Whatever Happened to Middlebrow Culture?

Jeanne A. Curley

Somewhere between mass culture and elite culture lies a murky, often maligned intermediate, middlebrow culture. Often derided as pretentious and bourgeois and maligned as mediocre, pedestrian, conformist and second-rate, middlebrow culture achieved its heyday between the 1930s and the 1950s, as many newly middle-class American adults sought to achieve a semblance of cultural polish and social prestige through the Book of the Month Club or the Story of Civilization books of Will and Ariel Durant and various popular works that summarized science and history—a subject richly covered in Joan Shelley Rubin’s classic 1992 study, The Making of Middlebrow Culture.

In its prime, middlebrow culture filled the gap between the avant-garde and kitsch, garish, overly sentimental and tasteless, schlock and between elite and pulp fiction, ivory tower, egghead academic writing and trash and art music and popular tunes and jingles. The goal of middlebrow culture was to introduce unevenly educated adults to somewhat diluted versions of high culture in accessible, engaging and unthreatening ways.

Nothing seemed to better symbolize the triumph of middlebrow culture more than the eclecticism of The Ed Sullivan Show, which combined comedy, puppetry and rock ’n’ roll with ballet dancers, classical music performances and operatic sopranos and tenors.

The golden age of the American musical, especially the shows by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, with their ebullient blend of romance, nostalgia, moral seriousness and complicated takes on race, gender and sexuality, exemplified the middlebrow. Anything but cutting-edge, many of these works represented an amalgam of a variety of high and low artistic and musical traditions, the Viennese operetta, waltz rhythms, the British dance hall, vaudeville and the musical revue.

Middlebrow culture never fully faded away and could be seen, even in the 1950s and 1960s in the College Bowl radio and television quiz shows and in the1960s and early 1970s in Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and Julia Child’s The French Chef TV series, or in the 1980s and 1990s in the Merchant-Ivory cinematic productions of classic late-19th- and early-20th-century novels. Today, remnants of middlebrow culture live on, evident in PBS’s American Masters series or in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions book series and even the game show Jeopardy!

But in today’s highly status-conscious society, where educational and cultural capital are often associated with attendance at highly selective private universities or liberal arts colleges, a facility with theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Thomas Piketty and alertness to anything that smacks of bias, to be middlebrow is to be dismissed as gauche in taste, uncouth in sensibility and hopelessly behind the times. You might as well wear a leisure suit or dress in off-the-rack synthetics from the defunct retailer Robert Hall.

Still, as someone who views middlebrow culture as an impressive and admirable attempt to create a truly open, democratic culture that sought to make the modern, the high and the avant-garde broadly accessible, its decline is a subject of some regret. I personally adored middlebrow theater and literature and regard these as among this society’s greatest contributions to the arts and letters and believe its demise represents a genuine cultural loss.

To be sure, middlebrow culture was Eurocentric and insufficiently attentive to issues of race and gender, though Richard Wright’s Native Son was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. Middlebrow culture also contributed to the midcentury illusion of a unitary society. Yet what has replaced it—a highly fractured and stratified society in which large swaths of the performing arts are endangered, faux populism reigns and familiarity with canonical works of literature, art and music is increasingly reserved for the privileged—doesn’t strike me as a sign of progress.

It was a seminal essay published in 1915 by the critic and literary historian Van Wyck Brooks that first painted a portrait of an American culture torn between highbrow and lowbrow ideals—by Jonathan Edwards and his successors on one side and Benjamin Franklin and his progeny on another. This was a culture divided between literary English and slang, between the inflexibly priggish, abstraction-prone professor and the boorish, vulgar, cynical and intellectually contemptuous businessman.

What this society desperately needed was “a middle plane between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality” that would heal the rift between high and low.

What might such a middle plane look like today were we to embrace that as a cultural ideal?

Joseph Horwitz’s recent Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music points to an answer.

Horwitz, a distinguished historian of American classical music, begins his book with a statement by the Czech composer in 1893: That “the future music of this country must be founded upon” African American and Native American traditions. “This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Horwitz argues that beginning in the early 20th century, a divide arose between highbrow art music and lowbrow pop music. The American classical music establishment embraced European modernism, with its rejection of traditional tonality, melodies, forms and metrical rhythm and its interest in atonality and polytonality and wild experimentation.

At the same time, the established institutions showed little respect for vernacular, Black, ethnic and folk traditions and largely refused to play music by Black composers or to employ Black musicians. The results are manifest today in the ever-diminishing audience for classical music combined with a kind of creative stagnation that desperately needs an infusion of the dynamism and vitality that characterizes American popular music.

The answer, Horwitz argues, lies in drawing upon the full range of America’s musical traditions: African American sorrow songs, ragtime, the blues, gospel, jazz and more contemporary Black genres, but also folk songs, band music, religious hymns and popular songs from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building and much else.

In 1925, Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founding editor, spelled out his magazine’s vision: it would be sophisticated and urbane but not highbrow. Unlike a newspaper, it would be interpretive rather than stenographic. It would provide a guide to the theater, motion pictures, musical events and art and exhibitions worth seeing and cast judgment on new books of consequence and would assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment among its readers. Its “general tenor will be gaiety, wit and satire …”

Ross concluded this statement with a phrase that is classist and sexist and yet which remains deliberately provocative: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”

Over three decades ago, the cultural historian Lawrence W. Levine described the emergence of a rigid cultural hierarchy in America. He demonstrated that the boundaries between the serious and the popular that this society takes for granted as fixed, immutable, inevitable and long-standing are in fact social and cultural constructions “shaped by class prejudice and ethnocentric anxiety.”

His Highbrow/Lowbrow revealed a mid-19th-century culture “less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings,” discrete spaces and separate genres “than their descendants were to experience.” Levine quite rightly considers the development of cultural hierarchy and the sacralization of high culture as a tragedy. As audiences fragmented and segregated, both the popular and elite audiences lost contact with the very sources of energy and creativity that would surely enrich the nation’s expressive culture.

Colleges and universities, it seems to me, ought to play a leading role in attacking cultural stratification by doing much more to expose students to the richness and range of the artistic, musical, operatic and theatrical traditions that surround them. In previous posts, I have mentioned Hunter College’s HUM 20010: Exploration in the Arts as a scalable model. This course combines visits to museums and performance venues with signature seminars and opportunities for undergraduates to interact with artists, playwrights, musicians and performers.

I urge you to follow that example. Expose your undergraduates to the breadth of expressive creativity; encourage them to grapple with the arts in their rich diversity and infinite variety. After all, a true college education isn’t simply about cognitive development and skills training. It should also educate the senses and sensibilities.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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