Dr. Fredric Wertham concludes Seduction of the Innocent with a short chapter called “The Triumph of Dr. Payn: Comic Books Today and the Future.” However, it’s not where we will end our analysis; next week, we’ll look at his photo insert, and the week after, we’ll do one final overview of the book as a whole. And then, I will write about something else and leave Dr. Wertham behind, just as our society has. Even the Comics Code is gone.
His actual conclusion is, I’m sure, supposed to be ridiculously heartwarming. We’re supposed to feel for everyone. He describes a boy sent to his clinic repeatedly, now in trouble with the law for possession of a switchblade. Wertham promises this mother—no father is mentioned—that he will try to keep her son out of the reformatory. He says the clinic will “take full responsibility for him again,” perhaps not noticing that “again” part. Then, after hours, he sees the woman sobbing and takes it on himself to reassure her.
By that time she had managed to control her sobbing, but she could not talk. So I consoled her again and told her we would do whatever we could. Then I added, “I know what you have done for this boy. Don’t think that it’s your fault.”
At that she looked up, all alert. “It must be my fault,” she said. “I heard that in the lectures. And the judge said it, too. It’s the parents’ fault that the children do something wrong. Maybe when he was very young—”
“Not at all,” I interrupted her. “You have done all that you could. I have the whole chart here and we know it from the boy himself. You are a good mother, and you’ve given this boy a good home. But the influence of a good home is frustrated if it is not supported by the other influences the child is exposed to—the comic books, the crime programs and all that. Adult influences work against them. We have studied that, and we know good parents when we see them. So don’t worry about yourself. It’s not your fault.”
He goes on for a few more paragraphs about how the young mother “seemed to come out from under a cloud” and got all hopeful after being reassured that it wasn’t her fault. It’s a sweet story that I’d be a lot more sympathetic to were it not that Wertham was such an awful Freudian. Why did so many parents get told that their children’s issues were their fault? Because Freud said so!
There is also, of course, the ridiculous failure to acknowledge every single aspect of the world of past and present. There’s a vague reference to past failures to pass laws banning child labour and protecting child chimney-sweeps and so forth without any apparent thought to the fact that, say, it’s pretty clear that no one was worrying about what, if any, pop culture those children consumed.
As it happens, I’ve done some reading about the history of the very idea of children’s literature, and it wasn’t as sunshine and roses as all that. For one, the concept itself dates only to John Locke in 1690, who suggested the idea of picture books. At that point and for over fifty years past it, any books for children were intended to either educate or moralize. Separate children’s books intended to entertain are considered to date to 1744. For some time after that, the biggest children’s literature was copies of the folk tales people had been telling for centuries, sometimes but not always with the sex and violence taken out.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a true children’s literature really developed, with such things as Tom Brown’s School Days and The Water-Babies. For a considerable length of time, in fact, the very idea of a separate literature for children that wasn’t educational or moralistic was hotly debated, with many prominent voices raised in opposition.
So how were children being entertained in those years if they didn’t have their own literature? Obviously, in many cases, they weren’t, in the sense that we think of. The level of literacy we could expect from the US in our time and Wertham’s was considerably higher than could have been expected even a century earlier. Children didn’t have separate books, but then, most children couldn’t read. But leaving that aside, children were entertained with the same things as their elders.
Wertham speaks disdainfully of how children want to play their games of “adventure and fun” without adults’ “wars and killing,” but long before the invention of the invention of the comic book, L. M. Montgomery had a character express joy that one of the children under her care no longer wishes to play soldier. It wasn’t new to the turn of the last century, when that bit of story is set, either. Perhaps Wertham didn’t play those games as a child, but it seems certain that other children he knew did.
As far as I can tell, Wertham himself had no children. His primary experience with children came from the troubled children he worked with at his institution. Yet he felt with certainty that the conclusions he drew were universal to all children, no matter their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, family history, or anything else. And he categorically rejected the idea that there was anything inherent to the children he examined. He seems to reject the idea that the parents could influence their children that much. And yet he never quite sees that the crime rate was so much less in times when children were considerably less sheltered.
I know—it’s hardly shocking to say “Look what Wertham missed!” Not this far along, certainly; our summation week after next may well include a full list, and it won’t be a short one. The blame Freudians must bear for that young mother being blamed for her child’s failings will be on the list as well. Still, we haven’t much time left, and it was something worth discussing.