Structure and Functions (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
For many people, the thought of biting into a lemon causes a puckering or a tingling sensation in the mouth. A real taste sensation is evoked even though the actual taste stimulus, a lemon, is absent. This kind of response indicates the power of the sense of taste. Taste is also called the gustatory sense, a term derived from the Latin word gustatus, meaning taste. This sense evolved to aid animals in the selection of safe, nontoxic foods. Although loss of the ability to experience taste (apogeusia) is not a life-threatening condition, it may indicate the presence of other maladies, some of which are life-threatening. A diminished or absent ability to taste may account for loss of appetite or weight loss in some ill persons; for these persons, sufficient and proper nutrition can become a critical issue.
There are five special senses of the human body: gustation, olfaction (smell), vision, hearing, and equilibrium. The organs associated with the special senses take in information from the environment in the form of chemical, light, sound, or mechanical energy and convert that energy into nerve impulses. Nerve impulses are tiny electrical signals that are carried by the peripheral and central nervous systems to the brain, where the information is integrated in order to assess how dangerous or secure an individual may be in any given environment. Taste is a primitive sense, meaning that it need not be taught;...
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Disorders and Diseases (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
In the medical sciences, gustatory problems are generally not a cause but an effect. A diminished sense of taste (hypogeusia), an alteration of taste (dysgeusia), or the complete absence of the sense of taste (ageusia, or apogeusia) is generally a symptom of an underlying pathology. It is rare for true apogeusia to be an isolated symptom of a malady; it is even rarer for true apogeusia to exist as an isolated physical malady. Yet apogeusia does, in fact, exist in human populations. Among some descendants of the Ashkenazi Jews, for example, a double recessive genetic code mandates that taste papillae will not develop, resulting in congenital apogeusia.
In discussing when or how noncongenital apogeusia, hypogeusia, or dysgeusia can become a problem, it is important to review the critical components of a taste message. Three discrete structures are involved: taste cells, which contain taste hairs at their pores; nerve fibers, which connect the chemoreceptors (taste hairs) to the brain; and the brain itself. Alterations in the ability to taste can originate in any or all three of these discrete steps along the path.
Some pathologies that can cause a miscommunication at the receptor sites include actual physical or chemical damage to the taste buds, such as a burn that covers the tongue’s surface or the ingestion of lye; accidental or therapeutic exposure to radiation; lingual (tongue) or palatal (palate)...
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Perspective and Prospects (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
Tasting is an inborn sense; it requires no training or skills. So-called acquired tastes are attained by adults mainly as a result of the declining population of taste cells, a natural aspect of the aging process. Because adults cannot sense food as fully as children, they may seek out heightened taste sensations, consuming salty foods such as caviar, drinking strong beverages such as whiskey, or enjoying spicy foods such as curry or hot peppers. Given their divergent taste responsiveness, it is reasonable to expect children to have natural aversions to certain foods, as compared to adults. A child is simply more aware of the mixed flavors of a given food, some of which may be bitter or sour relative to the way in which an adult senses the same food.
Like their primitive ancestors, modern humans let the tip of the tongue sample a new food before actually ingesting it. It is believed, therefore, that sweet receptors evolved to occupy the tip of the tongue to help humans seek out and consume safe foods in nature. Sweet foods, such as carbohydrate-rich vegetables, fruits, and (to some extent) proteins, are generally safe and nourishing. Therefore, humans tend to seek sweet flavors, especially in the infant stages, over salty, sour, or bitter ones. This instinctual drive may account for the powerful attraction many people have for sweet desserts and candies.
Bitterness is detected in the mouth nearer the...
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For Further Information: (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
Atkins, Peter. Atkins’ Molecules. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A truly entertaining book supported by pleasing photographs and sketches of some of nature’s most intriguing molecules.
Møller, Aage R. Sensory Systems: Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathophysiology. Boston: Academic Press, 2003. An excellent text that describes how human sensory systems function, with comparisons of the five senses and detailed descriptions of the functions of each of them. Also covers how sensory information is processed in the brain to provide the basis for communication and for the perception of one’s surroundings.
Schmidt, Robert F., ed. Fundamentals of Sensory Physiology. Translated by Marguerite A. Biedermann-Thorson. Rev. 3d ed. Berlin: Springer, 1986. A succinct treatment of the anatomy and physiology of taste is provided in chapter 8, “Physiology of Taste.”
Shier, David N., Jackie L. Butler, and Ricki Lewis. Hole’s Essentials of Human Anatomy and Physiology. 10th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009. An academic textbook that goes into greater detail about the human body than an introductory biology book. One chapter covers the somatic and special senses and has a section devoted exclusively to the sense of taste.
Tortora, Gerard J., and Bryan Derrickson. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. 12th ed. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons,...
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Taste (Encyclopedia of Science)
Taste is one of the five senses through which all animals interpret the world around them. (The other senses are smell, touch, sight, and hearing.) Specifically, taste is the sense for determining the flavor of food and other substances. It is one of the two chemical senses (the other being smell) and it is stimulated when taste buds on the tongue come in
contact with certain chemicals. The sense of taste also is influenced by the smell and texture of substances, hereditary factors, culture, and familiarity with specific taste sensations.
