How to Train Students to Become Better Informed Citizens

Stuart N. Brotman, author of the forthcoming The First Amendment Lives On: Conversations Commemorating Hugh M. Hefner’s Legacy of Enduring Free Speech and Free Press Values is the inaugural Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law and Beaman Professor of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has served in four presidential administrations on a bipartisan basis and is a frequent analyst for leading newspapers and magazines.

In this opinion piece for Inside Sources, Brotman argues for the importance of teaching media literacy in public schools.

Regardless of political affiliation, and whether leaning left or leaning right, we have an obligation as parents and taxpayers to support public education. We all want to make sure our children, as students, gain enough knowledge and perspective–especially in the critical high school years–to enable them to become responsible workers, and perhaps parents themselves one day.

Unfortunately, we are not providing much, if any, actual instruction regarding how students can learn to be better-informed citizens.

Yet we also have a higher obligation in the United States to have our public education system help prepare students to be informed citizens and voters. The very nature of our democratic system of government is rooted in core values of free speech and free press that are embodied in the First Amendment. There should be no disagreement on that, even in these highly polarized times.

Unfortunately, we are not providing much, if any, actual instruction regarding how students can learn to be better-informed citizens. Students, along with their parents, are bombarded throughout the political spectrum with slogans such as “fake news,” “misinformation,” and “disinformation,” with the usual result being a nasty Twitter battle between those hurling the accusations and those trying to disprove or at least defend them.

Read the entire Inside Sources piece here.


The First Amendment Lives On: Conversations Commemorating Hugh M. Hefner’s Legacy of Enduring Free Speech and Free Press Values

By Stuart N. Brotman

256 pages • Hardcover • ISBN: 9780826222558 • $85.00

Paperback • ISBN: 9780826222602 • $25.00

Forthcoming April 2022

Making the American Newsroom

Will Mari is Assistant Professor of Media Law & History at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. His new book, The American Newsroom: A History, 1920-1960 was published this past July.


Guild Reporter, Oct. 1, 1942, 12. In this cartoon, the American Newspaper Guild (ANG) is portrayed as a positive force for quality-of-life benefits, even in the midst of World War Two.

When turning a dissertation into a book, any (fairly!) young scholar has to make some hard choices. That was certainly the case with this project.

My research had taken so long (starting in 2012) and had been so—at least initially—over-ambitious, that I had to learn to stop at a certain point. That process has thus been an important part of this book and its journey to publication.  

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I had originally hoped to write the entire history of the American newsroom, from the mid-nineteenth century through the present. I had been inspired in my initial work on journalism textbooks, and before that, on British journalism in the eighteenth century, during a brief year away at the University of Cambridge, to think big and bold. Maybe too bold, looking back on it all.

Editor & Publisher, April 21, 1934. In this cartoon by Denys Wortman, of the New York World-Telegram, an ambitious reporter is kvetching to a fellow about their editor.

My dissertation advisor, the gracious and brilliant Richard Kielbowicz, had encouraged me to limit my scope, to finish, perhaps, in the mid- or at most the latter-third of the century, with my newsroom history. Richard’s wise advice was to write on a more banded time period, basically lead up to the initial computerization, and later, the internetization, of the newsroom space, focusing on its work culture and its internal life. Instead of telling all the stories of where the newsroom had come from, I would tell the main story of how it had formed during the era of “industrial journalism” in the midcentury, following the research of such smart scholars such as Aurora Wallace and Michael Stamm.

At first, I confess, my prideful, young, grad-student mind wanted to push Richard’s wise admonition to its limit, and when I starting reading journalism trade publications such as Editor & Publisher and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Quill, along with the American Newspaper Guild’s Reporter, I really thought I could still write “at least” a history of news workers and their workplace experiences (i.e. in and out of the newsroom) from the First World War through the end of the 1970s, when such newsroom ethnographers as Herbert Gans (with his Deciding What’s News) and Gaye Tuchman (with her Making News) changed journalism studies (and thus ultimately media history) in positive ways, with their focus on the sociology of news and daily work practices. Michael Schudson’s now-classicDiscovering the News, published in 1978, along with the work of Bonnie Brennen, Linda Steiner and ‪Ted Curtis Smythe, also influenced my dissertation, and later, my book’s, scope. I have long loved how they can all tell good stories, and do good scholarship. That’s something I’m still working on, for sure, as I learn to accept some of my limitations.

Louis A. Paige, “The other fellow’s job,” Editor & Publisher, April 18, 1936.

But back to the story of this book. Quickly, my lofty aspirations hit the tall, rocky wall of reality, when I got my first academic posting at a teaching-focused university. There, while trying to balance (many!) courses and service obligations, I realized, rather late, that a more-limited project would still, I hope, have its merits. And thus my book’s focus moved to the 1920s through the 1950s, from the interwar period through the early Cold War. I began to love the value of focused research. That helped the project in two ways. First, it made me think hard about how news workers had evolved, perhaps due to their proximity to one another in large, industrialized newsrooms, from blue collar to more self-consciously white-collar workers. The impact of unionization and college education on journalists became more important to my research. Second, I had to confront the impact of technology tools on news workers and newsrooms more explicitly, in the transition from analog to digital technologies, and the paths-not-taken between them. Basically, I had to think about how news workers felt and then responded to the use of devices such as the telephone, radio car, and later, the first use of computers in the newsroom, more than if I had taken that “grand” view of newsroom history.

