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Essay

The Death of the High Middlebrow? Part II

If I seem, in the first part of this essay, to have spent a lot of time elaborating the characteristics of the High Middlebrow, and showing how the High Middlebrow differs from the pure Highbrow, I’ve done so to help explain why I continue to be uneasy throwing my lot in with the Highbrows.  For I know what a real Highbrow is, having grown up with one—my father.       

          Dad seldom read fiction at all, and when he did, never anything written after 1870, at the latest.  At home, he played only classical music, and even within the classical stream rarely played composers from the second half of the 19th century, let alone the 20th.  In the car, he listened only to WQXR, the radio station of the New York Times, whose musical offerings were purely classical, with the exception of a couple of hours a week of jazz, to which he never listened, at least not in my presence.  When he took me to classical concerts, as he did quite often, he would listen politely to the works of composers such as Mahler, Bartok, and Wagner, but it was clear from his expression that listening to these “romantic” works gave him pain.  Bach and Mozart were his favourite composers.  About Brahms, he was at best lukewarm. Much the same for Mendelssohn and Schumann.  Beethoven was perhaps the last composer from the standard repertoire with whose work he felt fully comfortable. He did, I recall, feel a certain grudging respect for Igor Stravinsky’s craftsmanship, but could not deal with the raw energy underlying that craftsmanship.  I can only imagine what his reaction might have been had he been confronted by the music of Aaron Copland or George Gershwin.  When, in late middle age, he took up the piano for himself, the only composers he played were Bach and Chopin.  While he did a fairly decent job with Bach, whose highly symmetrical music was to a degree amenable to his plodding, metronomic playing style, he made pretty much of a hash of Chopin, whose romantic nature he seemed never fully to grasp, at least not in his playing.

          Dad did occasionally go to the theatre, but I suspect only under duress.  It was Mother who was the real theatre-goer in that pair.  By the time I was 12 or so, I was more likely to be accompanying her to a show than Dad was.  I never once heard him talk about a play—positively or negatively—and the only Playbill I remember seeing him with was one for The Late George Apley.  I also can’t remember him ever going to a movie.  As an architect, he certainly appreciated the visual arts, but was a good deal fonder of the medieval art at the Cloisters than of the 19th and 20th-century works to be found at the Metropolitan Museum or Museum of Modern Art.  He was also quite fond of the art exhibits at the Morgan Library, which was only a few blocks from where he worked in New York’s Pan-Am Building.  But here again, he was safely insulated from any modern or modernizing influences.  The exhibit I remember him recommending to me (and which I visited and did enjoy) was one of the portraits of Sir  Joshua Reynolds, the leading society artist of 18th century England.

          The only newspaper we had in the house, aside from the town’s local weekly, was The New York Times, which both he and my mother read religiously. The closest he came to a middlebrow taste of any sort was baseball, for which he did occasionally show a bit of enthusiasm.  But that enthusiasm was severely qualified.  For the most part, he was far more interested in talking about teams of the past (the St. Louis Cardinals of the Gashouse Gang era, or the Philadelphia Athletics under Connie Mack) than those currently playing.  Having taken me to one Yankees game, at Yankee Stadium, when I was seven, he never took me to another, nor to a Dodgers or Giants game either.  Even baseball was something of a museum exhibit for him.  As for other professional sports, such as football, basketball, and hockey, I’m not sure he was even aware they existed.  He certainly never talked about them, nor did I ever see him reading about them on the sports page, a section of the paper he was always happy to turn over to yours truly, unread.

