I have a coincidence to report. This morning, right before Kieran’s post went up, I was scanning (see this post, concerning my new hobby) selections from Russell Lynes’ classic essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow”, the inspiration for the Life chart on brows. Here is how Lynes tells the story in a (1979) afterword to his book, The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste [amazon], which is an out-of-print minor classic, if you ask me.
Four years before this book was published [in 1955], Chapter XVII, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine, of which I was then an editor. This chapter was written before any of the rest of the book, but it was written because of it. I thought that if I was going to write about tastemakers, I should define their quarry, and on one of several attempts to write an introductory chapter to the book, I devoted a couple of pages to highbrows, lowbrows, upper and lower middlebrows. I showed this draft to Katherine Gauss Jackson, a colleague of mine at Harper’s, who said, “You’ve got the essence of a piece here. Why don’t you write an article on brows?” So I did, and it appeared as the lead article in the February 1949 issue of Harper’s. Several weeks later Life magazine, which was at the time “the king of the visual media,” did an article about my article and published a pictorial chart illustrating the several “brow levels” of American taste at that time. Since then this article (later the chapter only slightly revised) has had an independent life of its own, and though I invented none of them, the words highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow, with its subdivisions into upper and lower, have become part of the language of taste along with “tastemakers,” which was, so far as I know, my coinage.
I can think of no better way to indicate the changes in taste that have occurred in the last quarter of a century than to reproduce here the Life chart, in which I had the controlling hand, and to note what has happened in the interim …”
Lynes concludes thusly:
As I look at the chart, which a Life editor and I concocted over innumerable cups of coffee years ago, it strikes me, as it must you, that what was highbrow then has become distinctly upper middlebrow today. The rate of change, indeed, is about the same as that which is demonstrated in the chart showing what happened between the 1850S and the 1950S [I’ll reproduce these charts below]. Who regards an Eames chair as highbrow now? Or ballet, or an unwashed salad bowl or a Calder stabile? They have all become thoroughly upper middlebrow, and what was upper has become lower. Only the lowbrow line of the chart makes spiritual if not literal sense. Today television would find itself at all levels of the chart in ways, as we have noted, too obvious to define. The “pill” has taken the glamor out of Planned Parenthood as an upper middlebrow cause, and Art and The Environment are now their causes instead … and so on. Even if the shapes of the pieces have changed, and the board looks quite different, the basic rules seem to me much the same as they have been since Andrew Jackson Downing set about in the 1840s to make our forebears lead harmonious lives in tasteful surroundings.
“Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” is a fun read. When it comes to brow-flexing, to hold back the forces of evil, it’s a tough call whether the prize goes to Sammo Hung, for his role as Longbrow in Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983), or to Clement Greenberg for his role as Highbrow, getting quoted saying this sort of thing: “It must be obvious to anyone that the volume and social weight of middlebrow culture, borne along as it has been by the great recent increase in the American middle class, have multiplied at least tenfold in the past three decades. This culture presents a more serious threat to the genuine article than the old-time pulp dime novel, Tin Pan Alley, Schund variety ever has or will. Unlike the latter, which has its social limits clearly marked out for it, middlebrow culture attacks distinctions as such and insinuates itself everywhere …. Insidiousness is of its essence, and in recent years its avenues of penetration have become infinitely more difficult to detect and block.”
Lyne is bemused by such stuff:
The popular press, and also much of the unpopular press, is run by the middlebrows, and it is against them that the highbrow inveighs.
“The true battle,” wrote Virginia Woolf in an essay called “Middlebrow” (she was the first, I believe, to define the species) lies not between the highbrows and the lowbrows joined together in blood brotherhood but against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between. . . . Highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living.”
Pushing Mrs. Woolf’s definition a step further, the pests divide themselves into two groups: the upper middlebrows and the lower middlebrows. It is the upper middlebrows who are the principal purveyors of highbrow ideas and the lower middlebrows who are the principal consumers of what the upper middlebrows pass along to them.
And we’re off! But you should probably start by reading the original Woolf essay (really, a letter), which some months ago my friend Josh Glenn very kindly and shrewdly and thoughtfully posted on his site, Hilo, which is all about this stuff, and then some. Here is Woolf, coining the term:
Lowbrows need highbrows and honour them just as much as highbrows need lowbrows and honour them. This too is not a matter that requires much demonstration. You have only to stroll along the Strand on a wet winter’s night and watch the crowds lining up to get into the movies. These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see what their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it. Yet nothing interests them more. Nothing matters to them more. It is one of the prime necessities of life to them — to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. Since they are the only people who do not do things, they are the only people who can see things being done. This is so — and so it is I am certain; nevertheless we are told — the air buzzes with it by night, the press booms with it by day, the very donkeys in the fields do nothing but bray it, the very curs in the streets do nothing but bark it — “Highbrows hate lowbrows! Lowbrows hate highbrows!” — when highbrows need lowbrows, when lowbrows need highbrows, when they cannot exist apart, when one is the complement and other side of the other! How has such a lie come into existence? Who has set this malicious gossip afloat?
There can be no doubt about that either. It is the doing of the middlebrows. They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality. They are the go–betweens; they are the busy–bodies 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. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between.
The puzzle about where the middle-brows can possibly live has been pursued down the decades to this very day. In the very best and most thoughtful book on the subject ever written – that would be Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3) [amazon] – the author quotes a baffled British critic, wondering where all the Celine Dion fans can possibly live. “Wedged between vomit and indifference, there must be a fan base: some middle-of-the-road Middle England invisible to the rest of us, Grannies, tux-wearers, overweight children, mobile-phone salesmen and shopping centre-devotees, presumably.”
But I promised you Lyne’s original, pre-Life charts. Here they are. (The one on the bottom is supposed to be on the facing page. So the top level is high, the middle middle and the bottom low. Obviously.)