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!

Conversation between Judith Yaross Lee and John Bird, Part 1

The following is part one of a conversation between Judith Yaross Lee and John Bird, co-editors of the new University of Missouri Press book, Seeing Mad: Essays on Mad Magazine’s Humor and Legacy, available now. In this three-part interview, Judith and John talk about their youthful reading of Mad, then discuss the process of editing the most comprehensive academic analysis of the magazine to date, as well as reflect on the historical and cultural importance of the magazine that announced in July 2020 that future issues would prioritize reprints over new content.

John: How and when did you start reading Mad?

Judith: I started reading Mad soon after my family moved from Chicago to suburban Evanston when I was 9, in the summer of 1958, because I couldn’t get enough reading material now that we needed a car or bus to get to the library and the bookmobile limited checkouts to two books, which I could devour in a day when it was too hot to do anything (who had air conditioning? not us). But I could walk or ride my bike by myself to what we called a milk store—a bodega or convenience mart today—that didn’t require crossing any busy streets, and that store had a magazine rack filled with comics and Mad, which at 25¢ (cheap!) fit my weekly allowance, leaving me with enough funds for a comic book and popsicle or two till the next issue came out.

John: What appealed to you about the magazine?

Judith: Mad captured my imagination through its artwork and irreverence. I loved the frozen frenzy of Don Martin’s drawings, but the tv and movie satires and other graphic narratives with dialogue really stole my heart. They were filled with Yiddishisms, Americanized usage of the language that my parents and grandparents spoke when they didn’t want us kids to understand, and which I heard so often that I recall seeing the word nudge and wondering whether it was the Yiddish noodge (nag). The stories’ sarcasm and cynicism felt equally familiar in a way that set Mad apart from the rest of my media environment: the anodyne WASP humor of TV sitcoms and Doris Day movies, the uncomfortable racism of Our Gang Comedy, the violent slapstick of The Three Stooges, and moralistic contents of My Weekly Reader and Highlights for Children. So even though Mad’s writers and artists were my parents’ generation rather than mine, the Jewish sensibility that Jaffee and Abrams and I discuss in the book was a major factor in its appeal, because in those days American Jews in the hinterlands beyond New York were cautious about outing themselves and being confronted with or arousing anti-Semitism.  

John: What are some issues you remember, and what effect did Mad have on you overall?

Judith: When I look back at the Mad of those days–#47 from June 1959 is a good example—all the elements I recall are there even though Al Feldstein was still reshapingthe magazineafter Harvey Kurtzman’s departure (#28, July 1956, was his last issue). There’s a hilarious Don Martin page about an act of mercy on a city bus—and as a city kid I’d ridden lots of buses and subways—in which a guy is choking on his necktie but unwinding him from it turns him into a whizzing top whose force propels him through the roof. There’s a four-page graphic narrative drawn by Wally Wood in which Sid Caesar (whose manic performances I knew from TV) plays a perpetually hungry, dialect-speaking astrophysicist named Professor Ludwig Von Orbitmacher. There are versions of the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill” as if published in Seventeen, Modern Romance, and other magazines. And there is a set of short TV parodies, with caricatures by Mort Drucker, each blending two program formulas: “Sea Hunt with a Dragnet,” “Arthur Murray’s Meet the Press Party,” and so on. Mad’s references to Eleanor Roosevelt and other contemporary figures, as in the Arthur Murray and “I’ve Got a Secret News Report” strips, helped me understand the political conversations always going on at our dinner table.

Judith: Okay, so I’ll ask you now. How and when did you start reading Mad?

John: I was at my cousin Sally’s house when I was about ten years old, so that would have been 1964. Her husband John had copies of Mad lying around, and my brother Jimmy and I started reading them. There was a little thing about a waitress falling into the ice cream at Howard Johnson’s and thus creating the 29th flavor. This struck me as incredibly funny; I couldn’t stop laughing! It doesn’t seem that funny to me now, but it really hit ten-year-old me. I told my parents about it on the way home, and they said that was awful, and that Mad was something Jimmy and I should not read. So of course we pooled our allowance and bought the next issue (25¢ cheap!). Then we got a subscription, even though it cost about the same as the newsstand price, and we were avid readers for years, eventually sharing our copies with our younger sister and brother as they got old enough to read it. So the young Bird household was infected with Madness!

