Highbrow, Lowbrows, Middlebrow, Now

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RUSSELL LYNES , despite being known to his friends as the most amiable of men, is nationally famous as a witty and sometimes acerbic commentator on American society and its manners.

 

RUSSELL LYNES , despite being known to his friends as the most amiable of men, is nationally famous as a witty and sometimes acerbic commentator on American society and its manners. Nothing Lynes ever did on the subject attracted more attention than an article entitled “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” that appeared in the February 1949 issue of Harper’s (of which Lynes was then managing editor) and a chart on American tastes classified from highbrow to lowbrow that appeared in Life magazine two months later. For a season or so, dividing American objects, pastimes, and people into highbrow, upper or lower middlebrow, and lowbrow was something of a national sport.

Recently, after more than a generation during which Lynes had kept his eyes and ears trained on American social and cultural change, I took occasion to question him about what he believes has happened to our highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows since he identified (and perhaps skewered) them in 1949. His point then was that people’s tastes could no longer be explained by their “wealth or education, by breeding or background,” but that a new social stratification was growing, in which “the highbrows are the elite, the middlebrows are the bourgeoisie, and the lowbrows are hoi polloi.”

Our interview took place at the townhouse in New York City that he and his wife, Mildred, a lecturer on art, have shared for the past thirty-eight years. The room where we sat was decorated with works by Ben Shahn, George Grosz, Eugene Berman, Saul Steinberg, and Ralston Crawford. The furniture was comfortable, venerable, well upholstered, and, to me, impossible to classify according to the Lynesian cosmology.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1910 and graduated from Yale in 1934, Lynes as a young man did a stint as a schoolmaster, serving at the Shipley School for girls in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, as assistant principal from 1937 to 1940 and principal from 1940 to 1944. He joined Harper’s in 1944 and served as its managing editor from 1947 to 1967. Among his books are Snobs (1950), Guests (1951), The Tastemakers (1954), and Good Old Modern (1973). He writes a regular column for Architectural Digest and is at work on a social history of the arts in the United States from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 to the present.

Your article “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” appeared originally in 1949 and was reprinted virtually unchanged in your book The Tastemakers in 1954. My soundings indicate that a great many people remember reading the article when it first appeared, and even more seem to remember the famous taste chart that you cooked up for Life. What kind of reactions did you get?

When the article appeared I got a call from Life asking if I would come up to their offices and talk to one of the editors, Maitland Edey. After the chart appeared, there was even more reaction. The thing was all over the place suddenly. Somebody wanted to make an ad based on it. People picked it up and made comedy from it. There was even a Broadway show by Walter Kerr and his wife, Jean, more or less based on the idea. The chart made the idea into a sort of national parlor game. There were a lot of—well, not a lot, but certainly some—infuriated highbrows.

Thereby refuting your statement in the article that highbrows like to be called highbrows?

I don’t think they felt they came off very well. It was in the nature of the thing. What pleased me most, I think, was getting a note from W. H. Auden, who got the joke and went along with it. The sociologist David Reisman wrote too. The whole thing was fun in that way. Eventually college magazines were making their own charts based on mine.

There probably came a time when you wished you’d heard the last of highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow.