Middlebrowbeaten

Earnestly clutching his list of Improving Books, the hapless middlebrow can't get no respect. But even culture on the installment plan is better than no culture at all.


David Futrelle
March 12, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

it's hard to imagine anyone being quite so, well, crass about it today. At a 1952 banquet for the founding subscribers to a Great Books series put together by Mortimer J. Adler and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, book reviewer and radio host Clifton Fadiman told his audience that buying the set was a heroic accomplishment of cultural preservationism. Like "the monks of early Christendom," he explained, the Great Books buyers were taking upon themselves "the burden of preserving ... through another darkening ... age the vision, the laughter, the ideas, the deep cries of anguish, the great eurekas of revelation that make up our patent to the title of civilized man." And all for the low, low price of $249.50, payable in installments with only $10 down. As cultural critic Dwight Macdonald noted, that was 100 pounds of timeless knowledge -- at less than $2.50 a pound!

The middlebrow culture that drew Macdonald's ire, virtually institutionalized through cultural endeavors like the Book of the Month Club and Alexander Woolcott's "Town Crier" radio show, seems in recent years to have vanished from the American landscape almost entirely, along with such other remnants of mid-century kitsch as Andy Hardy movies and Norman Rockwell. Sure, we have our own versions of middlebrow -- Bill Moyers specials, "A Prarie Home Companion," all those flatulent Time magazine think (but-not-too-hard) pieces on "Emotional Intelligence" or "Jesus Online." And the Book of the Month Club still mails out its regular selections, though some of its thunder has been stolen by the cheaper and less pretentious Quality Paperback Book Club. But middlebrow has been so thoroughly excoriated by its various critics -- from Macdonald, who looked with curmudgeonly disdain upon the "tepid ooze" of "Midcult," to Virginia Woolf, who denounced each of its representatives as a "bloodless and pernicious pest" -- that the term itself is hardly ever used anymore.

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Though it pains me a little to have to say so, I think it's time we gave middlebrow another hearing. I've always scoffed at middlebrow's more sanctimonious manifestations, from the self-congratulatory prattle of PBS pledge weeks to William Bennett's dogged parade of virtues. But now I'm beginning to think I've been too hasty in my dismissal.

Let's consider the case against middlebrow -- and just how it breaks down.

1) Middlebrow culture is elitist, encouraging people to rely on cultural "experts" to guide them through the worlds of art and literature.

To this charge, the middlebrow has to plead guilty -- with extenuating circumstances. Middlebrow is elitist in the same way any kind of education is elitist: It requires both teachers and pupils. It attempts to cultivate in its pupils a distinct attitude toward culture -- that of an open-minded amateur, someone willing, at least momentarily, to subordinate his or her judgment to that of the experts. This approach combines a certain willful aesthetic anesthesia with a strong whiff of moral uplift. The aspiring middlebrow might not know much about art, and might not even know what he likes -- but he's sure that exposure to it will do him some good. In some sense the middlebrow is quite literally tasteless, in that he has no strong aesthetic opinions of his own. And so, as Fadiman once suggested, he needs to look to cultural middlemen for advice.

In 1952, it was Clifton Fadiman, a self-described "pitchman-professor" who went about "selling ideas, often other men's, at marked-down figures," who filled the role; now it's Oprah Winfrey and her book club. Neither of these guides may be to your taste, but without some sort of teacher, at least at the start, it's awfully hard to learn. "How dare the middlebrows teach you how to read -- Shakespeare for instance?" Woolf exclaimed in her essay "Middlebrow," addressing her comments to the odd lowbrows in her audience. "All you have to do is read him. The Cambridge edition is good and cheap." Easy for you to say, Virginia, what with being one of the towering geniuses of the 20th century and all, but some people appreciate a guiding hand as they make their way through Shakespeare's thickets of "wherefores" and "anons."

After a while, of course, the guiding hand of the ever-helpful middlebrow may come to feel as restrictive as the training wheels on a bike. And so the more advanced middlebrow course encourages precisely the kind of DIY approach Woolf admired. As John Erskine, the originator of Columbia University's Great Books program, put it, the point was "to get yourself into a comfortable chair and a good light -- and have confidence in your own mind." There are many possible criticisms you can make of Erskine's approach -- that his selection of books was Eurocentric, that his belief in unmediated encounters with texts was ahistorical. But his faith that ordinary people could make sense of Great Books on their own was nothing if not democratic.

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2) Middlebrow is authoritarian, placing the culture into the hands of self-appointed dictators of taste.

Sure, Great Books guru Mortimer J. Adler was something of an intellectual dictator, with a knack for dogmatic pronouncements. The title of his 1940 manifesto, "How to Read a Book," was meant quite literally: Adler believed there was a right way and a wrong way, and was confident that he knew the difference. But not every middlebrow intellectual is a tyrannical schoolmarm in disguise. Fadiman, though he cultivated a professorial manner, was a good deal less pompous than the man who shared the podium with him at that 1952 dinner, describing himself as a "reading enthusiast" rather than an expert.

Today, would-be middlebrow middlepersons (with the possible exception of Bennett) know they can't get away with the totalitarian approach. Consider Oprah, who's anything but a despot. The idea of her book club came to her one morning in the shower, she told Publisher's Weekly. She doesn't pretend that her personal list of Great Books is going to save the world. "I want books to become part of my audience's lifestyle," she explained modestly, "for reading to become a natural phenomenon with them, so that it is no longer a big deal."

