 1937 to 1939, Mission to Moscow was a full-scale whitewash of Stalin’s crimes and his purge trials. The film also rationalized the Nazi- Soviet Pact of August 1939 as a step forced on Stalin by the West.9 One would think Macdonald’s anti-Soviet stance would have satisfied Hoover that politics represented no real threat to the nation’s security. It also should have alerted the Bureau to the complexities of American intellectual radicalism and some of the distinctions between the anti-Stalinist Left and the Stalinist Left at this time.

Unfortunately, it did not. The Bureau’s agents stayed on Macdonald’s case. They even took out a subscription to politics “through a confidential mail box maintained by the New York office.” Macdonald would probably have been gratified to learn that the Bureau was a paid subscriber, given that politics struggled throughout its five-year history and never gained more than 5,000 subscribers.

The FBI’s assiduous monitoring of the wartime politics unearthed no juicy scandals or bombshell revelations. Much of the magazine’s anarchist-pacifist, anti-capitalist, and anti–New Deal editorial line seemed unexceptional to FBI agents. Still, the FBI was puzzled by Macdonald’s leftwing anti-Communism especially during the war years, when the USSR was a valued ally. FBI agents continued to deliver periodic reports ofpolitics‘ contents, all of which they forwarded to the main office in Washington. Hoover found nothing much of interest.


That all changed in the postwar years. Macdonald commissioned an article in 1947 on Hoover and the FBI by a freelance writer, Clifton Northbridge Bennett, a self-declared anarchist and pacifist. Hoover was thin-skinned about even discreet private criticism, let alone public castigation of the Bureau; he made strenuous efforts (with considerable success) through his PR machine to ensure that only positive stories appeared.

By the early postwar era, Hoover’s close working relationship with leading Washington politicians of both parties and with the nation’s print barons and broadcast media newsmen guaranteed a constant stream of welcome reports about his intrepid Gmen. One reason was that Hoover also had enjoyed “a good war.” To glamorize the FBI’s round-up of Nazis or pro-Nazi sympathizers in the United States, Hollywood added to Hoover’s aura with a highly successful film about the break-up of a Nazi espionage gang in New York: The House on 92nd Street (1945). Hoover was so pleased by the film that he entered into a deal with Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox studios to make a film every year based on FBI cases. The two men soon clashed, however, and the project fell through.

So the last thing Hoover wanted was for some muckraking, fellow-traveling Commie editor with a Leninist (or Trotskyite?) goatee and his hireling hack writer digging up dirt on him and his beloved Bureau— and then publishing it in their un-American scandal sheet. Macdonald and Bennett, however, were not intimidated by the FBI’s reputation or cowed by Hoover’s publicity machine. In April 1947, Bennett wrote to Hoover requesting an interview for his forthcoming article. Hoover was suspicious, refused to grant the interview, and then ordered that Bennett be investigated. The ensuing inquiry riveted the FBI’s attention on politics once more.

The Bureau report on Bennett uncovered that he had been arrested by the FBI in 1945 for draft-dodging and spent more than a year in jail before being released in December 1946. The report also asserted that Bennett was officially connected to politics, though FBI agents weren’t yet certain just how. In fact, he was writing his exposé of the Bureau as a freelancer. The Bureau’s report also noted that Bennett toured the FBI facility in Washington in 1947 and subsequently asked to meet with an FBI agent. At the meeting he asked a number of searching, uncomfortable questions that aroused the suspicions of the agent, who immediately drew up a report and sent it to Hoover.

How Hoover dealt with unfavorable publicity can be gauged from the fact that the FBI thereupon contacted Bennett’s parole board to see if there was any evidence to recommit him to prison. The parole board rejected that step on the grounds “that persons of Bennett’s type would welcome this type of action and would therefore consider themselves martyrs.” 10 The New York office told Hoover that Bennett’s research agenda was to write “another smear attack against the Director.” 11 Even gossip columnist Walter Winchell, then at the height of his popularity and quite cozy with Hoover, entered the fray. He got wind of Bennett’s article and had his secretary forward a copy to Hoover—and received a “Dear Walter” letter of thanks from the Director.

Hoover’s ire was now aroused. In an undated memo (written in late 1947 or early 1948) Hoover ordered Bureau agents to “keep an eye on MacDonald [sic] and his publication. He must have resources to put this out. He could easily be used by Commies even though he may claim to be pacifist.” The FBI also checked the funding of politics to determine if any Stalinist front organizations were financing the journal.

