Introduction: Inventing the Middlebrow

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This cluster of essays exemplifies and expands on a growing scholarly interest in middlebrow culture"'middlebrow studies,' as I think we can perhaps call it now," Erica Brown, outgoing administrator of the scholarly community the Middlebrow Network, wrote last year. An anecdotal mark of this growth: we no longer feel, as we once did, that a gloss on the term middlebrow is a vital component of any piece of writing on it (although readers looking for one might consult the opening paragraphs of either Beth Driscoll's or Anna Creadick's essays). In the twenty-six years between 1982 and 2008, eighteen scholarly monographs with the word "middlebrow" in the title were published; by contrast, in the six years from 2009 to 2016, at least twenty-four such volumes have either been published or are in production, with seven in 2015 alone.1 The 2014 "Inventing the Middlebrow" conference at St. Catherine University, from which these essays arose, was the first US meeting to focus entirely on middlebrow culture. Why this recent groundswell? What is at stake in this project?

Middlebrow literature and culture are generally understood as white, middle-class, and conservative in their values, and the legitimacy that scholarly interest might implicitly confer on them stands at odds with what have been the priorities of the humanities. If scholarly analysis is, among other things, legitimation, then it has justifiably seemed more urgent in recent decades to demonstrate the complexity, coherence, and value of artifacts produced by radical and marginalized populations than those of middlebrow writers and readers who not only inhabit but also often champion an oppressive normativity. In addition, we wonder whether studying the middlebrow has historically threatened to reveal the scholar as middlebrow, and thus abject, him- or herself. As a 1949 Broadway tune had it, "a Ph.D. degree" is as sure a hallmark of the middlebrow as a "Manhattan with a cherry in the glass" and who wants to admit that The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, c'est moi?2

So what has changed? Does interest in the middlebrow signal a conservative turn in the humanities? Not necessarily. Many scholars of the middlebrow implicitly or explicitly abide by a cultural-studies rationale for the study of conservative cultural productions, the claim (here articulated in Janice Radway's influential account) that "each form's particular conservatism also appears to be a response to specific material changes posing a threat to the social structure's legitimating belief system." Hence, analyzing conservative culture can "serve as evidence of germinating change in cultural attitudes and beliefs."3 In Radway's view, the middlebrow form of the Gothic romance, for example, while conservative in its heteronormativity, nevertheless reveals the depth and power of middle-class women's desires for individual agency and sexual fulfillment during the 1960s.

Perhaps, too, as Lauren Berlant writes, the era in which humanities scholars "make transgression and resistance the values against which [their] data were measured" is giving way to one that seeks to analyze what binds subjects to normative values.4 Berlant has coined the now-widely circulated phrase "cruel optimism" to describe this attachment.5 Similar projects with a focus on ordinariness and compromise abound. Kathleen Stewart's work on "ordinary affects," Robyn Wiegman's on contemporary feminism's "failed romance" with the utopian possibilities of femininity, Sianne Ngai's study of the "interesting" as one of "our aesthetic categories," and Amanda Anderson's project on "bleak liberalism" are just a few examples,6 as was Erin Smith's examination of Vera Caspary and the middlebrow mystery novel at the St. Catherine conference.7 Perhaps the study of the middlebrow has been lifted by the rising tide of this same critical shift.

Scholars also focus on the middlebrow as a means of broadening our understanding of literary history; Julie Enszer, at "Inventing the Middlebrow," for instance, presented a paper reconciling Rita Mae Brown, radical lesbian activist and author of the queer bildungsroman Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), with Rita Mae Brown, creator of the Mrs. Murphy series of cozy mysteries, which she coauthored with her cat.8 Tom Perrin argued that our histories of the novel should take into account the persistence of realist literary aesthetics, via middlebrow fiction, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.9 Jaime Harker highlighted the small press Daughters, Inc. for its intersections among lesbian pulp, feminine middlebrow and the feminist avant-garde.10