Judith: What did you like about the magazine, and what are some things that you remember?

John: A lot of things were over my head, but I know that Mad educated me as I kept reading and as I got older. Don Martin was always a favorite, mainly because of the zany drawings with characters whose feet were hinged funny and the sound effects. I liked “Spy vs. Spy” for its visual appeal and the surprise. The same with the fold-in. “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” was another favorite, and Jimmy and I used to try to write in the extra one that they left space for. Looking back, I realize that the communal aspect of reading it, sharing it with my siblings and later with friends was an important part of the experience.

I always liked the movie and TV parodies, especially for shows I had seen, like “The $ound of Money” and “Loused Up in Space.” I didn’t know much about drawing, but I knew that Mort Drucker was great. The way Mad would skew something I had taken straight made me look at it again and see the absurdities, like in the Lost in Space parody when Will Boobinson tells his father he has to go to the bathroom. His father says something like, “the nearest gas station is forty million miles away,” and Will says, “Gee, I don’t think I can hold it that long.” That was in Mad #104, July 1966, so I was twelve. Incredibly funny!

As I got older, I began to like Dave Berg and the more “adult” features, and I know my appreciation of satire grew. Another thing Mad introduced me to was Jewishness. I was a Southern Protestant, very white bred (and bread). The Yiddishisms and the Jewish sense of humor were foreign to me but a revelation. I think Mad enlarged a lot of people’s insular worlds. I know it did mine.

Judith: How did the magazine relate to your sense of what was going on in the world at the time, and how did it change the way you experienced it?

John: I was becoming more aware of politics and world events and culture; I was 14 in 1968 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, when there were race riots in the cities, when the Chicago Democratic Convention erupted into protest and violence, and as the Vietnam War was escalating. I knew that I was only a few years away from possibly having to go fight. Reading Mad helped me make sense of what I saw as adult hypocrisy and bungling and made me question authority. So what had begun as simple childish laughter had become something quite serious.

Even so, the humor was always the big draw, as well as the communal aspect of having something I could share with my brother and my friends. I’ll talk more about the singing when we discuss the genesis of the book, but I’ll skip forward to high school and the way my good friend Robert Sadler and I shared our love for the magazine. We had different aspects of the magazine that we knew and liked, so it was fun to turn each other on to those. We used to sit in class and draw the Mad dirigible; I remember us drawing the “Mad Poiuyt,” that impossible optical illusion, on various blackboards around high school. Robert had a lot of the reprint books and turned me on to earlier things I had missed. He also helped me appreciate what I now know is the “chicken fat,” the little background drawings and messages that adorned so much of Mad.

Judith: I had stopped reading Mad by the mid-’60s. When did you stop reading Mad, and why?

John: I’m not sure. I know I read it all the way through high school, so 1972 or so, but I guess I just stopped reading it when I went to college. Maybe it’s because I was separated from my brother Jimmy and my friend Robert. I would buy a copy now and then, but it became something that was more or less a part of the past for me. I guess it had done its work on me. I think that has happened to many readers over the years: you read it intensely for a certain period in your youth, then you move on. I don’t think it’s really a sense of outgrowing it, but I suppose it is in a way. In any case, Mad had a profound effect on my sense of humor, my recognition of satire, my worldview, and my skepticism. Not bad for something that was “25¢ cheap” when I started reading it!

Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, coming next week!

Rippling Biceps, Sculpted Abs, and Cinematic Illusion

Guest bloggers John D. Fair and David L. Chapman discuss the writing of their newly published book, Muscles in the Movies: Perfecting the Art of Illusion. John D. Fair is Professor Emeritus of History at Auburn University and Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology at University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of seven books including Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon. David L. Chapman is an independent scholar and author of more than a dozen books including Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding.

Muscles in the Movies is a book about the way films have used well-built and athletic bodies to create a web of cinematic illusion.  It also explores the reasons why audiences were perfectly willing to surrender to that deception.  Movies and the techniques of building musculature developed at roughly the same time, and they both influenced the way we see the human body.  Coincidence?  Not Likely.  As we discovered, a focus on muscularity (both male and female) appeared across the years and in the films of a great many countries.  Italy, Germany, pre-revolutionary China, and many others have all made significant contributions to the genre.  Despite the surprising frequency of rippling biceps and sculpted abs, many cinema fans seem to think that musclemen first appeared on the screen in the 1980s with the Terminator or Rambo.  But no.  We found that muscular bodies and daring athletic stunts have been present in world cinema from Edison’s earliest films in the 1890s all the way up to the present.  Along the way, we discovered a genre populated with demigods, athletes, ape men, daredevils, dancers, superheroes and superheroines that have been enthralling audiences for well over a century. 

It was fun discussing the obvious figures in this history:  Douglas Fairbanks, Annette Kellerman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it was equally exciting to discover some of the lesser-known musclemen and athletic women (like Maciste, Astrea, and Eddie Polo) as we traced the line of brawny physiques from the 19th to the 21st century.  We also examined a few of the techniques that allowed these men and women to acquire their muscles and their abilities. These included such sports as swimming (Johnny Weissmuller), martial arts (Bruce Lee), skating (Sonja Henie), and acrobatics (Burt Lancaster).

The history of cinematic muscles would be a daunting topic for one person to take on, so we decided to share the work.  For the first time in our writing careers we chose to co-write a book; we figured that collaboration would be a good way to divvy up the duties and tap into our personal preferences as both historians and movie fans.  John is a university professor, an athlete, and a family man, and David is a retired public-school teacher who has written books on a variety of subjects from Italian jazz to strongwomen to gay physique photography.  Chapman has an interest in the earlier movies as well as those made internationally; Fair focuses on American and more contemporary manifestations of muscularity and the various ways these beefy stars built their physiques. 

Although we had both previously published several books, this was the first time that either of us had written an entire work with a co-author.  All in all, we two authors found that ours was a pretty pleasant and harmonious collaboration, and there are several reasons for our success.  First of all, we have known one another for many years, so there were few personality surprises.  We also have respect for each other’s areas of expertise, writing skill and opinions. We both bring a variety of different life experiences to the writing process.  Our interests may be diverse, but we are united in a love of these movies and the well-built people who starred in them. 

“We Have Drank from the Same Canteen”

Veteran Company A, the Civil War, and Reconciliation in Kansas City

By Amy Laurel Fluker

Amy Laurel Fluker is Assistant Professor of U.S. history at Youngstown State University in Ohio. This blog provides further insight into her recently published book, Commonwealth of Compromise: Civil War Commemoration in Missouri. As Missouri’s Civil War generation constructed and competed to control Civil War memory, they undertook a series of collaborative efforts that paved the way for reconciliation to a degree unmatched by other states.

More than twenty years after the conclusion of the Civil War, many Americans still struggled to put the conflict behind them. In Kansas City, this posed a significant problem. As the turn of the century approached, Kansas City was on the verge of tremendous demographic and economic development.[1] Wartime divisions, however, remained pronounced. Recognizing that those divisions threatened the growth of their city, white veterans looked for ways to encourage reconciliation. This was a particular priority for the men of Kansas City’s Veteran Company A, Third Regiment, Missouri National Guard.

Formed in 1881, Veteran Company A held the unique distinction of being the only National Guard unit in the country formed entirely of Civil War veterans—honorably discharged Union veterans, to be specific. Between 1881 and 1899, Company A enrolled a total of 249 men.[2] In 1895, they reported 90 members with an average age of 53.[3] In addition to their regularly enrolled members, they also extended honorary memberships to several Confederate veterans—including local Confederate hero Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby.[4]

“All animosity and unfriendly feelings that may have hitherto existed between the soldiers of the northern and southern armies is rapidly vanishing into mist so far as Kansas City is concerned.”

