Literary Societies and Middlebrow Reading

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Literary societies, or book groups, are among the most contradictory leisure activities in the United States. They appear democratic and open to any reader, and yet they are frequently exclusive, maintaining barriers of class and race. While these groups often support reading that encourages readers to "lose" themselves in the emotional pleasures of a book, they also present reading as "work" that must be done properly. These groups take reading, which seems a solitary activity, and turn it into a social event. Finally, the members of these societies hope to gain the status and prestige of serious process of reading, yet their critics dismiss them, using the label "middlebrow," because they do not work hard enough.

Gaining Status Through Books

In the eighteenth-century American colonies, gentlemen were the only people with the leisure and money to pursue literary study. Thus, reading became a status activity associated with wealth and prestige. Even before the American Revolution, both college-educated professionals and artisans who lacked access to colonial colleges appropriated the status value of literature by forming groups to discuss and debate literature. Early literary societies formed at colleges and after college; alumni in urban areas reconstructed these societies in clubs with names such as the Belles-Lettres Club. Alongside those groups, less elite groups organized study clubs to gain the cultural authority of more gentlemanly professionals. Perhaps the most well known is Benjamin Franklin's Junto. Founded in 1727 to investigate virtue through reading and discussion, the club's members were largely young tradesmen. For Franklin, at least, this group provided both an opportunity to discuss philosophical issues and a way to demonstrate his interest in books—an interest that eventually gave him entry to the world of colonial gentlemen.

Throughout the early nineteenth century, literary self-improvement societies for men flourished. These societies often modeled themselves on those formed by New York literary and cultural elites. However, their influence and ideas expanded to include working- and middle-class men who were ambitious to develop their minds and follow Franklin's example. Clerks and tradesmen founded the Detroit Young Men's Society (DYMS) in 1832 to promote literary discussion and debate. Membership grew throughout the years before the Civil War as the DYMS provided tradesmen and mechanics access to the education and networks their elite peers formed in college. However, by the 1880s, male participation in literary societies declined, and the DYMS held its last meeting in 1881.

Gender and Nineteenth-Century Literary Societies

DYMS declined just as women's literary societies, like the Shakespearians in Osage, Iowa, boomed. In fact, the reasons for the decline in men's groups made reading groups increasingly attractive for women. The women who joined the Shakespearians were the upper crust of Osage society, wives and daughters of the bankers, lawyers, and most successful tradesmen. The Shakespearians solidified these women's social status; no Catholic or working-class women belonged. Nonetheless, the membership was open to daughters of the town's most prominent Jewish merchants. The Shakespearians demonstrate the difficulty of making broad generalizations about such diverse organizations.

The same gender roles that prohibited these women from work assigned culture to their sphere. For men, literary study appeared both effeminate and no longer an effective way to advance. Those men who remained interested in literature focused their literary activities on the craftsmanship of rare books, seemingly a manlier topic. At the same time, the expansion of higher education in the United States increased the number of people, most often men, who could go to college. Women also had more opportunities to attend college, but many remained anxious about leaving their assigned role in the home. Thus, by 1906, the General Federation of Women's Clubs included some 5,000 literary and study groups. Historians have estimated that this number represents only 10 percent of the total numbers of women's literary societies of the time.

Many women's literary societies grew out of Bible study groups and maintained the air of worship and solemnity toward the other works they read. Dues varied from $1 to $25 per year. Some such as the Fortnightly Club of Hot Springs, Arkansas, described themselves as balancing "mental cultivation and social intercourse." Others, such as the Fortnightly's sister club in Fort Smith, Arkansas, called themselves "a study club of high order, with a university standard" (Croley, p. 223). Clubs' descriptions focused on their members' efforts to develop and expand their minds through the study of classic, already respected authors. Shakespeare's works were a staple, but clubs also covered a wide range of other genteel authors, from Whittier to Browning and from Dante to Dickens. Many of these same clubs also read less culturally sanctioned novels such as Sarah Grand's Heavenly Twins (1898), which dealt with marriage-induced depression and sexually transmitted diseases. Meetings usually consisted of one member presenting a paper on the author under discussion and other members responding to her paper. Most clubs also had social events to which men were invited or where members dressed up as their favorite (often male) authors.

