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A MAN OF LETTERS

A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald

Edited and with an Introduction by Michael Wreszin

Ivan R. Dee

481 pages; $34

...

"As I've told you," the great critic and journalist Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1974 to the chairman of the University at Buffalo English Department, "I have enormously enjoyed my year and a half teaching here. . . . I hope we (the English Department and I) can work out a return visit because my tour of duty at (UB) has been incomparably more pleasurable -- and stimulating -- than any of the six or seven I've had in (the) last 15 years at other universities, from Santa Cruz to Amherst (University of Massachusetts) to Milwaukee (University of Wisconsin) to Austin (University of Texas). The students, both graduate and undergraduate, are livelier, more variegated and more serious about their work (that goes for a recent semester at Yale, too) and so is the faculty (in this department, at least.) And so much is going on in the campus, especially in movies. It's Shangri-La -- high-thinking and low-living (also frost bite), comradeship, life-equality-fraternite!"

It wasn't to be. He remained in the Hamptons until his death, eight years later, at 76, after almost a half-century of being perhaps the damndest, smartest, thorniest -- and funniest -- of the spectacular class of tumultuous, disputatious and utterly brilliant creatures we now think of as New York Intellectuals. No matter how esoteric Macdonald's subject matter became, he was, it seems, incapable of being anything but wildly readable.

After I wrote a hugely admiring profile-interview during his UB stay (he was, quite literally, the idol of my youth, the man whose film criticism in Esquire in the late '50s and early '60s changed the course of my life), Macdonald, typically, wrote back in the jolliest possible way that his wife balked at my description of "the well-settled heft at his midsection" and, anyway, why didn't I attach the great name of Edmund Burke to his paraphrase, etc.?

What is abundantly apparent from this antic, remarkable and wonderful book is that you could not come into any contact at all with Dwight Macdonald without encountering his inclination to take a position on everything and to turn every waking moment into a test of intellectual integrity. Not even a wholly admiring newspaper profile was immune from his incomparable ability to turn most of his life into a test of scrutiny, integrity and accuracy.

What is raucously clear here in this lifetime of letters -- from one of America's more inveterate correspondents -- is how gloriously he passed the test. This was a man, after all, whose reaction to being one of a large platoon of writers, artists and intellectuals invited to sample the booze and canapes and dip of Lyndon Johnson's White House was to go (many declined the invitation in protest) but, while there, to circulate a petition critical of LBJ's Vietnam follies.

But then no one should have been the slightest bit surprised. Here, after all, was a lifelong enemy of violence who somehow managed to remain a pacifist during World War II and, for four years, from 1944 to 1949, published a legendary magazine called Politics in which his radical views were fearlessly flogged.

Even in an age of battle and contretemps, Macdonald always seemed ready to take a side and relish the consequences, whatever they were. When, for instance, two of the more strident members of his circle -- the great art critic and apostle of abstract expressionism Clement Greenberg and playwright/critic Lionel Abel -- came to drunken blows one night, much to Abel's disadvantage, Macdonald instantly wrote Greenberg of his displeasure and severed relations with him. A day later, he wrote Greenberg again that he'd gotten it wrong, that his friend Abel had launched the first ineffectual blow, and maybe they could be friends and combatants again after all.

Lest any of that seem redolent of a louder, boozier, more contentious and remote literary world, how much more hilarious and rollicking and joyful it now seems in a soggy intellectual world where almost no one seems able to keep his powder dry.

Not that Macdonald, under such a microscope, was anything less than human. In an age of TV's universal voice, his New York accent was surprisingly and almost disconcertingly thick. Just from the sound of his voice, you weren't always sure if he was recommending to you the genius of Oscar Wilde's critical essays or telling you the right way to get to his New Yorker office by subway. You can read here, from the young Macdonald not long out of Exeter and Yale, the free use of the N-word in a letter about Fletcher Henderson's band but then in 1928, discerning and sensitive intellectuals discovering the "classical clarity" of jazz greats were quite likely to do so with monumentally insensitive vocabulary. (It would be a few more years yet before the N-word would be universally perceived to be the gaudy and profoundly poisonous arsenic of American slang.)

This, though, was a remarkable life in service to art, ideas and society. Tom Wolfe, many years after a particularly stinging Macdonald rebuke in a New Yorker review, wrote mockingly and disparagingly of how "eminent" the eclipsed Macdonald had once been, clear evidence of how that review all those decades ago had hurt. The qualities Macdonald possessed in such dazzling profusion can never be dimmed for too long.

This collection is edited by Macdonald's 1994 biographer. Macdonald would, no doubt, scream bloody murder at the misspellings and inaccuracies. And all the constant ellipses make me wonder what -- and why -- Wreszin excised from these letters.

But what's here is a glowing, roistering, brilliant collection of correspondence from a man who was, in Andre Malraux's word, about as delightfully engage as any writer of his time.

Jeff Simon is The Buffalo News' Sunday Arts & Books editor. e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com.