Monday, August 29, 2011

Popular Writing and Postmodernism in the 50s by Tracy Daugherty

After World War II certain areas of Brooklyn, particularly Brownsville, remained largely unchanged, at least for a while, but the toughness of that neighborhood – the poverty, gangs, and anti-Semitism (despite large Orthodox Jewish populations) –developed a resilience of character in some people that drove them towards ‘betterment” in wealthy, optimistic postwar America. Their drive was beginning to alter popular culture.

Danny Kaye was a Brownsville product. He migrated to the Catskills, refined his showbiz chops in resort hotels, and took those talents to the new medium of television where people like Norman Barasch wrote for him. Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, and Phil Silvers came from Brownsville. So did Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, and Alfred Kazin.

In Brownsville, two teenaged friends, Eli Katz and Norman Podhoretz, drew a comic strip together called “Night Hawk”. As an adult, Katz changed his name to Gil Kane and created the comic book heroes the Atom and the Green Lantern. Podhoretz would edit Commentary and become a leading figure in the neoconservative political movement. “America’s junk culture can be found in superhero comic books, its high culture in magazines such as Commentary yet comics and intellectual journals were often created by remarkably similar people,” wrote Jeet Heer.

In the 1960s and 70s, the blurring of High and Low would characterize American art and entertainment – from the visual arts (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg) to the movies (Mike Nichols, Frances Ford Coppola; from the comics (R. Crumb, Charles Schultz) to literature ( exhibit A: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller). Critics have attributed this development to many causes: the easy availability of paperbacks, tabloids, and television programming; technological advances (silk screening, photographic manipulation); advertising, with its hunger for co-opting original ideas to spur mass sales. But Heer is also right: Much of the energy behind this mixing of cultural products, aims, and ambitions came from the drive for integration by groups of people seizing opportunities formerly denied them.

Not surprisingly, individuals who held privileged social positions, and shaped their ideas of culture around them, fought change. On July 17, 1955 – shortly after a draft of the first chapter of what would become Catch-22 appeared in New World Writing - Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. If “Catch-18” was part of the trend towards blurring, bringing with it new ideas of art, literature, and entertainment, Disneyland (in spite of its technical dazzle and television promotions) was part of a resistance to change, a wistful attempt at preserving “old” culture.

Originally, Disney, a son of the rural Midwest, had intended to call Disneyland “Walt Disney’s America.” His America was not Joe Heller’s. In fact, according to Raymond M. Weinstein, a scholar of modern culture, “Walt Disney had an intense dislike for Coney Island and what he thought it represented – dirty, disorganized…garish.” It wasn’t the amusement rides Disney objected to; his revulsion seemed tied to something deeper – perhaps the ethnic mix, the noisy clash of immigrant voices and styles?

“Disneyland was the embodiment of one man’s prepossession towards America’s most important beliefs, values, and symbol rooted in his boyhood experiences in the Midwest,” Weinstein wrote. In its cleanliness, logical organization (its perfection of park administration), and old-fashioned Main Street atmosphere, it would be the anti-Coney Island. “Disney understood well the mood of the 1950s – with its bomb threats, Cold War, domestic paranoia, foreign conflicts,” Weinstein said. “His brand of amusement played into everyone’s desire to go back to their childhood and the childhood of the nation.”

Well, not everyone’s – as the disruptive energy in the pages of The Green Lantern, Commentary, and New World Writing demonstrated. It is no exaggeration to say that in the pages of comic books, journals, and magazines, war was being waged for America’s soul. Superman had gone from fighting corporate greed to battling Nazis – now, in this era of atomic-bomb threats and rumors of UFOs, he fended off invaders from darkening skies. However ridiculous these scenarios seemed, they offered debates on threats to the nation.

Similar considerations filled Commentary and other journals. For example, as early as 1952, a prominent member of Commentary’s editorial staff, Irving Kristol, wrestled his conscience and broke with his fellow staffers’ liberal views. He wrote that Joe McCarthy was certainly a threat to the nation’s political integrity, but a bigger problem was the Left’s refusal to disavow communism. The Left’s dithering, he said, gave McCarthy ammunition. Kristol’s colleagues fired back, accusing him in print of McCarthyism. The battle for the nation’s soul – not to mention Commentary’s – intensified.

Meanwhile, inside Henry Luce’s empire, the arguments centered on corporate culture, corporate responsibilities. Fortune and Time, reflecting Luce’s belief that America must own the century, insisted corporate leaders had to do more than earn profits; they had to forge in America a “business civilization” in which financial values shaped everything from arts and entertainment to architecture to the nation’s infrastructure to the behavior of families. Capitalism had to have a ‘moral basis’.

