Gilbert Seldes and The Seven Lively Arts

Today we pay homage to the great American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970).

Odd that today his daughter, actress Marian Seldes is probably better known and remembered — Seldes the elder had a seismic impact on American culture. In some respects, he is the reason you are reading a blog like this at all, or books like the ones I have written. Seldes was a champion of the democratization of American culture, and of dignifying what is called “low culture” with the same amount of serious attention critics devote to the “high”. High Culture would be forms such as literature, opera, ballet, and so forth. Seldes devoted something like 50 years to his cause, but his defining, seminal work was a book called The Seven Lively Arts (1924, revised 1957), those titular arts being “Slapstick Moving Pictures, Comic Strips, Revues, Musical Comedy, Colyums (Seldes’ neologism for newspaper columns written in character), Slang Humor, Popular Songs, and Vaudeville”.

Seldes’ championing was not limited to these forms, of course. New media like radio and television were on the horizon even as he wrote, and Seldes would go on to make a mark in those forms. Sadly, and unthinkably most of the original septet have died out, though I go to them all constantly as a wellspring for creative inspiration. Naturally, some of Seldes’ contemporaries, like George Jean Nathan and Alexander Woolcott, covered some of these forms, and wrote approvingly of them sometimes. That is different from making a mission of ELEVATING them. Woolcott might praise Harpo Marx by speaking about him being in the tradition of commedia dell’arte. Seldes would say that Harpo was great unto himself. Likewise, there were writers for publications like Variety like Joe Laurie Jr and Abel Green and others who wrote about popular theatre, but without the scholarly and critical grounding and language of appreciation that Seldes brought to it. It is because of Seldes that we later got such things as jazz and rock criticism, and he is the reason that serious people can today speak soberly about such things as graphic novels without a hint of apology. Seldes’ concept was so catchy Billy Rose used it for a 1944 Broadway revue featuring songs by Cole Porter, book by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Ben Hecht and additional music by Igor Stravinsky. It was also used as the title of a 1957 tv series.

Seldes was a Harvard grad (classmates included e.e. cummings and John Dos Passos) and the younger brother of muckraking journalist George Seldes (1890-1995). He was a war correspondent during World War One, and was hired by Collier’s as associate editor after the war. In 1920 he joined the editorial staff of The Dial, a magazine originally founded in 1840 by the Transcendentalists but then in the process of being reinvented as a modernist literary magazine by Seldes’ Harvard classmates Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson, Jr. During Seldes’ time there, they championed such works as James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (and later Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). He left the magazine at the end of 1923, writing The Seven Lively Arts the following year.

Dozens of books and other projects would follow. He wrote theatrical works for Broadway, such as The Wisecrackers (1925), a musical version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1930), and a jazz musical based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream called Swingin’ the Dream (1939). He had a weekly column in the Saturday Evening Post. He was the film critic for The New Republic. He wrote the 1933 documentary film This is America. He wrote and narrated the radio works Americans at Work and Puritan in Babylon, both in 1937. He hosted the CBS radio program Americans All, Immigrants All (1938-39) (Not incidentally, Seldes was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant). He edited The Portable Ring Lardner in 1944. He hosted a national radio show called The Lively Arts from 1953 through 1956, and the television program The Subject is Jazz in 1958. (Seldes was surely an inspiration for the great jazz writings of Nat Hentoff. He was also a major friend and champion of George Herriman and Krazy Kat). He was even in charge of entertainment programming for CBS TV for a while.

For more, check out this excellent essay on The Bioscope, which includes a link to the complete text of The Seven Lively Arts.