At a 1980 symposium at Skidmore College set in motion by a normally portentous essay by George Steiner about the death of culture in America, Dwight Macdonald, long established as a slashing critic of popular culture and politics, sitting on a panel on “Film and Theatre in America,” seemed to have little of interest to say. He was seventy-four years old and a fairly serious boozer who had written almost nothing of interest for more than a decade. He seemed the intellectual equivalent of the boxer who has taken way too many shots to the head. His death by congestive heart failure was two years away. Reacting against the tendency in the discussion to take current-day movies and plays seriously, Macdonald emitted—one almost hears him muttering—a remark that could stand as the epigraph for his long career in intellectual journalism: “When I say ‘no’ I’m always right and when I say ‘yes’ I’m...

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