The Embarrassment of the Middle Class(es): Review of Consuming Pleasures by Daniel Horowitz, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies by John Sbardellati, and Literate Zeal by Janet Carey Eldred

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

by Daniel Horowitz

University of Pennsylvania Press



J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War

by John Sbardellati

Cornell University Press



Literate Zeal: Gender and the Making of a “New Yorker” Ethos

by Janet Carey Eldred

University of Pittsburgh Press


For too long we’ve been playing fast and loose with the term middle class. Most everybody says they’re members of it—according to pollsters, about 85 percent of Americans claim that status. A fifth of Americans living below the poverty line self-identify as middle class, and nine of ten Americans making $125,000 a year (more than twice the median) say the same thing. Americans find it distasteful to claim they are upper class and disgraceful to admit they are lower class.

This fuzziness has consequences. As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has pointed out, the term middle class has split in two: social class refers to one thing and economic class to another, with the result that the one term effaces all economic differences. As Nunberg puts it, the term “substitutes values and lifestyle aspirations for more unforgiving realities of income and educational level.” We want to tell ourselves that ours is a middle-class (i.e., classless) society in which basic equality has been achieved and meritocracy is the rule of the day—never mind that since the mid-1970s the gap between rich and poor has widened to the point that we are now back at a level of inequality we had not experienced since the Gilded Age.

Fortunately, we’re beginning to cut through some of this fog. The Occupy movement, for instance, got us talking about the 1%. This has reminded us just how rich some people are and made it harder for the Right to whine about “class warfare” every time somebody mentions inequality, outsourcing, marginal tax rates, or offshore accounts.

Which is not to say there is no middle class at all. It’s there, but it has changed in character and we must define it more clearly so as to understand its role in the struggle for a just and equitable society. But who is middle class? For too long Marxists have held too tightly to the formulation Marx and Engels put forth in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.” Well, they haven’t disappeared. They’ve transformed themselves and proved resilient. Marxist thinker Erik Olin Wright calls this surprising adaptability “the ‘embarrassment’ of the middle classes.” The old middle class of farmers, artisans, and small-town entrepreneurs has become a new middle class of salaried urban and suburban professionals, what John and Barbara Ehrenreich called the professional-managerial class, or PMC. Writing in 1977 at the beginning of the Cultural Turn, the Ehrenreichs emphasized the part culture played in the consolidation of this new class. They pointed out that the PMC was defined not only by its role within the modern corporation but also by the fact that its members possessed university credentials, suburban homes, and particular cultural aspirations.

Those aspirations were, and, I would argue, are, largely middlebrow.

The new professionals were, according to according to Pierre Bourdieu, the primary consumers of middlebrow culture. They were fundamentally middle-class autodidacts, possessed of some new capital but of relatively little cultural capital. They lacked the background, education, and geographic proximity to the cultural centers that would grant them easy access to high or what he calls “legitimate” culture. Eager to distinguish themselves, they tried to purchase such culture by subscribing to the right magazines, joining book clubs, taking up the “interesting” hobbies, and enrolling in classes.

Critics such as Terry Teachout, John Seabrook, and Curtis White argue that the Age of Middlebrow is over. Teachout, for instance, asserts that “a great divide” now separates “middlebrow America from postmodern America.” For him, middlebrow culture reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, when one could read about Willem de Kooning in the pages of Life magazine or see Maria Callas and Señor Wences on the same Ed Sullivan Show, but began its descent in the late 1970s. The personalized marketing of the Internet, the “narrow casting” of cable stations, the digitizing of all forms of information (including music and books), and the globalization of media conglomerates have presented Americans with many new choices, says Teachout, but these changes have also left them with a fragmented set of tastes and a fraying sense of community.

Others are not so quick to say that the Age of Middlebrow is over or that the term has lost its relevance. Ed Sullivan, Omnibus, and the Book-of-the-Month Club may be dead, but Terry Gross, the New Yorker, and Downton Abbey are very much alive. Our new Gilded Age presents the middle class with new cultural challenges, but the hunger for status has not abated. Many Americans hold ever more tightly to middlebrow cultural markers, markers that tell them they are still middle class even though they’ve lost their homes and their pensions. In all likelihood they’ve never read Bourdieu, but their behavior is in keeping with his most famous precept: “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.”

