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Lynes, (Joseph) Russell, Jr.

Lynes, (Joseph) Russell, Jr.

(b. 2 December 1910 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; d. 14 September 1991 in New York City), longtime editor of Harper’s magazine, noted authority on cultural taste, and social historian.

Lynes was born to Joseph Russell Lynes, an Episcopal clergyman, and Adelaide Sparkman, a homemaker, in the rectory of St. James’s Church in Great Barrington. He attended public schools in his hometown and in Jersey City, New Jersey, before entering the Cathedral Choir School in New York City in 1920. In 1925 he enrolled at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1928. He then entered Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, and earned a bachelor of arts in English in 1932.

For four years following his graduation from Yale, Lynes worked as a clerk at the publishing agency Harper and Brothers. On 30 May 1934 he wed Mildred Akin, and they subsequently had two children. In 1936 Lynes moved from his office in Manhattan up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie, New York, to take a position as the director of publications at Vassar College, at that time an all-female institution. A year later he and his wife moved from Poughkeepsie to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to become assistant principals of the Shipley School, a boarding school for girls. Beginning in 1940 the couple shared duties as principals of that institution. During his four-year tenure at Shipley, Lynes also served from 1942 through 1944 as an assistant chief of the civilian training branch of the U.S. Army Services Forces in the War Department.

In 1944 Lynes moved back to Manhattan and joined Harper’s magazine as an assistant editor. By 1947 he was a managing editor, a post he held until 1967, when he became a contributing editor. From 1947 through 1957 Lynes published more than 100 essays in a variety of popular and scholarly journals on topics ranging from art and museums to architecture and cultural taste. Yet no other piece gained him more attention than “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” published in Harper’s in February 1949.

In that article Lynes argued that social status and economic power no longer determined a person’s “taste,” defined as the strange distinction separating those who know good “culture” from those who do not. While the article was widely read, a firestorm of discussion erupted two months later following a reprint of Lynes’s argument as a cartoonish chart in Life magazine. In either form Lynes suggested that Americans could be grouped according to their tastes in art, music, dress, drink, and general cultural preferences. This was a unique piece of commentary because never before had so prominent a critic defined so starkly the cultural distinctions of such a wide audience. At the time and years later Lynes explained that he was “just poking fun at intellectual pretensions.” Indeed he illustrated that judging people on their appearances rather than their intelligence was ridiculous. Yet his article and the chart that followed seemed to backfire. It became popular to categorize oneself and everyone else by Lynes’s pithy labels.

In 1954 Harper Brothers published Lynes’s first serious attempt at cultural history, a book entitled The Tastemakers. While the volume included Lynes’s infamous essay, it also took a long-term view of changes in popular taste from the period immediately following the Civil War to contemporary times. The book received favorable reviews, giving Lynes scholarly respectability and making him a pioneer in the fields of cultural studies and popular culture.

Lynes published a number of books that illustrated his rhetorical flair for diminishing the stature of the wealthy but tasteless. Earlier works such as Snobs: A Guidebook to Your Friends, Your Enemies, Your Colleagues, and Yourself (1950), Guests: Or, How to Survive Hospitality (1951), and Confessions of a Dilettante (1966) took brief and humorous looks at people for whom image was everything and substance was trivial. He returned to the theme of social observation in his last book, Life in the Slow Lane: Observations on Art, Architecture, Manners, and Other Such Spectator Sports (1991). As the title suggests, Lynes had an interest in matters beyond merely critiquing his neighbors. He was a Renaissance man, whose writing style and varied interests helped shape Harper’s magazine into an intelligent, mainstream periodical that enjoyed great prominence in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Lynes also became a noteworthy expert on the history of American art museums. In Good Old Modern (1973), he chronicled the origins and early history of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The book remains one of the best volumes on the personalities and dynamics of the museum’s founding and development. Lynes had the distinct honor of being the only nonacademic asked to contribute to The Lively Audience: A Social History of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, 1890-1950 (1985), a series of scholarly monographs on American culture. His reputation as an intelligent critic with broad expertise in the American arts was further advanced in The Art-Makers: An Informal History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America (1982) and More Than Meets the Eye: The History and Collections of Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design (1981).

Lynes died of heart failure in New York City. Known as the “dean of social sciences at the house of Harper” and characterized as “the maestro of an unpretentious brand of social commentary which is civilized and stimulating,” Lynes wrote as an expert for the educated public. He emerged as a popular critic in an era that fell between a period dominated by the “custodians of culture,” as historian Henry May called them, and the self-imposed obscurity of deconstructionist and postmodernist critics of a later era. Lynes appeared on a number of television shows to speak about American art and culture, and for many years he also contributed regular columns, “Russell Lynes Observes” in Architectural Digest,The State of Taste” in Art in America, and “After Hours” in Harper’s.

Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds a collection of Lynes’s papers. Lynes’s books Confessions of a Dilettante (1966) and Life in the Slow Lane (1991) are good collections of essays from the many periodicals that published his work J. Brooks, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Now,” American Heritage (June/July 1983), is an interview with Lynes. An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Sept. 1991).

Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.

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