A Mad Proposition in Postwar America

Kristin L Matthews. The Journal of American Culture. Volume 30, Issue 2. June 2007.

Comic art scholars and aficionados long have recognized the significance of Mad Magazine’s cultural criticism and social satire. Begun as a four-color comic in 1952, Mad converted to magazine format in 1955 and watched its sales steadily grow from 325,000 issues in 1955 (Reidelbach 40), to 1.3 million in 1958 (“Maddiction” 63), to just under 2 million in 1968-72 (Reeves 95). As Maria Reidelbach has noted in her landmark study Completely Mad (1991), by the 1960s, Mad “was read by 58 percent of all college students and 43 percent of all high school students, perhaps the only ‘cult’ magazine to be read by a majority” (188). Publisher William Gaines and his staff of “madmen” writers and artists reveled in postwar America’s foibles, providing both social commentary and belly laughs as they spoofed advertising and consumer culture, parodied popular films and songs, and lampooned political figures and events. Gaines repeatedly attempted to deflate claims that either he or his magazine was political, educational, or even useful, claiming “we reject the insinuation that anything we print is moral, theological, nutritious, or good for you in any way, shape, or form. We live in the midst of a corrupt society and intend to keep making the best of it” (Gaines & Feldstein 3); yet, he never could abandon completely his inner-educator who held “almost a straight A average while studying to be a teacher at New York University” (Jacobs 60). While avoiding overt didacticism, Mad’s satire drew its readers’ attention to America’s sociopolitical problems, demanded they acknowledge them, and did so with a big-toothed grin.

A quick survey of Mad’s issues of the 1950s and 1960s reveals many articles on paperbacks, primers, book clubs, and reading programs, therein signaling the magazine’s engagement in the highly charged debate over mass culture and literacy. On the one hand, Mad echoed the critique offered by academics, intellectuals, and social critics charging book clubs, mass marketed paperbacks, and “how-to” books with diluting America’s literature and transforming readers into “a single slushy compost” (Rosenberg 5). On the other hand, Mad mocked the very critics and intellectuals who decried the destruction of American culture at the hand of mass culture for merely replacing one prescriptive reading system with another. Haunting these criticisms was a fear that relinquishing one’s interpretive authority to others would lead to depersonalization, alienation, and complacent acceptance of the party line, and therein would pave the way for totalitarian ideologies to take hold. Thus, contrary to Norbert Muhlen’s infamous 1949 Commentary article that claimed comic books prime American youth for totalitarianism, Mad used the comic magazine medium to challenge totalizing rhetoric within the American cultural, intellectual, and political establishment, and to call for readerly autonomy.

Reading the Masses

To best understand the place and politics of Afad’s musings on readership, one must revisit postwar America’s literacy debates. The change in America’s position from isolationist to global power following World War II necessitated a shift in how America defined itself at home and abroad. Driven by the assumption that, as Time editor Carl Solberg put it, “a good citizen is a good reader” (125), educators and politicians alike examined postwar America’s cultural and political literacy hoping to find and subsequently advertise an image of enlightened democracy to allies, foes, and those “choosing” between Democracy and Communism. What groups like the American Library Association, American Book Publishers Council, National Book Committee, and the Department of Education found was that Americans were not reading, reporting that 13.5% of Americans were functionally illiterate and “there is no estimate as to how many are considered semiliterate” (Books for Adult Beginners 4); that “the United States has the lowest proportion of book readers of any major democracy, judging by the results of an international survey in six nations” (Dutscher 126); and that only 25% of Americans read as much as one book per month (Grambs iv). In these studies and many others, leading literacy experts mapped out the cultural wasteland that America was becoming and warned that serious geopolitical trouble could result from Johnny’s inability or unwillingness to read. Not only did texts like The Wonderful World of Books (1953) claim that “our Christian civilization may soon be doomed” if people did not read and read “correctly” (Slater 122), but reading guides also warned that poor reading instruction and practice could impair Americans’ ability to think independently and make them more susceptible to dangerous, totalizing ideologies. A result of these warning cries was an increased effort on the part of reading proponents to stimulate the masses to read by whatever means necessary, whether they be remedial reading courses, library drives, discussion groups, or mail-order book clubs.

