Middlebrow goes West

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. Graphs abound in this post, plus a chart and a 1949 advert for a television. 

The Lowbrow/Middlebrow/Highbrow debate is not a uniquely British one. Arguments in favour of one or the other have also been voiced by American commentators. In 1950, as part of its centennial celebrations Harper’s Magazine included a survey of the changes in taste that had taken place over the lifetime of the magazine. Written by Russell Lynes, The Age of Taste went on to form the basis for his famous book The Tastemakers, published in 1955. One chapter Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow had not appeared in the original article. It had already been published in the previous year, 1949, and had caused, as they say in Glasgow, a bit of a stooshie. His thesis that in the post-war world traditional social norms were redundant and that position in American society would now be determined by taste caught the attention of  Life Magazine. In April of 1949 it published High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow. The strapline left the reader in no doubt as to the form this new America would take:

These are the three basic categories of a new U.S. social structure, and the highbrows have the whip hand.

To help you find out where you fitted into this new world, a chart was provided:

Martini or bourbon? When it came to reading, the different tastes went from “Little Magazines” and solid non-fiction at the top to book club selections in the middle, and pulp books and comics at the bottom.

America was to change but in a way that Russell Lynes hadn’t anticipated. Under Entertainment he had listed ballet (highbrow), theatre, musical extravaganza films and western movies (lowbrow). He didn’t include what was lurking on one of the pages in the same issue of the magazine:

At last!

The US, like Britain, had suspended television broadcasts for the duration of the war. With the war won General Electric switched from making engines for American war planes to making televisions. The $399 price tag, which would buy close on to $4,000 today, barely delayed its millionth sale. The impact on American society was as rapid as it was dramatic

My oh my. Would the whip hand end up in the hands of the middle and lowbrows after all? 70,000,000 television sets and 83% of all households owning more than one set are impressive statistics. Add to them the top ten US television shows from 1955-56 and the highbrows’ days seemed numbered:

The Phil Silvers' Show didn't even get in the top twenty!But, and as much as this pains me, that would be too quick and easy a conclusion to draw. If we look at book sales in that same period, and particularly what the American Census Department called “General Literature and Criticism,” a different picture emerges:

Here comes the cavalry!In a period of rising book sales (religious books helping drive the surge) and despite the recently achieved dominant position of television in American society, books from the category General Literature and Criticism managed to maintain a yearly average of 5% of the total of new titles published in the US. Not, perhaps, evidence of a flourishing democratic intellect but neither a society feeling the lash of the middle and lowbrow whips. If there was a loser in all this, it was probably radio. By 1950, 95% of American families owned a radio. However, when you look at revenues (in millions of dollars) it’s clear that having a radio set in nearly every American home was not a guarantee of year-on-year rising profits:

So it was video after all.

As profound a change as it was (and those figures quoted above, taken from data in the American Censuses for the 1950s, are in millions) it would seem that its nature can still escape us. Television undoubtedly did affect the balance of power between the ‘brows. But just as it is capable of plumbing the depths, American television can equally be innovative, intelligent and funny. Radio, on the other hand, could be argued to be inherently conservative, given its limitations and that this too can be a strength. Our man Bennett was witness to a period of cultural change when, as he said, the large villas of English novelists made rich from American royalties, would be replaced by semi-detached cottages in the London suburbs; while in America “literary palazzos” would spring up beside the Hudson, homes for the new generation of American novelists, who unlike Henry James, would live and work in America and be read around the world. Writing in The North American Review in January, 1912 he commented: 

…the great argument in favor of the future of the American novel…lies in the strenuousness, the variety, and the essential romance of American life.

A return to the norm is due. So, I am reading H.G.Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay as recommended by Arnold Bennett. In the next post, has it added to my literary taste?

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7 Comments

  1. I absolutely love that High Brow, Middle Brow, Low Brow chart! It’s not enough to describe the different choices, there have to be pictures (assume that’s for the benefit of the low brow, who probably couldn’t read anyway!). Ps book went in the post today – finally!

    Reply
  2. The chart was very important to Lynes. He worked closely with the Life Magazine graphic artist to produce it. It’s what grabbed people’s attention. He was always being asked by each generation of interviewers how it would have changed over the years. There’s an interview here with him if you want to read it: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/highbrow-lowbrows-middlebrow-now?page=show
    Looking forward to getting the book!

    Reply
  3. Fantastic post, as always. I have printed our Lynes’ chart to pin behind my desk.

    Reply
  4. Thank you Erica. It’s quite something to think that the article Lyne’s article was written over 50 years ago and every generation is drawn to the chart. It would almost be worth doing a study of how attitudes have changed to it over the years!

    Reply
  5. How very interesting. I wonder where the world would be today if the TV wasn’t invented.

    Reply
    • It was a real game changer, wasn’t it? Even more than cinema, it blurred the differences between high, middle and lowbrow.

      Reply
      • I often wonder if people like Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin would have been so industrious in the political, social, scientific, and literary world if TV existed back then.

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