The term middlebrow is used to describe both a certain type of easily accessible art, usually literature, as well as the population which uses art to acquire culture and class that is usually unattainable. First used by the British satire magazine Punch in 1925, middlebrow is derived as the intermediary between highbrow and lowbrow, terms derived from phrenology. Middlebrow has famously gained notoriety from derisive attacks by Dwight MacDonald, Virginia Woolf, and to a certain extent, Russell Lynes. It has been classified as a forced and ineffective attempt at cultural and intellectual achievement, as well as characterizing literature which emphasizes emotional and sentimental connections rather than literary quality and innovation.

Virginia Woolf on Middlebrow

Virginia Woolf explicitly articulated her derision of the middlebrow in an un-posted letter- to-the-editor of The New Statesman, about a review, of a book of hers, which omitted the word highbrow. That letter was posthumously published in the essay collection The Death of the Moth in 1942. Virginia Woolf distinguishes middlebrows as petty purveyors of highbrow cultures for their own shallow benefit. Rather than selecting books for their intrinsic value, middlebrows 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, “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, are equally worthy of reverence, as they, too, are living for what they intrinsically know as valuable.

Middlebrows, instead, 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.

It is noteworthy that while Woolf criticizes those members of the middlebrow, she wrote for middlebrow publications, such as The New York Herald Tribune Books section. Her literature has been classified as middlebrow, easily-accessible, and feminized — the very threat she claimed would provoke her to “take pen and stab him, dead” for such a label. Middlebrow audiences finance the works of the highbrow, and most artists must appeal to the wide audience for success. .

Russell Lynes, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow

Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes satirized Virginia Woolf’s highbrow scorn in the article "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow". 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.

Dwight MacDonald, “Masscult and Midcult” 1960

Dwight MacDonald's incendiary critique of middlebrow culture, “Masscult and Midcult,” associated the modern industrial society drive away from specialization and folk as creating mass-market and therefore anonymous consumers of the arts. Highbrow culture, to MacDonald, is associated with specialization for the connoisseurs, while lowbrow culture entails folk products made authentically for specific communities. Mass culture, masscult, copies, and manipulates both these traditions, with factory creations made without innovation or care expressly for the market “pleas[ing] the crowd by any means.” This creates an America in which “a pluralistic culture cannot exist,” where homogeneity rules.

Midcult, contrastingly, came about with middlebrow culture and dangerously copies and adulterates high culture, spreading “a tepid ooze of Midcult,” which threatens high culture. He indicts, among others, “Our Town,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” and American collegiate gothic architecture. Midcult “pretends to respect the standards of high culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” The only possible preservation and continued distinction of the cherished true culture is the avant-garde high brow.

Marketed Middlebrow

The Book-of-the-Month Club and Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club have been widely characterized as middlebrow, marketed to bring classics and 'highbrow' literature to the middle class. Janet Radway 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” argues that middlebrow culture is not simply an diluted impersonation of highbrow, but instead distinctly defined itself in defiance of avant-garde high culture[7]. 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 is forced high culture. Instead, Radway demonstrates that for the middlebrow culture allows readers to simultaneously access the emotional and intellectual challenges which 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 to 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 which fell in line with male, technical classifications of excellence.


Further reading

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