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Middlebrow Virginia Woolf Essay Topics

The term middlebrow describes easily accessible art, usually literature, and the people who use the arts to acquire culture and "class" (social prestige). First used in the British satire magazine Punch in 1925, the term middlebrow is the intermediary "brow" descriptor between highbrow and lowbrow, which are terms derived from the pseudo-science of phrenology.[1]

The term middlebrow became a pejorative usage in the modernist cultural criticism, by Dwight Macdonald, Virginia Woolf, and Russell Lynes, which served the cause of the marginalization of the popular culture in favor of high culture.[2] Culturally, the middlebrow is classed as a forced and ineffective attempt at cultural and intellectual achievement, and as characterizing literature that emphasizes emotional and sentimental connections, rather than intellectual quality and literary innovation;[3] although postmodernism more readily perceives the advantages of the middlebrow cultural-position that is aware of high culture, but is able to balance aesthetic claims with the claims of the everyday world.[4]

Virginia Woolf[edit]

Virginia Woolf derided the middlebrow in an un-posted letter to the editor of the New Statesman & Nation, concerning a radio broadcast that attacked the Highbrows.[5] That letter was posthumously published in the essay collection The Death of the Moth (1942).[6][7]

Woolf criticizes middlebrows as petty purveyors of highbrow cultures for their own shallow benefit. Rather than selecting books for their intrinsic cultural value, middlebrow people select and read what they are told is best. Middlebrows are concerned with how what they do makes them appear, unlike highbrows, the avant-garde men and women who act according to their indelible commitment to beauty, value, art, form, and integrity. Woolf said that, "We highbrows read what we like and do what we like and praise what we like". Likewise, a lowbrow is devoted to a singular interest, a person "of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life"; and, therefore, the lowbrow are equally worthy of reverence, as they, too, are living for what they intrinsically know as valuable.

Instead of such freedom, the middlebrows are "betwixt and between", which Woolf classifies as "in pursuit of no single object, neither Art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige." Their value system rewards quick gains through literature already designated as 'Classic' and 'Great', never of their own choosing, because "to buy living art requires living taste." The middlebrow are meretricious—which is much less demanding than authenticity.

Russell Lynes: "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow"[edit]

Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes satirized Virginia Woolf's highbrow scorn in the article "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow".[8] Quoting her and other highbrow proponents, such as art critic Clement Greenberg, Lynes parodied the highbrow's pompous superiority by noting how the subtle distinctions Woolf found significant among the "brows" were just means of upholding cultural superiority. Specifically, he parodies the highbrow claim that the products a person uses distinguishes his or her level of cultural worth, by satirically identifying the products that would identify a middlebrow person.

Lynes continued distinguishing among "brows", dividing middlebrow into upper-middlebrow and lower-middlebrow. The upper-middlebrow's arts patronage makes highbrow activity possible. Museums, orchestras, operas, and publishing houses are run by upper-middlebrows. The lower middlebrows attempt using the arts for self-enhancement: "hell-bent on improving their minds as well as their fortunes". They also intend to live the simple, easy life outlined in advertisements; "lower middlebrow-ism" was "a world that smells of soap". Caricaturing Woolf, Lynes outlined the perfect world without middlebrows; lowbrows work and highbrows create pure art.

Months later, Life magazine asked Lynes to specifically distinguish among the right foods, furniture, clothes, and arts for each of the four 'brows'. That began national preoccupation, as people tried to identify their proper social class, based upon their favorite things. Although middlebrow often has connoted contempt, Lynes lauded the zeal and aspirations of the middlebrows.[9]

Priestley's defence[edit]

J. B. Priestley sought to create a positive cultural space around the concept of middlebrow – one characterised by earnestness, friendliness and ethical concerns.[10] He couched his defense of the middlebrow in terms of radio stations, praising the BBC Home Service for its cosiness and plainness, midway between the Light Programme and the Third Programme: "Between the raucous lowbrows and the lisping highbrows is a fine gap, meant for the middle or broadbrows...our homely fashion".[11]

In a struggle that involved competition for readers as well as for cultural capital, Virginia Woolf responded by renaming the BBC the "Betwixt and Between Company".[12]

Dwight Macdonald: "Masscult and Midcult"[edit]

Dwight Macdonald's critique of middlebrow culture, "Masscult and Midcult" (1960), associated the modern industrial drive, away from specialization and the folk, with creating a mass-market arts, and, therefore, anonymous consumers of the arts.[13] In the U.S., highbrow culture is associated with specialization for the connoisseurs, while lowbrow culture entails authentic folk products made for specific communities. Mass culture (masscult) copies and manipulates both traditions, with factory-created products, made without innovation or care, expressly for the market, "to please the crowd by any means", thereby creating an American society in which "a pluralistic culture cannot exist", wherein the rule is cultural homogeneity.