Recognizing the role that cultural taste has played and continues to play in class construction, and more specifically the role that middlebrow culture plays in middle-class life, cultural historians such as Janice Radway and Joan Shelley Rubin have begun to focus on what Rubin calls “the making of middlebrow culture.” Building on the work of the Ehrenreichs and informed by the theories of Bourdieu, Radway and Rubin have analyzed middlebrow institutions such as the Great Books initiative, radio quiz shows, and the Book-of-the-Month Club in order to see what they might tell us about our present condition. But the study of middlebrow culture has not proceeded as fast as it might, largely because, as historian Nicola Hubble nicely put it, “‘middlebrow’ has always been a dirty word.” It is associated with boring Babbittry, watered-down versions of the real stuff, and an unseemly grasping after status. Scholars of middlebrow have found themselves writing about their subject “under the sign of shame” (as Jonathan Freedman put it). Even Rubin admitted her ambivalence toward her own middlebrow upbringing when she said of her book on the rise of middlebrow culture that it is probably “laced with my own ‘middleness’ about my subject,” and Radway acknowledged that the “original impulse” behind her book about the Book-of-the-Month Club “had something to do with my own imperfect conversion to the secular religion of great literature.”

The three books at hand begin to break with this hesitancy and offer important advances in the study of the middle class and its culture. Daniel Horowitz is Mary Huggins Gamble Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Smith College and the author of several books on consumer culture and critical theory. In Consuming Pleasures he traces the development of new perspectives on mass culture from the 1950s through the 1970s. It is the story of public intellectuals and breakthrough books, and of the move from the Old Left to the New and from high culture to mass, popular, and middlebrow culture—what he calls “the shift from moral scorn to playful engagement.” The scope of the book is astonishing. It covers American figures as various as David Riesman and Susan Sontag as well as important critics from Britain, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe. Horowitz discusses an equally wide range of theories and methodologies: Riesman on social types in The Lonely Crowd (1950), Richard Hoggart on class in The Uses of Literacy (1957), Marshall McLuhan on media and technologies in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), Sontag on camp and sexuality in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), and Reyner Banham on cityscapes in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971).

Such range suggests a book that might be a useful overview but could be a disjointed sightseeing trip. Horowitz’s book is better than either of those possibilities. It is long (more than 500 pages), but Horowitz makes good use of the space, offering biographical sketches, fifteen illustrations, and insightful interpretations of dozens of important texts. He also tells a good story, showing us how one book led to another and how the books themselves grew out of their authors’ lives. Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and McLuhan, for instance, all worked at advertising agencies, and Horowitz explains how this experience gave them an appreciation of the roles that art, design, rhetoric, and photography play in our daily lives. The book is also knit together by the fact that many of its characters knew each other. Sontag was in a stormy marriage to Philip Rieff that included a year when Herbert Marcuse lived with them. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown fell in love while in Las Vegas studying that city’s architecture. There are many sets of mentors and protégés: Herbert Gans studied with Riesman, Scott Brown studied with Gans (and Louis Kahn), and Walter J. Ong studied with McLuhan. He also shows how deeply these scholars were committed to their research. Gans bought a house in Levittown to study postwar suburbia, Banham learned to drive so he could really experience Los Angeles, and Tom Wolfe immersed himself in American subcultures from car customizers to teenage surfers. The book is the story of several schools of thought, but it is also the story of various scholarly institutions: editors and magazines certainly—in England, F. R. and Q. D. Leavis and the creation of Scrutiny, the Cambridge journal that revamped English literature and literary criticism, and later Stuart Hall and New Left Review, and in the United States, Wolfe’s founding of Shenandoah as an undergraduate at Washington & Lee and Sontag’s dance with Partisan Review—but also programs, institutes, and political movements such as the Frankfurt School, the British Film Institute, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the London-based Independent Group, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and in the United States, Yale’s American Studies Program and the Citizens Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community in Philadelphia.