The biology of taste
Clusters of small organs called taste buds are located in the mouth, mainly on the surface of the tongue. Taste buds (named so because under the microscope they look similar to plant buds) lie in small projections called papillae and contain taste receptors that bind to food molecules broken down by saliva. These receptors send messages along nerves to the brain, which interprets the flavor as sweet, sour, salty, or bitter.
Taste buds for all four taste groups can be found throughout the mouth, but specific kinds...
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Taste (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
The chemical sense which perceives or distinguishes flavor.
Taste, or gustation, is one of the two senses triggered by chemical stimuli (the other is olfaction). A person has approximately 10,000 taste buds. Most are on the tongue, but some are located in the back of the throat. Grouped together in bumps or papillae on the surface of the tongue, the taste buds contain receptors that respond to four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. (It has also been proposed that monosodium glutamate (MSG) produces a fifth taste, called "umami," that enhances other tastes.) Each receptor responds most strongly to one or two of the four basic tastes and slightly to the others. The receptors that are sensitive to bitter substances are located on the back of the tongue. Beginning at the tip of the tongue and progressing to the rear on each side are over-lapping receptors for sweet, salty, and sour tastes. Although the number of basic tastes registered by human taste receptors is extremely limited when compared with the hundreds of odors that can be identified by olfactory
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Taste (Encyclopedia of Nursing & Allied Health)
Taste is one of the five senses (the others being smell, touch, vision, and hearing) through which all animals interpret the world around them. Specifically, taste is the sense for determining the flavor of food and other substances.
One of the two chemical senses (the other being smell), taste is stimulated through the contact of certain chemicals in substances with clusters of taste bud cells found primarily on the tongue. However, taste is a complex sensing mechanism that is also influenced by the smell and texture of substances. An individual's unique sense of taste is partially inherited, but factors such as culture and familiarity can help determine why one person's favorite food made be hot and spicy while another cannot get enough chocolate.
The primary organ for tasting is the mouth. Clusters of cells called taste buds (because under the microscope they look similar to plant buds) cover the tongue and are also found to a lesser extent on the cheek, throat, and the roof of the mouth. First discovered in the 19th century by German scientists Georg Meissner and Rudolf Wagner, taste buds lie on the bumps and grooves of the tongue (called the papillae) and have hairlike extensions (microvilli) to increase the receptor surface of the cells. Four different pairs of nerves are involved in the tongue, which helps explain in part why the sense of taste is a robust one, and not easily knocked out by disease or trauma.
Genetic and other factors affecting taste
Scientists have also discovered that genetic makeup partially accounts for individual tasting abilities and preferences for specific foods. According to Yale University researchers, some people are genetically programmed to have more taste buds and, as a result, taste more flavors in a particular food. (The number of taste buds varies in different animal species. For example cows have 25,000 taste buds, rabbits 17,000, and adult people approximately 10,000.) In general, a person's ability to taste can lie anywhere in a spectrum from poor to exceptional, with the ability to sense tastes increasing in proportion to the number of taste buds present. The difference in the number of taste buds can be extreme. Researchers have found anywhere from 11 to 1,100 taste buds per square inch in various young people tested. They have also found that women tend to have more taste buds than men and, as a result, are often better tasters. How well people taste greatly affects what they like. Studies at Yale, for example, revealed that children with fewer taste buds who are classified as poor tasters liked cheese more often than exceptional tasters, who experienced a more bitter sensation, probably because of increased sensitivity to the combination of calcium and the milk protein casein found in cheese.
Despite the important role that taste buds play in recognizing flavors, they do not work alone in providing the experience of taste. For example, the amount of naturally occurring salt in saliva varies; with the result that those with less saliva can better taste the saltiness of certain foods than others, who may end up adding salt to get a similar flavor. The smell and texture of foods are also important contributing factors to how people perceive a food to taste and whether or not they like it. Food in the mouth produces an odor that reaches the nose through the nasopharynx (the opening that links the mouth and the nose). Since smell is much more sensitive to odors than taste is to flavors, people often first experience the flavor of a food by its odor. The texture and temperature of food also influences how it tastes. For example, many people would not think of drinking cold coffee, while others will not eat pears because of a dislike for the fruit's gritty texture.
The predilection for certain foods and tastes is not determined merely by biology. Culture and familiarity with foods greatly influence taste preferences. The Japanese have long considered raw fish, or sushi, to be a savory delicacy. Until the 1990s, few Americans would have enjoyed such a repast. As the number of Japanese restaurants grew along with the sushi bars they often contained, so did Americans' familiarity with this delicacy, resulting in a new taste for it.
Taste's primary function is to react to items placed in the mouth. For most foods and substances, saliva breaks down the chemical components which travel through the pores in the papillae to reach the taste buds. These taste buds specialize primarily in processing one of the four major taste groups: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Because the four taste groups may not describe all taste sensations, other proposed tastes include metallic, astringent and umami. Umami is the oral sensation stimulated by monosodium glutamate.
