Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

ISBN: 0674390776
ISBN 13: 9780674390775
By: Lawrence W. Levine

Check Price Now


19th Century Academic American History Currently Reading History Non Fiction Nonfiction Social Sciences Sociology To Read

About this book

In this wide-ranging study, spanning more than a century & covering such diverse forms of expressive culture as Shakespeare, Central Park, symphonies, jazz, art museums, the Marx Brothers, opera & vaudeville, America's leading cultural historian demonstrates how variable & dynamic cultural boundaries have been & how fragile & recent the cultural categories we have learned to accept as natural & eternal are. For most of the 19th century, a wide variety of expressive forms--Shakespearean drama, opera, orchestral music, painting & sculpture, as well as the writings of such authors as Dickens & Longfellow--enjoyed both high cultural status & mass popularity. In the 19th century Americans (in addition to whatever specific ethnic, class & regional cultures they were part of) shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings than their descendants were to experience. By the 20th century this cultural eclecticism & openness became increasingly rare. Cultural space was more sharply defined, less flexible than it had been. The theater, once a microcosm of America--housing both the entire spectrum of the population & the complete range of entertainment from tragedy to farce, juggling to ballet, opera to minstrelsy--now fragmented into discrete spaces catering to distinct audiences & separate genres of expressive culture. The same transition occurred in concert halls, opera houses & museums. A growing chasm between 'serious' & 'popular', 'high' & 'low' culture came to dominate the expressive arts."If there is a tragedy in this development," Levine notes, "it is not only that millions of Americans were now separated from exposure to such creators as Shakespeare, Beethoven & Verdi, whom they had enjoyed in various formats for much of the 19th century, but also that the rigid cultural categories, once they were in place, made it so difficult for so long for so many to understand the value & importance of the popular art forms that were all around them. "Too many of those who considered themselves educated & cultured lost for a significant period--& many have still not regained--their ability to discriminate independently, to sort things out for themselves & understand that simply because a form of expressive culture was widely accessible & highly popular it was not therefore necessarily devoid of any redeeming value or artistic merit."Note: first presented as The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization in 1986,

Reader's Thoughts


still haven't gotten around to finishing it, but here are some notes to self:p.4 - Shakespeare actually used to be popular entertainment back in 19th-century America... you don't need to be "educated" to enjoy him -- just grown up with it constantly around you, labeled clearly as popular entertainment.p. 31 - Gerald Nachman: "Shakespeare becomes theatrical spinach: He's good for you. If you digest enough of his plays, you'll grow up big and strong intellectually like teacher.""Alfred Harbage characterized the mood prevailing at Shakespearean performances as "reverently unreceptive," containing "small sense of joy, small sense of sorrow;...rarely a moment of that hush of absorption which is the only sign-warrant of effectual drama." People attended Shakespeare the way they attended church: "gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go.""p. 67 - people believed it to be a natural right to boo actors if they deserved it, not just applaud whether or not it was good. nowadays there's no way you could boo/hiss a performance even if it sucks! it's like you have to protect actors' egos instead of be honest about what you paid for. why does art need to be protected from its audience?p. 89 - "Opera... was not presented as a sacred text". Composers like Rossini even intentionally left places in their operas for the company to put in a popular song of the day!p. 97 - apparently England DID have highbrow/lowbrow distinctions in art already in 1850s, and some Americans were aware of this -- does that break down author's thesis that highbrow/lowbrow distinctions are a recent invention, or is he just claiming these distinctions weren't AS important, in America in particular, until lately, in specific fields?p. 103 - people started to think opera is too important of an art form to permit the uneducated to watch it, as if that'd demean its integrity! especially if you take selections instead of putting on one whole show, sacred-text style. opera became "more of a symbol of culture than a real cultural force"