“Grin and bear it,” Guild Reporter, Sept. 26, 1952.

A Connell Timeline: Tracing Key Moments in the Life and Work of Evan S. Connell

Today we mark the birthday of Evan S. Connell, born on this day in 1924, with a timeline of brief milestones in his life and work compiled in a blog post by Steve Paul, author of the forthcoming biography of Evan S. Connell, Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell, which we highlight below, with Paul's permission. Connell, a writer who didn’t much want to be known, produced a remarkable range of literature in his six decades of publishing. His towering and best-known achievements are Mrs. Bridge, a minimalist gem of a novel that instantly draws readers into the all-too-familiar world of a prosperous Midwestern family defined by suppressed emotions, and Son of the Morning Star, a lyrical, sweeping and indelible account of the nation’s war with Native Americans and the demise of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his troops in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Connell was a product of the Midwest who led a relatively quiet life driven mostly by the need to write and by his passions for women and art.

Connell Timeline

Brief milestones in the life and work of a writer. For the details see my book, Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell (University of Missouri Press, December 2021)

Aug. 17, 1924: Evan Shelby Connell Jr. is born to Dr. Evan Shelby Connell and (Ruth) Elton Williamson Connell in Kansas City, Missouri. The family lives at 210 W. 66th Street in a Brookside district neighborhood developed by J.C. Nichols.

After the navy, Connell finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas,1946-47. Courtesy of the Literary Estate of Evan Shelby Connell Jr.

May 1937: Graduates from Border Star Elementary School, which promoted an intensive reading program.

1939: The Connell family moves to 1515 Drury Lane (later renumbered 2215 Drury, after incorporation of Mission Hills, Kansas).

1941: Graduates from Southwest High School and leaves Kansas City for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Transcripts reveal him as no more than an average student.

Summer 1942: After flunking chemistry at Dartmouth, takes makeup chemistry courses at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, north of Kansas City.

December 1942: Registers for the military draft: 6-foot-2, 155 pounds.

September 1, 1943: Inducted into the U.S. Naval Air Corps in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.

1943-1945: Naval flight training in Albuquerque, Memphis, Pensacola, Florida, and elsewhere, followed by instructor training in New Orleans. Promoted to Ensign in May 1945. Concludes service August 20, 1945 to November 24, 1945, as flight instructor at the Naval Air Station in Glenview, Illinois.

February 1946: Enrolls for spring semester at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he studies English, writing, and art and cements his decision not to follow in his father’s medical footsteps. Among his professors is Ray B. West, editor of the Western Review literary journal.

Continue to Steve Paul’s blog to read more...

Happy Missouri Statehood Day

To mark Missouri Statehood Day, we present an excerpt from “My Missouri,” the prologue of Gary Kremer’s forthcoming This Place of Promise: A Historian’s Perspective on 200 Years of Missouri History, due out this November, and available now for pre-order. Gary Kremer is the Executive Director, Secretary, and Librarian of the State Historical Society of Missouri. He is the author, coauthor, or coeditor of 12 books.


“All that goes to make the me in me began in a Missouri
village. . . .”–Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)


As I began to think about writing this book commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of Missouri statehood, I began, also, to think about my own Missouri history, and the countless ways in which this state has shaped me. I am who I am because of where I was born, and when and where I grew up. The way I experienced the world over the past seven decades and more was largely determined by the timing of my birth, my gender, my race, my religion, and my parents’ ethnicity and socioeconomic standing. My personal story is a Missouri story, tied intrinsically to this state’s history. Without it, I would not be me. The same is true for all Missourians.

Missouri is a place that I have always called home, as have four generations of Kremers who preceded me, and two (and counting) generations who succeed me. Like so many Missourians past and present, I am descended from immigrants. My great-great grandfather, P. Gustav Kremer,came to Osage County, Missouri, from Krefeld, Germany, during the early 1840s, shortly after the county was established in 1841. As a young man in his early twenties, he came to Missouri in search of greater opportunities, a chance for a better life. He settled on a 103-acre farm, purchased from the federal government, near the village of Loose Creek, about 15 miles east of Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City. Soon thereafter (1844) he married a fellow German immigrant by the name of Agnes Dahler. The couple started a family the next year, with the birth of my great-grandfather, Joseph, in 1845.

Like too many men on my father’s side of the family, Gustav died young, not yet fifty years of age, in May 1865, soon after the end of the American Civil War. Four years later, his eldest child and only son, Joseph, married Anna Koenigsfeld, who lived several miles north of her husband’s birthplace, a farm along Cedar Creek, a Loose Creek tributary only a few miles from the Missouri River. Within a year of the marriage, Joseph and Anna purchased that farm and began their own family.

Between 1870 and 1885, Anna Koenigsfeld Kremer bore six children and was pregnant with a seventh when forty-year-old Joseph died of double pneumonia. Fifteen-year-old Henry, my grandfather, became the man of the house upon his father’s death, and with the help of his younger siblings continued to try to make a living on his parents’ farm. Over time, as he reached adulthood, he was able to purchase a farm adjacent to the one owned by his widowed mother.

Like so many Missourians during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, these three generations of Kremer men were farmers whose crops and livestock were largely consumed by their families. The 1880 federal agricultural census indicates that Joseph owned twenty acres of tilled land, two acres of “Permanent Meadows,” and eighty acres of “Unimproved” land—woodland and forest. The value of his farm, including land, fences, and buildings totaled $1,500. His farming implements and machinery were worth $80 and his livestock was valued at $250. The livestock consisted of two horses and two mules, four “Milch” cows, whose milk allowed the family to produce twenty-five pounds of butter. He also had four “other” cows. Three calves were “dropped” during the preceding year. Joseph sold five head of cattle during the previous year and slaughtered one for his family’s food. He also had sixteen head of swine, and his poultry flock numbered 100. The latter produced 100 dozen eggs over the course of the year. Presumably, the few cattle that were sold provided cash that allowed the family to acquire basic commodities that they could not or chose not to produce: salt, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and some limited clothing, including shoes. It is likely that butter and eggs were bartered for some of these commodities as well.

Continue reading here.


This Place of Promise

A Historian’s Perspective on 200 Years of Missouri History

Gary R. Kremer

$40.00 . hardcover . 302 pp. . 45 b&w photos

Tennessee Williams’ St. Louis Blues

Theater critic Judy Newmark wrote a piece in the St. Louis Jewish Light on Henry Schvey's new book, Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams, a version of which she features on her blog, Judy, Act II, which we highlight below.

Seventeen years ago, browsing in a New Orleans bookstore, Henry I. Schvey made a once-in-a-lifetime discovery: An unpublished, entirely unknown poem by Tennessee Williams.

Smoke pollution over St. Louis at mid-day on Black Tuesday, 11 November 1939. Photograph, 1939. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints collections. St. Louis Views. n14587.

Today, the title of that poem is the title of Schvey’s new book, “Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams” (University of Missouri Press, $40).

“I didn’t know it then,” said Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University. “But that poem (“Blue Song”) brought Tennessee Williams in St. Louis to life for me.

“In some way, I identified.”

Washington U. made the first, and most obvious, connection. Schvey has served on its faculty for 34 years; Williams wrote the poem, by hand, in the “blue book” in which he took his final exam in Greek.

The Greek class was not a highlight of his brief career on the Hilltop Campus. In his journal the night before the test, Williams sounds despondent. “I will undoubtedly flunk,” he predicts. He was right. 

But the sad, lovely poem, evidently unnoticed by the Greek professor, instantly struck Schvey as “poignant and powerful.”

There are more connections, too, including a coincidence that Schvey discovered while researching his book: He and the playwright once shared a Manhattan address, 15 West 72nd Street.

A teenager at the time, Schvey lived with his family on the twenty-fifth floor. Williams lived on the thirty-third. They didn’t know each other. Still, Schvey loves the idea that they may have shared a smile or a “hello” on the elevator.

The biggest coincidence, though, is that both of them embraced a New York-St. Louis trajectory – though in opposite directions.

For Williams, St. Louis was a heartless trap that would sooner or later destroy him, just as it destroyed his beloved sister, Rose. (She was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy.) Yet it was here that he became a poet and a playwright, developing themes and imagery that he would continue to explore throughout his life.  

 

Continue reading here.

Banat Swabians, Bosnians, and the Lessons of a Forgotten Immigrant

Guest blogger Benjamin Moore writes about how he got started on what would later become his book, The Names of John Gergen: Immigrant Identities in Early Twentieth-Century St. Louis. Benjamin Moore is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri.


In 2004, I stumbled upon the World War I-era schoolwork that would lead to writing The Names of John Gergen. The book focuses on the author of the schoolwork, an immigrant orphan who lived in the working-class neighborhoods of south St. Louis and who died young in 1935. Coincidentally, shortly after I found the schoolwork, I began work on the Bosnia Memory Project, which is dedicated to documenting St. Louis’ Bosnian community, the largest outside of Bosnia. Over the past fifteen years, my colleagues and I have recoded hundreds of oral histories of Bosnian refugees in an effort to preserve their memories and perceptions. (The Bosnia Memory Project was recently renamed the Center for Bosnian Studies.)

I’ve reflected repeatedly on the relationship between these two projects, which unfolded simultaneously but separately. To this day, few of my Bosnian friends know about The Names of John Gergen, and Bosnians are never mentioned in the book. But looking back, I can see that the two projects were deeply intertwined and yielded similar insights. Together, John Gergen and my Bosnian friends have taught me much about immigrant and refugee identities and their complicated relationship to displacement.

Specifically, I have learned that transnational migration requires the development of new identities that respond to changing cultures and circumstances. In the best case, multiple identities enable immigrants and refugees to navigate the varied cultural spaces they traverse—between Sarajevo and St. Louis, for example, or (more commonly) between home and work. But multiple identities can also lead to a painful fracturing of experience. In his twenty-six years, John Gergen acquired seven names that responded to critical changes in his life, including migration, abandonment, and naturalization. Together, the names speak to the difficulty of attaining agency when the terms of one’s identity are constantly changing. Similarly, multiple identities among St. Louis’s Bosnians often cause a feeling of alienation that I have come to call cultural homelessness. “In Bosnia I’m American,” said one younger Bosnian, “and In America I’m Bosnian. There is really no place that I can call my own.”