Hoover was apparently convinced that politics was a Stalinist front, a complete misreading of Macdonald and his magazine. Why the Bureau thought that Stalinists would back Macdonald—at a moment when politics was publishing a series of bitter assaults on Stalin’s Soviet Union—is mystifying. Did they deem the series a clever ruse, an instance of Stalinist machinations, or an attempt at a disinformation campaign? Or was it another mini-version of a nascent Popular Front strategy that would unite Stalinists with anarchist-pacifist intellectuals? Macdonald’s dossier furnishes no clear answer.

Shortly after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, Mac- donald adopted an even harsher anti-Soviet line. He began castigating Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, as a Stalinist dupe. Some of Macdonald’spolitics columns on Wallace appeared in Henry Wallace: The Man and The Myth(1948), a fierce polemic that dismissed Wallace and his supporters as Stalinist hacks. Evidence of Macdonald’s vociferous anti- Communism and anti-Stalinism, which occasionally emerges in the FBI reports, never registered with Hoover, however— and even less so after Bennett’s article appeared in the Winter 1948 issue of politics. It represents a classic case of how out-oftouch the FBI was with the postwar leftwing scene in America.

Bennett’s article, “The FBI,” is a sustained critique of the Bureau. Written in plain prose, it traces the development of the FBI under Hoover’s leadership since 1924. Bennett implies that Hoover built his reputation falsely, even noting that his law degree was conferred without a written thesis. Bennett also points out that most of Hoover’s articles and books, which Bennett describes as “lurid, alarmist, and imaginative with regard to fact,” were ghosted by a professional writer, Courtney Ryley Cooper. Here especially, Bennett hit a raw nerve with the publicity conscious Hoover.

If that weren’t enough to rankle Hoover, a section of Bennett’s article bore the title “Gestapo in Knee-pants.” Comparing the FBI to the Gestapo made Hoover apoplectic. Bennett also cast doubt on two of Hoover’s proudest accomplishments. First, Bennett claimed that Hoover had exaggerated his role in the arrest of Louis Lepke, the head of Murder Inc. Second, he contended that the Nazi saboteurs who landed in New York had not been hunted down by an FBI dragnet, but rather had simply been betrayed by one of their own.12 Hoover was incensed. But he granted that there wasn’t much he could do about politics— or, for that matter, wasn’t much that he needed to do. Short of funds, politics was appearing sporadically; with its circulation declining, it was near collapse.


Shortly after the appearance of Bennett’s piece in politics in 1948, the FBI’s New York office informed Hoover that Macdonald was planning to close down the magazine in early 1949. After this report, Macdonald dropped off the FBI’s radar screen. He had in any case become disillusioned with the political scene and was now preoccupied with the world of culture, where he would focus his attention throughout the next decade, supported by his well-paid position as a freelance writer with the New Yorker.

Although his name would occasionally surface on one of the FBI’s periodic investigations of American left-wing movements in the 1950s and ’60s, the FBI lost interest in Macdonald during these years: he was not on any FBI watch list or their Security Index. Nonetheless, he still surfaced occasionally in FBI reports as a “Communist” or Communist Party member—the FBI reports failed again and again to sort out intelligibly the plethora of socialist factions, wings, and sects. One frustrated agent wrote Hoover that conducting interviews with members of the SWP and other Trotskyist groups was difficult, because they “tend toward argument”—an understatement that Macdonald would likely have affirmed with his trademark response on hearing such amusing ignorance: a loud and long guffaw.13

Throughout the 1950s, the FBI collected Macdonald’s articles from both the New 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 April 1958 letter to the FBI’s New York office about a negative review in the New York Times of his latest book, Masters of Deceit, Hoover noted that the name Dwight Macdonald was mentioned in passing in the review. “Who is he?” queried the Director. So much for the lasting impression that politics and Macdonald had made on the FBI a decade earlier.14

The biting review of Hoover’s book in the New York Times, with its reference to Macdonald, triggered yet another investigation of “subversive” intellectuals. The FBI gathered up its old dossiers on Macdonald, but the only new information entered into his file concerns his role in protesting the pro-Soviet Conference on World Peace in March 1949—generally known as the Waldorf Conference, because it occurred at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In its report the FBI describes Macdonald as a well-known “anti-Communist.” They note that his questions from the floor “attempted to turn the Conference into an anti-Soviet inquisition.” 15