          So much for the Highbrow.  In the sharpest possible contrast to my father’s narrow, exclusionary attitude toward things cultural is the attitude displayed by the noted American author H.L. Mencken.  Though he never attended university, Mencken was immensely well-read, and had drunk deeply at the springs of music and visual art as well.  The following passage, from Mencken’s 1914 book, Europe After 8:15,[1] offers the clearest and most detailed exposition of High Middlebrow beliefs I’ve ever seen. The broad, eclectic nature of Mencken’s cultural and even personal enthusiasms may readily be inferred throughout the passage:

I prefer Tom Jones to the Rosary, Rabelais to the Elsie books, the expurgated parts of Gulliver’s Travels to those that are left. . .I delight in beef stews, limericks, burlesque shows, New York City and the music of Haydn, that beery and delightful old rascal.  I swear in the presence of ladies and archdeacons.  When the mercury is above ninety-five I dine in my shirt sleeves and write poetry naked.  I associate habitually with dramatists, bartenders, medical men and musicians.  I once, in early youth, kissed a waitress at Dennett’s.  So don’t accuse me of vulgarity; I admit it and flout it.  Not, of course, that I have no prejudices, no fastidious metes and bounds.  Far from it.  Babies, for example, are too vulgar for me; I cannot bring myself to touch them. . .But in general, as I have said, I joy in vulgarity, whether it take the form of divorce proceedings or of Tristan und Isolde, of an Odd Fellows’ funeral or of Munich beer.

          The tone throughout is hearty and enthusiastic.  Here, clearly is a man who delights in associating with all sorts and conditions.  Like the Highbrow, this High Middlebrow is aware of “high culture” and even enjoys some of it (e.g., the music of Haydn and Tristan und Isolde).  Unlike the Highbrow, he allows his high culture enthusiasms to sit cheek by jowl with middlebrow or even on occasion lowbrow ones (e.g., limericks, burlesque shows, Odd Fellows’ funerals).  There’s also a distinct earthiness here, even within the realm of what would normally be considered high culture, as demonstrated by his liking for Rabelais and preference for the expurgated parts of Gulliver’s Travels.  His almost encyclopedic hearty enthusiasm is death on prudery—well, most kinds.  In addition to babies, Mencken cannot bring himself to have anything to do with actors—a prejudice whose origin isn’t entirely clear.  But for the most part, his is a posture of inclusion rather than of exclusion.  Fully aware of high culture and what it has to offer, he doesn’t kowtow to it in any way. 

          The tone of this passage is well-suited to its subject matter.  For the most part it is simple, straightforward, and breezy, even to the extent of bordering on the colloquial.  There are few abstractions and a wealth of concrete details.  The sentence structure is simple, as well, with few complex sentences.  But a single phrase, “fastidious metes and bounds,” gets away from that colloquial tone.  (For those who, like the present writer, were not previously familiar with “metes,” it is an archaic word meaning boundary).  Here, for a split second, we get a glimpse not of the informal boulevardier, but rather of the encyclopedic linguist, whose monumental writings on the English language in the early 20th century rivaled those of Samuel Johnson in the 18th century.  But even this archaism, though seemingly a bit of unnecessary and unnecessarily arcane rhetoric, is useful in seeing the larger picture of Mencken as a whole.  What this word tells us, and most economically, is that here is a man who would, if he so chose, be quite capable of functioning as a full-scale highbrow.  But in point of fact, he does not function as one for the vast majority of the time—by his own choice, even if it’s fun to play at being one every now and again, as a form of showing-off.  At the end of the day, it’s a lot more fun enjoying limericks, burlesque shows, hearty beef stews and the works of Rabelais, not to mention brass bands rubbing up against his high German culture, than to restrict oneself to the narrow range of traditional high culture.

          Fast forward seven decades, to June 5, 1985.  That was the date when Calvin Trillin, generally best-known for his work for the New Yorker magazine, declared in The Nation: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”  The passage bears some examination, both on the score of its content and the context in which it appeared, both initially and in around 2017, when it cropped up as a Cryptoquote on the puzzle pages of the daily paper.

          Unlike any other Cryptoquote I’ve ever read—I find most eminently forgettable–this one gave me considerable pause.  If the word “whom” reminded Trillin of butlers, then, presumably, he would have been quite all right with somebody’s using “who” as an objective pronoun!  Here is indeed clear evidence of a High Middlebrow at work.  The quotation shows that Trillin knows the rules of grammar, but would apparently rather break them on occasion than be thought of—or think of himself—as a stuffed shirt.

