The Chronicle Review

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor

Dave Plunkert

October 05, 2009

Back in the 70s, when I was a kid, I used to run to the television—there was only one in the house in those days—whenever I heard the opening notes of the "Fanfare-Rondeau" by the French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret. As the music played, the camera panned over objects that might be found in the drawing room of an English country manor: old books, sepia photos in silver frames, musical instruments, fountain pens, a long-necked decanter, some Roman coins, a model ship of the line, and a clutch of medals from the Great War. As the music concluded, the camera came to rest on a large, leatherbound volume with marbled endpapers. On the frontispiece was Masterpiece Theatre, Introduced by Alistair Cooke.

I was still too young to appreciate Upstairs, Downstairs, but there was something about the introduction to that program that expressed the feelings of cultural aspiration that permeated my childhood (and perhaps a touch of postcolonial complex). Neither of my parents went to college. My father repaired sewing machines, and my mother sometimes worked as a typesetter. We lived in a working-class, row-house neighborhood in Philadelphia where nearly everyone was some kind of sports fan. But our family outings were almost always educational in some way: museums (Academy of Natural Sciences, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Museum of Art); historic sites (Independence Hall, Franklin Court); libraries; and free concerts (at the Robin Hood Dell, as I recall). We read The Philadelphia Inquirer and Time magazine (not the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News), and—in addition to Masterpiece Theatre—we watched every PBS documentary series on science and culture, including The Ascent of Man, Cosmos, Life on Earth, and the granddaddy of them all, Civilisation, with Lord Kenneth Clark.

Those experiences with my family marked me as different from most of the other kids, but in some ways I was proud to be different. I thought of myself as destined for great things, like college, even if I had only a vague idea what that involved. I wanted to be seen reading instead of playing. Teachers and other adults praised me, as if I was some kind of prodigy. It wasn't until I arrived in graduate school that I learned there were people who took the intellectual life for granted—who didn't think reading was praiseworthy in itself—and who looked down on the striver's culture from which I emerged as "middlebrow."

"If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me 'middlebrow,'" wrote Virginia Woolf in an unsent letter to the editor of The New Statesman, "I will take my pen and stab him, dead." Woolf claimed to love "lowbrows"; "I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like—being a conductor." But middlebrows, she wrote, "are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality." Middlebrow culture was a "mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly."

Unlike the independent highbrows and unself-conscious lowbrows, middlebrows, it seems, are so invested in "getting on in life" that they do not really like anything unless it has been approved by their betters. For Woolf and her heirs, middlebrows are inauthentic, meretricious bounders, slaves to fashion and propriety, aping a culture they cannot understand; they are the prototypes of Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC program Keeping Up Appearances, who answers her "pearl-white, slim-line, push-button telephone" with "The Bouquet residence, the lady of the house speaking."

Of course, the only acceptable lowbrows are the ones who know their place, who have no aspirations to anything better, such as Hyacinth's unpretentious sister, Daisy, and her unemployed husband, Onslow, the sort of bloke who attends football matches wearing a cap that holds two cans of beer.

As the Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes argued in his 1949 essay "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," the ideal world for Woolf is a caste system in which billions of bovine proles produce the raw materials for a coterie of sensitive, highbrow ectomorphs who spring fully formed from the head of Sir Leslie Stephen. At the very least, lowbrows with upward aspirations should have the courtesy to keep themselves out of sight until they complete their passage through the awkward age of the middlebrow.

In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."

Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.

"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.

Eventually all of those beloved volumes were boxed, hidden in a closet, and replaced by hundreds of university-press monographs on literary and cultural criticism—mostly secondhand—along with ever larger piles of mostly unreadable scholarly journals. Of course, such acquisitions only affirmed my middlebrow-status anxiety, since so many of them were motivated by what I thought other people thought, rather than by my own interests.

My recollections of that experience were prompted by a recent book by Alex Beam: A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (Public Affairs, 2008). With a healthy dose of mockery for his subject, Beam recounts the inception, production, and reception of those maligned volumes up to the present time. (His project expands a chapter from the more scholarly work of Joan Shelley Rubin in The Making of Middlebrow Culture, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1992, which, in turn, extends the chronology of Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, published by Harvard University Press in 1988.)

The brainchild of the philosopher Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, the Great Books—originally published in 1952—gained prominence in the context of the GI Bill and the post-Sputnik emphasis on intellectual competition. Perhaps more notably, it was an era of rapid social mobility, when many of those in the newly middle class were insecure about their lack of education. "The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent," declared one advertisement for the series, and door-to-door salesmen gained entry by posing as assistant professors offering the Great Books as a public service. Something like 50,000 sets were sold—typically on installment plans—before 1961. The Great Books were expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education.