Fred R

An excellent, useful cultural history. It jumps back and forth a little too much in time and subject, but the gradual collapse of an inter-class, unified American culture detailed here is almost heartbreaking. In response to the growing cultural gulf between upper and lower class, the American elite (which meant, particularly after the Civil War, the Northeastern elite) pursued a two-pronged strategy of mass uplift and (you'll recognize this one from Baltzell's masterpiece) cloistered retreat. Obviously the first part failed, and we were left with a high culture kept rigidly separate from mass entertainment, a far cry from, for instance, the universal embrace of Shakespeare that characterized American culture in the first half of the 19th century.So Levine is very good on the what and the how, whereas on the why I think he's a little lacking. He seems to for some reason think this is all the elite's fault, for snobbishly turning up their noses at the masses in an attempt to maintain their privilege. Obviously every aesthetic system involves agents attempting to gain status, but this theory is unworthy of the book.Norbert Elias (who gets cited) has pointed out how culture did, in fact, trickle down over the centuries in Europe. That is to say, an elite sincerely desires to enforce and expand the reach of its culture. Turning their backs on the rest of society is, as Baltzell pointed out, a second-best option, or what they engage in after they discover they can no longer exercise public authority.So then the real question becomes, what happened to America that led to a loss of elite confidence and authority? I don't think here even Baltzell (who points to the enervating influence of Quakerism) is entirely fair. The most important factors, in my current opinion (this is one of the basic questions about America, but I don't have a good handle on it yet):1. Immigration2. The Civil War3. Technological Change (increasing the scale and scope of society, creating a chaotic urbanized mass where before were independent farmers more susceptible to cultural domination)4. Unfavorable Differential Reproduction

Andrew Miller

Excellent text. Levine brings to light the history behind the current cultural hierarchy that exists in America. It helps me feel better about despising modern art, as Levine would suggest, it only exists to create distinguished groups-you're not supposed to get it. The format is simple and clear. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how enjoying Shakespeare or opera now makes you part of a distinguished class.


This title has really reignted my historical curiosity concerning American Popular Culture. Essentially, Levine is arguing that a cross-class American cultural consensus existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, but was eroded by the turn of the century by elite efforts to separate "art" from "popular culture." While colonial and antebellum elites had contented themselves with the same performances as their middling neighbors, through the second half of the 1800s they successfully established the theater as a venue for "polite" company only. While serious performances of Shakespeare had been presented alongside popular songs, farces, and other "unelevated" fare in the early part of the century, latter-day cultural elites insisted that such masterworks be presented unsullied by popular material. The effort to separate "high" and "popular" culture was often presented didactically- as a necessary element in the uplift of the less fortunate. Levine stresses, however, that the impetus behind the move was just as often a desire to cordon off "respectable" performances from the unworthy.His assumption- that the shift was fundamentally cultural in nature as opposed to economically or politically determined- is probably on firm ground. Levine's approach to the topic is broad and inclusive, but I'm inclined to wonder about other "lenses" through which to assess this shift in American culture. Levine assumes that the distinction between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" is culturally-defined, and this is assuredly true to an extent. But, I contend that a cross-cultural analysis of "folk" forms just might establish some similarities that distinguish them, collectively, from those forms which different cultures have deemed "highbrow." Further, it seems that the study might benefit from a dose of theory, for example- what does the psychological literature say about the reception of music?Alternatively, I would like to see the same material addressed through an economic framework. The intersection of cultures and markets is something in which I'm interested in, and I believe an investigation of this topic could be enriched by a more thorough exploration of the ways in which economic considerations shaped American culture. Isn't it possible, for example, that elites suffered the indignities of mixed company only so long as they were forced to by the economic realities of early American entertainment? It's equally as possible than the lower-classes weren't as receptive to the "highbrow" aspects of the early performances as Levine asserts. Might they have been just as enthusiastic about jettisoning their elite fellow theater-goers as the gentry were to leave?


There have been so many changes since the author finished this book. Wealth and technology now are culture game changers. This book concentrates to heavily on 1800s & 1900s and not more current times.

Sarah Stella

This book certainly reiterated the "how" of the division into high and low culture across a number of artistic fields without delving enough into the "why" for my taste.

Mary McCray

Must read for anyone thinking there is any legitimacy between the labels high and low brow. This is mostly a survey of 19th Century entertainment in America and the moment and for what purpose high-brow was created.


This was a very interesting book about how we ended up with one "high culture" for educated or wealthy folks, and another "low culture" for the rest of us.


A superlative read, covering all aspects of the evolution of "culture," and who dictates it-the many or the few


An interesting take on American culture. As a former student, I can say he was better in person. I've never found his writing as engaging as his talks.


Incredibly influential on my thinking as a scholar. Great examples mixed with insight yields books like this. Helped shape the course of New Historicism in America.


An important touchstone book in culture studies. While later critics like Jan Radway, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Amy Blair have complicated Levine's central construct (high/low brow) with the middlebrow, it still is an important foundational work.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *