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  • Making Reading Popular:Cold War Literacy and Classics Illustrated
  • Kristin L. Matthews (bio)

In 1949, The Nation self-importantly (and incorrectly) claimed, "We would be the first to acknowledge that a generation of Americans has been driven several degrees toward illiteracy by the 'comic' book. And it is appalling that 60 million comic books are sold in this country every month." This publication vocalized what many left- and right-leaning cultural critics were claiming in the immediate postwar period: that comics were not only making readers stupid but they were also making America worse. Although comics had played the role of scapegoat for cultural anxieties since the nineteenth century, Cold War America's attack on and increasingly vociferous condemnation of comics for threatening America's youth, culture, and national security is legendary.1 While one children's book author conceded that comics would be okay if they "should be used in some degree at least to impart the message of democratic idealism and achievement with which our history is rich," the majority of critics saw no possible benefits emerging from them.2

The fear about comics' perverting power took on even greater urgency in early Cold War America as writers, educators, librarians, publishers, politicians, and public intellectuals embraced the belief that "a good citizen is a good reader." In the face of great geopolitical changes abroad and demographic shifts at home, Americans in positions of political and cultural power identified reading as a means of strengthening and defending democracy. "Good reading" would enable America to attract and reassure allies, to combat and stifle Communist propaganda, and to inform and empower U.S. citizens so that they could responsibly participate in the democratic process. Only then could the citizen-reader, "as an alert member of the American democracy … stand up and be counted" and help determine "where our nation goes from here."3

Thus, to many, comic books posed a dual threat to postwar American democracy because they stunted literacy and ruined America's youth for [End Page 320] civic participation. Furthermore, they were everywhere. In 1943, between ten and twelve million comics were sold per month, $100 million was spent on comics per month, and 112 different comics were for sale, attracting youth and adult readers alike. Publisher's Weekly reported that by 1946, over 540 million comics were published yearly, noting that there would have been more if the U.S. wasn't still recovering from wartime paper shortages.4 Writer Sterling North encapsulated the general tenor of comics' critics when he directly linked "comic book trash" to "political subversion." Norbert Muhlen's 1949 Commentary article similarly warned that comics operate "in contrast to the official pattern of the American Dream, and its world of peace and progress in which people get along with each other," and as a result, are "educat[ing] a whole generation for an authoritarian rather than a democratic society." Even "educational" comics like Classics Illustrated were accused of ruining America's young citizen-readers, with the Saturday Review of Literature's John Mason Brown claiming canonical writers would "blush Kremlin-red" if they could see their comic adaptations, not-so-subtly linking these texts with political subversion. In response to such fears, the U.S. Senate held hearings on comics, state and local legislatures attempted to pass anti-comics laws, and average citizens led efforts to ban comics, burn comics, and convince readers to pledge instead "to read good books, think good thoughts, do great work, [and] love God and their neighbor."5

This article contends that Classics Illustrated, rarely discussed and generally dismissed as a "good for you" comic, both reflected and complicated postwar America's nationalist concerns about reading and citizenship. CI adapted "classic literature" into comic-book form in a purportedly "sincere effort to inspire in the younger generation a yearning for better reading." It claimed to be working in concert with postwar America's reading objectives as it strove to create good citizen-readers and, by extension, a better nation. CI was also complicit in the middlebrow project to bring culture to the masses. It sold "faithful adaptations" of "classic literature," therein blurring the lines between high and low culture...


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pp. 320-341
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