Taste occurs when specific proteins in the food bind to receptors on the taste buds. These receptors, in turn, send messages to the brain's cerebral cortex, which interprets the flavor. The actual chemical processes involved for each major taste group vary and involve various mechanisms. For example, salty and sour flavors occur when saliva breaks down sodium or acids, respectively. The chemical constituents of foods that give bitter and sweet tastes are much more difficult to specify due to the large number of chemical components involved.
Although certain taste buds seemed to have an affinity for one of the four major flavors, continued research into this intricate biological process has revealed a complex neural and chemical network that precludes simple black and white explanations. For example, each taste bud actually has receptors for sweet, sour, salty, and bitter sensations, indicating that taste buds are sensitive to a complex flavor spectrum similar to the way vision is sensitive to a broad color spectrum grouped into the four major colors of red, orange, yellow, and green. Particular proteins of taste are also under study, like gustducin, which may set off the plethora of chemical reactions that causes something to taste bitter and sweet.
Taste buds for all four taste groups can be found throughout the mouth. A common but mistaken tongue diagram shows areas labeled with basic tastes, such as sweet at the tip of the tongue while bitter is at the back. While specific kinds of buds tend to cluster together, the four tastes can be perceived on any part of the tongue and to a lesser extent on the roof of the mouth. Bitterness does appear to be perceived primarily on the back of the tongue because of several mechanisms.
Role in human health
Taste helps people determine whether potential foods are palatable. It also plays a major role in appetite. People constantly regenerate new taste buds every three to 10 days to replace the ones worn out by scalding soup, frozen yogurt and the like. As people grow older, their taste buds lose their fine tuning because they are replaced at a slower rate. As a result, middle-aged and older people require more of a substance to produce the same sensations of sweetness or spiciness, for example, than would be needed by a child eating the same food.
Common diseases and disorders
The inability to taste is so intricately linked with smell that it is often difficult to tell whether the problem lies in tasting or smelling. An estimated two to four million people in the United States suffer from some sort of taste or smell disorder. The inability to taste or smell not only robs an individual of certain sensory pleasures, it can also be dangerous. Without smell or taste, for example, people cannot determine whether food is spoiled, making them vulnerable to food poisoning. Also, some psychiatrists believe that the lack of taste and smell can have a profoundly negative affect on a person's quality of life, leading to depression or other psychological problems.
The reasons for taste and smell disorders range from biological breakdown to the effects of environmental toxins; but a clear precipitating event or underlying pathology is often lacking in taste disorders. Here are some of the more common ones:
- Cold and flu are the most common physical ailments that can assault the sense of taste and smell. Allergies, viral or bacterial infections can all produce swollen mucous membranes, which diminish the ability to taste. Most of these problems are temporary and treatable.
- Medications, including those used in chemotherapy for cancer treatments, can also inhibit certain enzymes, affect the body's metabolism, and interfere with the neural network and receptors needed to taste and smell.
- Neurological disorders due to brain injury or diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's can cause more permanent damage to the intricate neural network that processes the sense of taste and smell.
- Twenty to 30% of head trauma patients suffer some degree of smell disorder, which can in turn affect taste.
- Exposure to environmental toxins like lead, mercury, insecticides, and solvents can also severely hinder the ability to smell and taste by causing damage to taste buds and sensory cells in the nose or brain.
- Aging itself is associated with diminished taste and smell sensitivity.
Cerebral cortexhe external gray matter surrounding the brain and made up of layers of nerve cells and fibers. Thought to process sensory information and impulses.
Microvilliair or fingerlike projections found on cell membranes that increase surface area to better receive outside stimuli.
Papillaeipplelike projections found on tissue which constitute the ridge-like surfaces on the tongue.
Proteinacromolecules that constitute three-fourths of cell matter's dry weight and which play an important role in a number of life functions, such as sensory interpretation, muscle contraction, and immunological response.
Taste budsells found primarily on the tongue that are the primary biological components for interpreting the flavor of foods and other substances.
Beauchamp, Gary & Linda Bartoshuk. Tasting and Smelling (Handbook of Perception and Cognition, 2nd edition). San Diego: Academic Press 1997.
Goldstein, E. Bruce. Blackwell Handbook of Perception. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2001.
Macbeth, Helen. Food Preference and Taste: Continuity and Change. Oxford, England: Berghahn Books 1997.
Nagel, Rob. "The Special Senses." In Body By Design: From the Digestive System to the Skeleton. Edited by Betz Des Chenes. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2000.
Smith, David V., and Robert F. Margolskee. "Making Sense of Taste." Scientific American, (3 March 2001) <<a href="http://www.sciam.com/2001/0301issue/0301smith.html">http://www.sciam.com/2001/0301issue/0301smith.html>.
BiblioAlerts.com. "NeuroScience-in-Review: The Sense of Taste." Paid subscription service for reports in science and technology. <<a href="http://preview.biblioalerts.com/info/com.biblioalerts_biblioalerts_CRE000312.html">http://preview.biblioalerts.com/info/com.biblioalerts_bibli... >.
