Whither Middlebrow?

I’ve been reading Susan Jacoby’s new book The Age of American Unreason. One of the more interesting chapters in her book concerns the rise and fall of post-war middlebrow culture. She gathers together a lot of information about such things as the Book of the Month Club, the University of Chicago's Great Books series, and the popularity of Will and Ariel Durant's multi-volume The Story of Civilization. The prominence of these, she notes, suggests that many people in the middle and working classes of the 40s and 50s felt they could "better themselves" through an exposure to culture.

Indeed, until the early 60s classical music still represented 20 percent of all record sales. Of course, highbrow critics at the Partisan Review and others sneered at housewives who hung cheap prints of Degas' ballerinas over the couch, organized book clubs to discuss the latest Michener novel, or shuttled the kids to an afternoon orchestra production of "Peter and the Wolf." But what was some Middle-Western mom supposed to do? Not everyone lived on the upper-east side, sent the kids to prep school, or took summer trips to Paris. For a lot of people, this was as good as it got.

One thing I recall as a kid was how big Masterpiece Theater was. Everyone had to get home to watch it on Sunday night. It was TV, to be sure, and quite middlebrow, but people weirdly felt it was a sign of taste to value Shakespearean-trained actors with honest-to-goodness British accents appearing in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited or Dickens' Bleak House. No doubt, too, a lot of those Book of the Month Club offerings went unread, and the multi-volume collections of the Great Books sat on shelves in the den with uncracked spines. But what's curious is that people felt guilty about that.

Average middle-class Americans had this sense that they ought to get around to reading them. James Michener may have been a tedious bore and earnestly middlebrow, but people felt his historical accuracy was edifying and worth shelling out for. Compare his novels to, say, The Da Vinci Code and the difference is rather stark. Something has changed.

So where has middlebrow culture gone? Conservatives like David Horrowitz and other right-wing harrumphers like to complain that this is due to the faddishness of academics in the humanities and social sciences who have abandoned their role as cultural gatekeepers and proponents of rationalism. These "tenured radicals" see all expressions through the lens of semiotic equality. Thus Buffy the Vampire Slayer becomes as "thick a cultural inscription" as anything by Shakespeare. Jacoby dismisses this argument. Academics may have been foolish, but the conservatives overestimate their influence.

Instead, Jacoby argues that middlebrow culture was done in by mass culture, which is essentially indistinguishable from the economic system that pervades nearly every aspect of our lives. Today, people express their cultural aspirations via brand names. Heck, MTV was the first time I noticed the seamless merger of marketing and culture. I remember watching it and thinking, "Damn, they finally did it. The ads are the programs!" But the melding of culture and marketing was a long, long time ago. We're well beyond that now.

It's easy to tilt at the Mortimer Adlers and Robert Maynard Hutchinsons of a few decades ago, but they were no less earnest or well-meaning in their desire to democratize the life of the mind than academics of today who believe it is their job to right the wrongs of bigotry and sexism by adjusting the curriculum. Both are programs to "save the world" through education, a dubious task at best.

What strikes me is not the narrowness of the canon in those old middlebrow efforts, but the disappearance of any widespread aspiration to be more "cultured." People used to feel guilty about not reading "deep" stuff or understanding a poem. They don't any more. In the end, middlebrow cultural products always contained a built-in design flaw: they necessitated effort on the user's part. Today's marketers know all too well that effort just isn't a point of sale.


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