And while Oprah's approach may not appeal to everyone (I haven't signed up), it's hard to argue with her results. After being featured on Oprah's show last fall, Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" sold twice as many copies in a month than it had over the previous nine years -- a surge in sales that far exceeded the spurt after Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. Some cynics might suggest that Oprah, at least in this instance, is more interested in cash than culture: Oprah's production company, Harpo, owns the rights to Morrison's novel "Beloved," and has undeniably benefited from the current wave of Morrisonmania. But the fact remains that Oprah has managed to get at least one genuinely good book, if not perhaps a Great one, onto an awful lot of bookshelves.

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3) Middlebrow is one long guilt trip; it encourages a dutiful, pleasureless approach to culture.

Here, too, the critics have a point. Many of those in Oprah's audience will buy her recommended books out of a sense of obligation, and will never get beyond the first five pages -- like George Costanza on "Seinfeld," too distracted by the sports pages to read more than a sentence or two of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And many of those who do make it through the book will do so less because they enjoyed it than out of a sense of duty -- much like those poor souls who faithfully taped every episode of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" but haven't quite found the 15-hour block of time they need to watch them all again. Indeed, middlebrows seldom expect to get any real pleasure from art or literature, at least not while they're looking at it. The main pleasure many people get from an evening of cultural uplift is the warm feeling they get from patting themselves on the back afterwards. If they enjoy themselves along the way, it's almost by accident.

As a general philosophy of culture, then, middlebrow is a disaster. Who wants nothing but uplifting art? Who wants to spend their life only reading the books that are supposed to do you good? It's like a diet consisting only of fiber.

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But middlebrow is supposed to be a starting point on the road of culture, not the destination. Reading Great Books can be hard. Interesting music might sound simply jarring, or boring, or both, on the first run-through. It's not always meant to go down easily. It's hard to learn much about any aspect of culture without going through a middlebrow stage on the way there: Mozart before Schönberg, Monet before Duchamp. Before you feel confident enough to have your own aesthetic opinions, it's not a bad idea to temporarily suspend your judgment and trust the critics. Short-term aesthetic anesthesia is a way to get yourself beyond the narrow range of your gut-level tastes.

Looking back on my own education, both in and out of school, I'm often struck by how much of the cultural knowledge I now take for granted had its origins in some strange middlebrow enthusiasm of my youth: that one summer I spent poring over art books to learn about the Impressionists (instead of getting my own impressions at the beach); my dogged (and generally joyless) attempts at age 16 or so to make it through the more or less complete works of William S. Burroughs (my notion of the Great Books was a little bit warped). I still can't say just what inspired all these solo cultural reconnaissance missions. All I can say is that I'm grateful for it.

4) Middlebrow is just plain tacky, bearing the same relation to real culture that prefab houses do to real architecture. It's too earnest to be cool.

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In many ways this is the charge that really stings -- in part because it's often true. Watch one of those purportedly uplifting disease-of-the-week made-for-TV movies and see how long it takes you to feel as sick as the people on the screen. Tune into pledge week on PBS, when stations haul out the money-getters, pandering to a public that apparently wants more Yanni, more Boston Pops, more John Bradshaw. Thumb through the "Wireless" catalog you got after sending a few bucks to your local public radio station -- where CD collections of "Pachabel's Greatest Hit" (featuring eight versions of his "slow, stately Canon in D") nestle up against sweat shirts proclaiming "So Many Books ... So Little Time."

What's worse is that much of this middlebrow dreck is fundamentally false. In a marvelous disquisition on kitsch hidden in the midst of his study of Gogol, Vladimir Nabokov heaps his severest scorn not upon art that is unabashedly trashy, but on art in which "the sham is not obvious," art that mimics those values "considered, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the very highest level of art, thought and emotion." Not just twaddle -- pretentious twaddle, twaddle designed to bring a tear to your eyes. "The dreadful thing about [kitsch] is that one finds it so difficult to explain to particular people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion ... is far, far worse than the kind of literature that everybody admits is cheap," he writes.

Compared with this, even the worst lowbrow excess seems preferable. And so it's not surprising that so many Americans, myself included, have taken refuge in the unabashedly crude -- defending Beavis and Butt-head against their blue-nosed critics, laughing so hard they pee at the dinner-table-flatulence sequence in Eddie Murphy's "Nutty Professor," bragging about how often they tune into "American Gladiators."

But man cannot live on lowbrow alone. And as much as I'm opposed to dutiful "socially conscious" art and moral uplift generally, I'm beginning to find the artless earnestness of middlebrow culture somewhat endearing. It's certainly a refreshing change from the relentless ironizing of pop culture today, a retro hell in which postmodern posturing too often replaces sincerity, where critical judgments are made with fingers crossed. ("Oh, I don't really like it; it's just so cute and kitschy!") There's nothing wrong with taking culture seriously once in a while. There is something wrong with holding it forever at arm's length.

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The lie of the middlebrow is that culture can, quite literally, be bought on the installment plan. The lie of middlebrow's critics, on the other hand, is that the truly tasteful are just born that way -- that they don't have to serve an apprenticeship before they reach the aesthetic summit, from which enviable position they can look down at middlebrow yahoos with smugness and disdain.

But we might as well be humble about it. Very few of us are ever truly highbrow in more than one or two or three little specialties. I can pontificate to my heart's content about certain favorite authors. Put me in a room with a jazz aficionado and I become the philistine.

Culture takes work. Aesthetic judgment -- or even understanding -- doesn't come any more naturally than the multiplication table. But there's no shame in trying. "The thing to do, as a live bunch of go-getters," one local booster in Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt" declared with some passion, "is to capitalize Culture, to go right out and grab it." As much as I hate to agree with any kind of booster, fictional or real, I have to admit he's right.


David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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