Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture


Too often remembered solely as the psychiatrist and cultural critic whose testimony in Senate subcommittees sparked the creation of the Comics Code, Fredric Wertham was a far more complex man. Author Bart Beaty traces the evolution of Wertham's attitudes toward popular culture and reassesses his place in the debate about pop culture's effects on youth and society.

When The Seduction of the Innocent was published in 1954, Wertham (1895-1981) became instantly known as an authority on child psychology. Although he had published several books before Seduction, its sharp criticism of popular culture in general--and comic books in particular--made it a touchstone for debate about issues of censorship, child protection, and freedom of speech.

Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, a fresh perspective on Wertham's career, reinterprets his intellectual legacy and challenges notions about his alleged cultural conservatism. Drawing upon Wertham's published works as well as his unpublished private papers, correspondence, and notes, Beaty reveals a man whose opinions, life, and career offer more subtlety of thought than previously assumed. In particular, the book examines Wertham's change of heart in the 1970s, when he began to claim that comics could be a positive influence in American society.

The Wertham that emerges is a critic who was significantly more progressive and multifaceted than his reputation would suggest.

Bart Beaty is associate professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary. His work has been published in the Comics Journal, International Journal of Comic Art, Canadian Journal of Communication, Essays in Canadian Writing, and Canadian Review of American Studies.


A ghostlike figure haunts the history of postwar debates on American popular culture. That ghost is Fredric Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist and once well-known and widely-respected expert in the areas of psychiatry, criminality, juvenile delinquency, and civil rights. For more than half a century, from the 1920s until the 1970s, Wertham published extensively in both scholarly journals and mainstream newspapers and magazines, emerging in the mid-1950s as one of America’s best-known commentators on the purported effects of the mass media. Today, however, readers must be forgiven if the name rings few bells. A search of library catalogs will turn up a few of his books with vaguely lurid and somewhat threatening titles: Dark Legend (1941), The Show of Violence (1949), Seduction of the Innocent (1954), The Circle of Guilt (1956), and A Sign for Cain (1966). At present, little secondary material exists that assesses his contribution to the debates about popular culture. Examining the histories of communications studies, the discipline with the clearest engagement in the study of media effects, imparts little further information. While the first two editions of the seminal textbook Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects (Lowery and DeFleur 1983, 1988) discuss Wertham at length, the most recent edition of the book (1995) entirely omits his contribution to the development of the field. Wertham’s name fails to even emerge in recent histories of communication research (Rogers 1994), suggesting that he has become a nonentity as far as the history of communications is concerned.

This is not, however, an entirely recent phenomenon. Even as the field of popular culture was crystallizing in the immediate postwar decades, Wertham’s contributions were marginalized as the discipline sought professionalism . . .

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