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More than forty years ago, Robert Warshow wrote that "the unresolved problem of 'popular culture' ... has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism." Despite the rise of academic trends like cultural studies, we don't have a criticism that speaks to the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to popular culture. Warshow argued that the evasion o More than forty years ago, Robert Warshow wrote that "the unresolved problem of 'popular culture' ... has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism." Despite the rise of academic trends like cultural studies, we don't have a criticism that speaks to the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to popular culture. Warshow argued that the evasion of the popular arts in his time was due to a "disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life" that corrupted American liberalism from the 1930s to the 1950s. Political correctness then, like political correctness since the 1960s, had led to "organized mass disingenuousness" on the part of intellectuals who turned away from developing a vocabulary for describing the immediate, aesthetic experience and used irony instead, even about their own experiences. But, says Warshow, "a whole literature cannot be built on irony." Warshow died a young man of 37 in 1955, but he left as his legacy a series of essays for The Partisan Review, Commentary, The Nation, and other journals. These writings, the cornerstone of a major account of the role of mass culture in our lives, were first gathered and published as a book in 1962. A number of the essays have been anthologized frequently, and the book as a whole has achieved cult status for a number of discerning critics.


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More than forty years ago, Robert Warshow wrote that "the unresolved problem of 'popular culture' ... has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism." Despite the rise of academic trends like cultural studies, we don't have a criticism that speaks to the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to popular culture. Warshow argued that the evasion o More than forty years ago, Robert Warshow wrote that "the unresolved problem of 'popular culture' ... has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism." Despite the rise of academic trends like cultural studies, we don't have a criticism that speaks to the actual, immediate experience of seeing and responding to popular culture. Warshow argued that the evasion of the popular arts in his time was due to a "disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life" that corrupted American liberalism from the 1930s to the 1950s. Political correctness then, like political correctness since the 1960s, had led to "organized mass disingenuousness" on the part of intellectuals who turned away from developing a vocabulary for describing the immediate, aesthetic experience and used irony instead, even about their own experiences. But, says Warshow, "a whole literature cannot be built on irony." Warshow died a young man of 37 in 1955, but he left as his legacy a series of essays for The Partisan Review, Commentary, The Nation, and other journals. These writings, the cornerstone of a major account of the role of mass culture in our lives, were first gathered and published as a book in 1962. A number of the essays have been anthologized frequently, and the book as a whole has achieved cult status for a number of discerning critics.