Here we inquire specifically into what we learn when we locate the middlebrow in the Post45 period. The term middlebrow was coined in the United Kingdom during the 1920s, and circulated most widely there during that decade's Battle of the Brows, a public-intellectual spat featuring Queenie Leavis, Virginia Woolf, and others. In her classic 1992 monograph Joan Shelley Rubin argues that middlebrow culture evolved from late-Victorian "self-culture," an Arnoldian project of self-improvement via immersion in the best that has been thought and said, and had its locus classicus between 1920 and 1950.11 We find a similar periodization in many earlier scholarly texts on the middlebrow, from Radway's A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (1997) to Harker's America the Middlebrow: Women's Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars (2007) to Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith's edited collection Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s (2003), all situated between World Wars I and II. Why examine it, then, after World War II, and what happens to it if we do?

Certainly focusing on the postwar years in the US context is justifiable. Unlike in the UK, the term middlebrow circulated most widely in the US not before but after WWII. At that point, we might say it went viral: "The thing was all over the place suddenly," Russell Lynes, author of the well-known article "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow" (1949), remembered in 1983.12 The word "middlebrow" first appeared in the New York Times in 1926, but it appeared only seven times before 1945, and more than half of those appearances referred to the UK. By contrast, between 1945 and 1960, it appeared on at least sixty-one occasions.13 The term also circulated in popular magazines like Harper's and LIFE (which published Lynes's famous chart that sorted everything from salads to ashtrays according to the owner's brow height); Touch and Go, a 1949 Broadway revue, featured a song about "Middle Brow" taste (which we quoted above); and a dance performance at Vassar in 1950, entitled "Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow."14 All of the best-remembered critical discussions of the middlebrow in the US date from the mid-century: not only Lynes's work, but also Dwight Macdonald's "Masscult and Midcult" (1960), Philip Roth's "Writing American Fiction" (1961), Partisan Review's "The State of American Writing" (1948), William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), and others.15

In this cluster of essays we explore what effect such periodization has on the concept of middlebrow itself. First, it situates the middlebrow more firmly as, in Birte Christ's terms, "modernism's Other." Indeed, as Perrin argues, "[s]cenes of opposition between modernism and the middlebrow....are characteristic, even defining, features of middlebrow novels" of the postwar period.16 High modernism, as the hegemon of the postwar cultural field, defined itself in part in opposition to what modernist authors characterized as the naïve, bestselling, realist cultural products of the middlebrow; middlebrow authors, by contrast, defined themselves in the opposite direction, against the empty rebellion and vacuous radicalism they saw in modernism.17 The British Battle of the Brows took place just as modernism was being negotiated as high culture, and a similar battle took place in the US during the forties and fifties, when what Raymond Williams calls a "canoniz[ation]" of modernism was underway.18

Second, shifting the locus of periodization produces an idea of the middlebrow that coheres under pressure from the outside. As Creadick suggests in her essay for this collection, the term middlebrow "took hold" only after its meaning had settled as pejorative. Rubin has suggested something similar: the hegemony of the genteel tradition and of self-culture contributed to "the making of middlebrow culture"; but perhaps the term middlebrow required definition (and thus came widely into circulation) only when its dominance was challenged, when the optimistic individualism and reverence for a stable cultural canon ran up against the bleaker mood of the postwar years.19 Creadick and others link the emergence of middlebrow as a pejorative term to burgeoning midcentury critiques of normality rooted in anxiety about communism, fascism, and authoritarian government in the US, as well as to disillusionment with the potential of the individual following the mass destruction of the war.20

However, a third task this cluster paradoxically accomplishes is to demonstrate the persistence of the middlebrow outside such conditions. Beth Driscoll's Wittgenstinian account of a "family resemblance" among middlebrow artifacts provides a way to discuss the middlebrow outside narrow historical and conceptual definitions. Scholars of the middlebrow sometimes get caught in a false dichotomy of imagining the middlebrow either as an aesthetic so that, for instance, domestic realist fiction would always be middlebrow, whenever it was written or as a position in the cultural field that could be filled by any work of art, depending on the cultural politics of the time so that, for Russell Lynes, Whistler's portrait of his mother was highbrow in the late nineteenth century, middlebrow between 1910 and 1930, and lowbrow from 1940 to 1950.21 Driscoll's account allows us to be bound to neither flawed point of view. Likewise, Christ's essay demonstrates the persistence of middlebrow aesthetics in postmodernist fiction, despite the temptation to imagine that postmodernism's destruction of middlebrow prohibitions against the miscegenation of high and low cultural forms did away with the notion of the middlebrow itself.