Granted, there are fundamental differences between John Gergen and St. Louis’s Bosnians. John was a Banat Swabian—a German-speaking Catholic from an agrarian area of southern Hungary known as the Banat.  In the early 1900s, thousands of Banat Swabians migrated to St. Louis as laborers. However difficult their lot, they came willingly, and many willingly returned home to southern Hungary. St. Louis’s Bosnians, on the other hand, fled the ethnic cleansing the early 1990s, which was directed mainly at Muslims. While their connection to Bosnia remains strong, most have remained in St. Louis because they have no home to go back to.

Still, the parallels between the two groups are compelling. In the early 1900s, Banat Swabians in St. Louis numbered in the several thousands. Settling in the industrial neighborhood of Soulard, they formed a tightly-knit community that perpetuated for decades their ways of speaking, eating, and forming families. But they were also subject to the power of local and national institutions, many of which sought to Americanize immigrants and erase the identities of the homeland. John himself was reshaped by a library, a bathhouse, two schools, the courts, and the medical establishment. With no regard for his ethnicity, these institutions positioned him as an alien, a citizen, a “retardate,” a laborer, and a tubercular. Only a German socialist organization, which John joined a few years before he died, accorded him the agency to oppose the institutions that devalued him. Otherwise, John was regarded as inferior and expendable. And after his death, he was forgotten—by his family, by his community, and by history.

A century later, in St. Louis, Bosnians’ economic survival has also come at a heavy price. Upon arrival in the 1990s, regardless of their education, Bosnians typically worked long hours in low-paying jobs. As a result, they often sacrificed close relationships with their children, who learned English in the schools and who just wanted to fit in. The pain of the elders’ wartime memories has only deepened the intergenerational rift. Silence about the past pervades many Bosnian families. Younger Bosnian-Americans are therefore deeply affected by a war and genocide that they neither remember nor understand. The history of Banat Swabians in St. Louis tells us that it takes but one generation to forget. For Bosnians, intergenerational forgetting would be especially tragic, because it is exactly what the people who drove them out of Bosnia wanted. Personhood, I have learned, is complicated, especially for the displaced. If immigrants and refugees are to flourish in their host culture, then they must be allowed to live out the full range of their transnational identities, in all of their contradictory complexity. To require anyone—but especially an immigrant or refugee—to assume a singular identity is not only inhumane; it is also foolish, at odds with lived experience. It is my fervent hope that St. Louis’s Bosnians will escape the tragic limits on identity that American institutions of the past placed on John Gergen and others like him.


Join Benjamin Moore for a virtual talk about his book on Tuesday April 20th at 7p.m., hosted by Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri. Visit this website for more information.

The Saint Louis African American Community and the Exodusters

In honor of Black History Month, we’re pleased to share a guest blog post by Bryan Jack, author of The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters, which was released this month in paperback. In this post, Jack introduces us to the story of Jacob Stevens, an Exoduster who traveled to St. Louis to escape the post-Reconstruction racial violence in the South. Jack is Associate Professor of History at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he teaches African American history and is director of SIUE’s Universities Studying Slavery initiative. He is the editor of the book Southern History on Screen and his scholarship has appeared in the journals: The Confluence, Americana, The Griot, The Councilor, The Journal of American Studies of Turkey, and U.S. Studies Online. He and his wife Jenny live in St. Louis, Missouri.


“The Negro Exodus–the Old Style and the New” appeared in Harper’s Weekly May 1, 1880. The artist is unknown. Note the comparison of the Exodusters seeking freedom with the runaway escaping slavery.

In 1879, Jacob Stevens, had traveled up the Mississippi River from Hinds County, Mississippi to St. Louis. In St. Louis, he told St. Louis activist Charleton Tandy, “I think I am too good a man to stay down there and be killed, and don’t intend to do it…couldn’t carry me back South again unless they would chain me and carry me back. My people are there, and I would like to see them, but I can’t go back.” Stevens, a twenty-two-year-old Black sharecropper, feared for his life because of the racial violence that engulfed the post-Reconstruction South. Stevens’ brother-in-law was shot and wounded by a White man who owed his brother-in-law fifty cents; nothing happened to the perpetrator. It was also not the only violence suffered by Stevens’ family. Active in politics, the Stevens family drew the attention of a violent White mob. Jacob Stevens witnessed the murder of his father and brother because of their Republican activities. A crowd of approximately seventy-five men first killed a White man, Mr. Hofer, because he “held in with the black people.” Then the crowd attacked Stevens’ brother, shooting him dead. Ignoring the cries of his mother, they then made his father walk outside where they executed him. No one in the crowd wore disguises, and the murders occurred in broad daylight. According to Stevens, “They shot my father because he was a Radical. There was nothing ever done about the shooting. I knew John Whitehead and Ross Whitehead, who were in the crowd. On election days if a black man got a Republican ticket to vote they would say he was spotted, and that meant they were going to kill you. They wouldn’t allow the colored people to vote as they wanted.” The murders, threats of further violence, and lack of economic opportunity prompted Jacob Stevens to flee for his life. He stated the reason “I leave the South is because I can’t make a living there, and can’t get my rights.”

“The Negro exodus. Scenes on the wharves at Vicksburg” by James H. Moser appeared in Harper’s Weekly, May 17, 1879. Note the Exodusters in deck passage, crowded among the cargo, and the White passengers on the upper level.