Veteran Company A fraternized with former Confederates in other ways as well. They invited the local chapter of the United Confederate Veterans to share their headquarters and regularly held joint Memorial Day observances with their one-time enemies.[5] These efforts, according to The Kansas City Times, had done more to speed the eradication of wartime hostilities than anything else. It said: “All animosity and unfriendly feelings that may have hitherto existed between the soldiers of the northern and southern armies is rapidly vanishing into mist so far as Kansas City is concerned.”[6]

Despite having served in opposing armies, the men of Veteran Company A related to ex-Confederates because of their shared experiences as combat veterans. Whatever resentments they may have harbored, they identified as fellow survivors of a terrible war. In the headquarters of Company A, Union and Confederate veterans expressed their camaraderie by drinking together from an unusual ceremonial canteen. This canteen had dual spouts, so two men could drink from it at the same time. Its design was inspired by a popular wartime poem by Private Miles O’Reilly entitled “We’ve Drank from the Same Canteen.” “There are bonds of all sorts in this world of ours, . . .” O’Reilly wrote, “But there’s never a bond, old friend, like this—/We have drank from the same canteen.” The poem continued:

We have shared our blankets and tents together,

And have marched and fought in all kinds of weather,

And hungry and full we have been;

Had days of battle and days of rest;

But this memory I cling to, and love the best—

We have drank from the same canteen. [7]

“That canteen . . . holds mighty nigh a gallon of whisky, and Captain Taylor . . . and I have drank out of it together very nicely.”

Whenever Veteran Company A entertained ex-Confederates, drinking from the ceremonial canteen served both as a reminder of past hardships and as a symbol of their new-found friendship. It must be said, however, that the contents of the canteen also played a role in facilitating reconciliation. After sharing a swig with Company A’s commanding officer, Henry J. Taylor, Confederate veteran Stephen C. Ragan observed: “That canteen . . . holds mighty nigh a gallon of whisky, and Captain Taylor . . . and I have drank out of it together very nicely.”[8]

The goodwill Veteran Company A cultivated between Union and Confederate veterans in Kansas City provides a small glimpse into how Missourians attempted to reconcile with one another in the aftermath of the Civil War. The friendships these men struck up were not always easy and bitterness certainly remained. At the same time, however, whenever Union and Confederate veterans drank from the same canteen, they fostered economic and political alliances which served to unify and strengthen their city at a critical moment in its development.


[1] James R. Shortridge, Kanas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 29-60; Lawrence O. Christensen and R. Gary Kremer, A History of Missouri, vol. 4, 1875-1919 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 89-90.

[2] Kansas City Journal, August 13, 1899.

[3] Kansas City Daily Journal, June 28, 1895; Kansas City Daily Journal, September 10, 1895.

[4] Kansas City Daily Journal, January 13, 1895; Kansas City Journal, February 14, 1897; Kansas City Journal, August 13, 1899.

[5] Kansas City Journal, August 13, 1899.

[6] The Kansas City Times, March 22, 1891.

[7] John D. Billings, Hard Tack and Coffee (Boston: George M. Smith & Co., 1887), 223-224.

[8] Kansas City Journal, January 30, 1899. See also The Kansas City Times, November 2, 1895.


Images:

Composite photograph, Veteran Company A, 3rd Infantry, National Guard (1895), Charles C. Bell Photograph Collection, 1863-1927 (P0657), The State Historical Society of Missouri.

The image of the canteen is from the Kansas City Journal, January 30, 1899, p. 3.


