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Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

Publication Year: 2005

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. When The Seduction of the Innocent was published in 1954, Wertham (1895-1981) became instantly known as an authority on child psychology. Although he had published several books before Seduction, 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 Drawing upon Wertham's published works as well as his unpublished private papers, correspondence, and notes, Beaty reveals a man whose opinions, life, and career offer more subtlety of thought than previously assumed.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 the Comics Journal, International Journal of Comic Art, Canadian Journal of Communication, Essays in Canadian Writing, and Canadian Review of American Studies.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

CONTENTS

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p. -

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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pp. ix-xi

In undertaking a lengthy project such as this one, the research inevitably will at times be driven by unforeseen circumstances and odd coincidences. Case in point: Fredric Wertham’s final book was his 1973 study of comic book and science fiction fandom...

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INTRODUCTION

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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...

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CHAPTER ONE: FROM FREUD TO SOCIAL PSYCHIATRY

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pp. 18-47

Fredric Wertham opened a January 1953 article in the Saturday Review by observing, “At present this nation has more psychoanalysts—and incidentally more murders and more comic books—than any other two or three nations combined...

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CHAPTER TWO: MASS CULTURE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

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pp. 48-73

To understand the specific ways in which Seduction of the Innocent intersected 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...

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CHAPTER THREE: AMERICAN CONCERNS ABOUT A MASS SOCIETY

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pp. 74-103

The increasingly important but constantly changing status of the American intellectual in the postwar period was highlighted by the cover of Time’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...

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CHAPTER FOUR: WERTHAM AND THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC BOOKS

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pp. 104-166

By 1957, Fredric Wertham’s critique of comic books was well enough known that he was the specific target of Mad, 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...

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CHAPTER FIVE: TELEVISION AND MEDIA EFFECTS

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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...

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CONCLUSION

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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...

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WORKS CITED

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pp. 209-224

INDEX

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pp. 225-238


E-ISBN-13: 9781604730715
E-ISBN-10: 1604730714
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578068197
Print-ISBN-10: 1578068193

Publication Year: 2005