Jacob Stevens was one of approximately 10,000 African Americans who fled Louisiana and Mississippi in 1879-1880, with the aim of starting new lives in Kansas. Called Exodusters, because of the Biblical story of escaping from oppression, Stevens and the others traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, then on the Missouri River across to Kansas. Their flight was the first large scale migration of African Americans out of the South, in a precursor to the later Great Migration of the 20th Century. Many of the Exodusters were destitute, more like refugees from war than the pioneers of the modern imagination. After paying the $4 fare for steamboat deck passage from Vicksburg to St. Louis, many Exodusters arrived in St. Louis with little more than the clothes on their backs. When the city of St. Louis refused to offer aid, the city’s African American community took over. Organizing through churches and relief committees, they supplied food, clothing, shelter, and even steamboat fare so the Exodusters could continue their journey. For over a year, Black St. Louis residents worked to aid the Exodusters. Charleton Tandy even traveled to the east coast to gather donations and testify before Congress about the Exodus.

The violence and intimidation the Exodusters endured became symbolic of the backlash faced by Black citizens of the post-slavery South. Their journey to seek a better life, a journey of men, women, and children claiming their rights as American citizens, became symbolic of resilience and hope. The St. Louis African American community’s organizing is an early example of civil rights activity, done to not only aid the Exodusters, but to also challenge the rule of former Confederates in the South. Although today it’s little-known, in the story of the Exodusters and their St. Louis protectors, we see both the best and the worst aspects of race in the United States.

“A Thrilling Tale”: The magic and medicine of Rudolph Fisher

With his life cut short at 37, Rudolph Fisher left behind two novels, a theatrical adaptation, a host of short stories, and an X-ray practice. Langston Hughes called his friend “too brilliant and too talented to stay long on this earth.”

Sean Carlson’s feature in Motif Magazine excellently introduces this remarkable writer whose legacy remains under-celebrated to those unfamiliar with him:

2021 editions of Rudolph Fisher’s novels; image credits: HarperCollins Publishers

When, in 1932, Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies was published, the journal Opportunity called the mystery “startling in its cleverness,” predicting the protagonist, a Harlem doctor with a detective’s eye, would reappear. That year, Agathie Christie spun her investigative hero, Hercule Poirot, into a seventh book and William Faulkner’s Light in August reflected the weight borne by a country whose stories were rife with racial classifications. Reissued this month by HarperCollins, Fisher’s work trod themes familiar to his contemporaries while breaking ground not only as the first known crime novel by a Black author, but also as the first to feature exclusively Black characters as they contend with a resurrected murder victim who promises, “He who knows completely the past and the present can deduce the inevitable future.” Continue reading here.

The City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, edited by John McCluskey, Jr., is the definitive collection of Fisher’s short stories, published by the University of Missouri Press, and on sale in celebration of Black History Month…

Conversation between Judith Yaross Lee and John Bird, Part 3

The final part of the conversation between the two co-editors of Seeing MAD finishes this week! If you missed the first or second part of the conversation, they can be found here and here.

Judith: Yes, especially because we didn’t even have room for a substantive introduction to the issue once we included the book review editor’s wonderful coordinating section on recent comics scholarship. Our two research assistants had compiled a timeline and set of capsule biographies, and we didn’t have room for those sections, either. Yet we knew that the opportunistic collection of topics in the special issue meant that we would need to reach out even beyond those additional early proposals in order to provide something approaching comprehensive and coherent treatment. That was a challenge, but the new essays make a great addition, and we are so lucky to have worked with the University of Missouri Press, which understood the value of our expanded contents, including the timeline and bios at the back.

John: I know we are both pleased with the way the book turned out, with coverage of a variety of topics by scholars with expertise on humor, comics, history, rhetorical theory, and culture. We are so fortunate to have attracted such knowledgeable and talented writers. After the short appetizer by Peter Kaminsky, who was a managing editor of National Lampoon, reflecting on Mad’s influence, we have your introduction. What are you trying to do as you set up the book? Your expertise on the New Yorker and on Mad’s Jewish sensibility is an impressive way to think about the magazine, and the sense of history you provide is really valuable, especially for somebody like me who lost touch with Mad after I stopped reading it.

Judith:  I wanted to blend the history of Mad as a periodical–with all of the associated complications of editorial vision, publication economics, and contributors’ arrivals, departures, and creations—with Mad’s significance for American humor and its place in the American media ecosystem. I was attuned to Mad’s exploitation of its brand identity in reprint books and spin offs because my last book explored Mark Twain’s pioneering efforts to commodify his humor as the U.S. began shifting to a post-industrial economy of media and services after the Civil War. That context helped explain Mad’s declining relevance despite a 21st-century media environment in which humor and satire had grown more important than ever. But it was also clear to me that New York City was a central part of that environment as America’s center of publishing, the home of Mad’s editors, writers, and artists, and the home of that other major humor magazine, the one that gets all the attention for its cultural caché, The New Yorker.

John: Part I, “The Usual Gang,” is a mix of interviews and analyses that focus on important editors and contributors. What stands out for you in this section?

Judith: Focusing on individuals at the beginning of the book calls attention to the way in which a magazine is not just the sum of its contents, but really the product of the individuals who create and shape those contents–artists and writers, editors and publishers—in a particular time and place.

