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Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

Copyright Date: 2005
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    Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture
    Book Description:

    Too often remembered solely as the psychiatrist and cultural critic whose testimony in Senate subcommittees sparked the creation of the Comics Code, Fredric Wertham was a far more complex man. Author Bart Beaty traces the evolution of Wertham's attitudes toward popular culture and reassesses his place in the debate about pop culture's effects on youth and society.

    WhenThe Seduction of the Innocentwas published in 1954, Wertham (1895-1981) became instantly known as an authority on child psychology. Although he had published several books beforeSeduction, its sharp criticism of popular culture in general--and comic books in particular--made it a touchstone for debate about issues of censorship, child protection, and freedom of speech.

    Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, a fresh perspective on Wertham's career, reinterprets his intellectual legacy and challenges notions about his alleged cultural conservatism. Drawing upon Wertham's published works as well as his unpublished private papers, correspondence, and notes, Beaty reveals a man whose opinions, life, and career offer more subtlety of thought than previously assumed. In particular, the book examines Wertham's change of heart in the 1970s, when he began to claim that comics could be a positive influence in American society.

    The Wertham that emerges is a critic who was significantly more progressive and multifaceted than his reputation would suggest.

    Bart Beaty is associate professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary. His work has been published in theComics Journal,International Journal of Comic Art,Canadian Journal of Communication,Essays in Canadian Writing, andCanadian Review of American Studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-071-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-17)

    A ghostlike figure haunts the history of postwar debates on American popular culture. That ghost is Fredric Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist and once well-known and widely-respected expert in the areas of psychiatry, criminality, juvenile delinquency, and civil rights. For more than half a century, from the 1920s until the 1970s, Wertham published extensively in both scholarly journals and mainstream newspapers and magazines, emerging in the mid-1950s as one of America’s best-known commentators on the purported effects of the mass media. Today, however, readers must be forgiven if the name rings few bells. A search of library catalogs will turn up...

    (pp. 18-47)

    Fredric Wertham opened a January 1953 article in theSaturday Reviewby observing, “At present this nation has more psychoanalysts—and incidentally more murders and more comic books—than any other two or three nations combined”(1953a:16). More succinctly than any other single sentence, this statement summarizes Wertham’s preoccupations in the postwar period. The conjunction of psychoanalysis, human violence, and mass culture lay at the heart of his thinking. Moreover, it was virtually impossible for him to separate these interests from each other. To come to terms with Wertham’s thinking on the effects of mass culture as they related to human...

    (pp. 48-73)

    To understand the specific ways in whichSeduction of the Innocentintersected with the dominant media-effects paradigm in the midcentury United States, it is necessary first to come to terms with the intellectual climate of the time. Twentieth-century analyses of U.S. culture were dominated by a single framework that tended to cast the tastes of various audiences in opposition to each other. This conception of culture elevated so-called high culture, the preferred taste of a minority of Americans who comprised a cultural elite, to a level of prestige and legitimacy while denigrating the cultural choices of the majority public. The...

    (pp. 74-103)

    The increasingly important but constantly changing status of the American intellectual in the postwar period was highlighted by the cover ofTime’s 11 June 1956 issue, which carried a photo of Jacques Barzun captioned, “America and the Intellectual: The Reconciliation.” Fredric Wertham’s papers at the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division contain a well-underlined copy of this issue. The cover article laid out the central question intellectuals were asking as the 1950s advanced: “What does it mean to be an intellectual in the United States? Is he really in such an unhappy plight as he sometimes thinks—...

    (pp. 104-166)

    By 1957, Fredric Wertham’s critique of comic books was well enough known that he was the specific target ofMad, a legendary American satire magazine. In his office, Wertham kept a framed copy of a mock article, “Baseball Is Ruining Our Children,” that appeared under the byline Frederick Werthless, M.D. (“Baseball” 1957). Alongside a dozen Wally Wood illustrations depicting leering, aggressive baseball players, the text of the article ridiculed psychological and monocausationist beliefs regarding juvenile delinquency by exaggerating the rhetoric of traditional critics of mass culture:

    For many years, I worked closely with “juvenile delinquents.” Then my hair turned gray,...

    (pp. 167-194)

    In his introduction to the 1949 edition of Joseph Klapper’s influential study,The Effects of Mass Communication, Paul Lazarsfeld speculated about why the study of media effects was not yet a well-established academic specialization. For Lazarsfeld, the problem with the study of media effects was methodological. Where media effects had previously been debated by public intellectuals assured of the untested validity of their theses, the terrain now belonged to researchers trained in the social sciences who remained unconvinced. About media effects, therefore, Lazarsfeld suggested, “the main difficulty lies in formulating the problem correctly. For the trouble started exactly when empirical...

    (pp. 195-208)

    By the time of Wertham’s death in 1982, his position within the burgeoning field of mass media studies was by no means secure. Indeed, his exit from the field can be traced through the codification of the research in some early textbooks. Shearon Lowery and Melvin De Fleur’s 1983Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effectshas played a key role in legitimizing the empirical paradigm in popular culture research. The book defined the importance of eleven key milestones in the history of this research, beginning with the Payne Fund studies and concluding with the surgeon general’s report on television...

    (pp. 209-224)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 225-238)