Is “Middlebrow” Still An Insult?

David Haglund

This week, NYRB Classics has reissued Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by Dwight Macdonald. The book, first published in 1962 (and then called Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture), now has an introduction from New Yorker writer Louis Menand, who calls the title essay “a kind of summa of the New York highbrow’s contempt for bourgeois culture.”

Macdonald believed culture had been corrupted by commercialism: Authentic “Folk Art” had given way to money-driven “Masscult,” popular entertainment churned out by, for instance, Hollywood studios—and the entirely new category of “Midcult” had appeared, which aped “High Culture” in “the service of the banal.” (Among his primary examples: Our Town by Thornton Wilder.)

Nowadays, of course, such disdain for lowbrow fare is decidedly unfashionable; we live in an age of “Unibrowism,” as Menand calls it (or “Nobrow,” to use John Seabrook’s term). And the manifesto by Macdonald, much as I wanted to like it (Macdonald is an endearing figure in many ways—plus, my dad lent me a copy of Against the American Grain when I was in college; he especially liked Macdonald’s takedown of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible), seems frankly snobbish and unappealing.

But it does raise an interesting question. While unabashedly lowbrow art has long ceased to be disreputable, has the term “middlebrow” also lost its sting?

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phrenology Phrenological head and chart by M. Nutting, 1857.

Public domain/Library of Congress.

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