There was something awe-inspiring about that series for me, even if I acquired it a generation late. The Great Books seemed so serious. They had small type printed in two columns; there were no annotations, no concessions to the beginner. They emphasized classical writers: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, like Galen and Marcus Aurelius, who are still remembered but rarely read. Their readings also included Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Gibbon, Mill, and Melville; the series functioned like a reference collection of influential texts. I'd hear someone say, "I think, therefore I am," find out that it came from Descartes, and then I'd read the first few chapters of his Meditations on First Philosophy.

The Great Books gave me a realization in my teens that was something like what Jack London described in his fictionalized autobiography, Martin Eden: "He had never dreamed that the fund of human knowledge bulked so big. He was frightened. How could his brain ever master it all? Later, he remembered that there were other men, many men, who had mastered it; and he breathed a great oath, passionately, under his breath, swearing that his brain could do what theirs had done."

But actually reading all of the Great Books was impossible; it could be undertaken only as a stunt, like the one described by Ammon Shea in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Penguin Group, 2008). A few times I made schedules, like those of Benjamin Franklin and Jay Gatsby, that included daily readings (alongside regimes of diet and exercise). Like many owners of that series, my intentions were good, but I can't say I had much success at joining "the Great Conversation." I could only listen, like a seminar participant intimidated into silence.

On the other hand, I did enjoy touring the circles of hell with Dante; I chased the White Whale with Ahab, and I enjoyed reading aloud Shakespeare's soliloquies, imitating the accents of the BBC performers (I can still do Derek Jacobi). I also found Freud just in time to psychoanalyze my adolescence; and I eventually began to upset my teachers at the Father Judge Catholic High School for Boys by quoting from Nietzsche in my classes on religion.

I am sure most academics would approve of my subversive impulses as a teenager, but there was a reason that you could buy the Great Books for $10 by that time. The whole notion of a stable canon of books had gone out of fashion, and not even recently: Writers such as Dwight MacDonald had been mocking the Great Books since they first appeared. As Beam observes, "The Great Books were synonymous with boosterism, Babbittry, and H.L. Mencken's benighted boobocracy." Display them in your living room, and you might as well put plastic covers on the colonial couch beneath your reproduction Grandma Moses with the copy of The Power of Positive Thinking on your coffee table. Great Books, Beam writes, "were everything that was wrong, unchic and middlebrow about middle America."

As Paul Fussell wrote in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, "It is in the middle-class dwelling that you're likely to spot the 54-volume set of the Great Books, together with the half-witted two-volume Syntopicon, because the middles, the great audience for how-to books, believe in authorities."

By the end of the 1980s—when I was an undergraduate—it had become clear to seemingly everyone in authority that the notion of "Greatness" was a tool of illegitimate power; Adler and Hutchins were racist and sexist in their choices of texts; their valorization of the "Western World" made them complicit with imperialism and worse. "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education," said Hutchins. "Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind."

"Dead white men" like Adler (though he was, in reality, an urban ethnic striver, like me, who had the misfortune to still be alive) remained committed to Matthew Arnold's vision of culture as "the best that has been thought and known in the world." The Syntopicon—an anthology of writings on themes such as "Fate" and "Pain"—had exactly 102 topics, and his list of "Greats" was nonnegotiable. "This is the canon, and it's not revisable," Adler said, making himself into a straw man for the culture warriors of the 80s and 90s.

Beam makes light of Adler's inflexibility, but he does not entirely embrace the by-now clichéd disdain for the Great Books, because they represent something admirable that, perhaps, should be revived in our culture: "The animating idea behind publishing the Great Books, aside from making money for Britannica and the University of Chicago," Beam observes, "was populism, not elitism." The books were household gods. They shared the living room with the television, and they made you feel guilty for being intellectually passive, for not taking control of your own mental development, for putting democracy at risk. "And thousands of copies, perhaps tens of thousands, were actually read, and had an enormous impact on the lives of the men, women, and children who read them."

As David Brooks has observed in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2000), middlebrow culture "seems a little dull and pretentious but well intentioned, and certainly better than some of the proudly illiterate culture that has taken its place." "Masscult" has triumphed over "midcult," coinages of Dwight MacDonald in a 1962 essay, and hardly anyone feels guilty about being entertained all the time.

The most comprehensive recent analysis of the cultural turn is Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008). In one chapter, Jacoby remembers the 1950s as a brief moment of intellectual aspiration among many Americans: "I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude, and regret rather than condescension," she writes, "not because the Book-of-the-Month Club brought works of genius into my life, but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers encouraged me to seek a wider world."

The Great Books—along with all those Time-Life series—were often "purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing," Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief—now endangered—that "anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself."

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of "greatness" than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual.

As Beam concludes, "The Great Books are dead. Long live the Great Books." And, I might add: Long live middlebrow culture.

W.A. Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College.