- Reading America: Citizenship, Democracy, and Cold War Literature by Kristin L. Matthews
"In the war between capitalism and Communism," wrote the reformed Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers in 1952, "books are weapons, and, like all serviceable weapons, loaded." But as Kristin L. Matthews shows in her valuable study, Reading America: Citizenship, Democracy, and Cold War Literature, by the start of the Cold War books had been treated as loaded weapons for some time. During the Second World War, for instance, the Office of War Information distributed posters reminding American citizens that "BOOKS ARE WEAPONS IN THE WAR OF IDEAS" (22). What was different for Americans during the early Cold War was a new faith in the "seemingly unlimited power" of the United States, a flimsy confidence that still masked a lingering sense of cultural insecurity (11). In Reading America, Matthews introduces us to the extensive postwar "reading industrial complex" that responded to this paradoxical situation by further "weaponizing" long-standing American discourses linking literacy, citizenship, and freedom (18).
All this hawkish language is a reminder that scholars of Cold War literary culture are one of the only groups as fond of using martial metaphors as Cold Warriors themselves. By now most recent scholarship in the field has left behind the master trope of "containment," an impressively flexible concept imported from US military and diplomatic strategy. But new research is still being pursued [End Page 571] in the shadow of the so-called "cultural Cold War," a framing that turns scholars into sleuths, sniffing around for evidence of covert CIA funding that might corroborate our most paranoid readings of the period's literature. Matthews successfully avoids this trap in Reading America, while still embracing one of the most promising trends in recent Cold War literary studies: a methodological turn toward book history and the comparative study of print cultures. But unlike recent works such as Greg Barnhisel's indispensable Cold War Modernists (2015), Matthews turns away from the "cultural war abroad," focusing instead on the battles over literacy and reading that raged on the "home front" (14, 16).
Matthews begins Reading America by reconstructing the overlapping historical contexts that produced a reading boom in early Cold War America. In her introduction and first chapter, Matthews shows how a range of factors, including the paperback revolution, the G.I. Bill, the rise of New Criticism in universities, the Great Books Program, and popular reading clubs, put more books in American hands than ever before while also prescribing what it meant to be a "good" reader. Meanwhile, the postwar book market was flooded with best-selling reading guides, anticommunist primers, and works by panicked literacy experts with titles like What Ivan Knows That Johnny Doesn't (1961). Matthews describes the new Cold War consensus as the conviction that "reading particular texts in the right way could train Americans to understand, practice, defend, and spread democracy across the globe" (10).
In subsequent chapters, Matthews does show how this consensus evolved and fractured over time, but her primary attention shifts to the function of reading within classic works of Cold War literature. For instance, in her second chapter, Matthews explores the "intersections among reading, maturity, and postwar character" in J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951), an object of perennial interest for scholars in the field. But whereas previous works by Alan Nadel, Pamela Steinle, and Leerom Medovoi have focused on the public reception of Catcher in the Rye or the ways the book figured in wider cultural debates, Matthews turns inward, performing a counterintuitive reading of the text itself, in order to "illuminate" broader developments in Cold War reading culture (33). Far from characterizing Catcher in the Rye as a novel of rebellion, Matthews presents Salinger's prematurely gray protagonist Holden Caulfield as the fulfillment of the postwar ideal of the "mature citizen-reader" (42). Holden is a nostalgic and censorious reader, a cultural traditionalist [End Page 572] searching for stability and order in a discordant world. According to Matthews, Holden is essentially...