The serious dethroned; the middlebrow ceasing to strive

7.11.12 | | 4 comments

In the April 2012 issue of Commentary, Fred Siegel writes about How Highbrows Killed Culture. It’s your rather standard conservative curmudgeon fretting over culture. I don’t agree with much of it. And I have no nostalgia for the 1950s.

Even so, I think Siegel says something interesting here:

“By 1970 the aim of camp to “dethrone the serious” had all but succeeded. The last remnants of bourgeois morality having largely melted away as part of the national culture, there was little to make even mock cultural rebellion meaningful. The “serious” was replaced by a cheerful mindlessness, and the cultural striving of middlebrow culture came to a quiet end. Why should the well-meaning middle American labor to read a complex novel by an intellectual or try to work his way through a Great Book if the cultural poohbahs first mocked his efforts and then said they were pointless anyway because what mattered was living “life as theater”? Today, if there were a T.S. Eliot, Time Magazine would no more put him on the cover than it would sing the praises of George W. Bush. Time’s literary critic writes children’s fantasy novels and chose a science-fiction book about elves as one of the crowning cultural achievements of 2011. Since the highbrow have been given permission to view the “frivolous as the serious,” why shouldn’t everybody else?”

Let’s ignore for a moment the silly swipe against genre fiction and focus more on the fact that he’s correct in that to a certain extent the highbrow embrace of the lowbrow combined with increasing consumerization of culture led to a shift in the cultural aspirations and consumption habits of the middle class. Assuming this is true (and I think it’s only partially true — in part because the rebellion of the 1960s also led to an opening up of access to higher education which still imparted a certain middlebrow, cultural seriousness to many of its graduates) then I think that it explains something about Mormon culture.

Here’s what I mean:

By the time Mormons were settled enough in Utah and large enough as a people to develop an ethnic and/or national consciousness, the moment for such things, for modernity and romantic notions of culture and identity, had already come and was fading. As a result Mormon culture was one of the cultures that was belated, its orientation neo-Romantic. What’s more while that was happening, Mormonism was also being economically and politically re-integrated into American society. Thus the Home Literature movement was both too late and too old-fashioned — Orson F. Whitney looking back to Byron in the era of Rimbaud. This is not to downplay its significance. I’m fond of the Home Literature movement. Rather, I’m trying to establish the threads of Mormon culture here.

So what happens? Re-integration, a divestment (literally) of the Church from the political and economic lives of its Intermountain West members, and after WWII, a great out-migration and a further integration into American society. The meritocracy opens up, and Mormons rushed to take advantage of it. Polygamy is distant enough to not a major issue. Alcohol is the only real sticking point, but not a large one. And hard work, loyalty, patriotism, whiteness (unlike other ethnic groups [and it's debatable whether Mormons truly are an ethnies]), bourgeois sensibilities, and the nuclear family . We, as a people, can do this. And we did. And we especially embraced the cultural striving. Or at least I think we did. I’m betting that my grandparents weren’t the only Mormon family to purchase the Great Books of the Western World series.

So U.S. Mormons embrace the “cultural strivings of the middlebrow” (in part because we want to succeed in American culture; in part because it lines up pretty decently with the values and goals of the post-polygamy LDS Church and even with the continued stream of Home Literature) and America erupts and goes radical in the 1960s and then goes camp in the 1970s and so just as Mormons had kind of got their footing culturally (and socially and politically), it all changes on them.

Is it any wonder then, that Mormon culture is what it is? And should it be surprising that Mormon writers sought refuge in the only outlet that still seemed to be taking itself seriously and was open to ideas and speculations that Mormonism could actually find life in (science fiction and fantasy)?

The major chance for Mormons to coalesce strongly around Mormon cultural identity and the major chance for Mormons to coalesce strongly around American cultural identity were so quickly disrupted that it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re at where we’re at today. Things took an interesting turn in the 1990s and, in my opinion, are as interesting (if not more so) as they’ve ever been. But the weaknesses in the identity, cultural production, the market, etc. aren’t surprising.

4 comments: “The serious dethroned; the middlebrow ceasing to strive

  1. David J. West

    Heh, I consider the “Great Books” series that I’ve inherited, one of the crown jewels in the personal library.

    I don’t know what to think about the cultural identity issue. I grew up on The Friend stories, the Yorgason, Dunn, and Nelson tales, (I even read Charley one afternoon and asked myself why did I do that?) but I don’t think any of that stuck as what I would call my cultural identity nearly so much as my own perceptions of the Book of Mormon itself.

    It’s impossible to seperate myself from the “mythic” (let me clarify I do believe in a literal and real Book of Mormon historicty-in fact I’m quite opinionated about it) power of the book.
    I find everything I do has some sliver of Mormonness to it, even if I’m the only one who knows it ~ that’s the culture coming out as I see it; and it has nothing to do with the kitsch I despise, the highbrow I don’t understand or the social stigma’s I usually avoid. It has everything to do with my world outlook born of a 2,000+ year old record.

    I think that “secondary world” from what we all grew up with and know, contributes to the genre fascination among us.

  2. William Morris Post author

    I wish I had room for the “Great Books” series in my apartment — and I actually used my grandparents version while I lived them and then later when I was preparing for my orals exam for my graduate degree.

    I think you make an excellent point about the Book of Mormon. It’s no wonder so many Mormon kids grow up with a love for epic fantasy.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    I’m not sure I entirely follow your argument. But one thing I think you didn’t mention is that the disruption of American culture allowed Mormons to mentally step up to the plate as (in our own minds) the defenders of traditional American values and culture. And I think that is how most American members of the Church view themselves. We are the “true Americans,” in our own eyes — in alliance with those few from other groups who perceive the true danger.

    Hence the — fairly widespread, despite our embrace of higher education — Mormon hostility toward the American cultural elite. In the eyes of many of our coreligionists, the cultural elite have betrayed America. Which some of us find quite baffling, and somewhat distressing.

  4. Mark Penny

    Some of my best friends are American. I am not. I’ll leave it at that.

    The world needs a reboot. I guess that’s what the Second Coming is for. Of course, we all feel a bit proprietary about that event. I, for one, am sure things will be a little more Canadian (and a lot less American) when the Lord is done. But seriously, folks, we, the chosen (or self-choosing—and there’s value in that) need to come out of Egypt with our philosophy (or -ies) of endeavour on all fronts, bearing the silver and gold gifted to us by our neighbours but forging of them something more substantial and ennobling than a golden calf (which this notion of America may be). Let’s get over Eden and make for the Celestial Kingdom.

    Which brings me to speculative fiction. Now that I think of it, the genres do have potential for picturing worlds (or segments of worlds) more akin to the ideals that attract people to the Gospel and Kingdom and keep them and their descendants in them. Every migration in our origin tales (beginning with Premortal World to Eden and ending with Millenial World to, God willing, Celestial Kingdom) is about an imagined future or alternate world, one in which there is power to do and defend goodness and escape and root out badness. A good part of any Mormon philosophy and theory of literature ought to be about that.

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