30 review for The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sketchbook

    Robert Warshow: Who's that? Eric Bentley in "What is Theatre?" says Warshow wrote the last word on Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible," so I had to sleuth. His essays are astounding in their clarity, supple writing and ability to ignite the brain. This remarkable thinker who died young [mid-'50s] was among the first to analyze "pop culture." He connects you immediately to his subject whether it's Chaplin or the adventures of Krazy Kat. Clifford Odets, he finds, is the American poet of Jewish li Robert Warshow: Who's that? Eric Bentley in "What is Theatre?" says Warshow wrote the last word on Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible," so I had to sleuth. His essays are astounding in their clarity, supple writing and ability to ignite the brain. This remarkable thinker who died young [mid-'50s] was among the first to analyze "pop culture." He connects you immediately to his subject whether it's Chaplin or the adventures of Krazy Kat. Clifford Odets, he finds, is the American poet of Jewish life. "Awake and Sing" (1935) remains to Warshow his most impressive play, the others become "more superficial and more sentimental." Miller's "Death of a Salesman" has its basic appeal in its pessimism : 'Official' American culture, is often so "cheaply optimistic that we are likely to take pessimism as a measure of seriousness." The drama here is "full of a self-conscious energy masquerading as profundity." Warshow's finest essay, as Eric Bentley advised, deals with "The Crucible" in which Miller saw similarities between the Salem witch trials and the Commie hunt of the late 40s. Never mind that witches were a fantasy of sick minds whereas Communists were a part of real life. Miller's assured simplicity, notes Warshow, captivated an educated audience. "If Miller isn't really saying anything about the Salem trials and can't be caught saying anything about anything else, what did the audience think he was saying?" Warshow is stumped. The flawed idealism of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg gets slapped : "The Communist is always celebrating the same thing -- the great empty Idea which has taken on the outlines of his personality." Warshow perceptively considers movies, particularly the gangster and Western films -- "the two most successful creations of American movies : men with guns." The gangster is lonely and melancholy and appeals to adolescents with their feeling of being outsiders. The Western hero, by contrast, has a certain repose, a man of leisure who does "what he has to do." The Marx Brothers exude uncompromising nihilism that defines the submerged and dispossessed. They're popular among "middle-class intellectuals because they express a disgust with society that responsible men must suppress." Ludwig Bemelman's charm is considered as well as Gert Stein's innocence: "She had to work very hard to write like a 12-year old girl full of intelligent and sensitive curiousity." The New Yorker in its heyday : "It has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking." There are no Warshows writing today when their voices are needed.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    I had been interested in reading this book since reading two examples of Warshow’s writing on film (“The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and “A Feeling of Sad Dignity”) in the Library of America’s American Movie Critics anthology and noting him as a critic whose work to pursue further. The Immediate Experience, as far as I can tell, collects all of his published writings: eleven essays on film (one unfinished, intended as part of a book on film on which Warshow was working at the time of his death), ei I had been interested in reading this book since reading two examples of Warshow’s writing on film (“The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and “A Feeling of Sad Dignity”) in the Library of America’s American Movie Critics anthology and noting him as a critic whose work to pursue further. The Immediate Experience, as far as I can tell, collects all of his published writings: eleven essays on film (one unfinished, intended as part of a book on film on which Warshow was working at the time of his death), eight essays of broader cultural criticism (touching on comics, Communism, and Arthur Miller’s dramas, among other topics), and eight book reviews, shorter than the other pieces. There are some references made in pieces that call back to earlier essays in such a way that one can imagine his essays feeling as if they were in dialogue with each other across the pages of The Partisan Review, The Nation, and Commentary when they were originally published; indeed, a better choice for the order of the pieces in this collection might have been to order them by original publication date rather than attempting to loosely (in some cases very loosely) categorize them by topic. Taken together, they sum to a guide to how to respond to the modern world, the modern media landscape, and the nearly unescapable pervasiveness of popular culture in a way that reads as modernly as ever, if not more so, almost seventy years on from the piece in which this is most explicitly addressed (“The Legacy of the 30’s [sic]”). Notable is the degree to which Warshow was able to work at length and develop his arguments; writing of this length is difficult to find in even literary magazine’s these days, and especially on the “minor” topics which Warshow pursued. His general mode is that of a thinking man’s analysis of the ways in which other thinking people unthinkingly approach popular culture, sometimes even while under the mistaken impression that they are thinking. He analyzes the patterns that both creators and consumers fall into, often out of laziness, or lack of rigor in thinking; he comments on the broader field of criticism by closely examining words and concepts tossed around in criticism and really deeply explores what they have come to mean when used. Perhaps the foremost guiding principle in his criticism is his conception of truth vs. falsity as he experiences (it’s no mistake that that word appears in the title here) a cultural product (and he’s interested, though not as much as I might have liked or might have thought