The Magazine

When Books Were Great

Furrowing the American middlebrow.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A Great Idea at the Time

The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

by Alex Beam

Public Affairs, 256 pp., $24.95

The death of reading has been much in the news lately, and so Alex Beam's new book, a rollicking tour of the Great Books movement that flourished in the United States in the 1940s and '50s, is timely indeed. Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, is a beguiling guide. With fluid prose and (thank goodness) a sense of humor about the terrifying earnestness that often permeated the Great Books enterprise, he gives the movement the respect it deserves but does not avoid pointing out its excesses and missteps.

We meet people like John Erskine, the grandfather of the Great Books movement and a "gentleman of the old school," as Beam describes him. Erskine believed a great book was one that "has meaning, and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time," and he was responsible for creating Columbia's core curriculum program in the 1910s, which introduced students to Thucydides, Herodotus, and Montaigne, among others, and a version of which is still part of the university's requirement for undergraduates.

Beam also offers an intriguing portrait of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the debonair Yale Law School dean who, after becoming president of the University of Chicago, introduced a Great Books seminar in the 1930s. The seminar, which eventually drew students such as future Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and future critic Susan Sontag, engaged students in Socratic-style questioning about Plato, Aristotle, and other great authors of the Western canon, and drew nationwide attention for its novel approach to classic texts.

Hutchins also brought his "Hobbit-like sidekick," Mortimer Adler, with him to Chicago. Adler, whose abrasiveness was matched only by his overweening ego--Beam calls him an "unholy pain in the neck"--was the Great Books program's slightly wacky, energetic force of intellectual hucksterism. Forever annoying his colleagues (when he was a graduate student at Columbia he once so infuriated John Dewey with his intemperate remarks that the normally mild-mannered Dewey stomped out of the room), he pursued the Great Books project with vaudevillian zeal for the rest of his life.

As Beam describes, the Great Books movement was part of a broader flowering of middlebrow culture in the 1950s, which included new popular literary magazines, the wildly successful Book-of-the-Month Club, and the sprawling, popular histories of Will and Ariel Durant. With the help and business acumen of advertising mogul William Benton---who bears the ignominious distinction of crafting slogans such as "Colgate toothpaste freshens your mouth!"--Hutchins and Adler convinced the University of Chicago and the financially ailing Encyclopedia Britannica to publish the massive Great Books of the Western World.

By the 1950s, approximately 3,000 Great Books discussion groups were meeting regularly throughout the country, prompting the Ladies' Home Journal to declare that the movement was "spreading faster than Alcoholics Anonymous." The University of Chicago and Britannica hosted a gala launch of a "buckram-bound Founders' Edition" of the Great Books at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1952, and supporters did not stint in their praise of the achievement.

One speaker declared the project "the most significant publishing event since Dr. Johnson's dictionary."

As Beam notes, much of the success of the Great Books in the 1950s was the result not only of a flourishing middlebrow culture but also Britannica's frenzied advertising and sales campaign, a campaign that tacitly endorsed unscrupulous techniques by its own door-to-door salesmen. These peddlers of Plato often conned families into buying the behemoth set of Great Books with promises of school scholarships and free vacations. Britannica also "carpet-bombed magazines and newspapers" with ads that played on readers' intellectual insecurities.

"The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent," reads a typical bit of copy.