Cults

For a long time I’ve tried to avoid reading anything by or about Dwight Macdonald. The reason is simple: He’s associated with the word middlebrow, and I get impatient and annoyed whenever I see the word. I recognize that this means I feel implicated by the message baked into the word itself. To be middlebrow is to suffer from status anxiety. To be middlebrow is to read/watch/listen to things that you think qualify as high art but really aren’t, because you don’t have the intellectual chops for high art. To be middlebrow is to fail—and worse, fail for trying too hard.

Which is to say that hearing the word called up all sorts of things I didn’t (OK, don’t) like to think about as a cultural consumer. Status anxiety is part of being the child of immigrants, I think—at least it was for me—and it’s deflating to be told that you’re stuck halfway up the ladder no matter what you do. I picked up this lesson as a teenager, when I discovered a used copy of Paul Fussell‘s 1983 book, Class, which laid out the distinctions in upbringing, vocabulary, coffee tables, and overall behavior among American classes, from the top-out-of-sights to the bottom-out-of-sights. Fussell’s book not only literally put me in my place in the class matrix (high prole or firmly middle, depending on how you looked at it), it let me know that class mobility was largely a lie—you may go this far, but no farther, Fussell informed me*. I intuited that Fussell was a being satirical to some degree, but to what degree, exactly? Knowing for certain would require an education that was out of my reach.**

So even as I became a more dedicated reader and more interested in criticism, I figured that Macdonald’s on-high talk about Midcult was the last thing I needed to be lectured about. But with the imminent release of a Macdonald essay collection, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by New York Review Books, I might as well confront the matter head-on.

Reading “Masscult and Midcult” for the first time, I’m struck (and a little reassured) by the sense that Macdonald was writing from a position of anxiety himself. The essay was published in 1960, when World War II was not long over and the Cold War was being fought in earnest, and it didn’t seem a stretch to conflate bad, crowd-pleasing art with totalitarianism. He wasn’t predicting an Orwellian state, exactly, but was ready to point out that “Nazism and Soviet Communism…show us how far things can go in politics, as Masscult does in art. And let us not be too smug in this American temperate zone, unravaged by war and ideology.”

That’s pretty much the only time Macdonald cautions the reader not to be smug—throughout, he eagerly erects walls between High Culture and Masscult, and encourages his readers to do the same. Anxiety about the perils of Masscult drives his contempt for Midcult—bad art that makes High Culture gestures. That’s not just Our Town you’re watching, Macdonald argues—the play’s just-plain-folks sentimentality is a trojan horse for Masscult dehumanization, and dehumanization is the first step to oppression. That’s not exactly how Macdonald spells it out—the essay wouldn’t be as funny as it is if the stakes were that high—but the attributes of Midcult that he lays out are roughly equivalent to the attributes of mass manipulation. Which attributes are those? Macdonald makes them clear by naming them in Condescending Capital Letters—Midcult art makes pleas for Universal Significance, it has a Message, it Profound and Soul-Searching. To admire Midcult is to be a tool.

But what I wonder about is whether arguing over “Masscult and Midcult” (there’s a panel discussion at Politics & Prose on October 22) is strictly an academic exercise now. Macdonald’s sneering at rock music is blinkered and comic; his suggestion that pay TV could be a window into high art is downright hilarious. And totalitarianism doesn’t appear to rank high among the political fates that a red-state-blue-state America is susceptible to; high-schoolers have been mounting productions of Our Town for five decades since Macdonald’s essay appeared, and yet somehow we’re still living in a democracy. Still, much of what Macdonald discusses remains relevant. His concern that reviewers lubricate the engine of consumption more than they trade in ideas is still with us; so is his worry that publishers serve the lowest common denominator.*** And in some ways he predicted the way the audience for culture has atomized. “The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered—and the more it is divided, the better,” he writes.

Would Macdonald take much pleasure in the current divisions, though? At the time, he was expressing optimism about arthouse cinema, off-Broadway theater, and pockets of avant-garde art. Were he to look at America today and see some people nerding out on Criterion Collection DVDs, others reading Twilight, everybody watching American Idol, and the “little magazines” as little as ever, it’s unlikely he’d see the High Culture niches he dreamed of. But would he feel as threatened now by their lack? What would Macdonald think the stakes are in 2011? Does art still have the capacity to be an “instrument of domination”?