he would be, in the way in which cultural items are indeed products, produced and consumed), a framework which is not quite as rigid as it would appear to be, but is instead explored in a way that highlights muddy middles, how for example lines between innocence and guilt can be blurred by delusion or public perception or both, and how the abstraction of ideas such as success and being loved create gaps between their reality and their depiction; he points out how techniques intended for one purpose can backfire, as in an astounding footnote pointing out that the Hays Code censorship that forced the punishment of criminals in motion pictures allowed for the same sadism and violence on the part of the law to go undefeated, allowing American law enforcement to go unchallenged and gain a cultural veneer of unproven and undeserved legitimacy. Warshow at times seems to recognize the innate absurdity of his utter allegiance to “truthfulness” and his opposition to “falsity” (or perhaps, just of the impossibility of neatly dividing fictions into these two categories), indeed setting in place such stringent restrictions that it’s nearly impossible to remain within their bounds. For all his forceful declarations, these sorts of contradictions abound, and it’s probably a good thing, as a book of hard-and-fast statements might not have played as interestingly; he writes carefully--one might say fussily--studding his prose with commas and frequently making use of clarifying and hedging parentheticals. There’s something very appealing about a book of essays which nearly all read like mixed reviews (rare enough these days, when equivocation is not handled well by many seeking simplified critical reviews), even when his opinion is clearly somewhat more distinctly on one side or the other of the middle; it’s very pleasurable to see someone intelligent in discussion or argument with himself on how he feels about something. This mode is the dominant one, with Warshow interrogating his response to a product, analyzing his feelings, his intellect in conversation with his subconscious. As a result, ideas can be at odds within his pieces, and he examines these tensions, if not always (or necessarily ever) quite resolving them. Sometimes, in the course of this process, Warshow will overreach somewhat, or underdevelop an argument, but mostly, one comes to the end of a piece quite satisfied with what one has just read; these are pieces not meant to convince, necessarily, but to draw the reader in as a third participant in an inquiry. Despite this recognizably prevalent mode of discourse, it never feels as if Warshow is merely plugging in different elements into the same outline of a piece per se, but he definitely recycles a similar framework of arguments at times, suggesting that as critical as he was of calcified viewpoints, some of his might themselves have been allowed to become rather unquestioned or unexamined following their first deployment. There can be moments of sloppiness within the arguments as well, where he declines to back up assertions, and Warshow can be so focused on praising what he considers to be of high culture that he can be almost automatically dismissive (though not quite in kneejerk fashion, but rather after a familiarly constructed line or two making his “case,” which might make it somewhat worse) of that which he deems low- or middlebrow. At times, he quotes plays, essays, and letters at length to damn them (or, more often, their writers), a cheap technique of decontextualizing via fragmentation in a way designed to keep the reader from being able to present a counterargument. Warshow feels unwilling to allow himself to be clever, as if it would somehow udnermine his argument, and so when he deploys his wit, it feels awfully forced, and would have been better left out altogether. There is oddly a lot of use of the plural first person when Warshow deigns to use the first person at all, in service of a detachment that is curious, to say the least, for the man obsessed with conveying his personal experience and who famously said (in a grant application repurposed as the preface to this very book), “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man”; Warshow's responses, too, can feel more politicized than personalized, though that may be a reflection of the degree to which he considered himself defined by his politics. However, despite these niggles which remind the reader of themselves on most of the pages of the book, Warshow ultimately passes the crude test I often set by wondering if I would have liked to read an author on other topics which he didn’t manage to touch on; two directors who I happened to think of whose work I would have been fascinated to read him examine are Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk. Warshow takes an admirable stance against the dissociation from one’s own experience, magnifies the significance of having an understanding as opposed to simply adopting an attitude regarding something, and argues that it’s not enough for a cultural work to be merely right or accurate if not also inspired, if not unique (and likewise, how it’s not enough for a work to be successful dramatically or stylistically without elements of the other as well). He decries explicit social criticism in movies for being so upfront, and generally dislikes filmmakers controlling or interpreting their material, or presenting it in ways that ask to be interpreted rather than simply allowing for it; he wants the consumer’s experience to be untainted as possible, dictated as minimally as possible. He explores uniquely American traits and the ways in which they manifest themselves (or are suppressed from manifesting themselves) in uniquely American cultural products, addressing, in addition to specific example, genres as a whole and their attendant myths and traditions. He seeks humanity in the culture intended to reflect it, a connection to reality without a feeling of being beholden. And one ultimately does get the sense that all of these demands and desires he has for cultural products are deeply personal, despite his detached tone; they add up to an almost valiant demand for quality that reads as a matter of deep personal integrity crucial to who Warshow is as a person.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kristy