Kimball's Biology Pages. "The Sense of Taste." <<a href="http://www.ultranet.com/~jkimball/BiologyPages/T/Taste.html">http://www.ultranet.com/~jkimball/BiologyPages/T/Taste.html>.
MEDLINE plus. "Health Information." <<a href="http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medplus">http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medplus>.
Linda Richards, R.D.
Taste (American History Through Literature)
Few issues circulated more consistentlyr more nervouslyithin American culture during the 1820870 period than those regarding issues of taste and sensibility. Novels and plays, poems and stories in magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book and newspapers such as the New York Tribune and the New York Herald, conduct manuals for men and women, and even the pulpiest dime novels and the most wrenching slave narratives were involved in the dissemination of a seemingly endless series of texts in which characters negotiate the vexed terrain of cultural consumption and sensibility. What modes of conduct or affect best became a woman or man seeking certain forms of class distinction? What were the proper standards of reading and writing? How might leisure activity and aesthetic consumption mark one as tasteful in ways that were either positive or negative? Were there tasteful ways to spend money? And more abstractly, what sort of body came with varying degrees of taste and class? These and myriad similar questions act as the backdrop for a great deal of the literary and cultural production during this period. Indeed in a very real way fiction and theater, in particular, were the space in which American standards of taste were taking shape in relation to categories of class and culture.
TASTE AND THE MIDDLE CLASS
This cultural influence was particularly evident in the forms of taste and awareness taking shape in the emergent middle classes. Though still fragmentary, heterogeneous and contradictory, the middle class saw in the mirrored reflection of these literary narratives an increasingly coherent version of itself and its cultural preferences, especially as these preferences were defined in relation to the polar extremes of "high" and "low" culture. The term that later came to be used to define this sensibility is "middlebrow," and certainly one of the most fascinating dimensions of the literary and cultural production of this era is the way it models a zone of taste and sensibility locatedften quite anxiouslyomewhere between these two more obvious sites of distinction. Following the magisterial work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, American academics such as Lawrence Levine, Janice Radway, and Jonathan Freedman have shown how the American middlebrow sought increasingly to legitimize itself by invoking the authority of taste, aesthetics, and "culture" even as it struggled with intense feelings of insecurity in the face of "true" or "real" high culture. "The petit bourgeois is filled with reverence for high culture," Bourdieu writes with perhaps a hint of sympathetic irony. "He bows, just in case, to everything which looks as if it might be culture" (p. 323). But Bourdieu suggests, even such reverence is doomed to failure. Lacking the cultural and educational advantages of the aristocratic classes, the middle-brow is forever conscious of the fact that "legitimate culture is not made for him (and is often made against him) so that he is not made for it; and that it ceases to be what it is as soon as he appropriates it" (p. 327).
MIDDLE-CLASS TASTE AND THE THEATER
Bourdieu's analysis is of particular use in examining the forms of taste and sensibility emerging in nineteenth-century America, a period marked by the seemingly tireless efforts of the middlebrow to carve out a space for itself somewhere between the more rarified sphere of highbrow taste and distinction and the cruder, usually sensational, world of working-class (and necessarily low-brow) culture. This is perhaps best exemplified in the fraught cultural transition taking place in American theaters from the 1820s to the 1870s, as operas, symphonies, and even performances of Shakespeare became increasingly rarified and hostile to lower-class audiences. This transition was highlighted by the 1849 Astor Place riot, in which a working-class mob of some five thousand assaulted the Astor Place Opera House in New York City as part of a running feud over its ostensibly elitist and highbrow production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. The actual riot, in which twenty-two people were killed, was sparked by a rivalry between Edwin Forrest (1806872), a working-class "Jacksonian" actor championed by the rowdy and voluble crowd of "Bowery b'hoys" who filled the Chatham, Bowery, and other theaters for his melodramas, and William Macready (1793873), a British actor who expressed withering distain for such audiences. As Levine explains, Macready described Forrest's audiences as "vulgar," "coarse," "underbred," "disagreeable," and "ignorant" (p. 66)pithets that became much stronger on 7 May 1849, when Macready was booed and pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables by a crowd filled with Forrest sympathizers. The riot that occurred three nights later was the culmination of tensions between these classes, but it was also a watershed in the shaping of middlebrow taste and culture in America. Indeed Levine reports that by the 1870s audiences had learned to become much more docile and cooperative in their expressing their tastes, agreeing to remain seated until the end of a performance and limiting applause to appropriate moments. As a contemporary of the conductor Theodore Thomas wrote in 1872, "When the audience relapses into barbarism . . . he quietly but firmly controls them. I have seen him . . . leave the stand and quietly take a seat in the corner of the orchestra, remaining there until he has carried his point" (Levine, p. 192).
