It is one of the foundational myths of contemporary liberalism: the idea that American culture in the 1950s was not only stifling in its banality but a subtle form of fascism that constituted a danger to the Republic. Whatever the excesses of the 1960s might have been, so the argument goes, that decade represented the necessary struggle to free America’s mind-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the Lords of Conformity and Kitsch. And yet, from a remove of more than a half century, we can see that the 1950s were in fact a high point for American culture—a period when many in the vast middle class aspired to elevate their tastes and were given the means and opportunity to do so.

The wildly successful attack on American popular culture in the 1950s was an outgrowth of noxious ideas that consumed the intellectual classes of the West in the first five decades of the 20th century—ideas so vague and so general that they were not discredited by the unprecedented flowering of popular art in the United States in the years after World War II. And, in the most savage of ironies, that attack ended up not changing popular culture for the better but instead has led to a popular culture so debased as to obviate parody.

Throughout the opening decades of the 20th century, American liberals engaged in a spirited critique of Americanism, a condition they understood as the pursuit of mass prosperity by an energetic but crude, grasping people chasing their private ambitions without the benefit of a clerisy to guide them. In thrall to their futile quest for material well-being, and numbed by the popular entertainments that appealed to the lowest common denominator in a nation of immigrants, Americans were supposedly incapable of recognizing the superiority of European culture as defined by its literary achievements.

This critique gave rise to the ferment of the 1920s, described by the literary critic Malcolm Cowley as the “exciting years…when…the young intellectuals seized power in the literary world almost like the Bolsheviks in Russia.” The writers Cowley referred to—Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Waldo Frank especially—had “a vague belief in aristocracy” and a sense that they were being “oppressed” by the culture of Main Street. But they believed America could be rescued from the pits of its popular culture by secular priests of sufficient insight to redeem the country from the depredations of the mass culture produced by democracy and capitalism. They were championed not only by leftists such as Cowley, but also by Nietzscheans such as H.L. Mencken, the critic and editor whom Walter Lippmann described in 1926 as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people” who famously mocked the hapless “herd,” “the imbeciles,” the “booboisie,” all of whom he deemed the “peasantry” that blighted American cultural life.

The concept of mass culture as a deadening danger took on a new power and coherence with the publication in 1932 of two major works, José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Both books, which became required reading for a half century of college students in the wake of World War II, came to be seen as prophecies of 1950s American conformism. Their warnings about the dangers of a consumerist dystopia have long been integrated into the American liberal worldview.

Ortega’s extended essay and Huxley’s novel were written at a dark time for democracy. In the course of the 1920s, first Portugal, then Spain, Italy, Greece, Japan, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, followed by Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and a host of Latin American countries had turned to dictatorship. Fascism was in the saddle in Italy and the Nazis were threatening to seize power in Germany as both The Revolt of the Masses and Brave New World were being composed—yet both Ortega and Huxley saw American culture as the greatest threat to the future.

Ortega mocked common sense and empiricism as the “idiot,” “plebeian,” and “demagogic” “criteriology of Sancho Panza.” It was, he argued, the tradition of the mob. Like Huxley, he had a literary sense of reality that drew heavily on rhetorical flourishes. He saw no irony in first publishing The Revolt of the Masses denouncing popular culture in a popularly circulated Spanish newspaper. Obsessed with the danger of overpopulation, Ortega set himself squarely against admitting the upwardly mobile into civilization. Ortega’s assertions about the resentful, barely literate mob were built in part on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), which declaimed the inauthentic life led by mass man. Both Heidegger and Ortega wrote in the tradition of imperial Germany, arguing that World War I was in part a struggle to defend the Teutonic soul from the debased modernity of modern machinery and mass production represented by Americanization.

The Revolt of the Masses, which has been described as a Communist Manifesto in reverse, was a bestseller in 1930s Germany. Such success with the mass book-buying public of the Third Reich should have unnerved Ortega, but it didn’t. When he added a prologue in 1937, he neglected to mention the Nazis while decrying the “stifling monotony” mass man had imposed on Europe, converting it into a vast anthill. Congratulating himself on the anti-Americanism of his text, Ortega scoffed at the idea that America, that “paradise of the masses,” could ever defend European civilization. 

Huxley’s Brave New World was heavily influenced by Mencken. Unlike the other great totalitarian dystopias, Huxley’s World State is ordered on the wants of the governed rather than the governors. The only people with any capacity for dissatisfaction in Huxley’s dystopia are a handful of Alphas—or what we would today call “the creative class”—who, unlike the cow-like masses, aren’t satisfied with a steady diet of sex and drugs.

