Elegy for the Middle Brow


Durer's engraving of Philip Melanchthon 1526Three Finger Brown Andrea Doria  Liberty Dime carusovictorad



I’m not certain this is true (the way I know that the Andrea Doria sank or that Three Finger Brown triumphed over missing two fingers to be a successful baseball pitcher in the early years of the 20th century or that the poet Wallace Stevens’ wife Elsie Kachel posed for the figure of Lady Liberty on the “Mercury Dime” or that that Enrico Caruso single handedly brought the arias of Verdi to rural people or the way I know the lyrics to “Mairzy Dotes”) and with all due floridity, I’m unclear about the matter, but I believe the United States has now officially lost “middle brow” culture and has dropped into the phrenological cellar. I take no pleasure saying so.

I don’t like saying that things were once better. In general I’d rather have my teeth out than adopt this perfervid and quasi-reactionary position. Would rather have someone bind my feet…

By the mid ‘60’s America was precisely middle brow. Those of us who were old enough to sneer back then sneered. We watched television and heard Eric Sevareid intone that democracy in the U.S. was still intact; (“Thank God,” my father said. “The hymen isn’t broken.”) We saw William F. Buckley Jr. interviewing Allen Ginsberg (“He is the Hippie’s Hippie; the contrarian’s contrarian—in appearance he will  wear his hair long until others do and then he shall cut it…”) We listened as Leonard Bernstein explained by the Kinks and the Beatles had classical talents.

I never thought I’d be nostalgic for those days.

But I am.

Back in the old times Middle brow was a term of contempt—designating a vaguely wasteful largesse, the ill advised notion that one could raise up the proles.  

Ah for those days.

Nowatimes we’re in the post-prole era when even the vanguard organs of cultural reception can print sentences like this one:


“The title of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel suggests a cityscape that is both unwell and bedeviled by repetition.”

The sentence is is by Charles Baxter, an otherwise stolid novelist and short story writer. The mixed metaphors are both a tooth ache and a soil erosion of sensibility.


The problem is that sensibility, once a high brow ideal, then briefly a brass ring of the hopeful middle brow, is now like one of those quaint artifacts retrieved from a time capsule. “Look! Here’s a lock of Nellie Melba’s hair!”





0 thoughts on “Elegy for the Middle Brow

  1. This is pretty much the argument Terry Teachout makes and I agree with you both. I miss Ed Sullivan bringing us both Maria Callas and Senor Wences every Sunday night.


  2. Oh, as one who interacts with younger university students weekly, I’m pretty sure you can count on some major eye rolling.


  3. I envision your younger university students rolling their eyes with many a furtive sidelong glance to their fellow students for sympathy if you go on like this in class.


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