Finally, this cluster aims to capture the spirit of the conference that inspired it, a formative gathering of thirty scholars from the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and Germany in St. Paul, Minnesota, immersed in "Inventing the Middlebrow." In a final interactive session, "Mapping the Middlebrow," these scholars attempted to construct a tentative "canon of the middlebrow" and repeatedly ran up against a similar set of oppositional discourses underpinning our inquires. Is the middlebrow "a set of reading practices" or "a characteristic of certain texts"? Is it "a series of cultural modalities," a "set of institutions" such as Book of the Month Club, or is it a "literary category deeply inflected by race and gender"? Is it, as Harker argued, "a way of destabilizing hierarchies" and "fuzzing up distinctions," a dangerous classification that undermines systems of power, or is it a comfortable cushion at the boundaries of the highbrow, marking easily "who belongs and who doesn't"? Is it a "useful distinguishing term" or a vain attempt to identify what we only "know when we see it"?22 If middlebrow is a textual characteristic, presenters with a literary bent queried, what distinguishes these texts: identification or affinity (Yung-Hsing Wu), aspiration (Lisa Walker), utility (Amy Blair), readability (Anna Bogen), absorption (Cecilia Konchar Farr), seductiveness (Erin Smith), affect (Nancy Glazener), popularity (Anna Creadick), earnestness (Susan Tomlinson), realism (Janet Casey), commerce (Vanessa Künnemann), mass consumption (Beth Driscoll), therapeutic functions (Kate Guthrie), or textual pleasure (Julie Enszer)?23

The essays that follow begin with Anna Creadick's "Gendered Terrain: Middlebrow Authorship at Midcentury," which offers case studies of two major middlebrow texts, James Jones's World War II novel From Here to Eternity (1951) and Grace Metalious's small-town exposé Peyton Place (1956). Creadick argues that the midcentury discourse of gender set what turn out to be remarkably similar novels on radically different courses: Jones's toward upper-middlebrow respectability and Metalious's toward trashy pulpdom. In addition, Creadick offers a valuable analysis of the relationship between middlebrow culture and the term middlebrow, demonstrating that the term itself began to circulate widely in the US only after the normative culture to which it referred began to be regarded with suspicion.

Birte Christ's "The Aesthetics of Accessiblity: John Irving and the Middlebrow Novel After 1975" argues, through an analysis of Irving's 1976 novel The World According to Garp, that middlebrow aesthetics did not die out with the advent of postmodernism, but rather continued to flourish during the US in the 1970s. For Irving and authors like him, Christ suggests, postmodern skepticism was not the radical philosophical intervention it was for poststructuralist philosophy, but was rather a "soft touch," adding a soupçon of "jouissance" to a middlebrow "sentimental didacticism" it did not subvert. Thus, Christ gestures toward a missing link in the history of middlebrow literature between the midcentury period and what Driscoll has termed "the new literary middlebrow" of recent decades.

Beth Driscoll, in the "Middlebrow Family Resemblance: Eight Features of the Historical and Contemporary Middlebrow," masterfully surveys the available scholarship on the middlebrow in order to understand "the large middle space where most cultural activity takes place." Using Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblance as a frame, she highlights eight key features of the middlebrow, both contemporary and historical, all the while providing a thorough and insightful introduction to the concerns of the field.

If the middlebrow is difficult to pin down, if the texts are a challenge to characterize, if the term middlebrow begins to circulate widely only when middlebrow culture is no longer normative, the essays gathered here, as well as the two days of engaging presentations at the "Inventing the Middlebrow" conference, show the remarkable persistence of the idea of middlebrow culture, across national and temporal boundaries, after its time might seem to have passed. Perhaps most importantly, this cluster demonstrates the breadth and utility of what at first glance might appear a minor term, but is in fact a term that provides an ongoing provocation for scholars of postwar literature and culture.