Significantly, many cultural critics were less concerned with literacy percentages than they were about the perceived “massification” of postwar America and its subsequent effects on the quality of America’s readers, literature, and democracy. While some reading proponents celebrated book clubs and paperbacks for providing nontraditional reading populations greater access to books, an equal number of individuals bemoaned mass literacy for ushering in the “age of the New Stupid” (Brower 75). Leading public intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald, Bernard Rosenberg, and Jacques Barzun condemned mass culture’s creation of a readerly republic that did not conform to traditional aesthetic values. Albeit a markedly highbrow reaction to mass literacy, the response of America’s intellectual class also voiced a legitimate concern about mass culture’s perpetuation of social conformity: “the mass grows; we are more alike than ever” (Rosenberg 5). Fears of totalitarianism prompted many intellectuals to point out that mass culture is not “an expression oi people, like Folk Art,” but rather “it is an expression of masses, a very different thing” (Macdonald 69)-a “thing” which “brutaliz[es] our senses” (Rosenberg 9), and “thus becom[es] an instrument of political domination” (Macdonald 60). In making this distinction, critics attempted to shift the terms of the argument away from class and towards the idea of a threatened “self” and “nation.” Indeed, Rosenberg’s claim, “there can be no doubt that the mass media present a major threat to man’s autonomy. No art form, no body of knowledge, no system of ethics is strong enough to withstand vulgarization” (5), readily asserted a connection between mass culture and injury to “self,” not only forecasting the loss of individual selves to “vulgarization,” but the demise of other discrete bodies like art, ethics, and law, as well, ultimately leading to democracy’s destruction.

As Janice Radway, Joan Shelley Rubin, Leerom Medovoi, and other scholars of postwar culture have demonstrated, the rise of mass marketed paperbacks triggered a virulent reaction among postwar literati convinced that the sheer quantity of books published necessarily precluded quality, and consequently, was cultivating a horde of tasteless and malleable readers. First printed in 1939, 25 cent paperback books “were soon being distributed to upwards of 70,000 cigar stores, newsstands, and other outlets where books had never before been sold” (Hart 275), with new titles appearing weekly. Mud’s “Paperback Roulette” (1961) with its offer to help readers navigate the “4,378 new paperback titles” that “hit the newsstand book racks every time your watch ticks” (38), points towards the laughably large number of paperbacks published and proposes a substitutability to reading matter in postwar America-spin the rack as any one title is as good as another. Critics like poet and publisher Cecil Hemley argued that such substitutability necessarily stems from the rate and volume of publication which influences the composition, production, and marketing of texts such that they “must perforce follow fashion-and not coterie fashion, it should be remembered, but large popular currents of taste” (141). Thus, reprints of “classics” were marketed alongside popular books, like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and “flamboyant fiction Wild West tales, detective stories, and novels employing tough language or affording frank discussion of sex” (Hart 275). Mad’s discussion of Best-sellers “Bound to Appear” (1968) implies that the popular taste created and sustained by the paperback industry is base, at best. Forecasted best-sellers include a JFK “tell-all” written by the neighborhood trash collector, a romance whose second page details an orgy including everyone from “Salley Barnes” [sic] to the Green Bay Packers’ starting line, a collection of humorous letters written to soldiers in Vietnam, and the autobiography of a roller derby queen (30). These “bound to appear” best-sellers not only suggest that the taste of American readers has declined such that they embrace only the sensational, voyeuristic, or trivial, but that American culture itself has devolved to the point of being absurd.

According to Mad’s various articles on reading, furthermore, the primary purveyors of postwar absurdity are prescriptive reading programs that promote mass consumption of fashionable or “authorized” texts. Central to both the critique and perpetuation of said mass literacy is the book group, most notably the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Great Books Program. Mad first satirized the book club phenomena in 1959, its “Readin’ and Writhin’ Dept.” reporting that “in the good old days, people either bought their books in a store, or swiped them from their friends. Today, more and more people are building their libraries by joining monthly book clubs” (“Mad Looks at Book Clubs” 10). Founded in 1947 by the University of Chicago’s Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, the Great Books Program enjoyed overwhelming success in the 1950s, with discussion groups operating in over “six hundred American communities” by 1953 (Strubbe 216). Although the Book-of-the-Month Club began before World War II, its numbers similarly swelled to an all time high during the postwar period in response to promises of “convenience; reading fulfillment; guidance by experts; [and] continuity” (Lee 29). Yet, many critics saw the “continuity” offered by book groups as both the cause and result of a cookie-cutter approach to literature and culture. Mad’s “The Spicy Abridged Book Club,” “The Millard Fillmore Book Club,” “The Useful Information Book Club,” and “The Ridiculously-Expensive Book Club” (10-13), expose the danger embedded in book clubs’ classification scheme: not only do specialized clubs create a class of homogenous readers ingesting the same texts and discussion points, but they also classify people as a particular type of reader, thereby compartmentalizing people within their “appropriate” social sphere and undermining democratic ideals of sociopolitical autonomy.

