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I see your middlebrow and raise you an upper-middle brow

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 2, 2013 02:45 PM

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Maybe you’ve been feeling like your cultural choices aren’t getting their due. You have no illusion that your tastes in books, television, music, etc. run towards high art, but that would make you nothing more than "middlebrow" -- and surely you’re doing better than that?

Enter William Deresiewicz. In a recent post on The American Scholar, the former Yale English professor takes issue with the prevailing cultural taxonomy, which he traces to Dwight Macdonald’s 1960 essay, “Masscult and Midcult.” Macdonald set up three tranches: Mass culture (i.e. pop culture or entertainment); Midcult (pop culture masquerading as art); and High culture (avant-garde art that most of us never see).

To that hierarchy Deresiewicz wants to add a fourth category, what he calls “upper middle brow.” He explains that upper middle brow culture “possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity” which elevates it above plain middle brow, but that unlike high culture, “It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb…our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.”

Slotting specific items is a fun if inevitably self-congratulating and disdainful kind of game. Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides might dispute the treatment Deresiewicz gives them; Wes Anderson and Jonathan Lethem are more likely to accept their places. Take a look at where Deresiewicz puts other big names in American culture and you’ll have no shortage of dinner table conversation anytime soon.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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