          Of even greater interest is the phrase’s revival at such a late date as 2017, past the point, at least given what my little survey had shown, of any meaningful intellectual debate between High Middlebrows and Highbrows.  I studied it intently, as an archaeologist might have studied a particularly well-preserved pot.  How had such a nuanced cultural perspective made its way into print in our by then all but totally monochrome world? Were there more High Middlebrows than I thought existed, lurking somewhere in the shadows just waiting to be discovered? Or (which appeared to me more likely), had the quotation somehow caught the attention of the desk editor in charge of putting together the Cryptoquotes section? Presumably this would have been a person of a “certain age,” and of sufficient educational and cultural sophistication to have appreciated the distinction between a High Middlebrow and a Highbrow, and to have been interested enough in the matter to have thought the phrase worth bringing before the public, as an example of the richer and more nuanced cultural universe we have left behind.  In all likelihood, this person would himself have been a High Middlebrow.  Why else would he have selected the quotation?  For the first time since I’d administered that little Facebook survey three years earlier, I had the sense that I might not be alone in my beliefs, after all.

          Having found at least one more fellow traveler accompanying me on the cultural journey, I no longer felt so uneasy defining myself as a High Middlebrow, and began doing so on occasion, when in appropriate company.  Where there was one such person, after all, there could well be more.  Birds of a feather, and all that.

          Flash forward three more years, to 2020.  In search of a novel to read to fill in evenings left much longer by the loss of televised live sports, I discover something entitled Rules of Civility, [2] by an author bearing the unusual name of Amor Towles.  This book, acquired at a secondhand store in Ottawa some years ago, had sat unread on my bookshelf ever since.

          Like many such long-neglected books, Rules of Civility quickly revealed itself to be a buried treasure. Many signs of a High Middlebrow cultural universe can be found here.  To begin with, the novel evokes the New York of my mother’s youth more clearly than any other novel I’ve ever read, including even E.L. Doctorow’s monumental World’s Fair.[3]  But it does more than that.  It evokes a world in which culture is again a major preoccupation, as it was in my youth, when the release of a new book by Saul Bellow or Gunter Grass was a major event, and the release of the “egalitarian” Third Edition of Webster’s International Dictionary set off a veritable firestorm of intellectual debate, even at sleepy little Amherst College, my alma mater.

          A sense of the all-pervading importance of culture in the world of Towles’ novel can be derived from the following excerpt.  The heroine, Katherine (Kate) Kontent, who has been hired at least partly because she is not an ex-debutante, but a workingman’s daughter, has just been summoned for an interrogation by her boss, Mason Tate,[4] editor of Gotham magazine. Not even inviting her to sit down, Tate cuts straight to the chase.

          —–Tell me about your personal situation, Kontent, he said at last.

          —–I’m sorry, Mr. Tate.  What is it you would like to know?

. . . .Mr. Tate smiled coolly.

          —–How would you describe your ambitions?

          —–They’re evolving.

          He nodded his head.  He pointed to the draft of an article that was on his desk.

          —–This is something of a profile by Mr. Cabot.  Have you read any of his pieces?

          —–A few.

          —–How would you characterize them? Stylistically, I mean.

          Despite its wordiness, I could tell that Mr. Tate generally appreciated Cabot’s work.  Cabot had a good instinct for the intersection of gossip and history and he seemed to be an unusually effective interviewer—charming people into answering questions that were better left unanswered.

          —–I think he’s read too much Henry James, I said.

          Tate nodded for a second.  Then he handed me the draft.

          —–See if you can make him sound a little more like Hemingway.

