“Middlebrow” Shouldn’t Mean “Mediocre”, But It Does, So Let’s Get Rid of It!

(Soundtrack: Phil Spector — Back To Mono, Volume One)

I love Van Wyck Brooks. I don’t think he was right about very much–but I guess I’m peculiar: I look to scholarship for thrills, not corroboration of my own ideas (it’s not impossible to find both of these things in the same work–Perry Miller does it for me!–but it’s not necessary). Let’s just say that there are few books I like flipping through more than The Flowering of New England (the whole Makers & Finders series is wonderful, in fact) and The Life of Emerson

Why am I talking about Van Wyck Brooks?

Well, first Marc Singer protested against the “middlebrow” sensibilities of the comix intelligentsia, then Rose Curtin (in Marc’s comments) wondered: “But how do you tell what brow superhero comics hit?”, and then JW Hastings, waded intelligently into the cordial melee, describing this endless “browbeating” as nothing more than wrangling over status:

1) You can’t use “middlebrow” pejoratively—“to designate the timid experimentalists and the sanctioned rebels, the shallowly intellectual and the pretentious but lazy”—without buying into Woolf’s “outmoded elitism.”

2) If you do use the word pejoratively, you’re acting out of the anxiety of not being a cultural gatekeeper—of not having any cultural clout.

So much cultural criticism is actually nothing more than a struggle over status. That’s why The New York Review of Books-crowd trashes Steven King novels and why King and his supporters trash the NYRB-crowd. If you can’t get what you want—whether money, fame, or critical acceptance—you might as well snub the other guy. That’s also why comics fans can’t help getting involved in debates about super-hero comics. Even if they have no real interest in super-hero comics, that the super-hero will be forever linked with the American comic book is a source of embarrassment for many art comics aficionados who have some stake in the cultural status of comics.

Again, what does this have to do with Brooks? Well, I thought he might have something to contribute to this discussion, since he came up with the whole “brow” system in America’s Coming-of-Age (1915)….

Brooks is not even primarily concerned with art in this particular book–he simply deplores the prevailing notion that “culture” and “fun” are mutually irreconcilable (his favourite binary is the stark, impractical theology of Jonathan Edwards vs. the business-culture mantras of Benjamin Franklin). It’s the old “if it tastes good, it can’t be good for ya” line of reasoning. And, of course, that’s nonsense. Brooks knew it. I know it. You know it. The problem is that, if “high” and “low” brows are taken, you’ve gotta go for the “middle”–and if you hang onto these distinctions, you may very quickly find yourself defending mediocrity, without even meaning to.

That’s why I’d prefer to see these terms done away with completely. See, I agree with J.W. that Peanuts and the Silver Age Marvels are brilliant and unique products of American culture–but I’d like to be able to say that without perching them on a brow.

Let’s take Virginia Woolf, for example. I like some of her work. I like Lytton Strachey even more. The Bloomsbury gang definitely thought of themselves as “highbrows”. But what right did they really have to such a title? Well, basically, they thought that they were at odds with their own society. Of course they weren’t really. If they had been, they would not have been able to live off of the proceeds of their writings… That’s the liberal-democratic paradox–you can’t be in sync with society unless you feel out of sync with it! As Sacvan Bercovitch would say: it’s an oppositional culture.

If you say something that people prove they aren’t interested in hearing by staying away from you, you are a “highbrow”. If they do happen to flock to your work, you become a “middlebrow”. And it’s probably not because you’ve “condescended” to “their” values. It’s the effective expression of personality (not “ideas”) that matters. Charles Schulz invokes classical music, Tolstoy, and anything else he happens to be thinking about while he’s stting at the drawing board, and no one thinks of “Peanuts” as a “highbrow” strip. Is it because he mixes in Snoopy’s antics and baseball games? No. It’s because people like it.

And that’s a good thing. As an artist, you want people to like what you do, don’t you?

And they aren’t going to love it if they feel “pandered to”, so let’s dispense with that chimera, okay?

Basically, what I’m saying is–I like “middlebrow” stuff, I just don’t like the term “middlebrow”, because it drags in associations of “intellectualism” “watered down” for “the masses”. Good thought is not only “good” in itself, it’s goddamn entertaining to boot. You don’t have to “water down” nothin’!

I don’t accept the “brow” system, because it leads to the assignation of the term “middlebrow” to something like Giffen/DeMatteis’ throwaway parody Justice League. That’s not “middlebrow”. That’s just mediocre. There’s a difference. Or, at least, there ought to be.

Soon: a review of Astronauts in Trouble, which I’m really enjoying + Librairie Astro informs me that my copy of The Filth is in (yes, I worked an extra shift in order to get it!), so expect a lot of material about that very shortly!

Good Day Friends!



  1. One of the reasons I enjoy reading the Victorians (besides the fact that I’ll eventually be paid for having done so) is that, especially in the last few decades of the 19th century, there was no divide between High and Low art (supposedly gutter works, like penny dreadfuls and dime novels, aside), so you had Henry James and HG Wells and F Marion Crawford and Vernon Lee all being considered on more-or-less the same level. If I’m remembering correctly, James even talked (briefly but seriously) about collaborating with Wells on a sequel to War of the Worlds. It never happened, of course, and more’s the pity, but just the fact that a darling of the intelligentsia could contemplate such a thing, without shame, tells you how different the tone of the times was. (Contrast that with Margaret Atwood’s shameful Road Runner-like flight from the phrase “science fiction” to describe her own work).

    If we do keep the “brow” system, we need a term that describes literature for the brow of someone who regularly headbutts other people–the type of person who enjoys Chuck Dixon’s work. Maybe “widebrow,” playing on “wideboy”?


  2. I agree Jess–we can learn a lot from 19th century modes of thought–especially regarding aesthetics.


  3. Dave, Actually, it’s the fact that Schulz invokes Tolstoy and classical music in a comic strip that makes his work middlebrow.

    In general, though, I agree. The cultural moment when talking about the middlebrow-highbrow divide has passed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s