Macdonald’s name crops up periodically in 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 were tracked by the Bureau—though, here again, the FBI agents discover little of interest. Macdonald’s name turns up also in connection with the campaign to secure clemency for Morton Sobell, who was convicted in the Rosenberg spy case. But Macdonald’s peripheral role didn’t seem to concern Hoover.16


What did get under Hoover’s skin and drew the Bureau back to Macdonald’s case in the 1960s was another act of Macdonald bravado that exposed the gap between FBI publicity and reality. Once again, the circumstances highlight how sensitive the Director was when it came to his public image.

The occasion was Macdonald’s slashing review in the March 1962 Esquire of a film sympathetic to the FBI, Experiment in Terror. Released by Columbia Pictures, directed by the highly regarded Blake Edwards, starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick, and produced with the cooperation of the San Francisco FBI office, the film purported to show how the Bureau caught a bank robber and kidnapper. The film was a popular and critical hit. But Macdonald, characteristically, remained unimpressed. He found the film simplistic, nothing more than another exercise in Hollywood hagiography, a madeto- order product aiming to beatify the FBI. In their report to Hoover on theEsquire review, the FBI agents noted that Macdonald “does not like the movie. This is of no concern to us except that Macdonald uses the occasion to viciously criticize the FBI.” One line from Macdonald’s review surely ruffled Hoover’s feathers: “It has been clear to me for a long time that J. Edgar Hoover is as adept at public relations as he and his Gmen are inept at actual detective work.” 17

So Macdonald was checked out—yet again. The Bureau retraced the same old ground, but this time Macdonald stayed on the FBI’s radar, if only intermittently. This monitoring coincided with Macdonald’s renewed interest in U.S. politics, especially electoral politics. Macdonald was undergoing yet another sea change in his personal and professional life as the 1960s opened. He found his political interests revived in the new decade by the Vietnam antiwar movement and the student power movement. Now in his sixties, Macdonald was radicalized by these twin causes, both of which Hoover was convinced were controlled by the Communists.

For Macdonald, the 1960s became a heady replay of the 1930s. Macdonald admired the actions of the student protesters who closed down colleges, occupied professors’ offices, and marched in pro–North Vietnamese demonstrations. Suffering from a severe writer’s block and drinking heavily, he bristled on hearing expressions of worry from family and friends. Angrily declaring himself “an alcoholic, damn it,” he embraced the Movement, finding a radical cause again, responding to an inner voice calling him to mount a new barricade in the name of Revolution. Macdonald also came to the attention of the FBI briefly in another context in the mid-1960s. The Bureau was asked to investigate him in 1965 when President Johnson decided to hold a White House Festival of the Arts that June. Oddly, Macdonald had been placed on the guest list. It turned out to be a major mistake on Johnson’s part to invite Macdonald, who cleverly exploited the event as a highprofi le opportunity to militate against the war by gathering signatures for an anti– Vietnam War statement. Of course, from the point of view of the White House and those sympathetic to America’s conduct of the war, Macdonald spent his visit making a general nuisance of himself. 18

Macdonald had displaced his prodigious critical energies into antiwar activism: his return to the radicalism of his youth was largely an attempt to distract himself from his literary impotence and dependence on the bottle. Already by the mid-1960s, and even more in the 1970s, he found it nearly impossible to complete any intellectual projects he had undertaken—and his journals show that he lacerated himself mercilessly for this failure. He wrote very little of any consequence during his last dozen years. In 1967 he gave up reviewing movies for Esquire to write a monthly political column; it soon petered out. Instead, he began teaching at various colleges and universities, which gave him a perfect excuse for reneging on his prior literary commitments and declining new assignments.

Why were antiwar activism and college teaching not enough to fulfill Macdonald? By all accounts, he was an excellent teacher. Beginning in 1956, he taught both at major universities and at commuter campuses, among them Northwestern University, Bard College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Hofstra University, the State University of New York at Buffalo (for several semesters), and John Jay College of the City University of New York. When he taught in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, as a “Distinguished Visiting Professor” (with feigned patrician pretentiousness, he delighted to cite his academic title), he was sometimes the only faculty member at campus rallies sponsored by the local SDS. Excited to listen to Esquire‘s movie critic discourse on contemporary cinema, the students enjoyed his course on film history. Both the Daily Texan and the Austin American-Statesman were filled with reports of his political pronouncements—and several Daily Texan pieces featured him on the front page.