And yet there is a single narrative that ties these smaller stories together, and this is where the middle class comes in. Horowitz shows in convincing detail how these critical theorists struggled to bring their new understandings to bear on the subject of the middle class. It was a struggle that Virginia Woolf referred to as early as 1932 as the Battle of the Brows. If we were ever to read I Love Lucy as seriously as we read a sonnet, we had first to break from the belief that only certain texts are worthy of study. Horowitz discusses Matthew Arnold’s sacralizing of “the best which has been thought and said,” New Criticism’s separation of text from context, and high modernism’s valorizing of abstraction and “ambiguity,” and then shows how outsiders—a gay man like Barthes, a bisexual secular Jew like Sontag, and Caribbean figures like Hall and C. L. R. James—challenged the old white male Christian assumptions. Finally, however, he focuses most of his attention on the post–World War II attack on middlebrow culture waged by Dwight Macdonald and other New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review, writers who were left leaning but had never aligned themselves with or had long ago broken from Moscow. Following Andrew Ross and Michael Denning, he examines how the Cold War and intra-Left politics blinded these critics. At late as the 1970s, Macdonald and crew were still fighting a battle against the Communist International’s Popular Front policy of 1934–39 that, as Sbardellati explains in his book on Hoover and Hollywood, “brought together Communists, liberals and other leftists” into a coalition “that aimed to present mass audiences with socially relevant, politically progressive works of art.” Horowitz returns again and again to the virulence with which many New York intellectuals opposed the Popular Front approach, which to them represented nothing more than a dumbing down of high European art in the service of middlebrow uplift. “It would be hard to overstate,” says Horowitz, “how important the anti-Stalinism of the late 1930s through the early 1950s was to the period’s development of views of mass media.” The ex-Trotskyites at the Partisan Review and Commentary revered European modernist culture and turned their noses up at American middle-class culture in large part because they had seen the Communist Party use middlebrow songs, books, and films to build the Popular Front. Writing in Commentary in 1947, Robert Warshow assailed the “tradition of middle-class ‘popular front’ culture” which believes that “Confessions of a Nazi Spy was a serious movie and ‘Ballad for Americans’ was an inspired song.” Warshow warned against the “mass culture of the educated classes—the culture of the ‘middlebrow.’” He believed to be nothing more than a “disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life.” Horowitz argues convincingly that this attitude—this marriage of anticommunism and high modernist snobbery—held back our understanding of mass culture by discouraging social critics from taking it seriously.


Neither John Sbardellati nor Janet Carey Eldred cites Horowitz, but their work has been made possible by the critical breakthroughs he chronicles. Sbardellati explains how the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with Hollywood’s communists. The story begins with Hoover’s orchestration of the 1920 Palmer Raids, in which Hoover’s boss, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, ordered local authorities to arrest over 10,000 people nationwide that were chosen from Hoover’s list of 150,000 “undesirables.” The narrative then follows Hoover’s rise to the directorship of the FBI during the 1920s, when he extended government surveillance of “subversives” to groups such as the NAACP and ACLU. At first, the film industry tried to skirt FBI investigation by “self regulating.” It installed Will Hays, who had successfully managed Warren Harding’s presidential campaign, as director of an office charged with keeping movies “clean.” The Hays Office was known mainly for censoring miscegenation and sex from movies, but Hoover also slipped it leads about other supposedly dangerous elements, most notably Charlie Chaplin. According to Hoover, Chaplin consorted with communists and created vulgar, pro-immigrant, anticapitalist films. Hoover never let up on Chaplin. In 1947 the comic, working from an idea proposed to him by Popular Front icon Orson Welles, released Monsieur Verdoux, a dark comedy about a serial killer who seduces and then murders wealthy widows for their money. The New York critics attacked Chaplin for abandoning his Little Tramp persona and aspiring to middlebrow seriousness, and right-wing groups threatened boycotts because of Chaplin’s politics. The film closed early. Sensing vulnerability, Hoover urged Congress to subpoena Chaplin to testify about his politics, which Congress, apparently fearing Chaplin’s wit, refused to do. Three years later, in 1952, Chaplin went back to his native England to premier his movie Limelight, and while he was gone, Hoover prevailed on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke his reentry permit, forcing Chaplin into exile. Chaplin was able to ignore his critics, though the anticommunist, antimiddlebrow attack was unrelenting (as late as 1965 Macdonald was still scolding James Agee in Esquire for not have joined the 1947 pile-on of Monsieur Verdoux), but he couldn’t ignore Hoover. Chaplin was unable to return to the United States until 1972, long after the decline of McCarthyism and the lifting of the blacklist, when he returned to accept an honorary Academy Award. Later that week, Governor Ronald Reagan, talking to reporters about Chaplin’s exile, tried to have it both ways, acknowledging that Chaplin was a “genius” but adding that he got what he deserved.

