Sanctioned American Middlebrow-ism


Another fact and facet of growing up in Cheltenham: the prevalence of what I call sanctioned American middlebrow-ism. The ideal, sanctioned American middlebrow text is a novel or a play (serious poetry, for reasons I'll get to, is too threatening) which shoots, with expert aim, right for the middle of the tepid, insipid road- just artsy enough to display some heft or rigorousness, but not artsy enough (i.e. innovative or inventive enough, formally or thematically) to alienate the typical suburban home-owning audience member; characters memorable, but not individualistic enough to inspire anyone to rebel or lash out at restrictions; situations challenging, but always reinforcing the master narrative that everything's real, everyone's real, and we're all leading cohesive lives; and a patina of glamour around the heroic, blandly courageous, hip if strangely innocuous author who brought the damned thing into the world. All the sanctioned American middlebrow names stand in a row, basking in the warm glow of New York, Broadway, press junkets, and strange literary venerability in those magical repository spaces: The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly: Bellow, Malamud, Updike, Miller, Mailer, Mamet, T. Williams, Cheever. Anything tinged even a bit European is too uppity for this group: other Mandarinite names: Stoppard, Amis, Nabokov. If I have to laugh at Cheltenham (again), it's at just how far the blarney extended, in my youth, to make sure real poetry couldn't happen; which is to say, that no individual may develop his/her consciousness against the collective interests of our corrupt, yet culturally with-it, community. Lameness squared, brains neutered/spayed.

That's why real poetry is so threatening: it can only be done the right way by cohesive individuals, against the interests of conglomerates/corporations, and in such a way that conglomerate interests are killed by it instantly, as has happened many times in history. When the poetry in a society is set loose, places like Cheltenham sink into a morass of discontent and squalid self-abnegation. Poetry is, must be, when it is major high art consonant, as individualistic as individuals can be. So, Cheltenham: what happens to David Mamet in the twenty-first century? Will you be dropping the name David Mamet (or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill) in 2050? I think you and I both know the answer to that question. If I feel the need to write this, it is because I will admit to some residual bitterness (still) about the place I was raised, and what a cultural cul-de-sac it was. With the press beating me and my peers to death with Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, and our teachers, parents, and other authority figures weighing in with Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even (for the daring) Camus and Kerouac on the side, it's a bloody miracle any of us lived to figure out what the wages of low-brow-ism and middle-brow-ism are in a time of crisis. As in, only the classicist impulse can get you through an era of trauma in one piece. And, as the cultural dwarfs shout out Snob!, it can't matter much, because what the hell else are they supposed to say? Read the new Philip Roth?

P.S. It needs to be understood that Cheltenham would have an easy, day-tripping way out of dealing with the Cheltenham Elegies series. Because the Elegies employ cuss-words, and feature drug deals, blowjobs, and other miscreant behaviors transpiring right on the surface, the better, more choice Cheltenham families would push the Elegies aside as crass, vulgar, unworthy. What Cheltenham liked, back in the day, was trite, insipid, dulcet literary surfaces, with nothing beneath the surface at all; what you might call pure surfaces. The idea of beneath the surface consonance was a bete noir to these people, who were all, to be frank, vile hypocrites and complete literary impostors.