But this was not enough. For Macdonald’s fundamental identity was that of a writer. He regarded teaching as a sideline—he was “like a tennis bum” at universities, he felt, because teaching was “more output than input”—rather “like mining, an extractive industry,” not a productive activity such as farming or manufacturing. As he wrote in one journal entry in the 1970s:

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

Macdonald’s letter to a Wisconsin friend, written during one of his frequent rounds of seeking a visiting professorship, was revealing: he wanted desperately to teach because his flow of written words was “dammed to a trickle.” 20 And Macdonald damned himself for that. He demanded from himself “100% writing.” And so—like Antaeus—he began to die.

Nobody was tougher on Macdonald’s unproductivity than Macdonald himself. By contrast, his editors and publishers were far more understanding. This was the case even though, by the mid-1970s, Macdonald seldom delivered on a writing commitment— not the study of mass culture, not the book on Edgar Allan Poe, and above all not his long-planned intellectual autobiography. It was all due to his “Bartleby neurosis,” he told one scholar in 1973, as he backed out of a promise to write a preface to her critical study of Poe, explaining (in his biographer’s words) that he “could not write anything more than a letter—and not many of them either.” 21

The coup de grace had been quietly delivered a few months earlier. In 1972, a supremely patient William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, finally insisted that the lovable “Dwight” relinquish his office; Macdonald had written nothing in the magazine for nearly a decade.

Macdonald’s participation in the protest movement of the 1960s was his way of investing his life with a new, enlarged significance. But he was just a peripheral figure in the protest scene as far as the FBI was concerned. Its file on him grew thinner as the decade advanced.

The FBI recorded Macdonald’s antiwar agitation of the 1960s, but he was mentioned only in passing. For instance, when fifty people marched out in protest against a 1967 speech by Vice President Hubert Humphrey before the National Book Conference, the Bureau noted that Macdonald was among the protesters. Later, in December 1969, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Macdonald participated in an antiwar march on the Department of Justice. Once there, he beseeched young men to turn in their draft cards as a form of protest. FBI agents investigated him once again—this time for draft-dodger organizing— but decided that since Macdonald “is not a member of any basic revolutionary group, no recommendation is being made at this time for inclusion of his name in the SI [Security Index].” 18

Ironically, it was the same old story as a decade earlier: “Who is he?” Macdonald couldn’t ever get the FBI to take him seriously for very long. And so, doubtless much to his disappointment—if he had known— Macdonald quietly faded from the FBI’s attention after 1970, much as he also did from the national intellectual and literary scenes. Sporadically memorialized by the publications on which he had once served as a mainstay, he died in December 1982 of congestive heart failure, largely a forgotten man. His fame had passed long ago. He was an old-fashioned libertarian deemed no longer relevant—neither to his herd of fellow New York intellectuals nor even to the FBI agents who snooped on them all.


Not unlike George Orwell, therefore, Macdonald was a political radical yet a cultural conservative. He would have agreed with Orwell that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” 23 Macdonald’s essays bemoaning the faddish modernized revisions of the King James Bible, the turgid prose of Mortimer Adler’s Synopticon, and the jargon-laden rhetoric of Vice President Henry Wallace all reflected his well-justifi ed contempt for lax or slipshod prose. He was a cultural conservative because he fought to preserve the canons of English usage and the traditions and norms of literary excellence.

Particularly in these respects, Dwight Macdonald serves as a model and mentor for cultural conservatives today. And yet, his ideological follies—which point to the yawning gap between him and Orwell in terms of political acumen and intellectual legacy—stand also as a warning to contemporary conservatives. (Here, too, Macdonald fl ummoxed FBI agents—and his gloried inconsistencies and instinctive antinomianism kept them, doggedly if confusedly, on his case.) For in his celebration of the counterculture of the 1960s, which extended even to enthusiasm for the Yippies and for the student demonstrators who occupied professors’ offices and closed down colleges—Macdonald undermined the very traditions and norms of excellence that he otherwise championed.

