Dwight Macdonald
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: HiLo Heroes

It has become fashionable for progressive social and cultural critics to argue that despite its sins against good taste, Middlebrow is emblematic of the American dream of social mobility; Middlebrow’s detractors, most famously DWIGHT MACDONALD (1906-82), are therefore depicted as cultural mandarins. Russell Lynes described America as a caste system presided over by proto-authoritarian highbrows who’ve failed to keep lowbrow proles in their place only because of the courageous efforts of middlebrows; Andrew Ross has argued that highbrows like Macdonald and T.W. Adorno castigated Middlebrow in order to protect their own authority. Even ostensible encomia to Macdonald too often suggest that his midcentury essays railing against the triumph of Masscult (mass-produced, yet “tasteful” cultural products) and Midcult (the fetishizing and debasing of High Culture) went too far. But Macdonald was right about everything! When he warned about “a narcotized acceptance of Masscult-Midcult and of the commodities it sells as a substitute for the unsettling and predictable (hence unsalable) joy, tragedy, wit, change, originality and beauty of real life,” he was speaking not as a snobbish highbrow, but as what his friend George Orwell called an “elastic-brow.” Macdonald was out of step with his fellow New York intellectuals, who in the late Forties embraced the proto-neoliberal/neoconservative mantra that the Age of Ideology had ended, that History had ended; his anti-Middlebrow essays are polemics against this emergent crypto-ideology. And for that, he has never been forgiven.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Harry Houdini and Nick Lowe.

READ MORE about members of the Partisans Generation (1904-13).



Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.