During the 1930s workers in Hollywood, like those in many other industries, organized into unions. The first president of the Screen Writers Guild in 1933 was John Howard Lawson, who joined the Communist Party and helped implement its Popular Front strategy of reaching out to sympathetic liberals. One such work was Blockade, the 1938 Academy Award–winning film about the Spanish Civil War, starring Henry Fonda and written by Lawson. The film, explains Sbardellati, was conceived to implicitly criticize the West’s policy of neutrality by showing the effects on “a Loyalist seaport town cut off by Franco’s forces on land and blockaded by German and Italian submarines at sea.” The studios, however, were squeamish. Lawson placated them by agreeing not to identify the warring parties. Astoundingly, “neither side would be identified by name, uniform, insignia, or even battle hymn,” but even that concession wasn’t enough. Conservatives, isolationists, and various anticommunists attacked Blockade and other popular and Popular Front films such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, and Sergeant York as violations of the Hays Code, which had argued that movies should be “entertainment,” not “propaganda.”

Popular Front directors, writers, and actors intended these “social problem” films to be both entertaining and enlightening. They wanted to reach out to a middle-class audience and convince that audience to embrace New Deal values, reach across the class divide, oppose fascism, and rethink pacifism and isolationism. The FBI’s paranoid informants, on the other hand, saw nothing but Bolshevik subversion. They even went so far as to attack Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as subversive, saying the Mr. Potter character “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers.” The public, however, was more discerning, recognizing that George Bailey was also a banker, though a much more middle class and much less greedy one than Potter. Capra’s film made money and landed five Academy Award nominations. Like its Popular Front predecessors, it tapped in to a middlebrow desire to be entertained and challenged. After Pearl Harbor, Hollywood continued to make “social problem” films that helped unite and inspire the country, and Hoover and his ilk had to lie low—at least for a while.

Sbardellati walks us through many twists and turns as Hollywood responded in its films to such exigencies as the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Lend-Lease, and the alliance with the Soviet Union. As final victory drew near, however, conservatives prepared to attack the trade unionists, communists, and liberal middlebrow artists they’d been forced to work with during the war. On February 4, 1944, about one hundred people gathered in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to launch the anticommunist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA). Walt Disney was vice president, and Ayn Rand played a pivotal role. Working in an uneasy alliance with the FBI and the newly emboldened House Un-American Activities Committee, the MPA went after “social problem” films. Misinformed informants, outsized egos (HUAC chair Martin Dies and Hoover couldn’t get along), and a tendency by both HUAC and the FBI to overreach made for a rocky start. The FBI, for instance, went after William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives because the film showed returning veterans experiencing trouble with bankers, wealthy country-club types, large chain stores, and “a local bigot who denounces the United Nations, the Soviet Union, African Americans, and Jews.” But Wyler’s middlebrow classic won seven Academy Awards, and the right wing found little traction.

Soon after Joe McCarthy started waving his lists of “known Communists,” Hoover learned how to work with HUAC, and in 1947 the government sentenced the writers and directors who became known as the Hollywood Ten to one-year jail sentences for contempt because they refused to name names. The ensuing blacklist lasted thirteen years, until Kirk Douglas demanded in 1960 that Universal give Dalton Trumbo the screen credit he was due for Spartacus. Sbardellati’s wonderfully researched book shows what was lost—a generation of talent and decades of progressive films that could have helped the nation look at itself. Horowitz shows how the anticommunism of the New York intellectuals led them to dismiss the cultural accomplishments of the Popular Front; Sbardellati shows how the anticommunism of Hoover and HUAC led them to attack the “social problem” films of the Popular Front. America’s audiences were the ones who lost. During the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Hollywood emphasized MGM musicals, Disney’s feature-length cartoons, and religious epics. “Problem films,” if you could still call them that, were neutered and put in the service of what Alan Nadel has identified as “containment culture.”