Such misjudgments represented a political and moral surrender that has had longterm, disastrous consequences. For the counterculture of the 1960s has given rise to the anti-intellectualism that currently pervades the American academy, which has witnessed the ascendancy of intellectually fashionable theories such as multiculturalism, postmodernism, and post-structuralism. Beyond all this, that decade marked the beginning of the eclipse of serious print culture by the pop cultures of video and MTV. Today lowbrow taste and debased language infest our cultural life. One encounters them everywhere, vomited by an indolent, sensation-seeking media whose barrages of images and sounds displace the written word. The outcome of all this slovenliness, as Orwell feared, is a zombie-like state of shallow thinking bereft of introspection: “the gramophone mind.”

So Macdonald’s career is both an exemplar and an omen for us today. It is unsurprising that the FBI, whose agents were seldom versed in the details of internecine warfare within the sectarian Left, let alone in the nuances of New York intellectual debates, did not comprehend such a nonpareil individualist as Macdonald. They failed to appreciate how he was—if not “A Good American”—indeed “A Critical American” (in his phrases).24 They failed to appreciate how his stance “against the American grain” (in his 1962 essay collection of that title)25 steadfastly maintained critical support for the U.S. They failed to appreciate the value of his libertarian vision, especially his trenchant critiques in politics of both liberalism and totalitarianism.

Yet conservatives today can and should appreciate all this about Macdonald. Above all, we need to keep alive the unbowed critical spirit and lonely intellectual courage, notwithstanding his sometimes unfortunate political judgment and misplaced social idealism, that Dwight Macdonald exemplified at his best. And his best—in his politics and his politics, as he both lived it and wrote it— was very good indeed. It remains a summons and inspiration for concerned citizens today.

JOHN RODDEN is widely published author, and his works include Every Intellectual’s Big Brother: George Orwell’s Literary Siblings (2007), JOHN ROSSI is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. This essay was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of  Modern Age, and it is republished here with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute


  1. The definitive biography of Macdonald is Michael Wreszin, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald (New York: Basic Books, 1995). See also the collection of Macdonald’s letters edited by 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 Howe and the Critics, ed. John Rodden (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004) and John Rodden, The Worlds of Irving Howe (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005).
  4. Fast-forward from Macdonald’s case to the present: If FBI agents have traditionally lacked the competence to comprehend the parties and issues on the American Left, imagine: how much trouble—linguistically and culturally, as well as politically—must they doubtless currently face when it comes to investigating alleged post-9/11 threats posed by diverse Arab and Muslim groups?
  5. Readers of Modern Age and other ISI publications will doubtless recall that the Intercollegiate Stud- ies Institute was originally named the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. The organization was founded under the latter title in 1953 and was rechristened the former in 1966.
  6. Miłosz expressed this observation in his review of the 1953 edition of Macdonald’sThe Root Is Man, originally published in 1946 and reprinted as a pamphlet. See Miłosz’s Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Reflections, quoted in Gregory D. Sumner, Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle: The Challenge of Cosmopolitan Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).
  7. See John Rodden, “Lionel Trilling and 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 Dwight Macdonald, 6 April 1944. Bureau File (a.k.a. Bufile) 100-268519-8.
  9. Ibid.
  10. New York to Hoover, 3 September 1947. Bufile, 100-268519-SAC.
  11. Tolson to Hoover, 23 April 1947. Bufile, 100-268519-C. Attached to this memorandum is a notation in Hoover’s handwriting, “Let us make a discreet investigation of this outfit.”
  12. Bennett, “The FBI,” politics, Winter 1948, 19–26.
  13. New York to Hoover, 20 December 1957. Bufile, 100-268519-70, SAC.
  14. New York to Hoover, 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 Conference can be found in the April 1949politics. It was reprinted in the London journal Horizon the following month. For an overview of the Waldorf Conference, see John P. Rossi, “Farewell to Fellow-Traveling: The Waldorf Peace Conference of 1949,” Continuity: A Journal of History 10, Spring 1983, 1–31.
  16. Memorandum for 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 White House Conference on the Arts, see John Rodden and John Rossi, “Kultur Clash at the White House,” Kenyon Review, 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, 30 April 1970. Bufile, 100-268519-92.
  23. See George Orwell, The Orwell Reader (London: Harcourt Trade, 1956).
  24. Dwight Macdonald, “A Critical American,” Twentieth Century, December 1958.
  25. See Dwight Macdonald, Against the American Grain (New York: Random House, 1962).

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