Mad’s book club parodies also charge reading lists and the discussion group format with discouraging difference by pressuring participants to read in concert with the group. In so doing, Mad’s satire directly challenges a key selling point of the Great Books Program: “while a great book may be beyond the full comprehension and understanding of any one of us, it is not beyond the common wisdom … of the group” (Strubbe 216). Distrust of the “group” is evident in Mad’s “Readin’ and Writhin’“ report which characterizes its members as mindless drones seeking neither comprehension nor understanding, but “the ‘choicest parts’“ (10), or that which is “common.” Mad depicts these readers as a slobbering, animalistic mob-a group of “beady-eyed” bodies feeding off of the herd’s frenetic energy (“Mad Looks at Book Clubs” 10). This representation of the herd mentality resulting from the pressure to perform for and in concert with the group, in conjunction with the expertly prepared questions and consensus-promoting study guides that imply a right and wrong way to approach texts, cuts to the quick of the book group ethos, arguing that “the common wisdom … of the group” is not necessarily the product of discussion and debate, but rather the result of conformity. Mad was not alone in this observation, as social critics like Frank Jennings likened reading guides to straight) ackets (61) and aspiring middle-class readers to participants in “the cult of the ready-mix and the instant pudding” (147). Jennings and others recognized the ease and safety involved in adopting the group’s perspective on literature, politics, or society-a safety they found quite dangerous for it demanded sacrificing individual will and thought to the whole.

The power of mass culture “group think” is demonstrated best in postwar book club ads that relied upon social status anxiety to market a new, commodified reader. Possessing the right discussion points or a shelf of “classics” carried great cultural currency in the postwar period of conspicuous consumption. Accordingly, the Book-of-the-Month Club’s 1950s advertising campaigns tapped into the anxiety underlying postwar consumerism, employing slogans like “A Self-Check: Are You Slipping in Your Reading?” and “When Talk Turns to Important New Books, Do You Hear Yourself Saying, ‘I’m sorry, I never got around to reading that’?” (Lee 135) to exploit concerns about social inadequacy and position in America’s rapidly shifting cultural landscape. Mad too recognized the ways that book groups manufactured “continuity” by compelling members to read alike. Asking “Are you ashamed to be seen reading trashy, sensational paperback books?” (Mad Follies 1, 1963), Mad Follies’ parody ad offers the interested consumer book covers of “acceptable titles” like Catch-22, Advise and Consent, and The Naked and the Dead so the reader can “Avoid Any More Embarrassment!” Both book club and parody ads assume that reading which diverges from the expertly dictated and socially embraced norm is bad. Mad’s parody, however, criticizes the assumption upon which such marketing is based: that “self” is defined and maintained by the perception of others. The Mad ad shows how “image,” created by and for consumption, is substituted for traditional notions of a discrete “self.” Echoing the Book-of-the-Month Club’s question “are you slipping in your reading?” with “are you ashamed to be seen reading?” Mad demonstrates that the focus of these ad campaigns is not books, but their readers, suggesting that readers have become the product to be inspected, packaged, and displayed.

