Merits of the Middlebrow

08.4.2004 | Robert Latona | Cultural Affairs, NP | 2 Comments
Pari passu stopped me dead in my tracks the other day. When was the last time that got into print, and was I kidding myself to think I remembered — more or less — what it meant?* The context was an essay by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith on the life, times and ideas of his great 18th-century predecessor, Adam Smith. Though intended for the non-specialist literate layman, so unapologetically “elitist” a locution could only have surfaced 35 years ago in a magazine called Horizon, and how I wish something like it existed today.

No, I don’t mean Cyril Connolly’s intellectually supercharged periodical out of wartime London in which the classic George Orwell essays first appeared. Mine was the hardbound coffee table quarterly from the same outfit that brought out American Heritage and pitched it to a similarly profiled readership: a subset of American suburbia educated enough to have acquired a nodding acquaintance with the world’s cultures, desirous of learning more about the same, and receptive to richly anecdotal history and low-jargon criticism and essays on contemporary trends arranged in debate format.

It sounds, and was, very “middlebrow,” to use the term invented around that same time by Dwight Macdonald and used here in its taxonomic rather than derisory sense. It is a category in which I am happy to include myself because I found I could read Horizon with pleasure and learn a few things in the process. Others must have, too; the magazine had a fair run through the 1960s, fizzling out of existence some time after Watergate.

Thumbing though a half-dozen sun-faded issues salvaged from a library sell-off, the implicit mindset connecting the magazine’s readers and writers comes across as unlike most anything going down today, notwithstanding such occasional bylines as art critic Robert Hughes and the late science maven Stephen Jay Gould’s early excursions in print.

In Horizon, you’d get a tour of the past by mandarin Oxbridge historians H.R Trevor Roper and J.H. Plumb, or a vivid evocation of high times in ancient Athens by Gilbert Highet. A personal favorite: Morris Bishop, a legendary professor of romance languages at Cornell, who turned out many witty, knowledgeable words on any subject that engaged his first-class mind: female pirates, the cynicism of La Rouchefoucauld or the world into which St. Francis of Assisi was born. Saul Bellow’s piece on filmmaker Luis Buñuel certainly deserves reprinting — and I want the record to show that Stanley Kauffmann, moonlighting from his then-day job at the New York Times, could clean Pauline Kael’s critical clock, as it were, so far as cinema is concerned.

Horizon managed to be topical without pushing political agendas. At the height of the Vietnam mess, its editors put together a primer of Indochinese history, but object lessons, if any, were for the reader to draw. Nor could its editors stand accused of the heinous crime of Eurocentricity. To this day it shames me to admit that blissed-out Buddhas and shimmying Shivas in the basement of the Norton Simon Museum only bring out my inner Homer Simpson, but after re-reading Edmund White or William K. Zinsser on the arts and civilizations of Asia, I am encouraged to give it another dutiful shot.

The timeframe in which Horizon flourished was also that of Leonard Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts and Kenneth Clark’s guided tour of capital-C Civilization, while universities offered “appreciation” courses to non-majors in the belief that certain cultural artifacts were entitled to it. But no patronizing footnotes of the Van Gogh who-he? variety or atrocious “study guides”. Most amazing of all was the editors’ underlying assumption that there really were enough readers out there who knew the basics about, say, the Opium War or Baroque chamber music, and wanted to be taken some distance beyond them, without being snowed under with technicalities and academic game playing.

And I was not too surprised to note that in the same issue (Summer 1971) as the Galbraith piece, Stanley Kauffmann lets drop the word “footling” during a scene-by-scene dissection of Bergman’s Persona, as if to say “it won’t kill you if you go look it up, you know”. So okay, I did look it up and can report that my self-esteem suffered no bruising as a result. I also learned something, pari passus, from an extinct magazine that did its readers a huge favor by never assuming there were pre-set limitations on their cultural and intellectual horizons. We could use such a Horizon today.

* According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Pari Passus is an adverb meaning At an equal pace; side by side: inflation and interest rates increasing pari passu. As to Footling, go look it up.


Interesting take. I have to admit that my own grasp of the english language is somewhat lacking when compared to that of the author, but that is another story for another time.
10.8.2004 | Joshua Montgomery

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