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The Making of Middlebrow Culture.

The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Joan Shelley Rubin. North Carolina, $34.95 hardcover $14.95 paperback. Who has had a greater influence on you-the Emily Bronte heroine Cathy or the cartoon character Cathy? Bertrand Russell or Nipsy Russell? Rimbaud or Rambo? Victorian novelist Mrs. Gaskell or Mrs. Paul?

Which brow is yours: high? middle? upper-middle with an overdeveloped sense of irony about the low? It is increasingly difficult for people to tell: Chief among the repercussions of postmodernism and its tendency to subsume pop culture into the high arts has been the blurring of distinctions between the various gradations of cultural sophistication. In years past, these distinctions were easily made. Critics and historians have categorized American culture of the first half of this century as being either the highbrow output of the modernists, expatriates, and writers for "little magazines," or the lowbrow offerings of the worlds of movies, sports, and amusement parks. Of those few critics who have applied their powers of observation to the period's cultural middle ground-Virginia Woolf, Clement Greenberg, and Dwight Macdonald, among others- most have vilified it as an example of consumerism vanquishing substance. Macdonald, whose 1960 Partisan Review article "Masscult and Midcult" is the best-known critique of middlebrow culture, asserted that "midcult" is more detrimental to society than mass culture: "It pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them."

This quasi-scholarly book, written by an associate professor of American studies and history at the State University of New York at Brockport, is an illuminating and provocative rebuttal to Macdonald and other middlebrow-bashers. Tracing the history and development of five cultural institutions and phenomena that achieved prominence during the twenties, thirties, and forties-the New York Herald Tribune's book-review section; book clubs, including the Book-of-the-Month Club; "great books" programs; outline volumes as exemplified by Will and Axiel Durant's The Story of Civilization; and literary radio programming-Rubin redresses the disregard and oversimplification that she feels have been dealt to interwar efforts to make literature available to a wide reading public.

Essential to Rubin's study is Matthew Arnold's definition of culture as "the best that has been thought and said in the world." As she introduces us to the men and women at the helms of her five institutions, she takes pains to assess whether they uphold Arnold's genteel aesthetic. Her book suggests that, even when the organizers of the five phenomena were shining examples of the Arnoldian tradition, their efforts ultimately resulted in the lowering of high culture into middlebrow, of character into personality, of art into commerce.

According to Rubin, the agents of intellectual attrition varied. Stuart Sherman, the editor of the Herald Tribune's supplement, Books," allowed his "unanalyzed prejudices" and "intuitions" to supplant his moral rigor. He also moved away from Amoldian critical practice by deciding that current books should not be compared with older works-a decision which meshed with the sensibility of a publication whose coverage of books usually took the form of "news" instead of "criticism." In the case of "great books" promulgator John Erskine, Rubin intimates that the Columbia professor's very program (a selection of classic texts) was not conducive to edification: "By substituting information for aesthetics, [he] once again increased the temptation to regard culture as commodity." Erskine's more obvious form of pandering was his translation of classical plots into modern language-a technique he later put to use in the novel The Private Life of Helen of Troy. Rubin's writing is careful and clear. Although she has the unfortunate habit of offering so many counter-arguments that they undermine the strength of her original thesis, this predilection does not keep The Making of Middlebrow Culture from being a thoughtful and accomplished treatment of a timely topic. Indeed, the book will be especially rewarding for those interested in the process of canon formation. Although the purveyors of interwar middlebrow culture that Rubin touches upon-the aforementioned, as well as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mortimer Adler, Alexander Woollcott, and Mark Van Doren-are, as Rubin notes, victims" of canon formation, they can also be seen as canonizers themselves. The elitist tenor of the Arnoldian outlook was often at odds with the idea of bringing the high arts to the masses; Rubin deftly chronicles the particular set of tensions that arise at the intersection of literary endeavor and the marketplace. She also provides specific examples of how the upholders of the genteel aesthetic failed to embrace modernism.

Rubin argues that middlebrow culture has today met its demise and offers several reasons why. In addition to tracing the gradual development of America's search for self-realization through consumption-it was no surprise, she writes, that "students in `charm and glamor courses' were among the groups most receptive to the [Book-of-the-Month Club's] initial mail-order campaign"-Rubin also points to television's heightening of our preoccupation with celebrities and to its devaluation of the idea that knowledge requires patient, disciplined study. Rubin concludes her book by limning the irony inherent in Mark Van Doren's son, Charles, having achieved great notoriety in 1957 by memorizing the answers to questions on the TV quiz show "TwentyOne." "The son of a man who, to a great extent, perpetuated gentility, Van Doren captured the admiration of the public by exhibiting the mastery of information, earning money, and redefining culture as performance." Rubin's portrait of the young Van Doren poignantly captures the demise of the genteel tradition itself; she concludes he was "less dishonest than lost-an uneasy, floundering figure whose outward resemblance to an Emersonian man of letters concealed his inability to sustain that tradition in post-World War II America."

-Henry Alford
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Author:Alford, Henry
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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