Sinking in Quicksand: The Demise of Victorian High Culture in America 1870-1915

Mitra Sharafi


Today, the term Victorian implies snobbishness and rigidity. Our world, the result in part of a rebellion against Victorian formality and social hierarchy, celebrates the classless, the democratic, and the popular. It professes faith in the artistic judgment of all members of society regardless of ethnic origin, level of education or wealth. From the Victorian point of view, however, twentieth-century mass culture is accessible to all by appealing to the lowest common denominator; it is inclusive at the cost of a loss of education, refinement, and profundity. Turn-of-the-century America is the ideal subject for a study of the interaction between Victorian high culture and modern mass culture; the period from 1870 to 1915 was one of drastic cultural metamorphosis. Social change threatened the foundations of high culture and eventually killed it, but not without the unintentional help of the Victorians' own self-alienating behaviour.

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