erik lundegaard

Monday May 12, 2008

The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture

Lately I've been reading David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague and consider it a great companion piece to Gerard Jones’ Men on Tomorrow. Jones gives us a greater sense of the birth of comic books, particularly superhero comic books, while Hajdu gives us a greater sense of the backlash against same.

Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.

The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:

In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...

Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:

Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...

I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.

Posted at 07:48 AM on Monday May 12, 2008 in category Books  
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