Eldred’s book is not so much about loss as it is about retrieval. Eldred represents a group of feminist scholars (Janice Winship, Anna Gough-Yates, Jennifer Scanlon, and others) who are taking women’s magazines and their editors seriously. Beginning with Betty Friedan’s scathing critique in The Feminine Mystique, Second Wave feminists had dismissed magazines such as Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan as simply and always oppressive, but Eldred and others are investigating these magazines as places where women discussed birth control, relationships, themselves, and their possible identities. Earlier studies of these magazines emphasized reader reception; while Eldred does look at audience, her focus is on production, especially the ways in which women edited these magazines. As her subtitle suggests, she also spends considerable time on the New Yorker, especially Katharine Sergeant Angell White, the magazine’s fiction editor from 1925 to 1960 who, with her second husband, E. B. White, was instrumental in creating what Eldred calls “the New Yorker ethos.” Her influence continues to this day in the person of her son Roger Angell, longtime New Yorker contributor and fiction editor. Ethos in this context, Eldred explains, “is the practice of designing and arranging a space into which audience members are made not only to feel welcome but also to feel as if they belong.”

The magazine’s famous “we” included its editors and writers, of course, but also its readers. Katharine White’s magazine was the place where a sophisticated upper-middlebrow sector of America’s middle class hailed each other. Certainly, the magazine has always represented and appealed to the wealthiest New Yorkers both in its articles and in its ads for midtown hotels, furs, Cadillacs, and foreign travel, but from the start, something else was going on as well. When Harold Ross asserted in his 1925 prospectus that his magazine would “not be for the old lady in Dubuque,” he was using reverse psychology to appeal to the aspiring middle class in Middle America that she represented. By 1930, subscribers outside the metropolitan New York area made up 30 percent of the magazine’s circulation; two years later the figure had risen to 50 percent. According to Eldred, the magazine’s readers hailed each other through a shared conception of literacy, which she defines as a recognition of literature as “a core secular value, one with the power to bind social groups.” White and her New Yorker readers aspired to the next rung of the middle class and the leisure it afforded so that they might read more, know more, and be more. This could lead to the basest snobbery, but it could also open these readers up to new understandings of themselves and others.

Eldred is fully aware of the pitfalls of middlebrow culture as well as its possibilities. For years, she points out, the New Yorker steered clear of the “Negro question,” and its house style ossified to the point that Tom Wolfe found it almost too easy to parody, and even E. B. White admitted its commas had begun to fall “with the precision of knives in a circus act.” By 1962, though, the magazine would publish James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in its entirety. The cultural work of other magazines was also contradictory. Mademoiselle, Eldred acknowledges, often pushed the usual fare of women’s magazines—“face creams, fashions, and how to land your man”—but during the 1940s and 1950s, when Katharine White and the New Yorker were playing it safe with fiction, Mademoiselle published some of the first short stories of Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor as well as work by William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. The magazine’s guest editor program brought young women such as Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Francine du Plessix Gray, Janet Burroway, and Ann Beattie to New York. William Saroyan said he preferred to publish his stories in Redbook and Harper’s Bazaar; appearing in Esquire made him feel “cheap.”

Eldred cites more than once this dictum of Edward Bok, Ladies’ Home Journal editor and middlebrow entrepreneur extraordinaire: “The average editor is obsessed with the idea of ‘giving the public what it wants,’ whereas, in fact, the public, while it knows what it wants when it sees it, cannot clearly express its wants. The American public always wants something a little better than it asks for, and the successful man, in catering to it, is he who follows this golden rule.” “Golden rule” cuts two ways here—it speaks to our best side, our empathy and desire for self-improvement, but also to our basest materialism. What could be more American? What could be more worthy of our study?