For all the pandering to “the middle class” by presidential candidates, where is the concern for middle class culture? I was reminded of the way this culture has shriveled by news that Newsweek, a former bastion of middle class and national aspiration, is ceasing print publication in December.
You could make an argument that one reason the middle class is so stressed these days, in addition to income polarization and the loss of housing equity, is that middle class culture “don’t get no respect.” The 1960s revolutions were hard on bourgeois, square values and then the counter-culture was turned by advertising agencies into mainstream culture.
Out went middlebrow culture, with its accessible techniques and uplifting American themes, endangering the magazines that catered to this broad taste — institutions such as the Saturday Review of Literature, Life, Look, Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker. The attack came from highbrows such as Virginia Woolf, who deplored middlebrow culture as more about doing what was socially expected than true appreciation of art. Dwight MacDonald’s famous attack on midcult deplored the way it imitates and adulterates high culture.
Fair points, to be sure. But for many years in American culture, the middle class was not written off, and figures such as Leonard Bernstein and Robert Frost and Arthur Miller were valued for the way they could speak to large populations and yet remain true to high art. The great exemplar, of course, is Shakespeare.
Magazines like Newsweek catered to this market of culturally aspiring middle classes, just as they tried to bring them along with social and political change such as race relations and urban values. When metropolitan newspapers had the funds, they too paid attention to culture, translating high art into relevant terms for large audiences. There was a sense, each week, that the American adventure made sense, was permeated with values and larger uplifting narratives.
Now to be middle class is to be devalued, conflicted (as in David Brooks’ famous portrait of boomers as Bo-Bo’s, half bourgeois and half bohemian), or consigned to Mencken’s “booboisie.”
Magazines, with their lush photos and wishful worlds of beautiful people and fine homes, cater to the aspirations of the broad (and sometimes upper) middle class. That’s one reason advertisers like their glossy moods. But they also speak to the higher aspirations of such readers, or at least they did when publishers and editors pushed them in this direction. Newsweek was a classic example.
I broke into journalism on the magazine side, working for the wonderful magazine published by King Broadcasting in the Stimson Bullitt years, Seattle Magazine. One of my colleagues there was Charles Michener, who, as it happened, left to go work for Newseek when it was a very hot magazine. I got in touch with Charles, now living in his native Cleveland, to get his take on the passing of the print version of Newsweek. Here’s what he wrote.
“I have sad thoughts about Newsweek, but I saw the end coming a long time ago. As you may recall, I was there during its heyday in the 1970s and early '80s. Newsweek was then the ‘hot’ magazine in NYC. It was the upstart among the three newsmagazines, which was its appropriate role in light of Time's ‘ownership’ of the franchise.
“Newsweek pioneered in the use of bylines by the writers — reinforcing the magazine's heterodox nature, its more freewheeling, less formulaic, more opinionated aura. Years earlier it had introduced weekly columns, and they were a sensible, diverse bunch (Stewart Alsop, Robert Samuelson, George Will, Shana Alexander, Meg Greenfield, etc.). Newsweek was (somewhat grudgingly) ahead in its promotion of women editors and writers (see Lynn Povich's new book on the subject). Its special largely single-subject issues (‘The Arts in America,’ ‘Criminal Justice in America,’ etc.) were bold and novel at the time. It had superb foreign bureaus.
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