Race, Class, Politics, and Literary Societies in the Nineteenth Century

Rather than allowing working-class women to join their groups, some women's literary societies formed working-class auxiliaries as part of their philanthropic activities. Those working-class women who did join frequently criticized their sisters for their snobbery. However, working women, too, had long formed their own literary societies, beginning with the literary societies formed by operatives at the Lowell Mills in the 1820s. Not surprisingly, these reading and writing groups were often connected to labor organizations. Even outside of union activates, members of these working-class groups encouraged new thinking about working class and national identity, attempting to revise ideas about cultural inclusiveness.

Historians debate the value of women's study clubs. Some believe these clubs served a conservative function by diverting women from the political realities of their lives, while others believe the club movement provided women with an important first step toward political independence. Whatever their value to causes such as gaining the vote or labor organization, women in these clubs self-consciously worked to read and study "serious" works so that they could legitimate the time they spent away from their homes and family. Many may have joined clubs as a way to fill their leisure time, but their studies were hardly leisurely.

"One club, which exerts considerable effort to keep 'mental and social culture' as its sole aim by requiring attendance at all meetings and serving no refreshments, is nevertheless the most socially exclusive of all clubs. It has a strictly limited membership, meets during only seven months of the year at the conspicuously leisurely hours of nine to eleven in the morning, and allows no written papers, its purpose being 'to revive the lost art of conversation.'"

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown, p.296

While women's literary societies grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so did African American literary societies. African American reading groups grew out of the mutual improvement societies that free blacks formed in the 1770s. Throughout the early nineteenth century, these groups met to discuss literature and politics. Unlike other literary societies, these groups turned "reading" into community events by having the works for discussion read out loud so that even people who were illiterate could join discussion. Some African American societies were exclusively male or restricted to upper-class members. By the late nineteenth century, however, African American reading groups such as the Bethel Historical and Literary Association in Washington, D.C., and the Boston Literary and Historical Association had hundreds of people attending their meetings. Like women's literary societies, these groups focused on reading the established great authors. Nonetheless, they had a much more self-consciously political aim, including African American authors alongside Shakespeare and Scott and linking their reading practices to ideas about political and social inclusion. Members found that asserting their own sense of literary value developed their sense of social value.

The Critics and Middlebrow Reading

Although members of these literary societies devoted themselves to "the best" reading as genteel standards defined it, critics had little sympathy with their efforts to make themselves more cultured. Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, dismissed women's literary societies because the "undigested superficial knowledge" women gained was "worse than no knowledge at all." While Bok did not use the word, he was accusing these literary societies of what would come to be called middlebrow reading.

Middlebrow initially indicated what Van Wyck Brooks called the "genial middle ground" between highbrow and lowbrow, in other words, between serious art and mass-produced junk. However, critics of middlebrow condemned both its middleness and its geniality, seeing middlebrow culture as an attack on the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow culture. In the eyes of its critics, middlebrow championed shortcuts, promised that literary culture would provide access to cocktail party conversations, and valued superficial emotional identification with characters above the tough-minded truths highbrow modernists presented. Even worse, the purveyors of the middlebrow sold prepackaged culture, removing individual choice by relying on genteel experts. Its critics feared that middlebrow literature would ultimately standardize culture. These qualities, however, made middlebrow literature more available and more appealing to many readers.

While critics of middlebrow believed it marked the end of serious, noncommercial culture, the most important change that new, commercial middlebrow institutions such as the Book-of-the-Month-Club (BOMC) created was the shift from clubs that met for self-improvement toward clubs that never met. In the late nineteenth century, those literary societies that felt somewhat insecure about their own tastes could invest in a number of different commercially available programs. In 1878, for example, after successfully starting the Chautauqua movement, John Heyl Vincent created a set of readers and guides for study groups in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC). These guides were available by mail and encouraged recipients to read and study together. The BOMC, founded in 1926, on the other hand, sent books directly to subscribers' homes. Earlier literary societies formed libraries and reading rooms. The BOMC provided readers with their own private library. The social aspects of nineteenth-century literary societies became more diffuse, although there still appeared to be social advantages to subscribing to the BOMC. People who subscribed to the BOMC, or other book clubs such as Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf and the Literary Guild, responded to advertisements that promised social and career success as result of reading the books sent to their homes. BOMC advertisements also appealed to readers by asking "Why do you disappoint yourself?," promising buyers that they would achieve a sense of mastery and personal satisfaction from their reading.

