Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















Home > Commentary and Features

Let's You and Him Fight: Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day One
posted December 12, 2005
 

imageThe following is a the first day in a week-long exchange of e-mail about issues raised in and around the new book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day One (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578068193) by its author Bart Beaty and a colleague of Beaty's in comics academia, Craig Fischer.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the "Euro-Comics For Beginners" column at The Comics Journal and the "Conversational Euro-Comics" column here at The Comics Reporter.

Dr. Craig Fischer teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Festival, and his articles have appeared in The Comics Journal and The International Journal of Comic Art. He is currently working on a book titled Worlds Within Worlds: Storytelling in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

CR is pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.

*****

Day One

Craig Fischer to Bart Beaty


Dear Bart,

Thanks for this opportunity to respond to your book Fredric Wertham and the
Critique of Mass Culture, and thanks also to Tom for providing us with this virtual arena.

I feel a bit like a pretender here. Tom has titled this feature "Let's You and Him Fight," but after reading your book, I agree with most of your points and I think you've rehabilitated Wertham's reputation. Maybe it's because said reputation had no place to go but up, since most comic fans blame Wertham (and his book
Seduction of the Innocent) for the collapse of the comics industry during the 1950s and, consequently, hate his guts. You find some dynamite quotes for the conclusion of your book -- Did Mark Evanier really call Wertham "the Josef Mengele of funnybooks" (197)? With a straight face? -- and the vilification rages on.

In a recent thread on the
Comics Journal bulletin board, Leland Purvis claimed that Wertham attributed "behaviors to specific media rather than cultural shifts, demographic pressures, etc." but you make it clear, Bart, that Wertham's clinical methodology takes into account family dynamics, economic status and other social contexts much more than traditional psychoanalysis and empirically-based media scholarship does. Later in that TCJ thread, Scott Bieser called Wertham "a paranoid control-freak and enemy of free expression," and to all the Biesers out there, I've got one thing to say: read Bart's book. I'm dying to know how you'll respond to Bart's portrait of Wertham-as-hero.

Bart, I've read the book twice now, and I'm discovering that I have reservations and questions about some of your arguments. Let's begin with your contention that Wertham fell into obscurity because his ideas and approaches didn't follow the dominant trends of 1950s media criticism. In your chapter on television, you write that the Payne Fund studies of the 1930s--a series of studies of the effect of motion pictures on young people -- opened up "both the mass media and children as viable objects of study" for sociologists and psychologists (178). Wertham opted to dissect media clinically, by combining extensive interviews with a cross-section of individual subjects (a variant of the Freudian talking cure) with a "social orientation corresponding to the growing awareness of social responsibility in a changing world" (37). You argue that Wertham's emphasis on values and society flew in the face of the "conservative tendencies in orthodox Freudianism," most notably an apolitical focus on the emotional problems of individuals. You further argue that the sociologists opted to analyze mass media with "statistical research methodologies and reference to scientific standards of validation" (178).

The sociologists, in other words, handed out piles of surveys to undergraduate students, pretended to be objective in their findings, and denounced Wertham's clinical approach as non-scientific and simplistic. It's this sociological model that remains dominant in communications scholarship today.

You also argue that Wertham was in opposition to the work of such 1950s New York public intellectuals as Leslie Fiedler, Robert Warshow and Sidney Hook, because all these intellectuals celebrated a radical individualism that found its highest expression in the figure of the trailblazing artist. As you write, "It is no coincidence that at the time of the comic book controversy the Central Intelligence Agency was funding international touring exhibitions of American modernist art that had been championed by conservative critics such as Clement Greenberg and Dwight MacDonald" (202). Your point: in a hyper-capitalist nation like the U.S., radical individualism is the status quo, and abstract expressionism was just another way for Americans to show we were beating the Russkies in the Cold War. In advocating big social solutions to social problems--for example, legislative action to regulate the comic book industry -- Wertham was at odds with critics like Fiedler and Warshow.

(Incidentally, some of my favorite passages in your book are when you clobber Fiedler and Warshow for their condescending commentary on the Rosenberg case. Both men aestheticize the Rosenbergs' plight and come off as incredibly insensitive; Fiedler, for instance, wrote that the letters between Julius and Ethel were "too absurd to be tragic" and Warshow dismissed the Rosenbergs as unimagninative middlebrows (84). Meanwhile, Wertham testified to release Ethel from solitary confinement and see her husband. He was also a psychiatrist for the Rosenbergs' sons, and became an advocate against capital punishment in general. Not bad for a paranoid control-freak, huh?)

So: poor Fredric Wertham, odd man out, reviled by Freudians, mass media sociologists, New York public intellectuals, and comic fans. (This is undoubtedly why Tom, on the
Comicreporter Christmas list, writes that your book gives "[Wertham's] crusade against comics both a context and a tragic feel.") But you ignore one genre of criticism that existed during the post-war period, and it may be precisely this genre that Wertham's work fits into best. For lack of a better term, we might call this the "sick society" genre of cultural criticism, and its major texts include The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (1951), Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse (1955), The Sane Society by Erich Fromm (1955), Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown (1959), Psychotherapy East and West by Alan Watts (1961) and The Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing (1967).

All these books -- and others by the same authors -- use non-traditional Freudian theory used to diagnose contemporary society as diseased and in desperate need of a cure, and Wertham shares with these authors the desire to reform a sick society. As you point out, Wertham often compared the spread of violence to a tuberculosis bacillus, and
A Sign for Cain (1966), which you define as "the culmination of Wertham's thinking" (97), is a comprehensive diagnosis of the many different ways violence has poisoned all our social relations and public institutions.

