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Hand to Mouth: Susan Jacoby and The Age of Unreason

Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason is a pleasant combination of ornery traditionalism and vicious invective.

She takes up the mantle of what she calls “cultural conservationism” and presses attacks on all of the tendrils of American anti-intellectualism, from the fundamentalist Christian right, to the decline of print culture. Her analysis of the ways social Darwinist leanings among the American academic establishment turned the vast majority of evangelicals against academia is particularly interesting. The attachment of many biologists and social scientists to racist pseudoscience, Jacoby argues, tarnished the intellectual class and forged a robust link in the public imagination between social engineering and intellectualism.

The book is quite good, for the most part – although it still fails to reach my own high-water mark for cultural criticism, Cintra Wilson’s A Massive Swelling (a book that deserves to be read aloud to every literate child).

But Jacoby overplays her hand when she discusses the decline of “middlebrow” culture. She hisses at Virginia Woolf for writing archly of the philistinism of early 20th century middlebrows preoccupied with nineteenth-century representative art, with baroque music, and with the “classics” more generally. But Jacoby’s own account of the value of middlebrow culture isn’t anywhere near as compelling as her historical account of the development of anti-intellectual ideology.

She praises the middlebrow in the age before cable television, before the decline of liberal arts education, and especially before the advent of the internet. People don’t read enough, she argues. They play too many video games. They don’t appreciate culture the way they used to. No one reads for pleasure. The riot act is probably true, apt and accurate, but it is a common trope of this sort of decline-of-civilization genre of non-fiction writing. Jacoby has a particular and illustrative animus against popular music.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are titans of American pop music, but they are also very clearly artists, as careful with their songwriting and with their collaborators as any other musicians in the history of recorded music. Jacoby takes a few offhand and self-deprecating remarks made by Paul Simon about his work, quotes them, and considers him claimed for her side of the argument. Likewise, she takes Dylan’s reply to a reporter’s question (Q. “What are your songs about?” A. “Some of them are about three minutes, some of them are about five minutes, and some of them, believe it or not, are about eleven minutes”) as Dylan’s disavowal of the lasting value of his work.

Strangely, for someone so devoted to rhapsodizing about the value of intellectual generosity, Jacoby is willing to abandon her sense of irony and take Dylan’s teasing reply as prima facie evidence. Dylan’s life has often been performance, and his famously curt interviews were part of that performance. Would Jacoby have taken that ironic quip with such disingenuous gullibility if it was uttered by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

Jacoby often falls into the trap of confusing the ancient with the good. The internet has not been salutary for high print culture, but any democratization of print media has harmed high culture. Both movable printed type and the industrialization of publishing allowed people to publish porn and joke-books and scatological woodcuts and daguerreotypes concomitant with Gutenberg Bibles and Dickens and Tolstoy and all of the other Great Works. Jacoby has a tendency to conflate the media with the cultural products delivered through them, and that tendency leads to occasional crankish, “I’m Old!” attacks on easy targets like the internet and MTV.

Matthew Arnold famously urged readers to seek out “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” Jacoby occasionally gets sloppy and assumes that readers schooled in an older middlebrow culture that respected learning, classical music and civically-minded cultural outings were hard-line Arnoldists, seeking out the Big Classics and generally Improving Themselves. But it was also Matthew Arnold who coined the modern usage of Philistinism, snarling about the middle classes and their vulgar taste even in the righteously literate 19th century imagined by Jacoby.

The middlebrow is a stuffy and exclusive club – measuring every new cultural product against an established canon of taste and acceptability is long and tedious work. Baroque music is only objectively “better” than Bob Dylan if you already assume that anything “classical” is by definition superior. Middlebrow cultural elites tend to fix a canon of classics and defend them to the death. The problem isn’t with the formation of the canon, it is with its immutability. Middlebrow elites rejected the works of literary, visual-arts and musical modernism, and continued to reify anything with a touch of old-time class.

Jacoby isn’t as bad as all that, of course – her book is mostly mordant and mean to her enemies on the anti-rational right wing, and quite generous to her fellow intellectuals, even on the extreme right wing (her reflections on Allan Bloom are particularly gentle and deft in their placing of blame and approbation). But lay off Bob Dylan.

Padraic Scanlan may be reached at