John: I’m really pleased that we could include three prime movers and former publisher of the magazine, in their own words. And the chapters by Tom Inge and Joseph Slade on Kurtzman and Wood establish the importance of the early years as a comic book. I have to confess I had never read “Superduperman!,” which they recognize as seminal in the emerging comic and satirical stance of Mad. As it turned out, the last chapter returns to “Superduperman!,” showing how it was also an important influence on more recent comics. This is just one example of the kinds of things I learned from our contributors; they fill in for me so much I missed, both early and late, and have allowed me to go back to the magazine, which has been a revelation and a great pleasure. Margaret Hambrick combines an Al Feldstein interview with analysis, and Ann Ciasullo examines Dave Berg’s feminist perspective, a very strong chapter on an unexpected theme.

John: Part II, “Features from Cover to Fold-In,” is a wide-ranging look at some of the most important recurring aspects of Mad. I love Alan Rankin’s pictorial history of Alfred E. Neuman.

Judith: I do, too!  But working with him on that chapter showed us all how much misinformation about Mad is in circulation and so calls for an authoritative account such as his. Even people who read the magazine far longer than we did will learn a lot from our contributors!

John: The focus on Alfred continues with Christopher Gilbert’s analysis of the “Mad 20” covers. Many of the chapters focus on the earlier history of Mad, so what Gilbert does turns attention to more recent issues.

Judith: Yes, he and Jeff St. Onge both show that Mad maintained an audience of pretty savvy younger readers well into the 21st century, as satire emerged as a political force in ways not seen since the 1960s.  Lampoons of Trump eclipsed the satires of the Bush and Obama administrations in both creativity and harshness—there’s so much irony and hypocrisy to feed humor—which makes Mad’s retreat into reprints a great cultural loss.

John: “Spy vs. Spy” is probably a favorite of most readers, and Michael Socolow’s chapter does a great job of placing Prohías’s recurring feature in the context of the Cold War, the first of several interior chapters that place Mad in its historical context.

Judith: Socolow ties the spies to Prohías’s earlier life and cartooning in Cuba, providing a personal counterpart to that more public satire of international stalemate.

John: The next four chapters bring satire and parody to the forefront, to my mind central to the magazine. Dennis Eddings is a Poe scholar, and his analysis of the way Mad used Poe in a variety of ways over the years is instructive as well as delightful.

Judith: Agreed. And Dennis does such a great job of showing how the artwork accompanying the parodies contributed to their humor, both in their characterizations of Poe and in their satires on the parodies’ new, sometimes topical, themes. That is one of the more lavishly illustrated chapters, and it emphasizes how even some of the most literary contents of Mad inspired some great comic art.

John: I’m really glad my “Sing Along with Alfred” finally made it into print! It was painful to exclude it from the special issue, but I am happy that we made that decision, because my revision of the original conference paper let me go into more depth about the court cases and provide fuller analysis of the songs. I hope people will sing along as they read the chapter.

Judith:  I can no longer even think of “Hello Dolly!” without hearing you singing “Hello Delly!”

John: I don’t know about you, but the movie and TV parodies were always two of my favorites. I loved the way Mad showed me the absurdity of this kind of popular culture, and Don Baird on film classics and Ethan Thompson on quality TV both make incisive overviews of these parodies. The genius of Mort Drucker really comes to the forefront in these chapters.

Judith: Agreed. As we were planning the book and deliberating over how to fill the holes in our imagined table of contents, I knew that we couldn’t add individual chapters on all the fabulous artists who worked on those media parodies–not only long-time contributors like Drucker, Tom Richmond, and Paul Coker, but also formative ones like Jack Davis and Bill Elder. But a lot of them get discussed anyway in those chapters on movie and television parodies, and the index points interested readers to discussions of their work.

John: The last chapter on features ends, suitably, with the fold-in, and Kerry Soper does a masterful job of analyzing Al Jaffee’s artistry and satiric stance. I always went to the fold-in first, hoping I could beat my brother Jimmy to it and be the first to fold it!

Judith: Soper is an artist as well as a humor scholar, and readers of his chapter benefit from the insider’s perspective he brings to Jaffee’s feature.

John: Part III, “Themes,” does such a good job of looking at Mad in a variety of historical and cultural contexts, showing the way the magazine was much more than just a display of sophomoric humor. (Although it was certainly that, thank goodness!)

Judith: The section leads with Nathan Abrams’ discussion of Mad’s Jewish sensibility.  He really digs into how both Mad’s Yiddishisms and the counterhegemonic identity positions both reflect the culture shared by the contributors whom he described in an earlier essay as Mad’s counterpart to the so-called New York Intellectuals.

Then we have chapters exploring the political contexts of three different sets of contents. I must say that I began this project ignorant of the comic book origins of Mad, so James Kimble’s chapter focusing entirely on those 24 comics issues edited (and mostly written) by Harvey Kurtzman was really eye-opening.

John: I knew about the comic book origins, but I had never seen much of it. I use an excuse that I wasn’t born until 1954. I am sure I had seen some early things, like “Starchie!,” in some of the reprint books, but I wasn’t aware of it being from the comic book era. As I have said, one of the pleasures of editing this book was learning so much about the entire span of Mad’s run.