Tom Perrin is assistant professor of English at Huntingdon College. He
is the author of The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction (New York:
Palgrave, 2015). His essays have appeared in American Literature,
Novel, the Times Literary Supplement, Public Books, and elsewhere. He
is an affiliate of Post45.

Cecilia Konchar Farr is Professor of English and Women's Studies, Chair of English, and a Carondelet Scholar in the Women's College at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her most recent book is The Ulysses Delusion: Rethinking Standards of Literary Merit (Palgrave, 2016).

In this Cluster:

Birte Christ, "The Aesthetics of Accessibility: John Irving and the Middlebrow Novel after 1975"

Anna Creadick, "Gendered Terrain: Middlebrow Authorship at Midcentury"

Beth Driscoll, "The Middlebrow Family Resemblance: Features of the Historical and Contemporary Middlebrow"

 

 

 

  1. These results are taken from a search for books with the word "middlebrow" in their title, made through WorldCat.org. []
  2. Jay Gorney, Ethel Kerr, and Walter Kerr, "High Brow, Middle Brow, Low Brow" from Touch and Go, 1949, T-Mss 1994-002, box 7, folder 3, New York Public Library, New York. []
  3. Janice Radway, "The Utopian Impulse in Popular Literature: Gothic Romances and 'Feminist' Protest," American Quarterly 33.2 (Summer 1981): 161. []
  4. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 24. []
  5. See Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). []
  6. See Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Robyn Wiegman, "The Ends of New Americanism," Summer Institute on the Futures of American Studies, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, June 2010; Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); and Amanda Anderson, "Bleak Liberalism and the Realism/Modernism Debate" (conference paper, "Post45," University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, November 16, 2013). []
  7. Erin A. Smith, "Mapping the Middlebrow in Mystery: The Case of Vera Caspary" (conference paper, "Inventing the Middlebrow," St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, 27 June 2014). []
  8. Julie R. Enzser, "From Radical, Lesbian-Feminist Chanteuse to Popular Mystery Writer: Rita Mae Brown and the Making of a Middlebrow Author" (conference paper, "Inventing the Middlebrow," St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, June 27, 2014). []
  9. Tom Perrin, The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction: Popular US Novels, Modernism, and Form, 1945-75 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). []
  10. Jaime Harker, "Daughters, Inc.: The Feminist Avant Garde, Lesbian Pulp, and Feminist Middlebrow" (conference paper, "Inventing the Middlebrow," St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, June 27, 2014). []
  11. Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 1. []
  12. Russell Lynes, "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Now," American Heritage 34.4 (1983). []
  13. s.v. "middlebrow," ProQuest Historical Newspapers, accessed May 5, 2011. (We searched the term "middlebrow" using the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.) []
  14. For reference to the dance performance see John Martin, "The Dance: A Quartet," New York Times, June 11, 1950, 101. []
  15. For the Partisan Review symposium, see John Berryman, et al. "The State of American Writing: 1948: A Symposium." Partisan Review 15.8 (1948): 855-93. []
  16. Perrin, Aesthetics, 1. []
  17. Ibid, 71-89. []
  18. Raymond Williams, "When Was Modernism?" New Left Review, 1st ser., 175 (May-Jun. 1989): 51. []
  19. Rubin suggested this during a Q&A at "Inventing the Middlebrow." []
  20. See Anna Creadick, Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press), 201, and Perrin, Aesthetics. []
  21. Russell Lynes, The Tastemakers (New York: Harper, 1954), 328-9. []
  22. "Mapping the Middlebrow" (discussion session, "Inventing the Middlebrow," St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, June 28, 2014.) Quotation marks are included around phrases drawn from a transcript of the final session, where individual voices were difficult to identify in the rapid-fire exchanges and overlapping discourses that exemplified this lively session.  These terms are culled from Professor Konchar Farr's notes and from the extraordinary attentiveness and thorough documentation of Nusaiba Imady, the undergraduate research assistant for the conference. Many thanks to Nusaiba for her work. []
  23. Ibid. []