U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Revising The Origins Of The Great Books Idea

Following David Sehat’s lead from this past October, I’m going to selfishly use some of USIH’s virtual space for self-promotion purposes.

The October 2008 issue of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (Vol. 7, no. 4) holds an article derived from my dissertation. The essay, titled “Dreams of a Democratic Culture: Revising the Origins of the Great Books Idea, 1869-1921,” uses our mutton-chop sideburned friend to the right, Matthew Arnold, as the starting point for an inquiry into the ~positive~ roots of the great books idea in the United States.

The “revising” part of my title hinges on the fact that some who look at Arnold focus on how his trans-Atlantic cultural project helped buttress a highbrow/lowbrow split in American culture. Lawrence Levine saw Arnold in this way. Or worse, Arnold’s work helped establish that extra-despised middlebrow, lukewarm cultural category—neither ignorant nor sophisticated, just diluted pretentious pablum. Joan Shelley Rubin’s thoughtful work, The Making of Middlebrow Culture, pushed Arnold in this direction. My goal, in this piece and in my overall project on the great books idea (i.e. the dissertation), was to move Arnold’s project and the great books away, somewhat, from questions of cultural hierarchy. I focus on what JGAPE editor Alan Lessoff called, in his very gracious editorial introduction, an “ambitious and unbelievably idealistic” dream—namely, to create an enlightened democratic culture. And as readers will see, that enlightenment was about a process for which the great books were tools more than objects of “reverence.” My JGAPE article, derived from dissertation chapter one, is set in the nineteenth-century to cover the antecedents of what would become an important, lasting, and even popular (at times) project in the twentieth century.

Thank you for listening. – TL