          Though relatively brief, the passage offers keen insight into the actual work of creating culture, work being performed here by two High Middlebrows of the first order.  To the High Middlebrow, culture isn’t something to be kept on a high shelf and taken down for special occasions, as the pure Highbrow would have it.  Nor, on the other hand, is it something to be passeled out indiscriminately, like bowls of gruel at an orphanage.  Every person’s taste is not equal to every other person’s taste, as the pure Middlebrow would have it.  Lawrence Welk is not an adequate substitute for either Oscar Peterson or Leroy Anderson, any more than a Harlequin romance is an adequate substitute for Agatha Christie or Simenon, or than a steam-table hot turkey sandwich with instant mashed potatoes and canned peas would be a substitute for a real, homemade turkey dinner.  While the High Middlebrow’s cultural tastes are catholic, they are also discriminating.  The quality of any cultural output matters very much indeed.  Helping to craft high quality culture is a job worthy of the best efforts of the best minds.

          As if the above passage were not sufficient proof of Towles’ High Middlebrow proclivities, here’s a passage from a bio which accompanied an early review of the novel.  If this isn’t a modern-day High Middlebrow, then I’ve never seen one.

          “Mr. Towles, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children, is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950’s jazz, 1970’s cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, obsolete accessories, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers.”

          I think it no accident that both the hardcover and paperback editions of Rules of Civility spent time on the New York Times Bestseller list.  The novel speaks to a real hunger in its readers.  In part, this is a hunger for the unabashed luxury of a bygone New York, for glittering hotel lobbies and beautifully-dressed men and women and huge parties in the Hamptons, its frosty cocktails and sumptuous lunches and dinners.  But it’s also a hunger for a world in which culture really matters, a world in which one can hear Billie Holliday live, in which painters and painting matter, and in which, as we’ve already seen, a writer’s style matters very much indeed.  All of this and more may be found in Rules of Civility, which may help to explain why I felt peculiarly satisfied on finishing the novel—a feeling that fiction hasn’t provided me with for at least two decades, in the works of the late Carol Shields.

          I now know I have at least two fellow travelers on my cultural journey: Towles and the unnamed desk editor from 2017.  But given Rules of Civility’s immense popularity, there are almost certainly a good many more (even if they haven’t yet taken to calling themselves High Middlebrows) from the ranks of fellow readers of the novel. 

          It appears, then, that those earlier reports of the High Middlebrow’s demise, penned by yours truly, were in fact exaggerated.  It also appears that the Passenger Pigeon isn’t the most precise analogy for the High Middlebrow after all.  Maybe we should, instead, be looking at the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a beautiful bird once found throughout the Southeastern U.S. and Cuba,[5] which some ornithologists have declared extinct, but which numerous others, as well as some “lay” birdwatchers, have reported seeing in recent years, suggesting there’s a serious possibility that the Ivory-Bill yet lives.  Or possibly even (at the risk of sounding hopelessly optimistic) at the Whooping Crane, a species reduced to about 20 by the beginning of World War II, but which has since then, thanks to careful nurturing and impassioned conservation efforts, come to number about 800. Or maybe at some bird in between (in terms of both size and numbers) that we haven’t even thought about yet.

          Whichever species of bird turns out to be the most exact analogy, I’m now encouraged enough that I shall henceforth no longer hide my High Middlebrow light under any sort of bushel, pretending to be the full-scale Highbrow I am not, and could never be.  How this will all play out, in a post-COVID cultural universe, is anybody’s guess. For what it’s worth, my prediction is that in that cultural universe, in which we will arrive after a serious and lengthy surfeit of all manner of virtual culture, there will be a great hunger for the traditional culture of the past, and that the High Middlebrow, while not the dominant figure (s)he was in New York between the two world wars, will nonetheless have an important role to play in creating and maintaining that culture, whatever forms it may take.

Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020, Dartmouth, N.S.


[1] H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, Europe After 8:15 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1914).

[2] New York: Penguin, 2011.

[3] New York: Random House, 1985.

[4] Tate appears to have been modelled, at least to some extent, on the volcanic first editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross.

[5] I am fond of this bird both because of its great beauty and because one of my favourite American authors, Tom Robbins, saw fit to use it on the cover of one of his novels, Still Life with Woodpecker.

2 replies on “The Death of the High Middlebrow? Part II”

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