Even as these transitions were taking place, American culture often displayed a knowing, even playful kind of meta-awareness of the problematic of taste in the mid-century. This can be seen, for example, in the extreme popularity of Anna Mowatt's (1819870) hit comedy of manners, Fashion; or, Life in New York. Opening in 1845 to immediate critical and financial success, Mowatt's play is a satire of America's obsession with highbrow taste and cultural distinction. An early line from the culturally insecure Mrs. Tiffany suggests the ways in which Mowatt is staging bad taste for her theater audience: "Ah," she says prior to the social visiting hour she has arranged, "very elegant, very elegant indeed! There is a jenny-says-quoi look about this furniture,n air of fashion and gentility perfectly bewitching" (p. 7). Obsessed with things Europeanhe complains that even the English language is "decidedly vulgar" (p. 8)rs. Tiffany is clearly offered as one who consumes culture and taste in ways that are overdetermined and indeed comical. Like the taste-anxious petit bourgeois described by Bourdieu, Mrs. Tiffany bows before all that appears to bear the stamp of cultural legitimacy. Nor is this insecurity an isolated cultural condition. As Millinette, Mrs. Tiffany's French lady's maid, puts it in an ironic aside: "De money is all dat is necessaire in dis country to make one [a] lady of fashion. Oh, it is quite anoder ting in la belle France!" (p. 6).
Tellingly Mrs. Tiffany's absurdity is highlighted here by the presence of her new black servant, Zeke, whose dandyish attitudes mirror her own. "Dere's a coat to take de eyes ob all Broadway!" he proclaims in the play's opening lines as he regards his new livery outfit. "It am the fixin's dat make de natural born gemman. A libery forever! Dere's a pair of insuppressibles to 'stonish de colored population" (p. 5). Zeke's extreme ignorance is of course part of antebellum culture's deeply ingrained racism. This racism, however, is in fact a crucial component of the game of culture Mowatt is staging for her audience. For what Zeke provides is a site onto which to displace concerns about bad taste. Far more than Mrs. Tiffany, Zeke's is a body the audience would have understood as inherently vulgar and thus incapable of acquiring the modes of taste and sensibility they themselves were seeking to establish and maintain. In this sense Zeke is an extension of the logic of taste and culture seen in stock "black dandy" minstrel characters such Dandy Jim and Zip Coon. As the cover of an 1843 songbook titled Dandy Jim, from Carolina suggests, such characters are locked in a narcissistic gaze in which surface modes of consumption (clothes, hair, other modes of fashion) are misunderstood as the equivalent of more internal modes of selfhood (delicacy, refinement, whiteness) that were the true markers of taste at mid-century.
Characters such as Zeke and the rowdy audiences at the Astor Place Opera House indicate that, as the term itself implies, taste was a concept that reflected profound awareness of and concern about embodimentbout, that is to say, the kind of body that came with the various standards, preferences, and sensibilities that went into the shaping of the tastes that informed the middlebrow mindset. Another quote from Bourdieu is useful in this context:
Bourdieu's emphasis on the reciprocity between the physiological and the psychological is especially crucial here, for what mid-nineteenth-century American literature and culture reflects over and over again is the deeply emotional and psychologized nature of the effort to establish and maintain the kind of taste-sensitive "class body" he describes. And nowhere is
Taste, a class culture turned into nature, that is, embodied, helps to shape the class body. It is an incorporated principle of classification which governs all forms of incorporation, choosing and modifying everything that the body ingests and digests and assimilates, physiologically and psychologically. It follows that the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste. (P. 190)
TASTE IN ANTEBELLUM FICTION
While the middlebrow aesthetic taking shape at midcentury might be understood as standing in anxious or perhaps even ambivalent relation to "culture," the fiction of this period provided a space in which to work out such unease. Working to provide the legitimation that established culture was withholding and that low-brow culture was threatening to undermine, many of the writers of this period provided in their work a kind of aesthetic chart by which readers could map out the terrain of sensibility and taste that would answer to the anxious needs of the middlebrow.
The career of Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's (1832888) best-selling Little Women (1868869) marks a didactic high point of this process: Alcott here offers a gradual process of reform in which Jo learns the forms of discipline and restraintthe sweetness of self-denial and self-control" (p. 82)ecessary to the formation of a tasteful "little woman" in nineteenth-century America. Most telling perhaps is Jo's short career as a writer of lowbrow sensational literaturebad trash," as Jo's eventual husband, the kindly Professor Bhaer, calls it (p. 355). "She was living in bad society; and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her," readers are told in one of the many moments of direct address provided by Alcott's narrator. "Unconsciously, she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character" (p. 349). Jo's dalliance with lowbrow pulp is an object lesson for Alcott's readers, especially the middle-brow reading audience most likely identify with her as they read Little Women. For what it implies is a connection to the tastes and sensibilities of the lowbrow crowds assaulting the Astor Place Opera House, forms of consumption that must be cast off and repressed in the name of fashioning the kind of taste appropriate to a properly middlebrow sensibility. Indeed Jo's later fiction is praised precisely because it purportedly rejects such sensibilities. "You wrote with no thought of fame or money," Jo's mother tells her, "and put your heart into it" (p. 436).
