The “Thingness” of the American Middlebrow:
The GREAT GATSBY and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in Conversation
Keywords:middlebrow, print culture, American fiction
In this paper, I examine the ways in which Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby both critique and engage with materialism and consumerism as middlebrow texts. Bill Brown’s discussion of the power and meaning of “things” of literature (2003; 16-17) serves as a framework through which I analyze the double “thingness” of the middlebrow as depicted in these novels—that is, the simultaneous investment in and critique of consumer objects. To that end, I analyze both the print culture histories and content of Blondes (which is widely considered a middlebrow text in academic scholarship) in conversation with Gatsby (which is not always thought of as a middlebrow text). I argue that, rather than view middlebrow within a high/low brow paradigm, we should instead consider the ways in which the middlebrow operates with and within mass consumer culture as well as provides a critique of that culture. Because the American middlebrow has a distinct socioeconomic history, I demonstrate how these novels also grapple with the “thingness” of American identity and the Americanness of “things” by centering the protagonists’ engagement with material objects in the construction of their identities. Gatsby and Blondes demonstrate the middlebrow American quality of things through their narrative content, and the novels’ histories as print objects reflect their circulation as commercial things themselves.
This article challenges understandings of the “middlebrow” as a genre unto itself by examining the historical situatedness of the term and its evolving definitions. This article also invites renewed conversation around the middlebrow by proposing a new perspective and an alternative approach to the understanding of middlebrow literature. I argue that these novels present an ideal re-entry into discussion of the middlebrow because of their disparate print culture histories and the cultural capital (or lack thereof) they signify in the present day. This article thus traces the print histories of these two novels alongside analyses of their reception histories and critiques the concept of a middlebrow literature, turning again to contradictory definitions of the term to suggest a more fluid understanding of the middlebrow in scholarship should be able to account both for the continuing appeal of early twentieth-century middlebrow literature and the ways in which the middlebrow itself as an aspirational aesthetic and consumerist ethic has evolved and is ubiquitous in the twenty-first century.
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