restricted access 1. Who’s Afraid of Marcel Proust? The Failure of General Education in the American University
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25 1 Who’s Afraid of Marcel Proust? The Failure of General Education in the American University John Guillory I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once—for the play, I remember, pleased not the million, ’twas caviare to the general. —Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2.430 In his controversial Partisan Review essay of 1960, “Masscult and Midcult ,” Dwight Macdonald delivered one of the last unqualified denunciations of American mass culture, reserving special scorn for the deformation called “middlebrow,” which Macdonald renamed “midcult.” Since the time of Macdonald’s essay, perhaps the high-water mark in the old tradition of Kulturkritik , many humanist intellectuals have urged a rapprochement with mass culture, though many remain uneasy with its middlebrow emanation. The massification of high culture Macdonald saw as the very worst expression of masscult was also, as he diagnosed it, a peculiarly American development. In England, by contrast, he argued that the survival of the class system ensured the survival of high culture as a genuine concern of the upper classes: “An American living in London is delighted by the wide interest in arts and letters . . . . It is, of course, general only to perhaps 5 percent of the population, but in America it isn’t even this much general; it is something shared only with friends and professional acquaintances. But in London one meets stockbrokers who go to concerts, politicians who have read Proust.”1 Despite Macdonald ’s confidence in his observation, there would appear to be a contradiction between his assertion that British interest in arts and letters is “wide,” and yet confined to a mere 5 percent of the populace. How “general,” to use Macdonald ’s term, is 5 percent? More problematically for his argument, it would be hard to deny that museum attendance and concertgoing in the United States are also fairly widespread by the arithmetical measure Macdonald proposes. Still, his main point is that the mode of consumption in the United States John Guillory 26 is definitively middlebrow. The reference to Proust implicitly makes this distinction , since Proust’s readership is undoubtedly very small by comparison to most authors, and even smaller were we to count Americans who read him in French. The name of Proust functions in Macdonald’s essay as the signifier of a genuine high culture for several reasons. In addition to the barrier posed by the French language, which is only partially overcome by translation, A la recherches du temps perdu is intrinsically difficult and forbiddingly long. It resists massification in a way that Shakespeare and Austen, for example, have not. Other names might have played this fearful role, but for my purposes the name of Proust will do (especially as we no longer have as much to fear from Virginia Woolf, who has been done up recently in the most respectable middlebrow fashion in the novel and film The Hours).2 Proust’s resistance to midcult appropriation is confirmed by his role in an anecdote that Barbara Ehrenreich passed on in her 1989 study of middle-class anxiety, Fear of Falling , which among other critical agendas took to task what we used to call “yuppie” culture for its faux sophistication, consisting largely of higher-end consumables such as brie and Chardonnay (it was the 1980s, after all). The anecdote was borrowed from a personal essay by a hospital administrator, Peter Baida, who recounted a dinner party he gave at which he announced to his guests, all highly credentialed professionals, that his wife had recently finished reading Proust. “‘Who is Proust?’ one of our guests asked. I thought someone else would answer, but all eyes turned toward me. Suddenly I realized that not one of our guests knew who Proust was.”3 Although the first book of Proust’s great work Swann’s Way has been made into a movie (not nearly as successful apparently as The Hours), the blank response to Proust’s name suggests that some artifacts of high culture have drifted into a cultural stratosphere where they have been lost to sight altogether. Macdonald was convinced that the triumph of the middlebrow could be attributed in part to the explosive postwar growth of the American university system and to the imperfect dissemination of high culture that occurs there: “This enormous college population . . . is the most important fact about our cultural situation today. It is far bigger, absolutely and relatively, than that of any other country” (58). The very massification...


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Subject Headings

  • Learned institutions and societies -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Learning and scholarship -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Multicultural education -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Demography -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Humanities -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- United States.
  • Education -- Demographic aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Humanities -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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