The Magazine

Dwight’s Dream

The demise of middlebrow America.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Menand is right to recognize that aspiration was the motive force behind the middlebrow, but the more crucial point is that aspiration of this kind assumed that some pleasures, some works of imagination, were simply better than others—more likely to cultivate the mind and heart and lead to a fulfilling life. And aspiration being a close relative of humility, it was understood that an appreciation of excellence required an education at the hands of people who knew more than you did.

All of this is long gone, of course. In the original introduction to Against the American Grain (1962), from which Summers selected most of the pieces in the new book, Macdonald saw two solutions to the “problem” of “everyone getting into the act,” culturally speaking: We could make “(a) an attempt to integrate the masses into high culture; or (b) a contrary attempt to define two cultures, one for the masses and the other for the classes.” He favored the second option, thinking the first was a fool’s errand. But a third option never occurred to him: that high culture would cease to exist, or at least disappear almost entirely from the general scene.

And that’s what happened. High culture and the middlebrow died one after the other. Both were victims of relativism—the quasi-religious faith of post-sixties eggheads, who abandoned any notions of objective excellence as culturally determined, or as mere artifacts of exploitation, or as mechanisms of social control, or as all of the above. When the idea of objective merit—one thing is better than another, and here’s why—went away, the aspiration to seek it went away, too.

The embrace of relativism meant that the second-rate would be conflated with the sublime. In the years after Macdonald’s essay, Menand writes approvingly, “a great river of pop, camp, soulful, performative [?], outrageous, over-the-top cultural products flooded the scene, and Macdonald’s system of cultural judgment was left stranded on the far shore.” As premier examples of this “culture of sophisticated entertainment,” he mentions  such unwatchable movies and TV shows as Bonnie and Clyde and All in the Family and the vastly overpraised music of Motown and Bob Dylan. In an amazing coincidence, all this sophistication matched the taste of Baby Boomers like Louis Menand and his peers. (Funny how that works.) Soon enough, being overschooled and undereducated themselves, they could take up their tenured professorships and apply tools of criticism that had been built for Henry James and Maurice Ravel and apply them to Alice Walker and Lou Reed, until the latter seemed as worthy as the former. I mean, who’s to say?

Relativism has the effect of Gresham’s law: The bad sooner or later drives out the good, and the low the high. Its triumph would have horrified Dwight Macdonald, to judge by the essays, while it bothers the Harvard professor not at all. Macdonald’s chief complaint about Midcult was that it would fudge distinctions between the genuinely beautiful and profound and its slipshod imitators. Macdonald always considered himself a man of the left, but in this collection you’ll find passages of surpassing right-wingery. In 1962 he published a furious protest against the just-published Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in which the lexicographers officially abandoned the attempt to distinguish between the correct and incorrect usage of words.

There are several reasons that it is important to maintain standards in the use of a language. English, like other languages, is beautiful when properly used, and beauty can be achieved only by attention to form, which means setting limits. .  .  . The kind of permissiveness that permeates [Webster’s Third] results, oddly, in less rather than more individuality, since the only way an individual can “express himself” is in relation to a social norm—in the case of language, to standard usage. .  .  . If the very idea of form, or standards, is lacking, then how can one violate it?

I doubt that Macdonald knew the destructive power of his mockery of the middlebrow. He wasn’t a nihilist, as passages like this one prove. But he was a trendsetter, and when he and the other left-wing highbrows of his generation assailed bourgeois aspiration so devastatingly, so amusingly, the fashion-conscious intellectuals who followed him were bound to find all that striving for excellence infra dig—just too terribly middle class. 

That’s why a PBS pledge drive often brings him to mind. Public broadcasting was one of the last great groaning exertions of the middlebrow. When it was consolidated by the federal government in the late 1960s, E. B. White provided a letter that the first public broadcasters took as a credo: