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The Making Of Middlebrow Culture
by Joan Shelley Rubin
University of North Carolina Press, 416 pages, $34.95

What Joan Shelley Rubin aims to do in The Making of Middlebrow Culture is “redress the disregard and oversimplification of middlebrow culture in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s by illuminating the values and attitudes that shaped some of its major expressions.” Thus she lets us know at once where she stands with respect to the invidious rejection of the middlebrow by the likes of Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, and Virginia Woolf, none of whom shared Van Wyck Brooks’ hope for a “genial middle ground” between highbrow and lowbrow, and all of whom shared a bias against the cultural fruits of democracy that is still politically correct in some quarters.

The attractive thing about this critical attitude was the ease with which it settled the question whether the middle brow was really civilizable in any strict sense of the term. Even such assiduous civilizers as John Erskine, William Lyon Phelps, Stuart Sherman, and Will Durant sometimes had their doubts. But to their credit they acted against them, and given how easy it was, and still is, to be browbeaten by Greenberg’s Manichean alternatives of avant-garde or kitsch, even ambivalent action could take a good deal of nerve. Since the action was so largely a matter of inducing midcult Americans to read the right books the right way, Ms. Rubin must revisit what for her older readers is familiar territory: that of the New Humanism and the genteel tradition; the Great Books programs of John Erskine, Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, and Charles W. Eliot; The Book of the Month Club and The Literary Guild; the fabulously successful “outline” books of H. G. Wells, Will Durant, and Hendrik Van Loon; and such book programson commercial radio as “Information, Please!” and “Invitation to Learning”—to say nothing of the flamboyant journalism of Heywood Broun and Alexander Woollcott. In the process we discover that to observe America reading is an excellent way to see its most characteristic conflicts and tensions in operation.

There was, for instance, the ever-present fear that middlebrow culture (and ultimately America) was too enfeoffed to commerce and industry, and therefore too materialistic, to be open to the influence of great books. It was too willing to settle for useful information, for the prestige that came with a glib and superficial reporting of cultural events, and, as Edmund Wilson among other scolds complained, too happy with the relaxed critical standards communicated to it by its too complaisant teachers. Such instructional materials as The Book of the Month Club’s selections, Durant’s “stories” of philosophy and civilization, and Dr. Eliot’s famous five-foot-shelf of classics were big business for the publishers. Inevitably the latter welcomed the ministrations of the advertiser, who applied to books “promotional strategies apparently acceptable for selling pharmaceuticals and hosiery.” Indeed, purist critics of midcult could find the perfect expression of everything they feared in the educational radio program “Information, Please!” Here a nationwide audience of culture-hungry “students” had an opportunity to stump one of the experts on the panel and, with the acclaim of a ringing cash register, win five dollars.

And there was, of course, the fear that the canon of great books that was expected to do the civilizing (especially if read as assiduously as Mortimer Adler wanted them to be) might do more harm than good. Eliot’s five-foot-shelf might reinforce the cultural prescriptions of Matthew Arnold and the New Humanism, but might not all those “dead, white,” and largely European males constrict the American individual’s search for a true self and an authentically lived life? Great books people like Stuart Sherman, Will Durant, and John Erskine worried as much about this as they worried about the increasing consumerism, conformity, and specialization of American life. When university curricula were becoming more and more compartmentalized, thereby repeating and reinforcing the fragmentation of human experience, it did not follow that to read a good book was to read a good life: too much power was being taken away from the individual and concentrated in the hands of the experts. Hence John Dewey—a midcult civilizer but no friend of dead white males whatever their provenance—favored the student-centered curriculum.

Still, the American individual needed to be taken firmly in hand lest the national enterprise fail. For some critics the vigorous pursuit of the consuming self in pre-World War II America pointed toward a culture of complaisant mediocrities. As Dorothy Canfield Fisher put it in 1927, “Our country is at this moment fighting for its life, at a turning point of its existence.” Its strength and hardihood, stifled by a “multitude of mechanical comforts,” was languishing in a “flabby moral ease.” In other words, middlebrow culture lacked the sustaining character formation that was so much the concern of the genteel tradition and the New Humanism. Ms. Rubin very effectively ends her book on this note as she takes us back to the television quiz show “Twenty-One.” Here Charles Van Doren, scion of a distinguished family of midcult educators, had to confess that he had won $129,000 as an expert on a rigged program. There could have been no sadder indication of the consequences of confusing culture with information and entertainment—or, as Clement Greenberg put it in his influential 1939 Partisan Review essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” no better proof that between avant-garde and kitsch there could be no middle ground.

“Today,” Greenberg ends his essay, “we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.” To anyone who wishes to understand middlebrow culture, this must be seen as the anachronistic oversimplification it is for Ms. Rubin. Inevitably, many of the figures in her book were at one time or another in partial agreement with Greenberg’s position, and some even drifted leftward to the point where they could see no salvation for midcult but Marxcult. Like Dwight Macdonald, they joined, if only temporarily, such Communist-front groups as The League for Cultural Freedom and Socialism, which was committed to the belief that America and the USSR were “advancing by different paths to the same goals.” When this kind of political correctness was combined with the doctrinaire perfectionism that spoils so much of our social criticism, it was easy enough for pessimistic purists to believe that midcult “was more harmful than mass culture because it was the enemy within the walls.”

Fortunately, as this densely researched and gracefully written book makes clear, this was not generally the case. Ms. Rubin’s people may on occasion have been too aware of themselves as a saving remnant and too ready to identify their own salvation with the saving of all the disadvantaged others. Now some of them can appear silly, muddleheaded, and even mean. One is nevertheless impressed with the overall seriousness and generosity of their efforts during this thirty-year period of social transition. Thanks to the author, we not only understand it better but also the no less transitional and troubled period in which we now live.

John P. Sisk is Professor Emeritus of English at Gonzaga University.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash. Image cropped.