    For a guy who died of a heart attack at the age of 37 back in 1955, Robert Warshow sure has the number of modern American popular culture. This collection of essays ranges from the Rosenbergs, to Charlie Chaplin, to Stalin, to comic books and while the content may sometimes be a little dated, Warshow's voice is always fresh, pointed, and smart. I wish he had longer to make his mark on the world of American intellectualism, but I'm glad we have this sampling of his writing. Worth reading for anyo For a guy who died of a heart attack at the age of 37 back in 1955, Robert Warshow sure has the number of modern American popular culture. This collection of essays ranges from the Rosenbergs, to Charlie Chaplin, to Stalin, to comic books and while the content may sometimes be a little dated, Warshow's voice is always fresh, pointed, and smart. I wish he had longer to make his mark on the world of American intellectualism, but I'm glad we have this sampling of his writing. Worth reading for anyone who likes words.

  4. 5 out of 5

    David Emery

    Warshow died at age 37, in the midst of writing a book about the movies. This book, a cobbling together of his criticism on film and American popular culture, exemplifies a keen devleoping mind for the experience of art. Naturally, it feels unfinished, but what's here has justifiably proven influential to professional and amateur critics alike. Warshow died at age 37, in the midst of writing a book about the movies. This book, a cobbling together of his criticism on film and American popular culture, exemplifies a keen devleoping mind for the experience of art. Naturally, it feels unfinished, but what's here has justifiably proven influential to professional and amateur critics alike.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Robert Warshow's reviews illuminate aspects of popular culture that I usually take for granted, or have never really examined thoroughly. He shows the importance of being candid and unpretentious as a critic, which I really appreciate. Experience comes from veracity. Robert Warshow's reviews illuminate aspects of popular culture that I usually take for granted, or have never really examined thoroughly. He shows the importance of being candid and unpretentious as a critic, which I really appreciate. Experience comes from veracity.

  6. 4 out of 5

    StephenM

    read or re-read 50%

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    Intelligent examination of literary subjects (Hemingway takes a beating); comic books (Krazy Kat is extolled, EC Comics not as much); movies are broken into main genres and discussed - - especially gangster films. Very well written. Articles are collected from the last few years of Warshow's life - - he died age 37 in 1955. Intelligent examination of literary subjects (Hemingway takes a beating); comic books (Krazy Kat is extolled, EC Comics not as much); movies are broken into main genres and discussed - - especially gangster films. Very well written. Articles are collected from the last few years of Warshow's life - - he died age 37 in 1955.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kaleb Horton

    He knows how to engage "low culture" better than just about anybody. He can find the moral or philosophical toxicity behind superficially stimulating work. He also hates the New Yorker and Arthur Miller, which is fun. He knows how to engage "low culture" better than just about anybody. He can find the moral or philosophical toxicity behind superficially stimulating work. He also hates the New Yorker and Arthur Miller, which is fun.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Shiloh

    Yet another product of its time--a classist, racist, elitist examination of popular culture and its many many failings.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brian Gunn

  12. 4 out of 5

    Emmie3408

  13. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  14. 5 out of 5

    Srikanth

  15. 5 out of 5

    tyler

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  17. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

  18. 4 out of 5

    Justin

  19. 5 out of 5

    King Clover

  20. 4 out of 5

    Wes Hazard

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

  22. 5 out of 5

    Nedduh Simonson

  23. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

  24. 4 out of 5

    George

  25. 4 out of 5

    Patricia Hahn

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tony Bilotta

  27. 4 out of 5

    Seth

  28. 5 out of 5

    David

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ericpegnam Pegnam

  30. 4 out of 5

    Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle

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