July 15, 1996

In a new biography, Cornell historian Michael Kammen plumbs the versatile career and enduring legacy of Gilbert Seldes

ITHACA, N.Y. -- As The New York Times celebrates its 100th anniversary, displaying its famous pages at several Manhattan libraries and museums, it is worth remembering that if not for one man, those pages might never have included reviews of the Beatles.

Gilbert Seldes -- critic, editor, novelist, playwright, screenwriter -- was the first American intellectual to lend legitimacy to popular culture; yet too few Americans recognize his name or appreciate his influence, according to Michael Kammen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Cornell University. To set the record straight, Kammen has written the first Seldes biography, The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1996).

"If you told someone in 1920 that a day would come that The New York Times would have a regular film critic, or would publish reviews of rock-and-roll performances by groups like Van Halen or the Grateful Dead, people would have looked at you with disbelief," said Kammen, the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell and a member of the Cornell faculty since 1965.

Kammen said the idea to write this latest book came to him while researching his last one.

"Throughout the 1980s, I worked on a long book, Mystic Chords of Memory, about aspects of American culture between 1880 and 1980," said Kammen, president of the Organization of American Historians. "During that time I became increasingly interested in the changing relationship between high culture and popular culture. Whenever I encountered material pertinent to that complex and important relationship, I ran across references to Gilbert Seldes. I began to follow Seldes' writings closely and discovered that his 1924 book The Seven Lively Arts was the very first to insist that popular culture deserved serious attention from cultural critics."

Kammen discovered much more. "I also found that nothing of a biographical nature had ever been written about Seldes, or about his immense influence as a critic. I found, in addition, that all of his papers -- including journals and an unfinished autobiography -- were in the possession of his children, who were quite willing to make this material available to me.

"The situation fulfilled a historian's fantasy: a treasure trove of unknown materials concerning a neglected yet significant person."

In the lead review of The New York Times Book Review on May 5, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was a close friend and confidante of the late Seldes, describes The Lively Arts as "a rich and stimulating work and a long overdue account of the intelligent and energetic man who almost single-handedly changed American attitudes toward the popular arts."

Gilbert Seldes began his career as an unabashed member of the cultural elite, Kammen writes. Educated at Harvard, he became the New York correspondent for T.S. Eliot's Criterion in London and wrote one of the first American reviews of James Joyce's Ulysses for The Nation. When not socializing with the Fitzgeralds, Picassos, Joyces and Stravinskys, Seldes worked as managing editor of The Dial, the most influential literary magazine of its time.

But in The Seven Lively Arts, he presented a then-radical thesis: that vaudeville, musical revues, movies, jazz, and comics should be taken as seriously as the ballet or the opera. Seldes became the nation's most ardent "cultural democrat," championing Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, the Ziegfeld Follies and George Herriman's comic strip "Krazy Kat" in columns for emerging "middlebrow" publications like The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Esquire.

Seldes was more than an observer of the cultural scene, however. In the 1930s he adapted Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream for the stage (the first was successful, the second a flop). Later he made films, wrote radio scripts and became the first director of television for CBS News and the founding dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout his book, Kammen relates Seldes' personal development to the dramatic technological developments that were occurring around him. In his lifetime, 1893-1970, Seldes witnessed the transition from silent film to talkies and the emergence of the phonograph, radio, television and computer. He himself wrote in 1966, "In my own lifetime I have witnessed more changes in the modes of communication than occurred in all recorded history before."

In the 1950s and '60s, Seldes grew increasingly wary about the negative effects of mass media on the quality of the arts. He drew a sharp distinction between the flourishing of popular arts in the 1920s and the forcing of popular arts on the public en masse in the 1950s. In 1957 he warned that "with the shift of entertainment into the area of big business, we are being engulfed into a mass-produced mediocrity."

"The issues that Seldes raised and wrestled with for more than four decades are very much with us today," Kammen said. "Do popular and mass culture inevitably mean mediocrity -- a degradation of taste? Should critics use very different standards in evaluating popular and mass culture? Does a democratic society unavoidably "level down," in terms of taste levels, or is it also possible to level up? "

"I would not claim that Seldes was infinitely wiser or more prescient than his contemporary critics," Kammen said. "But he was the first to frame these issues."