During the 1940s and 1950s, while the BOMC continued to send recent good books to people's homes, the Great Books program returned people to study groups devoted to timeless classics. The great books program attempted to get people to read the classic works of Western Civilization as a way to develop their minds and better understand their lives. Mortimer Adler, who appropriated the idea from John Erskine, created several community seminars in the 1930s. In 1943, he launched his most successful effort, a Great Books seminar for business executives and their wives. The so-called "Fat Man's Great Books Class" allowed the university to demonstrate its value to businessmen and businessmen to demonstrate their allegiance to unchanging virtues amid the flux of the war and troubled postwar period. Eventually, the "Fat Man's" class expanded beyond Chicago and beyond wealthy businesspeople to professional and middle-class businesspeople. Throughout the 1940s, Adler combined the Great Books seminar with a publishing program, a series called The Great Books of the Western World, allowing people to acquire culture in their homes in much the same way the BOMC did.

Late-Twentieth-Century Revival of Literary Societies

In the twentieth century, sociologists and scholars have traced a decline in group-oriented activities in the United States. However, despite dire predictions, Great Books seminars, women's and African American's literary societies and the BOMC continue. In the later twentieth century, established literary societies took on new roles and new formats. Studies of these groups showed that they no longer stood in the place of a college education; in fact, many were college alumni associations. Members relied on these groups to maintain social distinctions and cultural capital developed in college but only occasionally used literary societies for career or social advancement. In addition, even as literary societies continued to read "the best" literature, members felt more power to criticize those taste judgments. Still for both men and women, literary societies appeared to be a way to expand what they saw as the narrow focus of their lives and come to a clearer understanding of themselves and their world.

The very changes in bookselling and technology that many feared would decrease reading actually increased the number of book clubs throughout the country. Although many feared the World Wide Web would focus reading away from traditional print books, the Web has also provided a location for readers to meet and interact. There are groups for readers of any kind of text, from groups devoted to discussion of the Bible and other sacred texts to groups devoted to Stephen King and Danielle Steel. Readers of highbrow texts, from William Blake to Thomas Pynchon, who are scattered across the world have created extremely active lists and through e-mail re-create communities that readers had in the nineteenth century. Chain stores, too, have provided new forums for book discussions. Many, especially Barnes and Noble, have a corporate policy of encouraging societies, providing members with books and places to meet. While getting people in the stores for groups and selling them the books is profitable, these stores also create clubs that cannot be restrictive in their membership.

Finally, specialty stores have provided meeting places for readers of genre fiction, particularly romances and mysteries. While traditional groups tend to focus on one text, these groups' discussions range across their favorite genre. Often members come to meetings with bags full of books to trade and share. Beyond their unusual discussion activities, these groups often read books in ways that revise the texts' apparent meanings. Despite what many highbrow readers think, Janice Radway, Elizabeth Long, and Erin Smith have shown romance reading and mystery reading may reveal a certain, tentative resistance to the apparent social messages of their texts and a reassessment of hierarchical taste judgments that devalue genre fiction.

Perhaps the most surprising new type of book club is Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, a "club" started in 1994 by talk show host Winfrey to promote reading through her television show and celebrity status. While some readers may have simply tuned into Winfrey's show to hear the book discussion, other readers participated in the club in more elaborate ways. Some readers discussed on Winfrey's Web site; others actually met one another and formed literary societies around Winfrey's choices. Despite initial selections such as Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Winfrey faced the same charges of superficiality, commercialization, and standardization that the BOMC faced. Winfrey has argued that she is democratizing literary culture by providing Americans with a new arbiter of culture, one who values the voices of women and African Americans. In April 2002, Oprah put her book club on hiatus and then in the summer of 2003 reconvened the book club with a new focus on literary classics.

"Winfrey's aesthetic system thus reflects neither the values and assumptions of a high culture aesthetic, nor a more popular aesthetic. Instead, she combines something we might call a "celebrity aesthetic," one that celebrates the good taste of the rich and famous, with an "aesthetic intimacy," one based upon trust in the recommendations of a close friend. Furthermore, Winfrey's success suggests that, if followed, her recommendations may make one similarly successful."

Hall, R. Mark "The 'Oprahfication' of Literacy: Reading 'Oprah's Book Club,'" p. 653.

Attitudes toward literary societies in the early twenty-first century remained similar to those of the eighteenth century. As a leisure activity, they reinforce American ideas that leisure should be "well spent." Literary societies offer social interaction, mental development, and cultural status.

See also: Books and Manuscripts, Genre Reading, Men's Magazines, Rational Recreation and Self-Improvement, Women's Magazines


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Catherine Turner

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Literary Societies and Middlebrow Reading

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