Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What's Middlebrow?

Why would Louis Menand in The New Yorker (9/5/11) dredge up a term, "middlebrow," which made limited sense fifty years ago and makes none now?

Faux-radical Dwight MacDonald invented the categorization in the 1950's as a way to attack novelist James Gould Cozzens. MacDonald never explained with precision what the term meant.

Was Cozzens's Guard of Honor middlebrow? The novel is complex, knowledgeable, intelligent, subtle, challenging, and difficult. Ultimately, it has more to say about the creation of American empire than any novel written. High-brow? Not really. The work is grounded in real situations and people. It presents intelligence rather than intellectualism. But in no way could it be called middlebrow.

Is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom middlebrow? The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach?

We're in vague territory. Categorizations according to "brow"-- perception and pose-- are more about standings within the society of letters than about works of literature themselves.


Jute said...

Gee, I don't know. "By Cozzens Possessed" pretty much takes the literary establishment to task and talks a lot about the book.

King Wenclas said...

It's a hatchet job on Cozzens's most successful novel, By Love Possessed, which was also not one of his best. In that work the novelist's reach exceeded his grasp.
Don't you think it's unfortunate that the author's entire long career is now judged according to that one book-- or really, that one review?
(What MacDonald does in the review is take a number of poorly written sentences out of context-- a handful of sentences out of a massive work. Couldn't one do the same thing with Faulkner? Melville? David Foster Wallace?)
Missing now, as a result, is the knowledge that Cozzens, in his understanding of how America worked, and what the people who built were like, was one of the important American novelists of the last century.
Read The Just and the Unjust and notice what perfect control Cozzens has over his material. Restraint, subtlety, form. The beauty of form itself is exhilarating. (A lost art.)
This is also the case with Guard of Honor with its interweaving threads-- all plotlines set up in the slow-building first section, the plane ride back to base with most of the key characters present. It's a textbook case of how to write a novel.
It's not an easy read, because its subject is the nature of bureaucracy itself. The novel is as complex as that bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, most literary people today live in a world divorced from how America lives, operates, works, in their isolated solipsistic bubbles. Even attempting to understand the American Machine is beyond them. Instead: navel-gazing. Regression. Ga-ga goo-goo. Shitty times.

King Wenclas said...

(That today's "intellectuals" will know MacDonald's famous essay, but not be familiar with Cozzens's ouevre, is a sign of how what's happening in universities today isn't education, but indoctrination. Assertions are being planted into malleable heads, but no one is being taught how to think.)

Jute said...

But the piece isn't intended to be a summary of Cozzens' body of work. It's a review of By Love Possessed and a survey of the way that establishment criticism lionizes a particular book in the service of the artistic and intellectual pretensions that prevail among the "middlebrow" at any given time.

I'm not sure Macdonald isn't too far behind Cozzens in the now-forgotten category. "Theory of Mass Culture" is still anthologized, but he's hardly the household name he once was.

King Wenclas said...

You have a point. But what does that mean, "middlebrow"?
MacDonald ended up doing American letters-- American culture-- a huge disservice. For all his flaws, Cozzens was a better writer-- thinker; observer-- than any American writer around now. He has supericial similarities with Franzen-- both got Time mag covers for overrated novels-- but Cozzens in fact had great knowledge about how this civilization operates, and at least in one book demonstrated that knowledge.
And no, Dwight MacDonald isn't as forgotten as Cozzens. He's obviously still embraced by many in academe, including those like Menand who wield enormous clout. The New Yorker article speaks for itself.
Where is Menand coming from? What's his overall perspective on the lit world now?