Defining the Middlebrow

"Middlebrow" is a culturally loaded and disreputable term. These quotations give a starting point to understanding what middlebrow might have meant in the first half of the twentieth century, and how academic critics are attempting to address it today.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary "middlebrow", both n. and a. is colloq. Freq. derogatory.

adj. Of a person: only moderately intellectual; of average or limited cultural interests (sometimes with the implication of pretensions to more than this). Of an artistic work, etc.: of limited intellectual or cultural value; demanding or involving only a moderate degree of intellectual application, typically as a result of not deviating from convention.

The first documented usage of the term is in the Irish Freeman's Journal, 3 May 1924:

"Ireland's musical destiny, in spite of what the highbrows or the middlebrows may say, is intimately bound up with the festivals."

A rather more revealing instance is in Punch, 23 December 1925:

"The B.B.C. claim to have discovered a new type, the 'middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like."

See also the Wikipedia article on Middlebrow

Early and Mid-Twentieth-Century Critics

"the impartial assessor of the evidence brought together here can hardly avoid concluding that for the first time in the history of our literature the living forms of the novel have been side-tracked in favour of the faux-bon."
Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Pimlico, 2000; first pub. 1932) p. 39.
 

"It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women."
George Orwell, 'Bookshop Memories' in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol 1, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1969; article first published 1936) p. 244.
 

"As the Twenties lapsed into the Thirties, it may here be noted, the low-brow public in Great Britain gradually grew up. The sharpening of its critical sense by slicker cinema-pictures sharpened its literary judgement too: the annals of the Land of Tosh no longer carried wide conviction and the mezzo-brow 'Book of the Month' choice of the dailies became (through the Twopenny Libraries) the shop-girls' reading too - or such of them as did not sweep all modern fiction aside as 'capitalistic dope'. Even Elinor Glyn's passionate novels then appeared a little grotesque, with their tiger-skin and orchid settings; and, aware of the growing influence of famous book-reviewers on the semi-literate public, she ceased to send out review-copies of her new books."
Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Long Week-End (London: Faber and Faber, 1940) p. 52.
 

"[Middlebrows are] the go-between; they are the busybodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief - the middlebrows, I repeat. But what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low."
Virginia Woolf, 'Middlebrow' in The Death of the Moth (London: Hogarth Press, 1947; first published 1942) p. 115.

Modern Critics

"The novels which Laura Jesson or Mrs Miniver or the Provincial Lady borrowed once a week from Boots were firmly middlebrow. No woman with intellectual pretensions (the 'professional' woman or the university-educated) would have read them, preferring Huxley or Woolf and, at a pinch, Rosamond Lehmann and Elizabeth Bowen. Only with detective fiction (Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie) would their tastes have overlapped - here middlebrow and highbrow would have presented a concerted front in opposition to romantic or 'Came the Dawn' novels."
Nicola Beauman, A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-39 (London: Virago, 1983) p. 173.
 

"The broad working definition I employ throughout this book is that the middlebrow novel is one that straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort. It is an essentially parasitical form, dependent on the existence of both a high and a low brow for its identity, reworking their structures and aping their insights, while at the same time fastidiously holding its skirts away from lowbrow contamination, and gleefully mocking highbrow intellectual pretensions."
Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 11-12.
 

"[the practices of the American Book-of-the-Month Club appear] implicitly constructed with an eye towards academic ways of evaluating books. Middlebrow culture, apparently, defined itself, first, against academic ways of seeing"
Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1997) p. 9.

"Middlebrow culture is the ambivalent mediation of high culture within the field of the mass cultural." John Guillory, 'The Ordeal of Middlebrow Culture', Review of The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, Transition, no. 67 (1995), pp. 82-92, p. 87.

 
Arts and Humanities Research CouncilUniversity of Strathclyde Sheffield Hallam University

Copyright University of Strathclyde | Terms Of Use and Cookies | Login