Jo's lesson here is twofold. In addition to rejecting the debasing and distasteful world of lowbrow sensationalism, she earns the respect of her soon-to-be husband, Professor Bhaer, whose excessively middlebrow sensibilities (he possesses cultural rather than financial currency) are marked as quite different from the high-brow tastes of Jo's other suitor, her wealthy young neighbor Laurie. "You and I are not suited to each other," Jo says in rejecting Laurie's long-delayed overtures to her (p. 364), a comment that has as much (if not more) to do with taste and sensibility than actual temperament or attraction. For the life that awaits Jochoolteacher and mothers one that requires the modest income and modulated tastes of the middle-brow. In an amazing passage late in the novel, Laurie says that he would like to give some of his money to Professor Bhaer and Jo. "Out-and-out beggars get taken care of, but poor gentlefolks fare badly" he says (p. 459). In fact, however, Alcott's novel suggests that "gentlefolks"epresented by Jo and her husbando perfectly well as residents of the tasteful middlebrow territory Alcott has carved out for them.
A similar logic of middlebrow self-fashioningne might call it "middlebrow romance"nforms Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804864) gothic novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851). The backdrop for this text is the long and bitter property dispute between the aristocratic Pyncheon family and the working-class Maules, but Hawthorne makes it clear that, as staged in the novel's present, this feud is played out in the arena of taste and cultural production. This is particularly evident in the depiction of the last descendent of the Maule family, a young man named Holgrave. Daguerreotypist, short story writer, and sometimes mesmerist, Holgrave is, like Jo March, a producer of mass culture that is decidedly lowbrow in orientation. As he explains to Phoebe Pyncheon upon learning that she has not read any of the fiction he has published:
Well, such is literary fame! Yes, Miss Phoebe Pyncheon, among the multitude of my marvellous gifts, I have that of writing stories; and my name has figured, I can assure you, on the covers of Graham and Godey, making as respectable an appearance, for aught I could see, as any of the canonized bead-roll with which it was associated. In the humorous line, I am thought to have a very pretty way with me; and as for pathos, I am as provocative of tears as an onion. (P. 186)
Holgrave's stories occupy space alongside more established writers in middlebrow venues such as Graham's magazine and Godey's Lady's Book, butnd ominouslyhey are also manipulative of their reader's affective states. This is reflected not only in Holgrave's ability to produce tears in his readers but more profoundly when he manages to mesmerize Phoebe by the very act of reading his pulpy and sensational story to her. Here is how Hawthorne describes the moments immediately following Holgrave's reading:
Holgrave gazed at her, as he rolled up his manuscript, and recognized an incipient stage of that curious psychological condition, which, as he himself had told Phoebe, he possessed more than an ordinary faculty of producing. A veil was beginning to be muffled about her, in which she could behold only him, and live only in his thoughts and emotions. (P. 211)
What better description of the putatively debasing or regressive effects of lowbrow culture at mid-century, effects that have their root in the very notion of "bad taste?" "I consider myself as having been very attentive," Phoebe says (p. 212), but in fact she has been immobilizedesmerizedy the seductive "magic" of lowbrow sensationalism. Phoebe, it can be said, is on the receiving end of the "bad trash" that threatens to "desecrate" Jo March in Alcott's Little Women.
As critics have suggested, Hawthorne ultimately seems uncomfortable with this scenario. Seeing that Phoebe has been partially mesmerized by listening to his story, Holgrave resists the urge to take advantage of Phoebe's vulnerability. Instead, he suggests that he will burn his short story: "The manuscript must serve to light lamps with," he says (p. 212). More dramatically still, Holgrave and Phoebe become romantically involved, a plot shift that hastens the "developement of emotions" necessary to secure middlebrow distance from the outside world of cultural production (p. 305). An exchange between the two characters late in the novel sums up the dramatic shifts that take place in the wake of Holgrave's reading of his magazine story to Phoebe: "How wonderfully your ideas are changed!" she says, to which Holgrave replies: "You find me a conservative already! Little did I think ever to become one" (p. 315). Holgrave and Phoebe thus take up a posture not at all unlike that modeled by Jo March and Professor Bhaer in Little Women. Here too is a "middlebrow romance," a form structured around the repression of bad taste, lowbrow culture, and its attendant working-class associations; it advocates instead the "developement of emotions" that are tasteful and middlebrow in nature.
"TASTE" IN SENSATIONAL FICTION
Significantly, however, even the lowbrow sensationalism of this periodhe "bad trash" offered in penny newspapers such as the New York Herald and the New York Sun and in dime novels such as George Lippard's (1822854) best-selling The Quaker City (1845) and George Thompson's (b. 1823) Venus in Boston (1849)tages scenes of middlebrow self-fashioning, this despite what is often the stated resistance to the kinds of taste offered in narratives such as House of the Seven Gables and Little Women. As the influential editor James Gordon Bennett (1841918) put it in his outlandishly sensational (and enormously successful) New York Herald essay titled "Penny Literature versus Loafer Literature" (30 September 1836):
By a singular perversity in the taste of the age, the monthly and weekly periodical literaturehe Magazines, the Mirrors, the Knickerbockers, and such like trashy publications, have degenerated into vehicles of mere sickly sentimentalism, fit only for the kitchen or the laundry. The daily press and the cheap periodicals appear to possess the only strengthhe only nervehe only real talent and genius. Conversant in matters of real businessngaged in active life, the mind is taken away from itself, and its egotism and vanity are rubbed over severely by the unfanciful buffetings of the world.
