The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States

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Overview

He was a friend of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos, Irving Berlin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—and the enemy of Ezra Pound, H.L. Mencken, and Ernest Hemingway. He was so influential a critic that Edmund Wilson declared that he had played a leading role in the "liquidation of genteel culture in America." Yet today many students of American culture would not recognize his name. He was Gilbert Seldes, and in this brilliant biographical study, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen recreates a singularly American life of letters. Equally important, Kammen uses Seldes's life as a lens through which to bring into sharp focus the dramatic shifts in American culture that occurred in the half-century after World War I.
Born in 1893, Seldes saw in his lifetime an astonishing series of innovations in popular and mass culture: silent films and talkies, the phonograph and the radio, the coming of television, and the proliferation of journalism aimed at mainstream America in such venues as Vanity Fair, The Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire. (His monthly column in Esquire was called "The Lively Arts.") Seldes was more than a witness to these changes, however; he was the leading champion of popular culture in his time, and a skilled practitioner as well. Kammen, the first scholar to enjoy access to Seldes's unpublished papers, illuminates his immense influence as the earliest cultural critic to insist that the lively arts—vaudeville, musical revues, film, jazz, and the comics—should be taken just as seriously as grand opera, the legitimate theatre, and other manifestations of high culture.
As he traces Seldes's remarkable evolution from an acknowledged aesthete and highbrow to a cultural democrat with a passion for the popular arts, Kammen recaptures the critic's prescience, wit, and generosity for a newly expanded audience. We witness Seldes's triumphs and travails as managing editor of The Dial, the most influential literary magazine of its time, and read of New York's endlessly feuding publications and literary rivalries. Kammen offers wonderfully detailed accounts of The Dial's introduction of "The Wasteland" in its November 1922 issue; Seldes's review of Ulysses for The Nation, one of the first (if not the very first) to appear in the U.S.; and the complete story of the writing, publication, and critical reception of The Seven Lively Arts, Seldes's most influential book. And Kammen also covers Seldes's astonishingly versatile later career as a freelance writer (on every conceivable subject), historian, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, radio scriptwriter, the first program director for CBS Television, and the founding dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
One of popular culture's earliest and most eloquent champions, Seldes was nonetheless publicly worried as early as 1937 that the popularity of radio, film, and television would mean the demise of the "private art of reading." By 1957 he was warning that "with the shift of all entertainment into the area of big business, we are being engulfed into a mass-produced mediocrity." At a time when many thoughtful Americans despair of popular culture, The Lively Arts revisits the opening salvos in the ongoing debate over "democratization" versus "dumbing down" of the arts. It offers a penetrating and timely analysis of Gilbert Seldes's pioneering conviction that the popular and the great arts must not only co-exist but enrich one another if we are to realize the innovation and intensity of American culture at its best.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his 1924 book The Seven Lively Arts, Seldes (1893-1970) made the then-controversial claim that popular entertainment and culture should be treated just as seriously, and as rigorously, as the so-called high arts. Krazy Kat and Irving Berlin were worthy of critical attention, he said; and arts criticism in America hasn't been the same since. Kammen, a historian, stresses the "hands-on" aspect of Seldes's long and versatile career. He was a historian, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, scriptwriter, journalism school dean, newspaper and magazine columnist and CBS's first director of television. Although at times Kammen seems curiously defensive, his balanced and insightful account of Seldes's professional life-from the early '20s at the Dial magazine (and the beginning of long-running feuds with both Hemingway and the Algonquin Round Table set) to the 1950s debates on the role of "mass culture"-is a story of a life as well as a history of pop culture on the rise. Seldes, Kammen says, thought of himself as "a highbrow populist" and was a "compulsively candid critic." Kammen weights Seldes's contributions fairly but can be equally candid. Photos. (Mar.)
Mary Carroll
Cornell University's Kammen is an astute student of U.S. cultural history; "People of Paradox" (1972), "A Machine That Would Go of Itself" (1986), and "Mystic Chords of Memory" (1991) suggest his scope. It's hardly surprising that he would find Seldes a fascinating biographical subject. Seldes was a major contributor to arts criticism and magazine journalism from the 1920s to the 1960s: edited "The Dial" when it published T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"; wrote a classic defense of popular art, "The Seven Lively Arts" (1924), hundreds of magazine articles, a successful Broadway treatment of "Lysistrata", and programs for radio and TV; and was founding dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. Seldes fought with Hemingway, George Jean Nathan, and Edward R. Murrow and wrestled with issues of current relevance, including "dumbing down" vs. "leveling up" in the mass media and government's role in supporting (or restraining) artistic expression. Seldes shed light rather than heat on significant artistic issues American society has faced.
Kirkus Reviews
With a career spanning the period from the Jazz Age to the Information Age, critic Gilbert Seldes provides a sizable canvas, but it's still a stretch to see it as reflecting all the multitudinous changes in modern American culture.

With this amiable but sometimes stultifying biography, Kammen plunges into cultural aesthetics as part of his ongoing study of American history (Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, 1991, etc.). In revisiting the period from the Jazz Age's exuberant prelude to the American century up to the the intersection of TV, radio, and movies in the 1950s, Kammen uses Seldes's rousing journalism and his two chief achievements, the books The Seven Lively Arts and The Great Audience, to illuminate the changing American zeitgeist. In the former book, Seldes's ebullient championing of Charlie Chaplin, George Herriman, Al Jolson, and Ring Lardner offered a different brand of aesthetics than that of the genteel, post-Puritan school of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford. Kammen also contrasts Seldes's tastes with the more famous coeval critics of the period: the antipopulist boob-bashing of H.L. Mencken, the snobbery of George Jean Nathan, and the elitist idiosyncrasies of Edmund Wilson. "Certainly no snob," Kammen writes, "Seldes the man and critic was a cultural democrat." While he grew alarmed about the quality of the entertainment being provided by the mass media after WW II, "he nonetheless hated to succor those archly elitist critics who were absolutely negative about anything and everything middlebrow or popular."

Kammen makes the middle-of-the-road Seldes into a middleman of cultural criticism, but he remains too weak a figure to support the ambitious scope of Kammen's cultural criticism.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195098686
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 3/21/1996
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Kammen is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell University. President of the Organization of American Historians, he is the author or editor of many other books, including People of Paradox, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and A Machine That Would Go of Itself, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize.

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