Do you see any connections to be made between Wertham's work and the "sick society" texts of Marcuse, Fromm and Brown? If you do, let's talk about it.

Craig


*****

Bart Beaty to Craig Fischer

Dear Craig,

Thanks for taking up this topic with me. It's one that is near to my heart (I started researching Wertham eleven years ago, so it should be by now), and I appreciate your close reading of the text.

Your initial comments really touch on one of my fears about this book, which is that it won't make much of a dent with readers whose minds have always been made up. Mark Evanier's a funny guy, so it's hard to take his Mengele comments straight on the one hand, but on the other, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking Mengele is a good punch-line for anything. Some people don't want to know the real story, and there's likely no reaching them. But it is worth putting the real story out there even if no one wants to hear it. That's something that Wertham himself often did, often at his own personal risk. For a long time when I was writing this book I thought that perhaps Wertham was a Quaker (and not just because he worked with the Quakers at the Emergency Service Readjustment Clinic treating sex offenders). I found nothing in his papers to back up that suggestion (other than his farmhouse in Pennsylvania!), but the idea of bearing witness is prevalent in all of his work.

You're right that one of the dominant models of communication study remains the survey methods that Wertham so despised (an aversion that I share). One of the reasons I tend to shy away from the International Communication Association meetings, despite the fact that it is the largest annual meeting in my field, is the ongoing prevalence of this kind of administrative research. Wertham argued forcefully for a different way of doing things, and this is one of the reasons that he is so little read anymore. I am not convinced that the specific methods Wertham advocated, relying as they do on psychiatry, would have been superior had they been institutionalized (indeed, Wertham himself was outspoken about the real and potential corruption of psychiatry), but he posited a different road, and that was what initially attracted me to his work.

One of the things that kept me interested in Wertham was precisely his "man-out-of-time", or perhaps "man-out-of-space" persona. A great many of the things that Wertham believed are things that I believe today, and in his writings and papers what I found was not some crazed loon, but a highly intelligent and highly principled man unafraid to take unpopular stands in troubled times. When comic book fans tell me that Wertham should rot in hell for criticizing EC Comics I am mystified. Here's a man who opened a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem at a time when he was one of a small handful of doctors who would even treat black psychiatric patrients, working there no less then two nights each week as a volunteer, and providing testimony that was important to overturning American school segregation, and we're worried about the fact that he didn't like EC? Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

As you've noted, he testified on behalf of the Rosenbergs and worked with and for them. He later wrote that this was the most dangerous thing that he ever did, and that is certainly believable (I quote it in the book, but I love so much the fact that the NY Times front page headline regarding Wertham's testimony was: "Denies Favoring Soviet". What a great headline, what a terrible time). He took great professional risks to do the right thing, and when I read through his papers it was difficult for me not to wonder how I would have measured up faced with the same sorts of obstacles. Would I buckle if the Times came after me and all my friends disowned me? I'm not convinced that I would have necessarily been so bold.

When I say that he was a man-out-of-time it's because what Wertham believed was very much out of fashion in postwar America. He believed in collective responses to individual problems, and that was not -- and in many is still not -- the way things were done at the time. He was a lifelong pacifist (though not an absolutist on the subject) who dedicated his life to helping others at a time of great warmongering, arms build-up, racial hatred, and international tension. I'm glad Tom called the book "tragic", because I think that in many ways his life was a series of disappointments. He was rarely on the winning side of many arguments (Brown vs. Board of Education being a huge exception), but I hope that he was able to take comfort from knowing that he helped a very large number of patients. But he often railed against the dominant orthodoxies of the day, and while critics like MacDonald, Fiedler, and Warshow saw their personal politics blow in different directions depending on the prevailing orthodoxies, Wertham held firm to what he believed. I admire that about him.

And, of course, in the end he lost the comics argument as well (he was never in favor of the Code), but he's remembered as the evil victor in that scenario. Irony of ironies.

I think that you're definitely onto something with the sick society, and it is something that I touched on at greater length in the earlier versions of this book (principally, when it served as my PhD dissertation). Wertham explicitly addressed Erich Fromm on the question of the sane society in ways that surprised me. Given his psychiatric training and left-leaning sympathies, I originally anticipated that Wertham would be sympathetic to Fromm, Marcuse and other postwar writers who were seeking to blend Freudianism and Marxism, but this was not the case at all. In the end he was more of a materialist than they were. He objected to efforts to explain complex historical processes through reference to psychoanalytic concepts like the Oedipal complex.

Importantly, Wertham felt that one could only speak of the mental health of the individual patient, and he disagreed with Fromm that there could be such a thing as a "sane society". Also, in a somewhat hair-splitting position, he argued that social ills could not be cured through psychiatry, but that it was nonetheless reckless to ignore the social consequences of psychiatry. For Wertham, the hinge was always "science" or scientific psychiatry, which he juxtaposed to that of the sick society critics whose work was more theoretical and less empirically grounded.

I think that it's interesting, however, how much of the sick society material continues to resonate, often in a way that Wertham's writings do not. Moreover, today a lot of these commentaries stem from the political right rather than the left. I followed the recent Congressional hearings about the cable industry with some interest, because they seem to be very similar to the Hendrickson-Kefauver hearings fifty years later, and the premise of a lot of that testimony is very much that the United States is a sick place, and that the media is causing it. Around and around we go....

bart

*****

Day Two
Day Three
Day Four (Today)