The Public Humanist

Rediscovering Middlebrow


Near the end of Booth Tarkington’s 1921 novel Alice Adams, the twenty-something social-climbing heroine realizes her family is destitute and she must set about earning her own living. Her broke and broken father tries to be sympathetic about his daughter’s shattered dreams of love and social status, but she refuses to dwell in the past, saying, “Don’t you think, since we do have to go on, we ought at least to have learned some sense about how to do it?” The critic Thomas Mallon damned the novel with faint praise in The Atlantic in 2004, calling it “a small bit of great” within an otherwise mediocre ouevre. He failed to notice that Alice expresses the same sentiment that would be considered the height of existentialism 17 years later, when Samuel Beckett wrote in his novel Murphy: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

We don’t read Tarkington much today, although in his time he was a best-selling, critically respected author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. But his stories about ordinary people, his straightforward, realistic narrative style, and his acceptance that the business of America is indeed business have worked to consign his writings to the scrapheap of literature known as “middlebrow.”

Middlebrow is defined as “easily accessible” in terms of art, usually literature, and is also used  to describe people who use the arts to acquire culture and ascend in class. Middlebrow focuses on middle class people and middle class issues. Over the course of the 20th century, so-called “highbrow” critics and authors–think Virginia Woolf and Dwight Macdonald–often spurned these realistic narratives in favor of experimental post-modern literary styles. Underscoring their disdain was an increasingly condescending attitude toward the middle class and its aspirations to bourgeois culture. As Tom Wolfe observed in 1989, “The intelligentsia have always had contempt for the realistic novel–a form that wallows so enthusiastically in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by the mob, i.e., the middle class.”

Indeed, many scholars dismissed the middle class and the middlebrow in words that sound a lot like those of the precocious, pretentious little Fanchon in Tarkington’s Penrod: “How boorjaw.”

Fast-forward to today, and the editors of Slate Magazine are claiming that the late 2000s and early 2010s can be considered the true “golden age of middlebrow art” (although I think they’re overstating their case). Certainly novels such as Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (2009) and televisions shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire reflect middlebrow values by presenting their audiences with stimulating stories while raising complicated social and moral issues.

But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t forget the middlebrow writers of an earlier time–the Booth Tarkingtons, Stephen Vincent Benets, Edna Ferbers, Fannie Hursts and others–who presented their middle-class readers with issues that continue to concern us today. Their work is in danger of being forgotten, and it shouldn’t be.

My interest in middlebrow literature focuses on the period between approximately 1920 and 1960, the eras discussed by Gordon Hutner in his pathbreaking What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 (2009). Thousands of works of middlebrow fiction were published in the United States in those decades. They share a few common characteristics: the writing style is almost always realistic, not experimental; “work” is presented as a means through which characters can earn enough money to survive, not in Marxist terms, or, for that matter, in terms of the late twentieth-century attitude toward work as a source of personal fulfillment; little was off-limits in terms of subject matter. Indeed, the range of topics they discuss is extraordinary and often resonates with what is happening in our own world. Fannie Hurst’s 1921 short story “She Walks in Beauty,” for example, appears on the surface to be about a conventional upper-middle-class widow whose daughter resists her mother’s remarriage; in fact, the daughter is trying to keep her stepfather from discovering that his new wife is a morphine addict. Edna Ferber’s 1926 Show Boat takes on issues of miscegenation, gambling addiction, prostitution, and spousal abandonment; her 1911-13 short-story cycle, collected as Roast Beef Medium, features a divorced single mother who works as a traveling saleswoman and whose experiences will resonate with many modern women. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) is about a World War II veteran who suffers from PTSD and his struggle between establishing work/life balance and pursuing the professional success required of men in his generation.

Other middlebrow fiction takes on issues of race, religion, ethnicity, social class, regional differences, and relationships between parents and children. Work and the meaning of success and failure is a frequent theme.