Mencken and Huxley shared an aristocratic ideal based on an idyllic past. They romanticized a time before the age of machinery and mass production, when the lower orders lived in happy subordination and when intellectual eccentricity was encouraged among the elites. In this beautiful world, alienation was as unknown as bearbaiting and cockfighting, “and those who wanted to amuse themselves were,” in Huxley’s words, “compelled, in their humble way, to be artists.”

They considered the egalitarianism of American democracy a degraded form of government which, in Ortega’s words, discouraged “respect or esteem for superior individuals.” Intellectuals, they complained, weren’t given their due by the human detritus of this new world. Huxley, a member of the Eugenics Society, saw mass literacy, mass education, and popular newspapers as having “created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid.” He proposed the British government raise the price of newsprint ten or twentyfold because “the new stupid,” manipulated by newspaper plutocrats, were imposing a soul-crushing conformity on humanity. The masses, so his argument went, needed to be curtailed for their own good and for the greater good of high culture.  

Huxley, writing in a 1927 issue of Harper’s, called for an aristocracy of intellect, and in a slim volume entitled Proper Studies, published the same year, he called for culling the masses through negative eugenics. “The active and intelligent oligarchies of the ideal state do not yet exist,” he told Harper’s readers, “but the Fascist party in Italy, the Communist party in Russia, the Kuomintang in China are still their inadequate precursors.” In the future, he insisted, “political democracy as now practiced, will be unknown; our descendants will want a more efficient and rational form of government.” He warned America that while it was wedded to “the old-fashioned democratic and humanitarian ideas of the eighteenth century…the force of circumstances will be too powerful for them” and they, too, would come to be governed by a new aristocracy of spirituality and intellect. 

In 1931, as Huxley was composing Brave New World, he wrote newspaper articles arguing that “we must abandon democracy and allow ourselves to be ruled dictatorially by men who will compel us to do and suffer what a rational foresight demands.” It was Huxley’s view that “dictatorship and scientific propaganda may provide the only means of saving humanity from the misery of anarchy.” Many of the elements in the “brave new world” that contemporary readers find jarring actually appealed to Huxley. The sorting of individuals by type, eugenic breeding, and hierarchic leadership were policies for which he had proselytized. The problem with the world he created is the lack of spiritual insight, spiritual greatness, on the part of its leader.

The “brave new world” is America, to some extent, or rather, Huxley’s bleak view of America, which he once described as “a land where there is probably less personal freedom than in any other country in the world with the possible exception of Bolshevik Russia.” In the Americanized Brave New World, workers are mass-produced, Henry Ford–style. Those workers live in a mindless drug-induced state of happiness little different from the drug-like effects of the Americanized popular culture Huxley so loathed. In the “brave new world,” as in America, Huxley argues, the lack of freedom isn’t externally imposed—it is, rather, an expression of a culture and polity organized around the wishes of the masses. 

America’s failing was its “lack of an intellectual aristocracy…secure in its position and authority” so that it could constrain people from “thinking and acting…like the characters in a novel by Sinclair Lewis,” a man whose novels offered a stinging portrait of the stifling conformity of middle-class bourgeois life.

This potent critique of mass culture was suddenly muted in the 1930s by the rise of the Communist party in the United States, which required of the intellectuals who flocked to it a sentimental attachment to the masses. And it seemed as though it had been discredited to some degree by World War II. The “hollow men” of the middle class, whom liberal intellectuals had been taught to despise by T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, proved their mettle by defeating the Nazis and saving Western civilization itself.

But writing in 1944, the literary critic and historian Bernard DeVoto saw that the surcease would only be temporary. “The squares, boobs, Babbits, and Rotarians despised by literary liberals would soon again become targets for their betters. America would once again become the land where the masses were organized to crush an artist’s hopes.”

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the New York intellectual Delmore Schwartz kept repeating, “It’s 1919 over again. His friend, the philosopher William Barrett, explained Schwartz’s excitement: “Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde….We expected history to repeat itself.” And in some ways it did. An incessant flow of talk and writing about “mass society” and “mass culture” were the amniotic fluid from which young liberals emerged in the 1950s. As the critic Nora Sayre explained in a memoir, she grew up in that decade around Hollywood writers and New York leftists, for whom the loathing of Main Street and Mencken’s scabrous view of the booboisie were still “the values and tropisms” that were “very much alive in our living room.”

With each new advance in American prosperity, peculiarly, the reactionary vision of Huxley and Ortega gained ground. But the target had changed. In the 1950s version of the mass-culture critique, the men and women of America were said to have become alienated from their authentic selves not by the Babbitts of conformity but by a pervasive popular culture that kept them in a state of vegetative torpor. Everything from women’s magazines to radio to comic books was implicated in this scheme, driven by the need of American capitalists to keep people in a perpetual state of false consciousness.

Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, a 1956 collection of essays co-edited by Bernard Rosenberg, a contributing editor of the socialist magazine Dissent, explained the dangers at hand. “Contemporary man finds that his life has been emptied of meaning, that it has been trivialized,” Rosenberg wrote. “He is alienated from his past, from his work, his community, and possibly from himself—although this ‘self’ is hard to locate. At the same time he has an unprecedented amount of time on his hands which he must kill…lest it kill him.”

The evidence for this epidemic of inauthenticity was 561 pages of articles on such pressing concerns as “The Problem of the Paper-Backs,” “Card-playing as Mass Culture,” and “Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture.” One short article by Irving Howe, who would go on to become a distinguished literary critic and founder of Dissent, contained the following passage:

On the surface the Donald Duck…cartoons seem merely pleasant little fictions but they are actually overladen with the most aggressive, competitive, and sadistic themes. On the verge of hysteria, Donald Duck is a frustrated little monster who has something of the SS man in him and whom we, also having something of the SS man in us, naturally find…quite charming.

Howe would later distance himself from such effusions and mock “the endless chatter about ‘conformity’ that has swept the country.” But the fanciful fears of “suburban fascism,” the danger of stable families, backyard barbecues, white bread, and tail fins came to seem all too real to those influenced by exiled German academics and philosophers who came to enjoy an enormous (and often undeserved) intellectual prestige. Their writings always seemed to carry the intimidating rumble of profundity, which, it turned out, was largely a matter of misdirection aimed at obscuring their own relationship with the German traditions that had led to the horrors. 

The Frankfurt School, led by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, theorized that the rough beast of popular fascism would come round at last in bourgeois America. Relying on an unholy blend of Freud and early Marx, the Frankfurt School writers averred that private life had ceased to be private since it had been colonized by the forces of industrialized leisure—movies, radio, TV, and comic books. These amusements were, they argued, the modern equivalent of the “bread and circuses” used to contain Rome’s plebeians as the empire descended into decadence. With their formidable dialectical skills, they had the intellectual dexterity to argue past the lack of evidence and insist that the jackboots were coming. Because the underlying reality of American life, dominated by hectoring fathers à la Freud, was intrinsically fascist, they argued, there was no need for an overt movement of the sort represented by the Nazis. Nazism was inevitable in America.

The Frankfurt School represented a new kind of left. It did not accept the notion that man was progressing inevitably to a higher state of consciousness. The elimination of poverty and the reduction of back-breaking work through machinery—once seen as great achievements that would help the working man achieve his mastery of the bourgeoisie—were in fact the enslavement of man by mere technology.

“In the over-developed countries,” wrote Herbert Marcuse, who became the most famous Frankfurt School theoretician of the 1960s, “an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a total regime, but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compels the Other to partake of their sounds, sights, and smells.” He was arguing, in effect, for greater social segregation between the elite and the hoi polloi.

Dwight Macdonald, the most influential American critic of mass culture in the late 1950s, concurred with the Frankfurt School. Writing in crackling prose redolent of Mencken’s, he too argued that bourgeois prosperity was creating a cultural wasteland: “The work week has shrunk, real wages have risen, and never in history have so many people attained such a high standard of living as in this country since 1945,” Macdonald complained.

“Money, leisure, and knowledge,” he went on, “the prerequisites for culture, are more plentiful and more evenly distributed than ever before.”

Macdonald, who was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale and associated with the anti-Stalinist leftists at Partisan Review, still couldn’t bring himself to support the United States against the Nazis in World War II on the grounds that “Europe has its Hitlers, but we have our Rotarians.”

Macdonald made himself the chief critic of the cultural category he dubbed the “middlebrow.” The great danger to America, he argued in his most famous essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” was the effort by the masses to elevate themselves culturally. Because of the middlebrow impulse, he said, book clubs had spread across the country like so much “ooze.” The result, Macdonald believed, could only be the pollution of high culture and its degradation in becoming popular culture. “Two cultures have developed in this country,” insisted Macdonald, and “it is to the national interest to keep them separate.

His words were vicious. “Already we have far too much of this insipidity—masses of people who are half breeds” daring to partake of “the American culture of the cheap newspaper, the movies, the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile” and creating “hordes of men and women without a spiritual country…without taste, without standards but those of the mob.”