Yet, Mad is quick to point out that readers encourage mass culture’s depersonalization when they willingly sacrifice “taste” to the Madison Avenue machine. Mad’s “Anything for a Buck Department” traces the devaluation of literature by mass production and consumption in its article “A Best Seller Hits the Commercial Trail” (1959), proclaiming:

Time was when a serious writer struggled and sweated to turn out a good book, only to find when it was published that six people bought it … But not any more! Nowadays, a serious writer turns out a good book and before you can say “Ernest Hemingway!” they turn him into a “corporation.” Then he has to be play-producer, merchandiser even a stock market operator. Because nowadays, literature is big business! (34)

In mapping the “commercial trail” of novels like Doctor Zhivago and demonstrating how literature becomes a recycled commodity-what begins as a novel and after various incarnations as a play, musical, television show, playing card, chewing gum, etc., becomes a reprinted novel-Mad not only lambastes the corporatization of literature itself, but those who readily embrace the “high business!” that is American letters. The repetition of “you saw, you raved!” (34), points the finger of blame not only at the publishers, those encouraging “mob judgment” about books (Barzun 79), or the corporate organization men, those “money boys and efficiency experts and audience-reaction analysts” (Macdonald 72), but also at the readers- the “you” – indiscriminately consuming all that is offered them. Mad’s “you” allows Madison Avenue to script their tastes and create a standardized and depersonalized reading culture.

Therefore, Mad’s criticism of these “pre-fab” readers is that public approbation determines their literacy, which subsequently bears no value outside of its social use-function. In articles like “On Choosing a Book” (1959) Mad reiterates that “the soul-searching torment” involved in text selection is not content-based, but rather appearance-based (33). Mad’s various clubs, libraries, and sample five-foot shelves consistently target these fashionconscious readers, identifying both the superficiality and the social disconnectedness of the postwar American masses. In “Do people laugh at you for reading comic books?” (1954), for example, then comic book Mad depicts the shallow assumptions upon which fashionable readership is based. The ad depicts a before/after scenario: before the suited gentleman discovers Mad, he is surrounded by snickering, mocking, common folk; after discovering Mad, the monocle-sporting gentleman smiles confidently and is looked upon reverently by the masses as one to be admired and imitated. What affects this change? Why, the magazine’s cover that “makes it look like high-class literature.” The fact that it appears “high-class” makes it so, for one reads to be seen. Therefore, the gentleman is able to shape a particular public persona that lends him class and respectability. Mad’s “The Ridiculously-Expensive Book Club” further promises social acceptability and status to persons who “spend globs and globs of money on idiotic things like this.” Boasting, “each page is uncut, because these books are for showing off, not for reading!” (“Mad Looks at Book Clubs” 13), Mad’s book club indicts programs and persons who subordinate individuality to fashion, who attempt to purchase acceptance, who consume in efforts to conform, and ultimately who embrace a depersonalized cultural identity.

Mad’s reading parodies suggest that “the masses” have been primed by prescriptive reading programs to defer to “authorities” or “experts” in determining what to read, how to read, and who to be. Articles like “Mad’s Modern Handy Phrase Book for the American Tourist” (1959), “How to Make Dull Reading Matter Interesting” (1961), and “More Specialized Self-Defense Books” (1968) recognize the ubiquity of how-to books in the postwar literary marketplace and mocks those who reverence “experts” in their drive to accumulate “all the useful information I can while I am alive, so I’ll be pretty smart when I’m dead” (“Mad Looks at Book Clubs” 12). Like C. Wright Mills’ white collar men or William Whyte’s organization men who depend upon the latest Dale Carnegie “how-to” text to help them fashion their personality and get ahead in life, mass readers dedicated to the “how-to” book rely upon others to make “dull reading matter” and ultimately their lives “interesting.” Mad’s “Specialized Cookbooks” article (1966), however, asserts that expert-driven mass literacy does not make people more “interesting,” but rather alienates individual readers from themselves and others. “The Little Kids’ Cookbook,” “Cooking for One,” “The Dieter’s Cookbook,” and “The Serviceman’s Cookbook” announce that “this is the age of specialization” and that “each phase of cooking has been divided and sub-divided until every aspect of the culinary art can be found in its own separate cookbook” (38). This article demonstrates that the massification of reading and the reading market isolates and compartmentalizes readers not unlike the increasingly subdivided face of suburban America, such that “the mass man is a solitary atom” (Macdonald 69), and part of postwar America’s lonely crowd.