In this series of blogs, I’ll discuss some mid-twentieth-century middlebrow writers worth reading. I’ll start with Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber, and Stephen Vincent Benet, but there are many more almost-forgotten authors waiting to be rediscovered. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

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9 Responses to Rediscovering Middlebrow

  1. Maria and Gunther Winkler November 21, 2018 at 6:40 PM #

    We are totally impressed by your literary dedication and activism. Congratulations, Kathryn. We are looking forward to reading your blog and hearing more about these “Middlebrow” authors and their depiction of the “reality” of their times. Thank you for including us on your mailing list. – Maria and Gunther

  2. Brian Metcalfe November 22, 2018 at 5:45 AM #

    I enjoyed your piece, Kathryn. It made me think, which is always appreciated. I have read Proust, Thomas Mann and Giuseppe di Lampedusa and loved the novels, but I consider them not highbrow but great art. James Joyce and Virginia Wolf are highbrow and not particularly interesting to me.

    Where would you place Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner? These are writers we admire but seem to defy categorizing, high or middle brow.

    Your piece reminded me of a book by Alexander Ross, who writes on music for the New Yorker, ‘The Rest is Noise’. He argues that the horrors of the first world war so alienated composers from middle class values of nationalism and militarism that they wrote increasingly strident and cacaphonic music, abandoning bourgeois artistic taste in protest. This analysis also works for paining and the popularity of non-objective styles in the twentieth century, abstraction and the rest,

    Do you think the same kind of rebellion occurred in the writing of fiction and the rejection by critics of the middle brow?

    And finally — I hate to ask this — will Donald Trump drive people to reject the middle in all things, art included, for refuge in worlds that have nothing to do with the middle class that spawned him?

    You see, you did get me thinking,

    Thanks Kathryn,

    Brian Metcalfe

    Do you think

  3. Sanford Bloom November 22, 2018 at 9:09 AM #

    It is most unfortunate that Dr. Bloom’s scholarly work here has been tainted by a gratuitous irrelevant negative political attack on our president under the guise of a thoughtful question. If this kind of politically biased interchange is permitted to interfere with an otherwise wonderful and thoughtful literary discussion, I will have no interest in continuing to read or participate in what could have been a fascinating interchange of ideas stimulated by a very thoughtful piece of writing.

  4. judith stone November 22, 2018 at 9:36 AM #

    Kathryn, You’ve got me going this Tgiving morning…I am trying so hard to forget politics for a day..along comes Brian Metcalf with an observation about Trump,,,he whom Mencken would have described as a card carrying member of the “booboisie” – an understatement if ever there was one.Remember his inauguration gala – a weird collection of amateur hour talents ….he had the entire world of the arts to choose from, and he chose sad leftovers from meh TV variety shows,,,we should have known that this was a portent of what was to come…so, yes…finding refuge in excellence has become an antidote for the coarser and even criminal America…

    When I read Alistair MacLeod’s Island, or the tribute to Edna Lewis written by her friends, those were palate cleansing because they described authentic and rich lives – high toned fiction doesn’t do it for me anymore…the purity of what the unforgettable Loretta Helmsley described as ” the little people” – the ones who pay taxes….that’s my club.

    Kathryn, you rock!


  5. Howard Marder November 22, 2018 at 10:35 AM #

    Hosannahs to the highest Dr. Bloom for bringing forth a much forgotten and important segment of the fiction books that have been published over the years. A look at a search engine will reveal that the staggering number (look it up yourself) of fiction books proves that most are aimed at the “Middlebrow” audience and not at the self-appointed intelligentsia.

    Kathryn, I hope that you will look at what makes a book be defined as any type of brow or for a particular audience. Check out the best seller lists and I think that you will find that most books are aimed at the bushier brows.

