Culture as a Process in Levine's Highbrow, Lowbrow

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Culture as a Process in Levine's Highbrow, Lowbrow

In Highbrow, Lowbrow, Levine argues that a distinction between high and low culture that did not exist in the first half of the 19th century emerged by the turn of the century and solidified during the 20th century, and that despite a move in the last few decades toward a more ecumenical interpretation of “culture,” the distinction between high art and popular entertainment and the revering of a canon of sacred, inalterable cultural works persists. In the prologue Levine states that one of his central arguments is that concepts of cultural boundaries have changed over the period he treats. Throughout Highbrow, Lowbrow, Levine defines culture as a process rather than a fixed entity, and as a product of interactions between the past and the present.

Levine’s first chapter presents evidence that 19th century Americans of all social classes enjoyed Shakespeare as an integral part of their culture and entertainment. Shakespeare’s works were familiar enough to the populace that a variety of parodies were written and performed for large crowds that displayed their engagement with the works by applause, vegetable-throwing, interruptions, and commands to the actors. Shakespeare’s plays were performed in frontier communities and in cities, in churches and theatres and make-shift stages, attended by people of all classes. He describes the integration of Shakespeare into the Americans’ language and imagination, and explains Shakespeare’s popularity on the basis of its compatibility with 19th century Americans’ oral rhetorical style and their ability to see their own culture’s emphasis on individualism and morality reflected in Shakespeare’s characters and stories.

Levine ex...

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... and others whom Levine treats are a different breed of reformers because they are concerned only indirectly with morality. But when Brown laments that today’s youth are intellectually wanting and have no connection with their cultural heritage, he uses bold phrases such as “junk food for the soul,” indicating that the erosion of appreciation for high culture is changing not only the common forms of entertainment but the character of today’s youth. Another parallel exists in Brown’s conception of culture and the Springhall’s reformers’ concept of morality as something that youth can access if they choose to break away from the evil influences of “mass” or “popular” culture – with the help, of course, of their moral or intellectual superiors, who long to inculcate their own (perhaps technologically or culturally outdated) ways of thinking into the next generation.

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