Ultimately, Mad warns that mass literacy programs train readers to privilege the symbolic, socially determined significance of a text over one’s individual interpretation. For instance, “The Mad Library of Extremely Thin Books” (1968), recommended by Mad’s “Narrow-Minded Department,” contains titles like “Equality and Justice in Alabama and Mississippi,” “The Constructive Accomplishments of the John Birch Society,” and “Honesty in Advertising.” The immediate humor of the ad’s title rests in the irony that, even in 1968, few pages could be written detailing equality in America’s segregated south; however, when read in light of Mad’s critique of paperbacks, book clubs, and fashionable readers, the “thin” of this piece’s title is not limited to the length of the books alone, but the perceived intellectual capability, social awareness, and political integrity of the text’s buyer. This “thin” shelf demonstrates the individual, social, and political limitations of “narrow” reading and the minds drawn to books that either appear easy or look good on a bookshelf. Mad disparages this new reading public, the “family that buys the FiveFoot Shelf not to read-for it is hard work-but to dazzle their friends” (Barzun 77), for their socially irresponsible efforts to use books to keep up with the Joneses, and thereby undermine their own intellectual and political self-determination.

Examining Mad’s position on mass literacy foregrounds the magazine’s consistent efforts to expose and warn against Americans’ sacrifice of intellectual autonomy to the commercial machine. The by-line to “Mad Looks At Book Clubs”—“Lazy Readers Are Being Lured”—articulates the dangerous consequences of such readerly conformity: not unlike fish who are tricked by expertly tied lures, postwar readers are enticed and trapped by mass literacy to adopt epistemological, ontological, and ideological positions not their own; not unlike falcons who are lure-trained to return to and follow their master, so too are readers trained by “abridged book clubs” to defer and bind themselves to others intellectually whether it be the group or the “expert” dictating the group’s movement; not unlike other “dupes” who are seduced by totalizing ideologies, so too can individual Americans be turned into a horde of slobbering, mindless “jerks” eager to do the expert’s bidding if they embrace mass culture.

“How to Be Smart”

At the same time that it echoed postwar intellectuals’ primary complaint that American readership has succumbed to “the spreading ooze of Mass Culture” and has made itself vulnerable to totalitarianism (Macdonald 73), Mad charged those same critics with constructing an equally oppressive class of readership that demanded conformity of “intellectual” appearance, behavior, and consumption. Not unlike the purveyors of mass culture, postwar intellectuals forwarded a “correct” way of reading and tried to convert select folk to their methodology, ideology, and lifestyle. For example, in Teacher in America (1945), Jacques Barzun mapped out a literacy plan, including chapters on “How to Write and Be Read” and “How to Read and Be Right.” This plan, like many others offered by postwar intellectuals, promised a form of social acceptability to those willing to follow set reading lists, schedules, and plans. Similarly, Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Macdonald, and the distinguished staff of Partisan Review schooled postwar readers on how not to read like the masses, employing negative definitions and criticisms in efforts to contain reading habits that offended higher aesthetics, sensibility, and taste. In either promoting or denouncing particular reading habits, postwar intellectuals offered but a variation on the “how-to” theme: read these books in these ways for your own well-being and for the greater cultural “good.” As such, postwar intellectuals merely substituted one totalizing system with another.

Mad’s “Specialized Breakfast Foods” (1961) recognizes the irony that postwar intellectuals’ mass culture critique necessarily depended upon prescriptive codes of acceptable behavior and taste, and therefore includes these cultural mandarins in the cadre of “experts” being fed to contemporary Americans (12). Mad likens intellectualism to a breakfast food and subsequently literalizes highbrow critics’ claims that their ideas, methods, and good taste provide fortification against the less nutritious matter available to postwar Americans. While on the one hand the claim that eating “All-Brain” eliminates the “need to resort to harsh, habit-forming books” suggests a spoof on would-be intellectuals who believe consuming easily digestible “food for thought” will make them smart, on the other hand, the ad charges that intellectualism itself is an identifiable posture or fashion that bears cultural currency, and therefore demands social scrutiny. Grouped with advertising men and politicians, Mad’s intellectuals represent a specialized class that both consumes and is consumed by others -a product that smacks of packaged, depersonalized “taste.”