    As for me let me continue to fill my Kindle with mystery writers, spymasters and comedic writers who make my reading experience enjoyable. Most are not out to prove anything except that they could finish writing a book and getting it published. So let’s keep on reading – the most important thing to do – and congratulate all the anti-intellectual readers who are just looking for a good read.

    And please, readers of this blog, keep politics out of your comments. When will you accept the reality that Hillary lost the election? You are more boring than the books claiming to be of a higher intellectual level. Looking forward to reading each and every one of your blogs Kathryn even if I’m not sure what a Humanist is or want to know.

  6. Kathryn Bloom November 27, 2018 at 3:02 PM #

    Thank you all for your varied and interesting replies! I think the comments show the depth and intensity with which we respond to the ways in which the critical issues of our own time affect middle-class Americans, and I think consideration of the middlebrow literature of the recent past can throw light on our present situation.

    You’ve all given me much to think about. Brian, I’m fascinated that you don’t consider Proust “highbrow,” mostly because I’ve never really understood what he was writing about. You and Judith have given me the names of a few writers I want to add to my reading list. Howard, do you think the “mystery..spy…and comedic writers” you refer to also throw light on the way we live now, or do you consider them purely entertainers?

    I hope you will all keep reading these blogs and responding with your thoughts and ideas.

  7. Mark Shore November 27, 2018 at 10:01 PM #

    Kathryn, Very perceptive commentary about literature from what now seems like a distant era. I am looking forward to reading your future blog entries!

  8. Howard Marder November 29, 2018 at 9:41 AM #

    Most of the writers that I allow into my library are either non-Americans writing about life in England, Italy and other countries. Then there are those Americans (like Timothy Hallinan and Dona Leon) who have lived for years abroad (he in Bangkok and she in Venice) offering a wide variety of observations of life in those countries and of matters that are prominent in the thinking in their places of habitation.

    Colin Cotterill, an English-born writer who has lived in South East Asia for many years writes about life in Laos under the communist regime as seen through the eyes of the country’s only pathologist. There are others (check out the listings published by SOHO Crime for those who write incredibly well about life in places other than the U.S.).

    My late great friend Leighton Gage was an American living in Brazil who had insights into everything from religion to soccer to corrupt politicians that was deep with the understanding of someone who had lived in a place for a very long time.

    These appear to be people who write not just to publish, but to give their observations of how people think and feel about a wide range of issues. To me they aren’t writers who just want to make a quick buck or pound or euro to tell a story that sells. Some are extremely successful and others just seem to get along until they publish their next book. I don’t think that they are writing mainly for entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with entertaining your readers. They have something to say and how they say it is intriguing to me.

    Janwillem van de Wetering, who died 10 years ago, used not only his experience in Holland but drew on his years of being deeply immersed in Buddhism to bring forth some of the most intimate details about how people think and act in his writings.

    One of the most interesting aspects of reading a particular author over his or her career is to see not only how they have developed as a writer and observer of local life, but of the world around them.

    Unfortunately some writers just stop writing because they have died or because, I assume, they have nothing else to say.

    One of the advantages of reading contemporary authors is that you can send them emails and tell them what you think about their work. For me this has led to great correspondence over the years. The authors are happy that you took the time to acknowledge their writing and thinking and to expand ideas that may have only been mentioned in their writing but which fell on the editing floor. Try to do that with Tarkington or Ferber or any of the other “intellectual” writers of the past. Wouldn’t it be great to read that Hemingway, for instance, just wanted to tell a good story to entertain his readers?

    I have lots more to say on the subject but this isn’t the place for it and I have to leave room for what you, Dr. Bloom, have to say. This is, after all, your blog and I await your wise words.

  9. Kathryn Bloom December 3, 2018 at 5:29 PM #

    Howard, Thanks for your comment. The point of this blog is to introduce readers to authors they may not have heard of, reintroduce readers to authors they may have forgotten, for me to learn about authors I’m not familiar with–and for all readers to enter into a stimulating conversation. So please keep your observations coming!

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