Middlebrow Culture

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MIDDLEBROW CULTURE. Middlebrow culture is the offspring of universal education and the belief, unique to the United States, that education is a lifelong process. More than any other national group, Americans attend evening schools and community colleges, while also taking advantage of intensive educational efforts by museums, musical organizations, and theaters. The myth of American classlessness supports using culture as a ladder for upward mobility and status definition.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, American culture divided into high, for the few, and low, for the many. But the proliferation of media in the twentieth century fostered the development of a new cultural class, although decades would pass before it acquired a name. During the prosperous 1920s such new magazines as Time, Reader's Digest, and The New Yorker sought this audience, as did such enterprises as the Book-of-the-Month Club. Also marketed to this growing group were classical recordings and educational radio programs. In 1922 the cultural critic H. L. Mencken disparaged these stodgy, sheep-like consumers as the "booboisie," while the best-selling novelist Sinclair Lewis lampooned them in Babbitt (1922).

In the 1930s Americans began to define their own culture as being distinct from that of Europe. The central role of the United States in World War II and its emergence as a world leader reinforced perceptions of a uniquely American culture. But its expressions were criticized as parochial, conservative, and, particularly, as too middlebrow.

The spasm of fulminations over middlebrow culture was as brief as it was shrill. It erupted in 1939, on the eve of World War II, fanned by two radical followers of Leon Trotsky, Clement Greenberg, and Dwight Macdonald. Unlike Mencken, who had blamed the audience for its lack of interest in serious culture, the critics of the 1940s accused capitalist commercial culture of seducing naive consumers with kitsch. But the outcry quickly subsided; by 1949 "brow-beating" was more of a parlor game than an intense political issue.

The indictment of middlebrows was a symptom of the loss of cultural authority previously wielded by critics and specialists. But it also confronted the weakness of high culture in the face of the American public's lack of interest in political ideology and seemingly insatiable appetite for entertainment.

By the 1960s, most of those considering themselves highbrow were settling comfortably into academe, and other issues—Vietnam, civil rights, personal liberation—dominated public dialogue. Gone were the many generalists, people whom the social critic Russell Jacoby called "public intellectuals," who had previously set cultural standards.

During the early 1960s, the federal government stepped into this perceived cultural vacuum by funding public radio and television in the form of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), along with support for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). But these idealistic efforts failed to generate widespread lifting of Americans' general cultural level. To compete with commercial media, PBS had to appeal to the overwhelming middlebrow majority. Denounced and defunded when it attempted to foster avant-garde art, the NEA retreated to funding safely middlebrow opera, theater, music, and art. The NEH escaped criticism by sheltering most of its grants behind the walls of academe.

As the twentieth century was ending, the brow exercise abated in all but two surprisingly diverse nodes with in the cultural spectrum: newspapers and the academic world. The two connect when journalists consult professors to learn the deeper meaning of such lowbrow fare as a remake of the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. Objectively, the journalist dwells squarely in middlebrowland, a reasonably literate writer describing assorted lowbrow happenings: car thefts, politicians' poses, presidential foibles, felonies and misdemeanors, weddings, home runs, and bicycle races. By contrast, the academic strives for highbrow status by producing a respectable fifty-three pages (and eighty-four footnotes) obsessing on whether it is "all right" to enjoy reading the nineteenth century middlebrow novelist Anthony Trollope. Ground between these two tectonic cultural plates, middlebrow gets pummeled, shrunk, and stretched.

Meanwhile, middlebrow culture has penetrated deeply into highbrow culture; only a determined highbrow remnant shelters in small magazines and on the margins of academe. Postmodernism has downgraded elitist high-culture values such as quality, beauty, truth, and authenticity in favor of democratic values that privilege multiculturalism, relevance, and equal opportunity. Speeding the decline is "camp," the conscious effort to bring a cynical smile to the consumer, who understands that the work before him is a mockery of something serious.

The Internet presents a growing obstacle to any individual, institution, or medium attempting to influence the public's cultural tastes. It is giving voices to millions of individuals, and provides a platform for every imaginable cultural offering, but its sheer size and diversity hinder formation of any coherent cultural standards. As a medium, it offers equal opportunity to purveyors of pornography, airline tickets, or medieval manuscripts. With easy access to myriad offerings of uncertain caliber, Internet users are challenged to develop their own cultural standards, whether high, low, or that comfortable old friend: middlebrow.


Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Fussell, Paul. Class. New York: Summit, 1983.

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant Garde and Kitsch." Partisan Review 6 (Fall 1939): 34–49.

Jacoby, Russell. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1988.

Lynes, Russell. The Tastemakers. New York: Harper, 1954.

Macdonald, Dwight. Against the American Grain. New York: Random House, 1962.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1992.

Alice GoldfarbMarquis

See alsoNew York Intellectuals .

In Masscult, the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.


SOURCE: Partisan Review, Spring 1960.

When America and Americans are characterized by foreigners and highbrows, the middlebrows are likely to emerge as the dominant group in our society—a dreadful mass of insensible back-slappers, given to sentimentality as a prime virtue, the willing victims of slogans and the whims of the bosses, both political and economic.


SOURCE: "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," Harper's Magazine, February 1949.

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Middlebrow Culture