I’m sketching all this out as a way to get some general thoughts down as I make my way through the book; I hope to add more as I go along.

* I am certain that I have read Class more than any other book, most recently over the Labor Day holiday. For a long time I paid special attention to the closing chapter on Fussell’s suggested escape hatches, among them journalism.

** For instance, do the childhood bedrooms of upper-middle-class children really have that much nautical crap in them? Please email me privately if you can answer.

*** So are crappy pay rates. In a footnote he mentions that he was offered 50 cents a word to write a version of the essay for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1958.

7 responses to “Cults

  1. To put how much the Sat Eve Post offered Macdonald in perspective: in 1958 the average cost of a house was $12,750 – about one-twentieth of what it is now. Average monthly rent was $95 – one-seventh. Gas was 25 cents a gallon. Adjusting for inflation, Macdonald was being offered more to write his essay than even Vanity Fair’s best-paid writers are reported to get now. And even so, the SEP’s top short-story writers back then got at least 75 cents a word and in some cases maybe more.

  2. Great post, important issues. Though not the child of immigrants, I have status anxiety acquired from my class origins and second-rate education. A couple years ago I learned that literary agents now use the term “faux literary,” perhaps an even nastier way of saying “middlebrow.” (A new fear: would my novel-in-progress be considered faux literary?) I doubt the power of bad literature, except to overwhelm good literature. It’s possible that the worst thing it does is to turn truly literary novelists away from writing about life and toward books that teem with cerebral games–perhaps to prove that they are far from faux.

  3. Interesting post, certainly.

    I think it’s always been the name’s the problem.

    If you get what I mean, Dwight… didn’t.

    The furrowed brow has always been baked into the center of the American intellectual forehead.

    “…yet somehow we’re still living in a democracy…”

    Not to say that that’s a bit totalizing, but isn’t the reach of “we” a little like that of one of those devices we old folk use to pick things up… “we” may reach all we like, but it’s not quite the same thing as grab.

    I fear the latter action would probably have to include a certain measure of “smash”, any more.

    Frankly, Dwight, there’s the lurking suspicion that the pairing of the words “American” and “culture” has always assumed and will always assume a Fair bit of Vanity.

    No matter how good one’s agent may be; indeed, the better, the worse.

  4. Have you read John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses? If not, I recommend it to you. Best book I’ve read on the modern relations between art and class anxiety. The title may sound dry and didactic, but the book is a pleasure if you’re interested in these things. And he’s arguing that totalitarianism was allied with the intellectuals and their fears of the masses leading up to WWII, not the other way around.

    I first read Class at a similar age. Wonder if it’s still around here somewhere…

    • Thanks, Sara—I hadn’t heard of Carey’s book, but a few info pages I’ve pulled up sound fascinating. At first glance it looks like the focus is more on British authors (and Pound and Eliot, who threw off their American pasts), so I’d be curious how this applies to American authors. There’s a forthcoming biography of William Carlos Williams that has plenty to say about his squabbles with Pound—Pound’s condesension to Williams’ efforts to write in an American and (somewhat) populist vein could be breathtaking. I’m new to this debate, but I’m curious when “populist” stopped being such a swear word to intellectuals. After World War II? The late ’60s? The culture wars of the 90s?

      • Sara Catterall

        Yes, it’s a British book, primarily dealing with British authors. I would love to find an American equivalent, not much luck so far. I think it could be done very well.

        However, I do think this book’s description of the development of an anti-popular cultural mode is relevant to American intellectual culture and attitudes. I read American author interviews and book reviews that make me think of it every week or two.

        Populism – great question, but I’m no expert either. Though I’ve felt that intellectuals often embrace an ideal of populism while still suffering from an ingrained horror of the masses, so to speak. Carey discusses how some of Pound’s contemporaries were neurotically torn over the subject, and I think I see that still going on now.

  5. Great post. I would like to second the Carey. I am teaching some of *What Good are the Arts?* (Faber and Faber, 2006) this semester. Chapter 2, “Is High Art Superior?” is especially good. It’s polemical, and half wrong, but thought-provoking and fun, and thus great reading.

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