What intrigues me about the use of the concept of middlebrow, in these and other writers, is that they write of it with a warmth and respect that one can barely imagine anyone bringing to the concept of the highbrow as such (though people do, of course, still write lovingly about particular highbrow works). It is hard to coax a single definition of middlebrow out of all these essays, but there are a few threads we can pull together. Middlebrow unifies; it mediates; it educates. It addresses both heart and mind. (So do opera, ballet, epic poetry—but once we’ve called something “highbrow,” we no longer need to look at it.) Middlebrow is good for you. All of these writers frame middlebrow as a thing in need of defense, even though the specific works they want to defend seem quite safe—safer, surely, than the opera, the ballet, or the long, allusive, heady, postmodern novel. They talk about middlebrow in the way we talk about things we feel in danger of losing through a failure to appreciate them. How did a word that sounds like an insult come to acquire such emotional coloring? To answer that question, we must look to its history.
Having just mentioned middlebrow culture in a recent post, I had to smile as Christman’s excellent essay came along to make clear to me that I don’t exactly know what I meant by the term, or even how I feel about it. While I’m sitting here in my ambivalent confusion wondering if I know anything at all, you might enjoy reading the essay yourself.