Need a break from the monotony of grading? Read Jennifer Szalai’s provocative review of the new collection of Dwight Macdonald’s essays, edited by John Summers, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. The essay raises a number of important questions, such as the following few: Is it a worthwhile endeavor to create hierarchies of cultural taste? Now or ever? Can high culture be democratized without losing its Avant-Garde critical edge?
This last question is particularly important in the work of our very own Tim Lacy, who is writing a book on the history of the Great Books project championed by Mortimer Adler (Macdonald was a harsh critic of the Great Books, made clear in Szalai’s review). As Tim argues, Adler and his cohort believed democracy and high culture, or scholasticism, should go well together. This was their intellectual rationale for the Great Books. But Tim also makes clear that, despite such noble impulses, the Great Books must be understood in terms of commerce. As such, he analyzes the ways in which the Great Books operated not only as an intellectual and democratizing project, but also as a moneymaking venture. Great Books salespeople frightened their customers into buying their product, playing on the status anxieties of parents who sought to raise successful children in a society that increasingly valued education as necessary cultural capital. So it seems Tim both agrees and disagrees with Macdonald, who saw the Great Books as hopelessly midcult. For those interested, Tim makes the case for Great Books Liberalism in one of his more memorable posts.
Szalai is ultimately very critical of Macdonald’s analysis of taste. Here’s a “taste” of her analysis:
So much of Macdonald’s critical system relies on distinctions of “taste” that it’s curious how uncritically he trusted the term, using it as shorthand whenever he made a tenuous claim he couldn’t argue his way out of. But taste is a slippery concept, one that is informed, arguably or inevitably, by wealth, birth and education. Taste is cultural capital, and making distinctions of what is in good taste and bad is a way for social classes to distinguish themselves from and compete with one another. Macdonald took his Marxist critique only so far; he could see how culture could be commodified and manufactured, and how the masses were buying cultural products they believed could hoist them up into the rarefied ranks of the elite, but he assumed that tastes were a given, which meant he sometimes wrote as if his own good taste were the inevitable result of, well, good taste. This circular reasoning is less a problem in his reviews of specific books or movies, where it was incumbent on him to explain why exactly he liked or disliked the work in question, but in a big essay like “Masscult and Midcult,” he could get swept away by the swell of generalization, as presumptuous of mass taste as he was of his own.
If, as he believed, taste was inviolable, then so much middlebrow striving was bound to be a sad little exercise in futility. Any attempt by the masses to edify themselves was like a children’s game—they were playing dress-up with clothes ten sizes too big. The Great Books project, midlist fiction, publications from the “Lucepapers” to Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly: if it was aimed at a general audience, it was a candidate for his derision