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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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.