Judith: James Bloom takes on Mad’s critique of the United Nations as a symbol of US international leadership. He focuses most of his attention on Frank Jacobs and Mort Drucker’s parody of West Side Story (the film version of the Leonard Bernstein musical), analyzing both the song lyrics and their use to advance a plot in which the rival gangs are the West and the Reds, but he also engages broader skepticism toward multilateralism in Mad’s pages.

John:  I intentionally did not deal with “East Side Story” in my analysis of song parodies, written before we had any of the other contributions, but I recall it as a seminal piece in the ’60s. I had a friend in grad school who loved this and used to sing some of the songs, so I really enjoyed this deeper dive into the brilliant piece.

Judith: As in “East Side Story,” Mad tends to mock contenders on both sides of a fight, but the chapter by historian Nicolas Labarre shows that the magazine definitely took sides against Richard Nixon, and not just during final years of his presidency.

John: Mad’s coverage of Nixon pretty much coincided with the period I was reading the magazine intently, so it was a pleasure to return to these pieces. Mad has skewered all presidents, but there was special venom for Tricky Dick, as Labarre shows.

Judith: Labarre is one of our European contributors, so his work shows Mad’s broad international reach to readers and scholars both.

John: Part IV, “Theories,” has only two chapters, but they again show the depth of Mad.

Judith: Yes, Jeff St. Onge’s chapter on what he calls engaged levity suggests a civic role for humor in Mad’s commitment to probing absurdity in political satires not only in its prime decades but also in recent years.

John: One reason Mad struck such a chord with me and with many others was the way it engaged the reader in politics and civic matters. Again, Mad was always funny, but it was humor in a jugular vein, as it advertised itself early on.

Judith: And Kathleen Mollick takes Bakhtin’s idea of speech genres to show how Mad’s parodies encoded an increasingly broad range of cultural materials as the magazine version displaced the comic book version.

John: Yes, Mollick does a good job of analyzing the change from comic book to magazine, which involved more than just a shift in publishing. Her focus on Bakhtin is enlightening, and it reminds me of the critical breadth the whole book exhibits. A run through the index shows the gamut of critics that our contributors engage.

John: Two final chapters round out the book in Part V, “Legacies.” I like the way the book ends by looking at Mad’s enduring influence.  Nicholas Sammond is an expert on underground comix, and his chapter is a bit confrontational, which is natural with a magazine that was always confrontational itself. Sammond’s knowledge of comix brings in some important marginalized voices, including women, gays, and Blacks.

Judith: I think that Sammond’s chapter wonderfully complicates the cultural history of Mad and alternative comix while also hailing Mad’s significance for the contemporary graphic storytellers and their fans who haven’t experienced it themselves.

John: Brian Cremins brings things full circle with his look at the way “Superduperman!” influenced an important graphic narrative by an international artist. Again, I learned so much about things I was not previously aware of. As I said, I think that is one of the strengths of the book.

Judith: Absolutely: Alan Moore was not on my reading list before I read Cremins’s piece. But I am also intrigued by how many of our authors have something to say about Kurtzman’s superhero parody and the way that Wally Wood’s art brought it to life.

John: But that’s not all! Part VI, “Resources,” is much more than boring end-of-the book stuff. I think many readers will find that the capsule biographies and the timeline by themselves worth the price of the book. Leah Szalai and Joe Otto really did an impressive job with these!

Judith: I was so disappointed that the special issue didn’t have room for these reference materials when Leah and Joe first developed them in the summer of 2014, when she was a doctoral student in the School of Communication Studies serving as the journal’s managing editor and he was an honors undergraduate working with me as an editorial apprentice and research assistant. I built on their very fine work after they both moved on to other endeavors and we expanded the contents.

John: To be fair, you did more than just build on their work: you did a lot of additional research to make the biographies and timeline comprehensive, current, and accurate. As I said, I know that readers will find these resources invaluable.

We haven’t said much about the 59 illustrations, the bulk of them from Mad. They were carefully chosen to illustrate the contributors’ analyses, and they add so much to the book, integral to a study of a magazine that was as important and groundbreaking for its artwork as for its writing.

Judith: I’m grateful that DC Comics/Warner Communications, which owns Mad’s copyrights (property of Mad’s original parent, EC Publications, Inc.), let us have so many images, as the visual equivalent of quotations, to support the ideas and analyses of our authors.

John: I know we are both very appreciative of University of Missouri Press for publishing our collection. At 540 pages of text (including the comprehensive index, 596 pages), it’s a real door-stopper of a book. The acquisitions editor at the time, Gary Kass, was a tireless advocate for the book and made some very helpful suggestions as we navigated the publication process.

Judith: And we could not have been more fortunate in our other partners at the Press, including our copyeditor Susan Curtis (a scholar in her own right), our eagle-eyed digital editor Drew Griffith, and the Press’s very patient director, David Rosenbaum.

John: The biggest thanks have to go to the contributors. It was a pleasure to edit their chapters, and they were very understanding as we worked our way to publication. We were very lucky to draw on such a diverse and knowledgeable group. And despite the overall academic and scholarly tone, their genuine enthusiasm and love for Mad shines through from start to finish. This was a labor of love for you and me, but also for all of our “usual gang.”

