Thousands of Americans bought into the intellectual with the Great Books series
A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
By Alex Beam
PublicAffairs, 245 pp., illustrated, $24.95
Where shall wisdom be found?
Actually, the problem defies solution. For centuries, sages and charlatans alike grappled with Job's question. None succeeded in any comprehensive sense. Yet in April 1952, thanks to the beneficent geniuses at the University of Chicago, and their marketing partners at Encyclopedia Britannica, wisdom was located: It appeared on doorsteps throughout the country, neatly packaged in 54 beautiful, faux-leather-bound volumes that contained 443 works by the 74 most powerful male minds in human history.
Yes, that year "The Great Books of the Western World," containing the entirety of wisdom that mattered, became available to you for the low, low price of $10 down and $10 a month.
It feels alien now, but as Alex Beam argues in "A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books," this conceit of wisdom on the installment plan typifies an odd period in American - or, to be more precise, middlebrow American - intellectual history. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the country was aflame with a thirst for, as Beam writes, "intellectual diversions [that found] favor with the middle class - the Book of the Month Club, the popular histories of Will and Ariel Durant, newspaper book reviews" - and the Great Books were the most ambitious, least practical manifestation of this trend.
As fads go, Great Books fever had deep roots. Beam, a Globe columnist, names Victorian England as the time and place that gave birth to the fetish of the great, at least in its bookish form. In the mid-1800s, he writes, London paid rapt attention to debates about the "supreme" authors such as Shakespeare and some person named Kempis. Leaping from England to 20th-century America, Beam claims that the modern "history of the Great Books proceeds on two tracks: college courses and adult education," both of which owe their existence, in great part, to the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of American higher education: Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, and his crony Mortimer Adler.
Beam devotes significant space to the trajectory of great books curriculums at such universities as Hutchins's Chicago and Adler's Columbia, but that portion of the story isn't very compelling. With one exception, striking in its brevity - a swift acknowledgment of the culture wars that "effectively buried the Great Books in a blizzard of anti-Establishment, multicultural rhetoric" and the subsequent Allan Bloom-led co-opting of the established canon by cultural conservatives - much of the institutional history detailed by Beam is dry. Peering through the fog of the canon wars has fatigued us all, but Beam, in effect, omits discussion of one of the most heated controversies in 20th-century humanistic scholarship, a controversy essential to any discussion of the Great Books. (In the failed 1990 re-issue of "The Great Books of the Western World" the editors conceded spots for four women, but no people of color.) Beam isn't working up a monograph on the culture wars, but the absence is noticeable.
Beyond this, though, we get to the heart of "A Great Idea at the Time": the improbable story of thousands of Americans eager to purchase such abstruse items as Apollonius of Perga's "On Conic Sections." Perhaps picking up on the enthusiasms of the time, Hutchins, unlikely populist that he was, felt that the knowledge embedded in the great texts were essential to a civic-minded polity. He wanted to make that knowledge available to all, so he and Adler led the nine-year, multimillion-dollar effort to select, edit, and market the Great Books to the emerging postwar middle class.
The Great Books sold briskly - often much quicker than they were read. As Beam writes in a typical passage, "Thousands [of book sets] became adornments, either in corporate offices or in the kind of living rooms that functioned as imagined 'salons,' spaces so tidy and vacuumed that family members never dared set foot in them." Soon, though, sales plummeted. Salesmen began to prey on middle-class insecurities, the direct opposite of Hutchins's intention. To bolster sales, Britannica authorized salesmen to present themselves as professors from the University of Chicago, a highly effective strategy at a time when professors were widely viewed as legitimate cultural authorities.
In addition to the eventual discovery of this snake-oil manipulation, the Great Books suffered assaults from the nation's intellectual classes. The books were representative of what was coming to be called middlebrow culture - considered worse than lowbrow because it defames the legitimate objects and ideas that hoi polloi so brazenly see fit to play with. A child of middlebrow upbringing myself, I can't pretend not to have a dog in this fight, but with Beam, I will concede a key point to the critics: Due to Hutchins's ideas about intellectual and textual integrity, the books lacked contextualization. No introductions. No footnotes. Information shorn of context isn't wisdom, it's long-winded aphorism.
So what happened to the Great Books? TV, of course. But the books live, Beam suggests as he closes his witty, wry history, and not only in the few remaining Great Books reading groups, but in the spirit of such ventures as "One Day University," and even on syllabi in universities of the four-year nature. Beam is justifiably heartened by this, as he is by the curious nature of human curiosity.
Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.