For Bennett, in other words, publications that promote middlebrow taste are themselves guilty of offering "trashy" fare that shies away from the grittier, more unpleasant realities of life at mid-century. Lippard offers a similar posture in The Quaker City, the best-selling novel in America prior to the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. As he puts it in a defensive direct address to the "shallow pated critic" whose "white kid-gloves" suggest his middle- or highbrow sensibility, "Our taste is different from yours. We like to look at nature and at the world, not only as they appear, but as they are!" (p. 305). For Lippard as for Bennett, middlebrow taste, emphasizing as it did an anxiety about the more visceral pleasures of the class body, was silly and out of touch with reality.
Despite such claims, however, much of the period's lowbrow sensationalism stages narratives that turn on the very forms of taste and sensibility favored by Alcott and Hawthorne. A particularly useful example of this is offered in Theodore Winthrop's (1828861) popular "urban gothic" novel Cecil Dreeme (1861), seventeen editions of which were published by 1864. Usually offered as pulpy, often silly dime novels devoted to excessive violence, sexual titillation, and extreme racism, urban gothic sensationalism provided audiences with a widely disseminated and inexpensive medium for engaging with and challenging the inequalities of class in America from the 1830s onward. Yet this material also provides some of the most direct and affective commentary on the nation's issues of taste and sensibility, especially as the notion of taste applied to the emerging category of the middlebrow.
The narrative of Cecil Dreeme revolves around a young man named Robert Byng, a twenty-six-year-old professional who is returning to America after ten years of study abroad and who is staged fairly clearly as someone who must negotiate the forms of taste and sensibility that have been taking shape in America during his absence. This is particularly evident in the interactions between Byng and a "Hebrew-ish" (p. 23) and wealthy financier named Densdeth, an older man who wields considerable power over Byng and a number of other characters in the novel. At times the relationship between the two seems fairly one-sided, with Densdeth aggressively pursuing Byng in a manner that suggests the desire for economic and perhaps even sexual domination. At other times the attraction is more reciprocal, suggesting that Byng is himself drawn to Densdeth and the form of submission he demands. As Byng puts it at one point: "'What does it mean,' thought I, this man's strange fascination? When his eyes are upon me, I feel something stir in my heart, saying, 'Be Densdeth's! He knows the mystery of life.' I begin to dread him. Will he master my will? What is this potency of his?" (p. 65).
As Byng's comment about Densdeth's "strange fascination" makes clear, Densdeth is associated here with sensibilities that Byng himself feels with real intensitye later describes himself as "a youth . . . dragged along by an irresistible attraction" (p. 180). And what this suggests is that Densdeth as exotic Jew embodies a set of pleasures that, though marked as deviant, also seem to stand in for the pleasures and affects of the rarified highbrow culture Densdeth seems intended to represent. "I love luxury for its own sake," Densdeth tells Byng early on. "I mean to have the best for all my senses. I keep myself in perfect health, you see, for perfect sensitiveness and perfect enjoyment" (p. 63). As this and a variety of similar passages suggest, Densdeth represents the kind of sensuous voluptuousness so often associated with the stereotypical figure of the highbrow Jew. But as Densdeth's influence over the various men in the novel suggests, these are desires inherent within all of the male characters in Cecil Dreeme, projected outward onto the excessive, the Jew. Byng's confusion, that is to say, is a thoroughly ambivalent effort to organize the pleasures and tastes of middlebrow sensibility: attracted to but put off by the excesses of Densdeth as highbrow pleasure seeker, Byng embodies the uncertainty and ambivalence of the middlebrow seeking to establish cultural assurance in the uncertain game of taste and cultural consumption.
It is therefore telling that the form of pleasure Densdeth offers is one that Byng comes to understand as slightly vulgar, as if Densdeth fails to understand the nuances of cultural distinction necessary to the formation of middlebrow sensibility. "Densdeth was a little too carefully dressed," Byng observes at one point.
His clothes had a conscious air. His trousers hung as if they felt his eye on them, and dreaded a beating if they bagged. His costume was generally quiet, so severely quiet that it was evident that he desired to be flagrant, and obeyed tact rather than taste. In fact, taste always hung out a diamond stud, or an elaborate chain or eye-glass. (P. 75)
Such moments suggest that Byng's discomfort with Densdeth is negotiated by means of reference to forms of taste and sensibility that are specifically middlebrow and thus inaccessible to one such as Densdeth. Indeed one of the moments in which Byng grows wary of Densdeth is at the opera, which he designates as a problematic cultural space. "It was thoroughly debilitating, effeminate music," he says.