In contrast Midcult (middle culture), came about with middlebrow culture, and dangerously copies and adulterates high culture, by way of "a tepid ooze of Midcult", which threatens high culture, with dramaturgy, literature, and architecture, such as Our Town (1938), The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and American collegiate gothic architecture.

The Middlebrow "pretends to respect the standards of High Culture, while, in fact, it waters them down and vulgarizes them." Macdonald recommended a separation of the brows, so that "the few who care about good writing, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, etc. have their High Culture, and don't fuzz up the distinction with the Midcult."[14]

Marketed middlebrow[edit]

The Book-of-the-Month Club and Oprah Winfrey's Book Club have been widely characterized as middlebrow,[15] marketed to bring classics and 'highbrow' literature to the middle class. This was particularly highlighted when author Jonathan Franzen, after his book The Corrections was selected, remarked in several publications that some of Oprah's book club picks were middlebrow[16] In her seminal account of the Book-of-the-Month Club (as it was from its inception in 1926 to the 1980s before it transformed to a purely commercial operation), A Feeling for Books, Janice Radway argues that middlebrow culture is not simply a diluted impersonation of highbrow, but instead distinctly defined itself in defiance of avant-garde high culture.[17] The club provided subscribers with literature selected by expert and 'generalist' judges, but held the personal, emotional experience of reading a good book as paramount, while simultaneously maintaining 'high standards' for literary quality. In this way, the club was in opposition to the general criticism of middlebrow culture in that it is forced high culture. Instead, Radway demonstrates that the middlebrow culture allows readers to simultaneously access the emotional and intellectual challenges that good reading provides. Radway also identifies the conflicting gender messages sent by the selections. While the club was marketed extensively to the female reader, including its emphasis on the emotional pleasure of books, the focus on intellectual, academic literature of the middlebrow trapped the reader into the constrictive masculine standards of value, classifying 'great books' as those that fell in line with male, technical classifications of excellence.

Contemporary middlebrow[edit]

Slate Magazine suggests that the late 2000s and early 2010s could potentially be considered the "golden age of middlebrow art"—pointing to television shows Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Wire and novels Freedom, The Marriage Plot and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Slate also defines the films of Aaron Sorkin as middlebrow.[18] Some argue that Slate itself is middlebrow journalism.[19]

In a March 2012 article for Jewish Ideas Daily, Peodair Leihy described the work of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen as "a kind of pop—upper-middle-brow to lower-high-brow, to be sure, but pop nonetheless."[20] This aesthetic was further theorized in an essay from November that year for The American Scholar that saw William Deresiewicz propose the addition of "upper middle brow," a culture falling between masscult and midcult. He defined it as, "infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive."[21]

In The New Yorker, Macy Halford characterizes Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker itself as "often [being] viewed as prime examples of the middlebrow: both magazines are devoted to the high but also to making it accessible to many; to bringing ideas that might remain trapped in ivory towers and academic books, or in high-art (or film or theatre) scenes, into the pages of a relatively inexpensive periodical that can be bought at bookstores and newsstands across the country (and now on the Internet)." She also notes the internet's effect on the middlebrow debate: "Internet is forcing us to rethink (again) what "middlebrow" means: in an era when the highest is as accessible as the lowest—accessible in the sense that both are only a click away ... —we actually have to think anew about how to walk that middle line." Halford describes Wikipedia: "...Wiki is itself a kind of middlebrow product" and links to this middlebrow entry "because it actually provides a smart summary."[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^"Middlebrow". Oxford English Dictionary. 23 February 2008. 
  2. ^Pask, K. The Fairy Way of Writing (2013) p. 125
  3. ^"Is "Middlebrow" Still An Insult?". Slate. October 12, 2011. 
  4. ^David Cardiff, Mass Middlebrow Laughter' Media, Culture and Society 10 (1988), 41-60
  5. ^H. Lee, Virginia Woolf (1996) p. 634
  6. ^Woolf, Virginia (1942). "Middlebrow". The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press. 
  7. ^"Woolf contra Middlebrow – HiLobrow". hilobrow.com. 
  8. ^Lynes, Russell (1954). The Tastemakers. New York: Harper. 
  9. ^Rubin, Joan Shelley (1992). The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807820105. 
  10. ^B. Driscoll, The New literary Middlebrow (2014) p. 40
  11. ^Quoted in Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (1957) p. 185
  12. ^M. Cuddy-Keane, Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere (2014) p. 21-9
  13. ^Macdonald, Dwight (1962). "Masscult and Midcult". Essays Against the American Grain. New York: Random House. 
  14. ^Collected. The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah's Book Club. p. 136. 
  15. ^Kelly, Hillary (May 25, 2011). "We Don't Need Oprah's Book Club". The New Republic. 
  16. ^Bosman, Julie. "Oprah Picks Franzen for Final Book Club". The New York Times. 
  17. ^Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. 
  18. ^"You Can't Handle the Truth About Aaron Sorkin". Slate. June 22, 2012. 
  19. ^Has Slate Declined?Archived 2011-11-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^"Old-New Leonard". Jewish Ideas Daily. March 9, 2012. 
  21. ^Deresiewicz, William (4 November 2012). "Upper Middle Brow". 
  22. ^Halford, Macy. "On "Middlebrow"". The New Yorker

Further reading[edit]

The reasons for her rage are spelled out in vivid, good-humored detail. Woolf is proud to call herself a highbrow, which she defines as a “man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea.” This designation places her in the company of writers from Shakespeare to the Brontës, and also carries an unmistakable, not entirely metaphorical trace of class distinction. Highbrow status is a matter of breeding and belonging. But the highbrow, though an aristocrat, is not a snob.

“I honor and respect lowbrows,” Woolf asserts, “and I have never known a highbrow who did not.” (Lowbrows are defined as those who are as committed to living as highbrows are to thinking.) This is because high and low are in alliance against the middle. “I myself have known duchesses who were highbrows, also charwomen, and they have both told me with that vigor of language which so often unites the aristocracy with the working classes that they would rather sit in the coal cellar together than in the drawing room with middlebrows and pour out tea.”

What makes the middlebrows so contemptible? Woolf’s tautological response is their very middleness, their inability to be either one thing or another, and their habit of “indistinguishably and rather nastily” mixing up art and life (the pure, complementary pursuits of the high and the low) with things like “money, fame, power or prestige.”

The natural affinity of the high and low, and their mutual suspicion of the middle, has been a remarkably durable idea, though it has never proven to be anything more than an idea, a nostalgic vision of ideal order. At heart it is a fantasy of aesthetic authenticity secured by static and hierarchical social distinctions. A world of landlords and peasants, of masters and servant, of patrons and workers is one in which art and life harmonize. In such a world, the middle will always be a place of vulgarity and ostentation, of the kind of money-grubbing, backslapping, self-conscious display Woolf (or at least her notional duchess) would flee to the basement to avoid.

A name for that place, in the postwar years, would be America, which emerged as a kind of Promised Land — or nightmarish dystopia, depending on whom you asked — of middlebrow culture. The midcentury middlebrow was defined most incisively by Russell Lynes, a brilliant magazine editor and pop sociologist whose 1949 Harper’s essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” remains instructive and amusing to this day. Even more influential (and infinitely entertaining) was the chart it inspired, published in Life, which neatly divided American taste into four echelons, splitting the middle rank into “upper” and “lower” and identifying, with an anthropologist’s precision and an ad man’s brio, typical preferences in food, drink, clothing and art.

That chart has been reproduced and imitated countless times. It invites an endless reverie of quibbles, updates and comparisons. In 1949, if you were eating avocado, you were most likely at an upper-middlebrow dinner party. Today, you are probably at Subway. Has bridge, a lower-middlebrow pastime back then, migrated upward, displaced by Cards Against Humanity? Is beer still low, or does it depend on the brand?

