July 2017

The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

By Lawrence W. Levine; Harvard University Press; 306 pages.

Talking one day to a fellow scholar about the films of Buster Keaton, Lawrence Levine concluded that Keaton was a great artist. His colleague agreed but then offered a caveat. Keaton, he explained, was a great popular artist .

Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow shows us a period of American history when the classification of art was far less important than it is today, when an event could be both culturally important and hugely popular. Levine draws a picture of nineteenth-century America in which William Shakespeare was the most performed playwright in the nation, symphonies played popular music as much as they did the works of the great masters, and museums exhibited painting and sculpture alongside mastodon bones.

Cheering, whistling, and climbing onto the stage, nineteenth-century audience members were often as much part of the performance as the artists themselves. In 1849, when the English actor William Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest were appearing at the same time in rival productions of Macbeth in New York, Macready was met by hostile crowds chanting, “Three groans for the codfish aristocracy,” and by a deluge of fruit, eggs, and chairs. His performance precipitated the Astor Place Riot, in which at least 22 persons were killed and 150 wounded.

As the century wore on, culture became more strictly defined and less tolerant of popular entertainment. The debate was less about who should enter a museum or theater than about what the purpose of the cultural arena was in the first place; the result was that those who considered themselves educated and cultured attended “serious” events, while the rest went to popular farces and pantomimes.

The final chapter of the book charts the development in America of this new, stricter definition of culture, which Matthew Arnold expressed most clearly: “the best that is known and thought in the world.” In the last years of the nineteenth century, Levine explains, there occurred an elevation of “the best” that placed high culture on nearly a sacred level. Other art forms were demoted to the level of cheap, popular entertainment.

The epilogue to Highbrow/Lowbrow brings this argument directly to the center of what has been called the Great Books Controversy. Levine challenges the idea that there are a fixed number of great cultural artifacts worthy of study by the serious student. The “defiant pluralism” of culture in recent years, as in the early nineteenth century, is being countered, he says, by a strict, Arnoldian view of cultural value, advocated by William Bennett and Allan Bloom, among others. Levine finds such inflexible boundaries discouraging to the nation’s cultural growth. Given the glories of the best American popular music, theater, and, in our own day, movies, he has a strong case.