THE LIVELY ARTS: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States by Michael Kammen

THE LIVELY ARTS: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

With a career spanning the period from the Jazz Age to the Information Age, critic Gilbert Seldes provides a sizable canvas, but it's still a stretch to see it as reflecting all the multitudinous changes in modern American culture. With this amiable but sometimes stultifying biography, Kammen plunges into cultural aesthetics as part of his ongoing study of American history (Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, 1991, etc.). In revisiting the period from the Jazz Age's exuberant prelude to the American century up to the the intersection of TV, radio, and movies in the 1950s, Kammen uses Seldes's rousing journalism and bis two chief achievements, the books The Seven Lively Arts and The Great Audience, to illuminate the changing American zeitgeist. In the former book, Seldes's ebullient championing of Charlie Chaplin, George Herriman, Al Jolson, and Ring Lardner offered a different brand of aesthetics than that of the genteel, post-Puritan school of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford. Kammen also contrasts Seldes's tastes with the more famous coeval critics of the period: the antipopulist boob-bashing of H.L. Mencken, the snobbery of George Jean Nathan, and the elitist idiosyncrasies of Edmund Wilson. ""Certainly no snob,"" Kammen writes, ""Seldes the man and critic was a cultural democrat."" While he grew alarmed about the quality of the entertainment being provided by the mass media after WW II, ""he nonetheless hated to succor those archly elitist critics who were absolutely negative about anything and everything middlebrow or popular."" Kammen makes the middle-of-the-road Seldes into a middleman of cultural criticism, but he remains too weak a figure to support the ambitious scope of Kammen's cultural criticism.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
Page count: 470pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.