What did this mean? Luce summed it up in practical terms: “I am biased in favor of God, Eisenhower, and the stockholders of Time Inc.” He promoted a certain image of American masculinity. Time and Life ran numerous articles on Billy Graham’s increasingly popular Christian crusades, describing Graham as lean, blond and handsome. Besides his physical attributes, a large part of what made Graham so attractive, said Luce, was the businesslike efficiency of his religious operation. When Graham went to New York City in the summer of 1957 for a series of rallies, he surrounded himself at news conferences with elite male business figures, including William Randolph Hearst, Jr., and Henry Luce. In Yankee Stadium, on July 20, Vice President Richard Nixon appeared at his rally. The stadium was an appropriate venue, not just for accommodating the crowd but also for stressing Graham’s athleticism and love of sports, part of his all-American image. Sports metaphors leavened his sermons. “Christianity is not a religion for weaklings,” he asserted. “We must be strong, virile, dynamic, if we are to stand.”

What role did women play in this mix of bodybuilding, business, and faith? “I never talk alone with a woman,” Graham told an interviewer. Fervently, he avoided “lovesick women and bobby-soxers”. The American soul demanded sexual vigilance; Henry Luce agreed.

Next to Time on the newsstands, competing views of masculinity waved their muscular pages, including the pulp version with postwar variations. “In wartime the Armed Services taught soldiers how to fight enemies, but back home, working-class soldiers depended upon the mass-market magazines for their civilian life-lessons,” wrote Adam Parfrey, editor of It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Post-War Pulps. “All of them had, among the lures of woman flesh and vicious bad guys, a lot of warnings, how-to’s, and comforting memories of wartime, when decisions were black and white, the villains darker and the victories sweeter.”

Bruce Jay Friedman went to work for Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management Company in 1954, after a stint in Korea. Racism, misogyny, and imperialism were ‘just the way things were” in titles such as Male, Stag, and True Action – known in the trade as “armpit” publications, he said, “We didn’t think twice about it”: this was blue-collar manhood.

Friedman hired a young writer named Mario Puzo who created giant mythical armies, lock them in combat in Central Europe, and have casualties coming in by the hundreds of thousands. Other regular features in men’s magazines included “Animal Nibbler” stories about people who had been nibbled half to death by ferocious little animals. “Sintown” stories were always a hit with readers. “I always though of them as ‘scratch the surface’ yarns,” Friedman said. “(Outwardly, Winkleton, Illinois, is a quiet, tree-lined little community…But scratch the surface of this supposedly God-fearing little town and you will find that not since Sodom and Gomorrah and blah blah blah) Any town with a bar and a hooker would do.”

Even here, amid the puerility, soul struggles elvolved. As Cold War dustups frayed the country’s nerves, and cracks began to appear in suburbia’s blissful pavement, previously suppressed fantasies crept into men’s magazines. They took the form of “Leg Shackler” stories: “Slaves of the Emperor of Agony,” “Savage Rites of the Whip,” “Tormented Love.” As Parfrey noted, “Damsels had been distressed since the turn of the century in pulps, but nearly always the illustrations suggested that a hero was nearby, and his rescue pending.” More and more, “heroes came to play and increasingly minor role in illustrations until they were completely phased out.” Apparently, readers of these magazines came to believe that “saving women from torture was no longer on any level heroic.” This growing trend would reach its peak in the mid – 1960s, Parfrey said, at ‘the time of the Vietnam War’s escalation and the emergence of feminism.”

Skirmishes over manhood, politics, or corporate behavior might have been restricted to small pockets of readers here and there, given the specialized nature of magazines. But the tensions escaped their stapled spines. The term culture war would not achieve currency until decades later, but a culture war this was.

In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed comic books and men’s magazines were spreading the epidemic of juvenile delinquency and homosexuality among the nation’s youth. His supporters boycotted newsstands and burned comic books. Writing in Commentary, Norbert Muhlen cursed the “dehumanized” and “repetitious” stories of ‘death and destruction” in comic, which were helping to educate a whole generation for an authoritarian rather than a democratic society.” With little change, his words could have served a leg-shackling Nazi, but the U.S. Congress became concerned enough (or alert enough to an issue worth exploiting politically – it was easier to face this than Joe McCarthy) to threaten government censorship of comics. In response, William Gaines, publisher of Educational Comics, and his business manager, Lyle Stuart, created the Comics Magazines Association of America, a self-regulatory agency set up to administer a code – a stamp of approval guaranteeing ‘wholesome, entertaining and educational” contents. Any title that didn’t comply would face distribution hurdles. This move was meant to stave off harsher regulations by the government.

Gaines’s company published Tales from the Crypt, Weird Fantasy, The Vault of Horror, and a relatively new title (from October 1952) written and edited by a man named Harvey Kurtzman: Tales Calculated to Drive you MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein.

“Of course, we had the big problem: could we ever live under the censorship of the Comics Code?” Kurtzman said. “We decided, absolutely no. We could not go on as a comic book.” Thus, Mad was born. Technically, by shifting from hand lettering to set type, the publication became a magazine instead of a comic book. It was not bound by the strict new code.

Restrictions on magazine content were lighter (not to say ambiguous and paradoxical). “Boys were allowed to purchase men’s magazines that promoted wholesale violence against an entire gender, while Playboy-style girlie mags that revered women and their bodies were considered unfit material for underage readers,” Adam Parfrey wrote.

