March 24, 2012
It has become fashionable for progressive social and cultural critics to argue that despite its sins against good taste, Middlebrow is emblematic of the American dream of social mobility; Middlebrow’s detractors, most famously DWIGHT MACDONALD (1906-82), are therefore depicted as cultural mandarins. Russell Lynes described America as a caste system presided over by proto-authoritarian highbrows who’ve failed to keep lowbrow proles in their place only because of the courageous efforts of middlebrows; Andrew Ross has argued that highbrows like Macdonald and T.W. Adorno castigated Middlebrow in order to protect their own authority. Even ostensible encomia to Macdonald too often suggest that his midcentury essays railing against the triumph of Masscult (mass-produced, yet “tasteful” cultural products) and Midcult (the fetishizing and debasing of High Culture) went too far. But Macdonald was right about everything! When he warned about “a narcotized acceptance of Masscult-Midcult and of the commodities it sells as a substitute for the unsettling and predictable (hence unsalable) joy, tragedy, wit, change, originality and beauty of real life,” he was speaking not as a snobbish highbrow, but as what his friend George Orwell called an “elastic-brow.” Macdonald was out of step with his fellow New York intellectuals, who in the late Forties embraced the proto-neoliberal/neoconservative mantra that the Age of Ideology had ended, that History had ended; his anti-Middlebrow essays are polemics against this emergent crypto-ideology. And for that, he has never been forgiven.
READ MORE about members of the Partisans Generation (1904-13).