The Debate on Mass Culture

  • Christopher Brookeman
Part of the The Contemporary United States book series


If the new criticism established a specific role in American culture for literary analysis, it also provided one of the co-ordinates for a view of the quality and nature of the mass culture of press, radio, cinema and television. Paul Lazarsfeld, a pioneer of the debate on mass culture and its effects, has commented on the fact that the role of mass culture and its relationship to other cultural forces such as those of high culture was a major preoccupation of intellectual life from 1935: ‘In this country we attained a peak of discussions about mass culture between 1935 and 1955’.2 The purpose of this chapter and several of those that follow it is to describe the development of this debate in the work of a number of literary, cultural and sociological investigators of the impact of mass culture on American society. One emphasis will be on the proponents of the conservative critique of mass culture which stressed the low level of aesthetic complexity and intellectual content in mass culture. The work of this group, from T. S. Eliot to Dwight Macdonald, proceeded by a comparative method in which the products of mass culture were evaluated in a balance against those of high or avant-garde culture. The balance invariably tilted in favour of the latter. This conservative critique intersects at a number of points with the Marxist critique of the Frankfurt School of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse who, in the 1930s, took up residence in the USA as a result of the rise of Nazism.


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Selected Bibliography

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1962).Google Scholar
  2. Salvador Giner, Mass Society (London: Martin Robertson, 1976).Google Scholar
  3. Edith Kurzweil and William Phillips (eds), Writers and Politics: an anthology from Partisan Review (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).Google Scholar
  4. Dwight Macdonald, The Responsibilities of Peoples and Other Essays in Political Criticism (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957).Google Scholar
  5. Dwight Macdonald, Against the American Grain (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963).Google Scholar
  6. Dwight Macdonald, On Movies (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  7. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980).Google Scholar
  8. Bernard Rosenberg and David H. White (eds), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1957).Google Scholar
  9. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds), Film Noir (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980).Google Scholar
  10. Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York: Atheneum, 1971).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Christopher Brookeman 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher Brookeman

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