In many ways Mad represented a group of alternative New York intellectuals,” says critic David Abrams. “Many of Mad’s staff were Jewish, either native New Yorkers or emigres from Europe, a high proportion of them survivors of Nazi Germany. Like the New York intellectual milieu, many of them had come to political awareness during the Depression.”

Yiddish phrases stippled the magazine’s pages. By 1967, theologian Vernard Eller could say, “Beneath the pile of garbage that is Mad, there beats, I suspect, the heart of of rabbi.” Abrams contends that “Mad’s critique of America was far more effective and devastating than its better-known counterparts… such as Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review, and The New Leader. This was so, he says, because the intellectual journals were constrained by their sponsoring organizations (in Commentary’s case, the powerful American Jewish Committee) or editors’ ideologies. “We like to say that Mad has no politics and that we take no point of view,” Gaines once said, but ‘the magazine is more liberal than not liberal.”

Abrams may overstate Mad’s intellectual rigor, but he is right to call attention to its growing influence during the 1950s and 1960s. Its highly visible political satire, scored to Borscht Belt rhythms eased the way for Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce,and Joseph Heller, or helped then gain greater acceptance. Politics and punning, smarts and snappy play – the High and the Low – had embraced.

Mad carried no advertising (ironic, given the location of its offices on Madison Avenue). Among its favorite targets for satire were ad agencies – “the essence of Mad’s success is its nim,ble spoofing of promotions of all kinds,” Time noted in 1958. The Disney Corporation came under fire (Mickey Mouse as a rat-faced thug). Joseph McCarthy didn’t escape: “Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?” asked one of the magazine’s fake ads.

Predictably, Mad spawned a backlash from the intellectual set. In The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald wrote, “Mad expresses…teenagers cynicism about the world of mass media that their elders have created – so full of hypocrisy and pretense governed by formulas. But Mad itself has a formula. It speaks the same language, aesthetically and morally, as the media it satirizes; it is as tasteless as they are, and more violent”. Mad’s critiques took the form of their targets. Indecipherability, relativism, what critics would soon call “postmodernism” had crept into mass culture. What could Superman – or Lionel Trilling – do about that?

The truth is, the mixture of High and Low had already made enough mud to cause a landslide. In 1955, William Gaddis published an immense novel called The Recognitions, all about plagiarism, forgeries, and counterfeiting, themes that made it “the novel of the fifties”, in Frederick Karl’s estimation. As in the national discourse, disseminated through popular media, “layers of untruth” comprised the novel; beneath the lies, “somewhere lay the real.” “Cold war, pinkos, left-winger, Red China, McCarthyism, Hiss, Rosenbergs, liberal intellectual, egghead…labels became a kind of totem; we demeaned every experience and every response by means of a reductive vocabulary which transmitted only the artificial.” In capturing this glutted, mediated atmosphere, The Recognitions became “our archetypal experience for the fifties, a model…for the way in which we saw and will continue to see ourselves.”

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Meanwhile, in 1952, Bobbs- Merrill brought out George Mandel’s Flee The Angry Strangers in hardcover, followed the next year by a Bantam mass-market paperback edition featuring a Harry Schaare cover, like that of a comic book: a woman shooting heroin). In time, critics saw Flee The Angry Stranger as a proto-Beat novel, capturing, before Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, and others, what Thomas Newhouse called the cultural “transition between the wail of hopelessness after the war” and a freedom to choose dissolution” rather than middle-class life.

Mandel’s protagonist, eighteen-year-old Diane Lattimer, a drug-hazed habituĂ© of the jazz clubs on Bleecker and MacDougal streets, hustles by day and, despite her self-destructiveness, a rare feminist heroine in the fiction of the time. Mandel’s comic-book training showed in the larger-than-life appetites of his characters, in their heroic embrace of instantaneous pleasure ( a kind of personalized justice for all) and their rejection of society’s straight-and-narrow paths. These qualities would characterize all of Beat writing; The Beats’ link to the comic-book ethos of the time – through figures like George Mandel – is not accidental.

Flee The Angry Strangers uncovered many crosscurrents swirling through American popular writing in the early 1950s – for just as Mickey Spillane smuggled comic-book action into the hard-boiled detective genre, the values of proletarian fiction stiffened comic heroes spines. Mandel’s characters encompassed each of these strains; they were amalgams of the Human Torch, Mike Hammer, and Nelson Algren’s Frankie Machine. Mandel’s people spoke ‘jive’: jazz talk. They didn’t provide their partners with sexual delight; they sent them. They didn’t smoke marijuana; they indulged in pod, a term that degrade into pot after many “engorged mispronunciations by its consumers,” Mandel sad. The novel’s language was so strange, his publishers ask him to include a lexicon in the back of the book. Later, he regretted he didn’t accede to this request, because soon, “Madison Avenue” began to “spoil the “flavor” of jive’s “perceptive music.”

The ethos and combination of Mandel’s characters sowed the path for the Beats and underground hip soon became a rich source for mainstream advertising.

Just One Catch; A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty’; St. Martin’s Press, 2011

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