The categories are easy to scramble because the chart is less an emblem of hierarchy than of mobility. Its categories do not represent class differences; they replace class differences. There are no duchesses and charwomen in Lynes’s tableau, and none of the mystified language of animal husbandry. There are not even necessarily significant gradations of income. Every brow-holder is assumed to be able to afford furniture, clothes, reading material and other amenities, and each is assumed to have leisure time in which to enjoy them.

They also all have jobs; no one is living off income from capital. This is clear in the essay, which identifies the highbrow not as an aristocrat or even an artist, but rather as someone likely to work in the academy. The upper middlebrows, who may have more money — and who fill out the all-important donor class that supports symphony orchestras, libraries and museums — are well-placed professionals living in the bigger cities. What unites the brows is that all of them are, fundamentally, consumers.

The high, drawing inspiration from the low — from “jazz musicians, primitive painters and ballad writers” — feeds the middle, which grows ever larger, a marvelous circumstance for Lynes, who concludes his essay on a good-humored, optimistic note. “The highbrows would like,” he notes, perhaps with Woolf in mind, “to eliminate the middlebrows and devise a society that would approximate an intellectual feudal system, in which the lowbrows do the work and create folk arts, and the highbrows do the thinking and create fine arts.”

But, he declares, “the highbrows haven’t a chance,” and notes that everything refined and difficult has a way of slipping down toward the middle. That means that everyone has an opportunity to rise toward the high. His grid is “a ladder,” not the social ladder of generations past, but one it is nonetheless possible to climb: “It’s onward and upward just the same.”

Only a highbrow could fail to be charmed by this rosy projection of upward mobility, with its vision of a vast, all-encompassing and yet still pluralistic and lively middle. And as Lynes’s prophecy was realized, there was no shortage of complaint. The subsequent history of American culture over the course of les trente glorieuses is a tale of growth, punctuated by occasional grumbles of dissent.

Among the most famous of these came from Dwight Macdonald in a long Partisan Review essay from 1960 called “Masscult and Midcult.” A political leftist and an aesthetic snob, Macdonald surveyed the abundance of postwar America with a skeptical eye. He was astute enough to identify the economic and political sources of that abundance: higher wages, more leisure, increased access to higher education, foundation- and government-supported arts organizations. He even approved of these developments and some of their effects. Great works of literature were widely available in inexpensive but nonetheless authoritative paperback editions; people were buying almost as many classical as rock ’n’ roll records; cinematic art house and community theaters were thriving.

But it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be, in part because “the great cultures of the past have all been elite affairs, centering in small, upper-class communities which had certain standards in common.” Macdonald was too much of a democrat to wish for a return to such a state of affairs. But he did register the sense that something — variously called sophistication, authenticity, seriousness or just art — was being lost as the old, unbudging, quasi-feudal hierarchy of upper and lower was replaced by the hectic scrum of mass and middle.

Maybe something was lost. But it is hard to look back at the middlebrow era without being dazzled by its scale, complexity and size, and without also, perhaps, feeling a stab of nostalgia. More does not always mean better, but the years after World War II were a grand era of more. In Pikettian terms, the rate of growth exceeded the rate of return on capital, and the result was a culture as well as a society that became less stratified and more egalitarian.

High culture became more accessible, popular culture became more ambitious, until the distinction between them collapsed altogether. Some of the mixing looks silly or vulgar in retrospect: stiff Hollywood adaptations or comic-book versions of great novels; earnest television broadcasts about social problems; magazines that sandwiched serious fiction in between photographs of naked women. But much of it was glorious.

And we live — happily or grumpily — with its legacy even as the signs of its obsolescence multiply. The middlebrow is robustly represented in “difficult” cable television shows, some of which, curiously enough, fetishize such classic postwar middlebrow pursuits as sex research and advertising. It also thrives in a self-conscious foodie culture in which a taste for folkloric authenticity commingles with a commitment to virtue and refinement.

But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away.

Universities and colleges, the seedbeds of a cultural ideal consecrated to both excellence and democracy, to citizenship and to knowledge for its own sake, are becoming either hothouses for the new dynastic elite or training centers for the technocratic debt peons of the digital future.

In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.

Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. The highbrows were co-opted or killed off by the middle, and the elitism they championed has been replaced by another kind, the kind that measures all value, cultural and otherwise, in money. It may be time to build a new ladder.

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