THE MAKING OF MIDDLEBROW CULTURE by Joan Shelley Rubin

THE MAKING OF MIDDLEBROW CULTURE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Rubin (American Studies/SUNY at Brockport) offers a thorough, thoughtful history and critique of ``middlebrow culture'' during the 1920's-40's, profiling Will Durant and other ``apostles of a shattered faith'' who promoted it. Virginia Woolf, Rubin reminds us, ``derided the middlebrow as a person `betwixt and between' '' and somehow not without the taint of money. Rubin's aim is ``to redress both the disregard and the oversimplification of middlebrow culture.'' She sees it in a positive light as descending from the 19th-century ``genteel'' tradition (propounded by Charles Eliot Norton, Frederick Law Olmstead, etc.), which associated learning with character and offered a refuge from consumer culture. To make her case, the author closely considers five manifestations of the middlebrow mission--The New York Herald Tribune's ``Books'' section, first headed by Stuart Pratt Sherman, professor turned editor, who drove book reviewing away from moralistic criticism and toward news; the Book-of-the-Month Club, whose marketing depended on ``the news value of recent publications''; the ``Great Books'' movement, brought to full flower by Columbia professor John Erskine; the ``vogue of the `Outline,' '' epitomized by Durant's The Story of Philosophy; and radio programs on books, like those of Alexander Woollcott, who fostered the idea of the ``cultured person as well informed as opposed to well read.'' In Rubin's view, the aims of these cultural enterprises tended to reflect an American shift from producer to consumer, concerned not with character but with personality. Throughout, she points up conflicts in the mission of making culture a product for mass consumption. Charles Van Doren's cheating on the quiz show Twenty-One in 1957 she calls a ``poignant postscript.'' A welcome scholarly reappraisal of a neglected chapter in America's impulse toward education and self-improvement, and most interesting in the perspective of today's debates on curriculum and ``great books.''

Pub Date: March 9th, 1992
ISBN: 0-8078-2010-5
Page count: 425pp
Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1992