Defining the Middlebrow

Why does middlebrow matter?

The study of middlebrow culture matters because it illuminates a set of tastes, institutions and social practices associated primarily with the aspirational middle class in the early to mid-twentieth century, and because it helps us understand the relationship between elite, popular and ‘intermediate’ cultural production. It matters especially now because the emergence of middlebrow cultural products in the decades following the First World War was, primarily, a result of technical innovations in printing, distribution, recording, and broadcasting. This relates directly to trends in our own time, since the internet has not only resulted in a vast renaissance of textual production, but has also generated new internationalised audiences and interpretive communities which echo the middlebrow cultural formations of the earlier twentieth century. Examples include electronic book clubs, online magazines, and diaries and blogs which recall the Mass Observation project.

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How has ‘middlebrow’ been defined?

The quotations below offer points of departure for understanding what ‘middlebrow’ might have meant in earlier periods, and how academic critics are attempting to address it today.

Dictionary definitions and first usages

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘middlebrow’, both n. and a. is colloq. Freq. derogatory.

adj. Of a person: only moderately intellectual; of average or limited cultural interests (sometimes with the implication of pretensions to more than this). Of an artistic work, etc.: of limited intellectual or cultural value; demanding or involving only a moderate degree of intellectual application, typically as a result of not deviating from convention.

The first documented usage of the term is in the Irish Freeman’s Journal, 3 May 1924:

“Ireland’s musical destiny, in spite of what the highbrows or the middlebrows may say, is intimately bound up with the festivals.”

A rather more revealing instance is in Punch, 23 December 1925:

“The B.B.C. claim to have discovered a new type, the ‘middlebrow’. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.”

Critical definitions

“As the Twenties lapsed into the Thirties, it may here be noted, the low-brow public in Great Britain gradually grew up. The sharpening of its critical sense by slicker cinema-pictures sharpened its literary judgement too: the annals of the Land of Tosh no longer carried wide conviction and the mezzo-brow ‘Book of the Month’ choice of the dailies became (through the Twopenny Libraries) the shop-girls’ reading too – or such of them as did not sweep all modern fiction aside as ‘capitalistic dope’. Even Elinor Glyn’s passionate novels then appeared a little grotesque, with their tiger-skin and orchid settings; and, aware of the growing influence of famous book-reviewers on the semi-literate public, she ceased to send out review-copies of her new books.”

– Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Long Week-End (Faber and Faber, 1940), p. 52

“[Middlebrows are] the go-between; they are the busybodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief – the middlebrows, I repeat. But what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low.”

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Middlebrow’ in The Death of the Moth (Hogarth Press, 1947; first published 1942), p. 115

“The Book Clubs [. . .] are instruments not for improving taste but for standardising it at the middlebrow level.”

– Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Pimlico, 2000; first published 1932), p. 229

“Middle-brow art [. . .] is characterized by tried and proven techniques and an oscillation between plagiarism and parody most often linked with either indifference or conservatism.”

- Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (Polity, 1993), p. 128

“It is not true that men don’t read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel – the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel – seems to exist only for women.”

– George Orwell, ‘Bookshop Memories’ in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol 1, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (Secker and Warburg, 1969; article first published 1936) p. 244

“Middlebrow culture is the ambivalent mediation of high culture within the field of the mass cultural.”

– John Guillory, ‘The Ordeal of Middlebrow Culture’, Review of The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, Transition, no 67 (1995), pp. 82-92, p. 87

“[The practices of the American Book-of-the-Month Club appear] implicitly constructed with an eye towards academic ways of evaluating books. Middlebrow culture, apparently, defined itself, first, against academic ways of seeing. [. . .] Despite the traditional claim that middlebrow culture simply apes the values of high culture, it is in fact a kind of counterpractice to the high culture tastes and proclivities that have been most insistently legitimated and nurtured in academic English departments for the last fifty years or so.”

– Janice A. Radway, A Feeling for Books: Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste and Middle-Class Desire (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 9-10

“The periodical forms of popular modernism – cartoons, newspaper columns, farcical sketches, short fiction, and the glossy magazines of urban life – comprised the most prominent area in the 1920s for the negotiation of modern selfhood, a selfhood that came to be (and in many ways, still is) defined by irony, urbanity, and humor. More than any other discursive project of the time, middle-brow culture made modern selfhood its explicit and relentless business. Meeting modernity head-on, it answered the crisis of value and dislocation with the heartbreakingly (and deceptively) simple panacea of style.”

– Nina Miller, Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary Women (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 88

“The broad working definition I employ throughout this book is that the middlebrow novel is one that straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort. It is an essentially parasitical form, dependent on the existence of both a high and a low brow for its identity, reworking their structures and aping their insights, while at the same time fastidiously holding its skirts away from lowbrow contamination, and gleefully mocking highbrow intellectual pretensions.”

– Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 11-12

“Despite its genesis in the railway library of the 1860s [. . .] the classic library series, though also cheap and reliant upon noncopyright single- volume works, very quickly came to stand for something quite unrelated to travel and transience, and took on a very different set of cultural meanings. These meanings are rooted in self- help, the rise of the suburban bourgeoisie, and a subtle shift in the position of the publisher in the literary field.”

– Mary Hammond, Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880–1914 (Ashgate, 2006), p. 86

“The term ‘middlebrow’, in order to be an effective critical category for the consideration of interwar literature, needs to be [. . .] reconstituted as a productive, affirmative standpoint for writers who were not wholly aligned with either high modernism or popular culture. It is important to recognize the forms of stylistic experimentation which middlebrow writers engaged in, and which are often overlooked because they do not correspond to the experimental strategies of high modernism.”

– Faye Hammill, Women, Celebrity and Literary Culture Between the Wars (University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 6

“In the 1920s and 1930s, [. . .] symphonic jazz in the form of dance band arranging and popular concert works [. . .]  was a stylistically heterogeneous idiom [. . .] During the 1930s and 1940s, most contemporary critics damned this miscegenation of concert hall culture, entertainment intent, jazz, dance band arranging, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and quasi-symphonic instrumentation as mongrel, middlebrow culture.”

– John Howland, Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and the Birth of Concert Jazz (University of Michigan Press, 2009)

“‘Middlebrow culture,’ here, includes the increasing number of apparatuses for learning ‘high culture’—the literary and other artistic productions designated as legitimate, as well as the reading strategies needed to understand them—that appeared in the United States from the 1890s forward.  New magazines promised national audiences outside the upper middle class that they too could read the best literature; book clubs kept gads of subscribers stocked in the best new quality reads; and writers started making money by summing up everything you needed to know, to be in the know, about history and art.  This new middlebrow culture was not synonymous with mass culture but used the productive capacities of mass culture to capitalize on the new and growing obsession with cultural legitimacy.”

– Daniel Tracy, ‘Investing in “Modernism”: Smart Magazines, Parody, and Middlebrow Professional Judgment’, Journal of Modern Periodical Studies vol 1, no 1 (2010)

“What is the impact of social mobility, which occurred [. . .] on an unprecedented national scale from [the 1960s] onward, on the domestic cinema? [. . .] from the 1970s onwards a whole new category of film comes into existence [. . .]  The denomination ‘middle-class film’ foregrounds the audience at which such films were aimed, but I argue that the pursuit of this new audience also transformed the films’ aesthetics.  Textual analysis reveals that these films charted an original terrain that was in-between previous ‘art’ and ‘popular’ alternatives: I argue that the best way of analyzing this in-betweenness is with the term ‘middlebrow’.”

– Sally Faulkner, A History of Spanish Film: Cinema and Society, 1910-2010 (Bloomsbury, 2013)

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Where should I start in reading about the middlebrow?

Please see our Bibliography page, and especially the Recommended Starting Points at the top. Two of the recommended items are open-access journal issues devoted to the topic of middlebrow.

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How does the Middlebrow Network think about the middlebrow?

Below are the intellectual aims which guide the research of the Network. They give some insight into the ways in which we have been thinking about the term and its complex meanings.

  • To chart the ways in which the term ‘middlebrow’ was used in the twentieth century, considering how its definitions travelled around the world, and exploring the cultural pressures, anxieties, and aspirations which determined its use as a critical and evaluative concept.
  • To examine whether there is such a thing as a ‘middlebrow aesthetic’ in literature, the arts and entertainment. If so, to analyse its relationship to prestige and popular cultural movements, to processes of canon formation, and to class hierarchy and discourses of taste.
  • To map the connections between middlebrow institutions and literary/cultural texts from the interwar era, their turn-of-the-century predecessors, and their later twentieth-century successors.
  • To advance understanding of the relationship of interwar middlebrow texts to particular kinds of publications (especially periodicals); to institutions such as book clubs, libraries, cinemas and broadcasters; and to geographical and historical formations relating to nation and empire, class, domesticity, gender, and landscape.
  • To explore the gendered and racialised dimensions of the middlebrow, considering in particular the persistent association of the middlebrow with the feminine, and also the phrenological derivation of the term & its 19th-century deployment in the determination of racial types.
  • To advance interdisciplinary research into the material production, dissemination and reception of middlebrow films, music, books and journals, and also into middlebrow audiences and interpretive communities. This includes study of patterns of reading, book buying and cultural consumption, as well as leisure and entertainment.
  • To debate the potential of ‘middlebrow’, related terms such as ‘broadbrow’, ‘intermodernism’, ‘domestic modernism’, ‘suburban’, and ‘nobrow’ as categories in contemporary critical discourses.
  • Lastly, by extending understanding of debates about middlebrow taste, to furnish researchers with a more precise map of the early twentieth-century cultural landscape in different countries, and a framework for individual historical or critical studies.

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