Forthcoming Event

Amy Fluker will be giving the Fall Lecture at 1:30 p.m. on November 7 at the State Historical Society of Missouri virtual annual membership meeting. Her talk will detail the efforts of Missouri’s women, both Union and Confederate, to commemorate the Civil War, with a particular focus on the Department of Missouri’s Woman’s Relief Corps and the Missouri Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Fluker’s presentation is based on her new book, Commonwealth of Compromise: Civil War Commemoration in Missouri. The program is free but registration is required: https://umsystem.zoom.us/webinar/register/2016021006027/WN_6pyocD1KSf2FBFX5Sfa63A?mc_cid=9f82070abf&mc_eid=8a11f071e0

Playing with Story Structure

Nancy McCabe, author of Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, coming out in September, gives the 30-year backstory on the creative process of writing of her newest book in the Spalding University School of Writing blog. Below is an excerpt and link to the full blog.

Fig_10 leaving the wedding

My forthcoming book, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, took me thirty years to write. I’m not kidding. It’s not like I was working on it every day for thirty years; I put it aside for long periods. But it didn’t fully take off for me until I embraced approaches I had long resisted, playing with extended metaphors and borrowed forms as shaping devices.

The writing process really started way back when, at the age of nineteen and engaged, I wrote a short story about a young woman’s marital ambivalence. My own fiancé was a sweet persistent guy who’d pressured me to date him, then got it in his head that he wanted to marry me, and though I had none of the requisite romantic feelings, I agreed. Marriage seemed like a chance to reinvent my life, to find safety in a dangerous world, to find certainty in an uncertain one.

It turns out that you can leave a marriage you’ve entered into foolishly at a young age, but the questions that take hold of you as a result of it may never let go. I was twenty-five when my husband and I split up. By then I was writing in earnest about that part of my life, both trying to make sense of it and resisting the notion that such a formative experience should be written off as a shameful mistake, best forgotten. I finished my MFA and started writing a novel about a youthful marriage.

Fig_15 styrophoam noses

My early writing mentors had been traditionalists who raised their eyebrows at experimental work, pounding into me the importance of keeping the story, not tricks or gimmicks or cleverness or pretty language, at the forefront—and no more than three metaphors to a page, roared one professor. Most of that grounding has been valuable to me throughout my writing career. It ignited my own passion for storytelling and taught me about the power of the narrative arc. But it also made me wary about the fine line between structural experimentation and sloppiness for the sake of novelty. And as a reader, I’m still often drawn to straightforward, chronological structures, appreciating their ability to emotionally engage me and take me along on their journey.

The marriage novel I wrote never quite gelled. And eventually, lessons about the power of storytelling to move and engage readers led me to creative nonfiction; I discovered that the most straightforward and powerful way to tell some stories was to acknowledge that they’d really happened. Some stories didn’t need embellishment. By then, the marriage material was feeling like someone else’s life. I felt increasingly detached from it. But I thought that parts of it were funny, and parts had some wisdom, and I liked some of the sentences, and I thought some of the decisions I’d made were worth examining, and so, after I had shifted to writing creative nonfiction, the novel evolved into a memoir.

Continue reading about Nancy McCabe’s writing development and process at The Spalding School of Creative and Professional Writing blog.

Black History Month Celebration

It’s Black History Month! To celebrate, we’re offering specials on a selection of African American studies titles. Take a look below! Use code BHM20 through February and March.


Endersby & Horner - Lloyd Gaines

LLOYD GAINES AND THE FIGHT TO END SEGREGATION
James W. Endersby, William T. Horner

Hardcover • $36.95 • $25.00

 

 

 

 


Kremer - George Washington Carvr 2E

GEORGE WASHINTON CARVER
In His Own Words, Second Edition
Gary R. Kremer

Hardcover • $29.95 • $20.00

 

 

 

Reed


BLACK CHICAGO’S FIRST CENTURY
1833-1900
Christopher Robert Reed

Paperback • $45.00 • $30.00

 

 

 

05 Hakutani - East West Literary Imagination


EAST-WEST LITERARY IMAGINATION
Cultural Exchanges from Yeats to Morrison
Yoshinobu Hakutani

Paperback • $24.95 • $15.00

 

 

 

Cohen


THE PULL OF POLITICS
Steinbeck, Wright, Hemingway, and the Left in the Late 1930s
Milton A. Cohen

Hardcover • $50.00 • $35.00