Kate Macdonald and Christoph Singer, eds. Transitions in Middlebrow Writing, 1880-1930. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. x, 272 p., ill. ISBN 9781137486776. US $95.00 (hardcover).
Kate Macdonald and Christoph Singer’s 2015 collection Transitions in Middlebrow Writing offers a productive intervention in ways of framing middlebrow scholarship by focusing on the interactions between avant-garde and middlebrow cultures as they developed. Taking their cue from Raymond Williams’ identification of the period between 1880 and 1914 as an “interregnum” between established “masters” and modern “contemporaries,” Macdonald and Singer open up the space between 1880 and 1930 to place late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature in the context a number of intensive cultural shifts between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as the middlebrow emerged in relation to and alongside the avant-garde. Sharing Williams’ sense of an urgent need to correct the view of retrospectively-applied cultural hierarchies and categories that often misrepresent the fluidity of culture in transmission, Macdonald and Singer attend to “the transitional elements of culture(s), their perception, and most importantly their production” before “respective authors, genres, magazines and publishers are allocated their places, their cultural functions and their critical merits” (1). By drawing attention to the period “that brought forth the avant-garde and consolidated a new taste for middlebrow reading” (2), this edited collection seeks to identify transitional texts, authors, and cultural producers to better understand how the literature of the early twentieth century was positioned, regarded, and transmitted in its day.
In Kristen MacLeod’s “What People Really Read in 1922: If Winter Comes, the Bestseller in the Annus Mirabilis of Modernism,” the bestselling novel of the numinous year of modernism’s genesis is used to test the anxiety about commercial success in discourses of the middlebrow that scholars have heretofore assumed. MacLeod observes how important factions of middlebrow culture modulated the typically pejorative British attitudes toward the concept of the bestseller and how film adaptations also won a place in “respectable middle-class entertainment” (18). In addition to considering the novel in relation to commercial culture, MacLeod places the middlebrow in dialogue with the highbrow, “noticing their interdependent antagonism” (30). The derision that highbrow critics cast upon the publication is noted alongside the ways in which securely avant-garde publications embraced equivalent themes.
Opening Part I, on the market, Frost’s chapter “Public Gains and Literary Goods: A Coeval Tale of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Francis Marion Crawford” reveals how these authors’ works at first sat alongside each other in a market replete with colonialism, only to be later differentiated in the aftermath of critical evaluation. Louise Kane’s chapter on the magazine To-day is an excellent case study of how a magazine repositioned itself to a changing market between the years 1883 and 1919 as high modernism and middlebrow tastes emerged. Rebecca Sitch’s chapter examines the career of Charles Marriott and the important role he played for the British public in mediating the aesthetics of modern art and the emergence of the mass market.
In Part II, middlebrow reactions to modernism are explored in chapters by Alison Hurlburt, Emma Miller, and Samatha Walton. Hurlburt’s chapter looks at Galsworthy’s relation to modernism in The White Monkey, before turning to examine the novel’s endorsement of sentiment. Emma Miller also considers the complex relationship to both high modernism and the middlebrow, in this instance in a case study of H.G. Wells’ The Sea Lady. Walton’s chapter focuses on the evolutions in the Scottish kailyard genre to examine how transitional and modernist writers engaged, in complex ways, with its central trope: the woman in the home.
Part III, “Cross-Pollinations,” investigates several key texts and agents that crossed borders, languages, and cultural hierarchies in their transmission, translation, and consolidation of middlebrow reading and tastes. Chapters by Juliette Atkinson and Birgit Van Puymbroeck examine French and English readerships, observing how translations deliver texts to different audiences and literary categories. The final two chapters, the first by Koen Rymenant, and the second by Mathijs Sanders and Alex Rutten, analyse the role of prominent critics who served as arbiters of taste to shape the perception of the British middlebrow across borders. It must be noted that while the book opens up transnational dimensions for middlebrow scholarship, its international outreach is limited to cross-Channel perspectives. The project would be clearer if its title signalled its limited focus on transitions in British middlebrow writing and culture. Truly international perspectives on other forms of the middlebrow, such as manifested in Canada or Australia, are absent from this volume.
Yet, while middlebrow culture in Britain in the interwar period is now well understood, Transitions in Middlebrow Writing succeeds in opening up new frameworks. By examining the period before the taxonomies of avant-garde or middlebrow were well established, this collection productively reveals interactions, crossovers, and shifting aesthetic categories in the half-century before middlebrow culture calcified in Britain. It re-emphasizes the very provisionality of middlebrow, particularly in its emergence. Perhaps its greatest strength is the way in which the collection attempts to open up dialogue between modernist scholars and middlebrow studies; in addition, the edited collection offers fresh insights to historians of reading, reception, and publishing, and to periodical scholars alike.
James Cook University