Mad’s “How To Be Smart” (1956) further defines intellectualism as a prescriptive posture, proposing that the defenders of literature and culture themselves are not immune to the siren song of conformity. Mimicking postwar intellectuals’ complaint about the decline in postwar America’s intellectual engagement with the claim that “many people are under the impression that the world is a pretty dumb place and there aren’t many smart people around nowadays” (9), “How To Be Smart” argues that intellectuals’ criticisms of America’s cultural literacy derive authority from social recognition of their brainpower. Announcing “what makes you smart is when other people think you’re smart … it’s how you look that makes you smart” (9), Mad asserts that particular behaviors, appearance, and language are identifiable markers of inclusion in the intellectual class, therein indicating conformity’s role in constructing the antimass position. Several of these identifiable markers are spoofed in “Mad’s FullColor Fold-Out Paste-On Paperback Book Covers”: the ad’s intellectuals wear respectable suits and ties, pensively hold eye glasses, and display a furrowed, contemplative brow under their conservative hair cuts. Thus, while the title of Mad’s “How To Be Smart” suggests another critique of “how-to-ism” in general, one can also read it as Mad’s indictment of America’s intellectual class: like mass culture, it demands conformity of its members and a concerted opposition to or difference from the “peasants” it decries.

Hence, Mad contends that highbrow “difference” and “taste” are highly constructed performances, “TO SUM IT ALL UP… to be smart, he different,” and concludes that intellectuals are no better than those from whom they are differentiating themselves. In fact, Mad argues that intellectuals are just as much of a danger to individual and national autonomy as is mass culture for not only are they a mass of individuals acting according to script, but they are also a cadre of folk striving to dictate the terms of literacy, publishing, and cultured thought in America, therein assuming an authoritarian position as they proclaim to know what is best for American readers and letters. This protective, paternalistic position divests readers of choice even as they are told that they must not sacrifice their will to prescriptive ideologies and epistemologies. Mad suggests that as both the creators and followers of a particular propaganda, postwar intellectuals pose a dual totalitarian threat as a mass of authoritarians.

A Mad Autonomy

If we accept Mad’s contention that both postwar intellectuals and mass culture pose a threat to readerly autonomy, then it is only logical that intellectuals and mass consumers are depicted as two sides of the same cover in “Mad’s Full-Color Fold-Out Paste-On Paperback Book Covers.” Here Mad demonstrates that highbrow concerns about postwar literacy mirror the cult of mass consumerism even as they are challenging it. Just as the piece asks intellectuals if they are “ashamed to be seen reading trashy, sensational paperback books,” it too asks working-class Joes (as signaled by their dirty clothes), “are you ashamed to be seen reading dull, intellectual paperback books?” Whereas the intellectual readers, holding their glasses pensively, are promised to “avoid any more embarassment [sic],” the common reader is told that he can “look like you’re a regular clod!” Mad argues that both highbrow and lowbrow positions beget conformity, expertly constructed totalizing systems, and a propensity towards authoritarianism, and therefore, are more alike than different. Furthermore, Mad’s paperback cover suggests that highbrow and mass culture positions depend upon the other for self-identification-an intellect is one who is not a regular Joe, and vice versa-and mutually constituative. Thus, these prescriptive “extremes” in postwar America’s literacy wars succeed in constructing an ideological tautology: intellectual and mass literacy programs replicate and reinforce the depersonalization, alienation, and encouragement of individual American readers to lose themselves.

What then is a reader to do? While Mad exposes, criticizes, and warns its audience against dangerous reading practices, it is more reticent when it comes to offering an alternative reading philosophy. To say “read this way” would undermine their argument on the dangers of prescription. Instead, Mad promotes a self-determinism that challenges the authoritarianism of both elites and masses and troubles both active and reactive totalizing discourses. In an interview with Richard Reeves, Gaines admits

the one thing we do know around here is that we have a tremendous responsibility to those kids, there might be 10 million of them if five see each magazine …. We hope we’re not telling them anything except to think for themselves and not believe everything they read …. (88)

Despite his protestations elsewhere that Mad is not “moral, theological, nutritious, or good for you in any way, shape, or form” (Gaines & Feldstein 3), Gaines here acknowledges the magazine bears a particular ethical “responsibility,” namely calling “those kids” to read critically and “think for themselves.” In so doing, Gaines asserts an ideology predicated on autonomous, individual, and self-directed readership: a mad proposition in postwar America.