Spanning over one hundred and fifty years, Lawrence W. Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, charts the development of culture beginning in the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. In Highbrow/Lowbrow, Levine tells the reader through various examples how the United States began with forms of culture celebrated by most of the countryside's population through the years where cultural classes developed and finally to the point where some cultural subjects nearly died off. Through narrow fields of entertainment, he is able to define what was and was not popular culture; how various forms of cultural entertainment were performed and watched or listened to by the general public; and how several key people in the late nineteenth century helped preserve art forms that still exist today. Three distinct areas are covered in the book's three chapters: Chapter One, "William Shakespeare in America" focuses on the popularity and decline of the performance of Shakespeare's works; Chapter Two, "The Sacralization of Culture" highlights the development and developing highbrow status of symphonies and orchestras; and Chapter Three, "Order, Hierarchy and Culture" describes how culture evolved from entertainment for many to culture for few. Lastly, an epilogue from the author briefly expands on culture today versus culture in the past century.
"William Shakespeare in America" chronicles the rise and fall of the performance of Shakespearean plays in the United States from after the Revolutionary War until the end of the nineteenth century. Dramatic performances of Shakespeare were not the norm for the most part, but "...burlesques and parodies...constituted a prominent form of entertainment..." throughout the country. His plays were so popular that they constituted a large portion of theater presented throughout the early-to-mid nineteenth century with the most popular actors and actresses from Europe and America performing. These performances were not limited to the big cities of the eastern seaboard either; they were even performed in small cities throughout the Midwest and western states, like Mud Springs, Cherokee Flat and Rattlesnake in California and mine towns like Silver City, Dayton and Carson City. They were shown with a simple formula: Shakespeare was shown with "...afterpieces and divertissements that surrounded his plays...." Also, the draw to see these plays was strong "...because the people wanted to see great actors who in turn insisted on performing Shakespeare to demonstrate their abilities...." Another point of interest that Levine describes is that plays were seldom true Shakespearean works. Oftentimes the plays were ad-libbed or modified to satisfy the crowd, or the title and content slightly changed to bring about other meanings. For example, a version of Richard III was revised "...by cutting one-third of the lines, eliminating half of the characters, [and] adding scenes from other Shakespearean plays...." However, those who were the self-appointed guardians of high-end theater towards the end of the century, converted Shakespeare "...from a popular playwright whose dramas were the property of those who flocked to see them, into a sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences...."
Next, in "The Sacralization of Culture," Levine does an excellent job of describing how many of the most popular opera houses and symphony orchestras in America were formed. Two big names in the music industry of the day, John Philip Sousa, who is known for his patriotic marches and Henry Lee Higginson, who formed the Boston Symphony Orchestra, are just two of the many cultural revolutionaries Levine discusses in the text. Sousa appealed to the masses, saying that the public would come to appreciate "`high class'" music more if it was interlaced with popular tunes. By contrast, Higginson believed that it was sacrilege to play anything other than classical music in its original form and pandered to the more cultured of society. Even though Higginson made great strides for musicians like paying salaries and starting pensions, he held so strongly to his beliefs for pure music that he operated the symphony at a loss and needed benefactors to keep it afloat. Throughout the chapter, similar subjects are also addressed, such as who should and should not enter museums, what they should wear and how they should conduct themselves once inside.
In "Order, Hierarchy, and Culture," Levine explains how attending events like plays and concerts evolved from "Whispering, talking, laughing, coughing...sneaking snacks, [and] spitting tobacco..." to a "...general success in disciplining and training audiences..." in more respectful behavior. Moreover, museum staffs were dedicated to developing the manners and behaviors of their patrons. One example was the ejecting of a plumber who not only wore his work clothes to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art but visited the museum directly from work. The museum did not want patrons who smelled bad or who had oil and grease stains on their clothes. This policing was not limited to events held indoors. New York's Central Park had so many regulations as to where one could sit, for example, that it was almost not enjoyable to spend any time there. This effort to raise the cultural standards was intended to raise the cultural awareness of society at large.
The epilogue concludes the text stating that isolating certain cultural themes, like opera for example, has diminished its importance overall. Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, is quoted as saying, "Classical music...is [now] `dead among the young'...."
As was said earlier, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America does an excellent job of describing the rise and fall of Shakespearean drama in America and further gives an excellent portrayal of the development of opera and orchestral music. Additionally, the chapter dealing with the education and development of the viewing and listening public emphasizes how several art forms fell out of vogue with the general public, being labeled too highbrow for many. Although written in 1988, the reader can easily see parallels to today with the popularity of certain art forms like hip-hop music. The stereotypes still exist which classify those who enjoy that form of entertainment as lowbrow. In contrast, those who attend the symphony are seen as a higher social class. It is unfortunate that the highbrow intellectuals of the late nineteenth century were allowed to classify people and their entertainment tastes to such an extreme. Because of their beliefs, opera, classical music, and Shakespearean plays will never be exposed to many in America who would benefit by and truly enjoy them.