Judith: Agreed. I am so grateful to our authors for hanging in with us for so many years despite institutional pressures on faculty to publish their research as fast as possible. And their generosity about the revisions suggested by us, our editors, and our external reviewers has been truly exceptional.

John: I come away from our pulling this collection together with a much deeper knowledge of and appreciation of Mad. I have learned so much from the contributors, and I have really enjoyed going back to features I already knew, as well as the wealth of older and newer material that was unfamiliar to me. With the announcement this year that Mad would cease publishing new material, our book is quite timely. I am sad to see the Madness end, but our book provides a serious look at the magazine’s lasting influence on generations of readers, influence that lives on after its demise. I am so proud of our co-edited volume, and it has been a true pleasure to work with you on a book that is going to be important to a variety of readers.

Judith: I share your sense of pride, and I’m so grateful for our partnership on this project.  But it’s also great to reach the point when we can confidently say, “What, me worry?”


Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Communication Studies at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. Her many publications on American humor and periodical cultureinterests that she should probably credit to her childhood passion for Mad—include Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (1991), Defining “New Yorker” Humor (2000), and Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2012), all published by the University Press of Mississippi, along with two other volumes and six dozen essays.

John Bird is Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University. He is the author of Mark Twain and Metaphor (University of Missouri Press, 2007), editor of Mark Twain in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2020), as well as a number of articles on Mark Twain and on American humor. He is a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America and the American Humor Studies Association.

Conversation between Judith Yaross Lee and John Bird, Part 2

The conversation between the two co-editors of Seeing MAD continues this week with part two! If you missed the first part of the conversation, it can be found here.

Judith: Now let’s talk about our book, Seeing Mad.

John: I find it interesting the way our book evolved. We did not set out to edit a scholarly book about Mad. Instead, the book grew organically, with a haphazard beginning. The scholarly society both of us are members and past presidents of, the American Humor Studies Association, and the academic conference we have both long been involved with, the American Literature Association, played large parts. At one ALA conference early in this decade, I presented a paper on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, a session sponsored by the AHSA. In the discussion afterward, we talked about the influence of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I remember that you commented that Mad had a similar if not greater lasting influence. You suggested a session on Mad for the next year’s conference. Do you remember anything about that?

Judith: No, I don’t. But it sounds like me! I adored Rocky and His Friends; when my family was invited by the Nielson ratings folks in the early ’60s to record everything we watched on TV, my sister and I wrote down that we and five of our most intimate friends watched it with us every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.  But I know that Mad was more influential on me and the whole Baby Boom generation, because it antedated and outlasted Rocky and took on topics far beyond the Cold War, important though that was. I had bought the CD archive Completely MAD with my first discretionary faculty development money in the early 2000s, but hadn’t done much with it except urge Teodora Carabas, then a doctoral student interested in Cold War humor, to use it for a paper on “Spy vs. Spy.” Her article came out in 2007. Looking back, I guess at your session on Rocky, I hoped that Mad’s time had finally come.

John: Your suggestion resulted in 2013 in my paper “Sing Along with Alfred,” in which I recalled singing “Hello Delly!” with my friends when I was 13 or so, a neighborhood bonding experience that I proposed extended nationwide. My paper included analysis of the Mad song parodies, but I also encouraged the session attendees to sing along with me as we looked at the lyrics by Frank Jacobs, Larry Siegel, and others. The response was gleeful and raucous, no doubt disturbing the scholarly sessions adjacent to our room. What are your memories of that session?  

Judith: Our enjoyment did prompt some guy from the session next door to stick his head into the door and scold us. More than once. You spoke last, so we’d chuckled through two papers already, but you offered such a wonderful combination of detailed analysis and well-chosen examples that we had to work at not drowning you out with our laughter. I think we were all channeling our enthusiasm into song when you handed out lyrics at the end and asked us to join in.

John: Tell me about your suggestion that we co-edit a special issue of Studies in American Humor on Mad.

Judith: At the time of that ALA session I had just become the editor of the journal and discovered that we had no backlog of accepted articles and very little still under peer review. So I was worried about filling the next two issues at that same time that I had ambitions to grow the journal by expanding its contents beyond its two staple topics, literary humor and stand-up comedy. When the Mad session drew a large, unexpected audience of scholars from societies other than the AHSA, I saw the opportunity to draw new contributors to the journal and to highlight graphic humor, which hadn’t received much attention by the journal beforehand but was an enduring interest of mine. And of course, as a past president of the Research Society for American Periodicals and the author of a book on New Yorker humor, I had a sense of how rich the scholarship on Mad could be. So I asked you if you wanted to serve as guest co-editor for a special issue about a year from then, in the fall of 2014. 

When we sent out the call for papers, I think we were both expecting to receive about a dozen proposals from which to choose four—maybe five–for development and publication. That’s typical for a special issue. Do you remember how stunned we were by the response? We had been so worried that we wouldn’t have enough material that we begged a few people we knew to consider submitting, and then got something like 30 proposals, many more than we could handle. We tripled the length of the journal but couldn’t change the manuscript deadline, so we exhausted ourselves producing that issue-244 pages–in under six months.  

John: One thing we realized early on was that we had too much material for even the triple issue that was taking shape. We had some good proposals that we could not use, including my “Sing Along with Alfred.” I suppose that was when we realized we had the makings of a book-length study of Mad.

Join us next week for the third and final part of their interview!