Did Somebody Say Macdonald?

Were he alive, Dwight Macdonald, archenemy of all things low-and middlebrow, would be rubbing his hands with malicious glee. What could be more Midcult than the Modern Library–populist purveyor of affordable classics–making a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the past 100 years? Or the presence on it of Thornton Wilder, Macdonald’s very definition of the Midcult author? And there’s Random House founder Bennett Cerf’s son, Christopher Cerf, going on network television to advance the defense Macdonald mocked in his 1960 essay “Masscult & Midcult”–that cheap marketing devices like lists are justified if they mean that more people read more books.

Had anyone thought to put Culturebox on TV, she too would have defended the list, though on different grounds. Culturebox is an avowed fan of the great American huckster tradition, whence Modern Library stems. Among its founders: Albert Boni, flush from his invention of the leather-bound edition of Shakespeare, so inspired a flash of marketing genius it was deemed worthy, by the candy manufacturer Whitman’s, of inclusion in every box of chocolate sold. In 1917, the raison d’etre of Modern Library was to offer cheap reprints of European fiction. Today, its main claim to fame is that it provided its owners, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the financial underpinnings of a far greater publishing venture, Random House.

The moral of that story is: If you know how to market your backlist, you get to do the kind of publishing cultural critics like Macdonald praise you for. That maxim is as true now as it was then. Which is why Modern Library’s list is, as such things always are, brilliant. Irksome, middlebrow, replete with weird choices and intellectual pretention–who cares? Who can criticize it without advancing its agenda? Culturebox would have been reduced to silence if she hadn’t been moved to applaud.

Judith Shulevitz