That was, Macdonald explained, because “the masses are not people, they are not The Man in the Street or The Average Man, they are not even that figment of liberal condescension, The Common Man. The masses are, rather, man as non-man.” He quoted the author Roger Fry approvingly as saying Americans “have lost the power to be individuals. They have become social insects like bees and ants.”

And what were these insects up to? They were sampling the greatest works of Western civilization for the first time. “Twenty years ago,” a salesman reveled in Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, “you couldn’t sell Beethoven out of New York. Today we sell Palestrina, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Renaissance and Baroque music in large quantities.” The public’s expanding taste and increased income produced a 250 percent growth in the number of local symphony orchestras between 1940 and 1955. In that same year, 1955, 15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million.

The overwhelming new medium of television was particularly decried by critics of mass culture. But as the sociologist David White, co-editor with Rosenberg of Mass Culture, noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White went on to note that “on March 16, 1956, a Sunday chosen at random,” the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times of Toulouse-Lautrec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillich, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew.

At the same time, book sales doubled. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, a National Book Award winner, had only modest sales when it was published in 1953. But it went on to sell a million copies in paperback—the softcover book having been introduced on a grand scale after the war. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, published in 1934, sold modestly until the advent of the paperback. By the mid-50s this assault on Victorian moral absolutes in the name of cultural tolerance had sold a half million copies.

In 1947, notes Alex Beam in his recent book A Great Idea at the Time, Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and the autodidact philosopher Mortimer Adler launched an effort to bring the great books of Western Civilization to the people. In 1948 Hutchins and Adler drew 2,500 people to a Chicago auditorium to hear them lead a discussion of the trial of Socrates. By 1951 there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, Chamber of Commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases,” and even prisons. At the peak of the Great Books boom, Beam writes, 50,000 Americans a year were buying collections of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Hegel at prices that “started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today.”

This was the danger against which critics of mass culture, inflamed with indignation, arrayed themselves in righteous opposition. 

But with the advent of the youth movement of the 1960s, the elite attack took a new and odd turn. The shift in sensibility was first announced by the 31-year-old Susan Sontag in a 1964 Partisan Review essay entitled “Notes on Camp.” The essay, which sent Sontag’s shares soaring on the intellectual stock exchange, dissolved the boundaries between high culture and mass culture in favor of a new sensibility she described as “camp.” Camp is playful, a rebuke of sorts to the cultural mandarins. More precisely, camp involves a new, more complex relation to what she called “the serious.” It allowed people to “be serious about the frivolous, [and] frivolous about the serious.” Sontag was saying it was all right for serious people to enjoy the kitsch of popular culture as long as they did it with the correct—superior and ironic—attitude.

Sontag, who thought of herself as a displaced European suffering among philistine Americans, argued that “intelligence” was “really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.” And the “new aristocrats of taste” were those led by homosexual men who saw that comic books, popular art, and pornography viewed with the right spirit of irony and mischief were an extension of the new sensibility that saw “life as theater.” In this victory of style over content and aesthetics over morality, Sontag defined the emerging ethos of the 60s. The middlebrow menace was banished to the sidelines. 

By 1970 the aim of camp to “dethrone the serious” had all but succeeded. The last remnants of bourgeois morality having largely melted away as part of the national culture, there was little to make even mock cultural rebellion meaningful. The “serious” was replaced by a cheerful mindlessness, and the cultural striving of middlebrow culture came to a quiet end. Why should the well-meaning middle American labor to read a complex novel by an intellectual or try to work his way through a Great Book if the cultural poohbahs first mocked his efforts and then said they were pointless anyway because what mattered was living “life as theater”? Today, if there were a T.S. Eliot, Time Magazine would no more put him on the cover than it would sing the praises of George W. Bush.  Time’s literary critic writes children’s fantasy novels and chose a science-fiction book about elves as one of the crowning cultural achievements of 2011. Since the highbrow have been given permission to view the “frivolous as the serious,” why shouldn’t everybody else?

Dwight Macdonald, who spat on the ambitions of the midcult man, took an interesting journey himself in the 1960s. He became a movie critic and later a contributor to the Today show. When student radicals took over buildings on the campus of Columbia University, Macdonald celebrated them and responded mildly when members of the Students for a Democratic Society (which gave birth to the terrorist Weathermen) literally set fire to the manuscript of a professor. The man who had denounced the barbarism of the American middle saw true barbarism in practice and found it wonderfully stimulating.

“You know how sympathetic in general I am to the Young, they’re the best generation I’ve known in this country, the cleverest and the most serious and decent,” he said. And then, speaking words that would mark the disgraceful epitaph of the successful assault on the remarkable American cultural moment of the 1950s, he said, wistfully, “I wish they’d read a little.”

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