No single strain of manly vigor rose, from end to end of the drama. . . . Emasculated music! Such music as tyranny over mind and spirit calls for, to lull its unmanned subjects into sensual calm. . . . Between the acts, I saw Densdeth moving about, welcome everywhere. . . . All the salable people, and, alas!, that includes all but a mere decimation, threw open their doors to Densdeth. Opera-box and the tenants of the box were free to him. (Pp. 25657, 259)
Byng's concerns about the unmanning and emasculating effects of the cultural milieu in which Densdeth operates are related to the cultural politics of the Astor Place incident. Though certainly not one of the Jacksonian-style "b'hoys" said to have taken part in the earlier riot, Byng seeks to distance himself from Densdeth by recourse to a language of cultural distinction in which he seeks to understand his own more middlebrow sensibilities as superior to (as well as more masculine than) those of the highbrow elitehis despite the fact that Byng is so clearly drawn to Densdeth and the forms of culture and pleasure he seems to embody.
This ambivalence about the Jew as a register of competing forms of taste and sensibility is something Jonathan Freedman points out in his discussion of du Maurier's infamous Jewish mesmerist, Svengali. Both artistic genius and debased villain, Svengali, like Densdeth, is simultaneously a figure both of high and low culture. And in both instances this ambivalence centers on the interchangeable Otherness of these characters. As Freedman explains in a passage that seems quite useful for understanding the cultural situation Winthrop is staging in Robert Byng:
In the middlebrow imaginary, to be cultured is to be dangerously (or pleasurably) touched with the alien force and sexual energy socially ascribed to the Jew; it is also to be, however temporarily and within reason, to be touched with the aura of specialness, distinction and superiority that is also ascribed to that figure. Yet, at one and the same time, to be middlebrow (rather than highbrow) is to be saved from the fate of being too Jewish, too outré, too extreme, too powerfully connected to this model of identity and response that is so visibly connected with the powers of otherness. (P. 113)
The aspiring middle-class and middlebrow citizen, Byng sees in Densdeth a model of taste and manhood he both desires and disavows. For as culturally sophisticated Jew, Densdeth offers an opportunity both to indulge in the very desires and pleasures of culture that afford one a sense of cultural superiority and, simultaneously, an opportunity to confirm one's status as middling by understanding the Jew as a form of Otherness that makes such indulgence excessive and overwhelming.
In Cecil Dreeme the highbrow Densdeth is eventually killed by one of the men he has persecuted, an event that allows Byng to marry a young woman who has long hidden from an arranged marriage with Densdeth in a small apartment in New York City. Needless to say, perhaps, this woman is an artist; even better, she is uninterested in selling her work, a fact that suggests she is able to resist the potentially debasing lure of a market culture that peddles largely in bad taste. The union thus provides yet another example of the way the period's fiction imagines for its readers a space in which the middlebrow might see himself or herself reflected in narratives that stage dilemmas of class and taste only to resolve them in the form of the middlebrow romance.
This is not to say, however, that the threat of excessive desire embodied in Densdeth no longer has an effect upon Byng. Indeed Densdeth has this power even in death. As Byng puts it in the closing pages, with Densdeth lying prostrate on the ground before him:
The strange fascination of his face became doubly subtle, as he seemed still to gaze at me with closed eyelids, like a statue's. I felt that, if those cold feline eyes should open and again turn their inquisition upon my soul, devilish passions would quicken there anew. I shuddered to perceive the lurking devil in me, slumbering lightly, and ready to stir whenever he knew a comrade was near. (P. 330)
On the one hand, this is urban gothic melodrama at its silliest; it is what Alcott's narrator would, in a moment of taste-anxious middlebrow anxiety, term "bad trash." On the other hand, it also provides a useful example of the game of projection involved in negotiations of middlebrow sensibility. For the dead body of the highbrow Jew is here the embodiment of the desire for cultural attainment that is very much alive within Byng as aspiring middlebrow. In this sense Winthrop's narrative simply extends a sensibility that permeates various other texts produced at mid-century. For although each author seeks to depict the middlebrow (and her tastes) as necessitating a class body drained of excessive passion and desire, each also manages to reveal the way this figure is decidedly ambivalent: knowing what it most desires (access to either high or low culture) but committed to not having it, the middlebrow of mid-nineteenth-century America offers a form of taste that can only be defined in terms of ambivalence and anxiety.
See also Ethnology; The House of the Seven Gables; Jews; Little Women; Periodicals; Sensational Fiction; Sexuality and the Body
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women 1868869. Edited by Elaine Showalter. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Bennett, James Gordon. "Penny Literature versus Loafer Literature." New York Herald, 30 September 1836.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. 1851. New York: Penguin, 1981.
Mowatt, Anna Ogden. Fashion; or, Life in New York. 1845. Boston: Walter H. Baker, 1935.
Winthrop, Theodore. Cecil Dreeme. New York: Dodd, Meade, 1861.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Freedman, Jonathan. The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.