This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.
Maurice Dolbier introduces Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Feiffer the discusses comic books from his youth, noting that any character who was a "bork worm" was invariably also a "Mad Scientist and Oriental Mastermind." The Mad Scientist is a archetype throughout comics, the Oriental Mastermind has shifted over the years to reflect US foreign policy - Chinese before December 7, 1941 (the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor), Japanese from then until August 1945, then back to Chinese and now "interchangeably Chinese and North Vietnamese." In comic books all South Vietnamese look like Americans.
While adult intellectuals were always villains, boy intellectuals were sissies. This was apparent in their dress and stature. The other dumb, and clearly heterosexual, characters bullied the boy intellectual, calling him "the brain" or "the professor."
You can always take the pulse of a time by looking at its second rate arts. Contemporary TV references. "To the know the true temper of a nation turn not to its sociologists, turn to its junk." General cultural criticism.
Dolbier next introduces Alfred Kazin, who talks about the nature of autobiographies in relation to his most recent work, "Starting Out in the Thirties." He speaks of the rapid changes in history during World War II.
Finally, Arthur M. Schlesinger, author of "A Thousand Days" speaks about his book about the late President John F. Kennedy. For more on Arthur Schlesinger and his account of the Kennedy administration, please visit http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/neh-preservation-project/2012/dec/19/arthur-schlesinger-jr/.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection
WNYC archives id: 8309
Municipal archives id: T1363
This is a machine-generated transcript. Text is unformatted and may contain errors.
You may think what in trouble because of the machinations of those vast and insidious international agencies of evil. Chaos and smash and trash. Don't worry. That nothing. All they do their best but their operator of so are always being outwitted by solo and smart and bond and anybody who can be outwitted by actors obviously isn't going to get very far now there's an organization that's much more pernicious and widespread in the world today. It's called. Opus nobody from it present but you never can tell. It's called smug it's agents sometimes pretend to be working for a couple of outfits called Square and camp. But don't be deceived by that. They're the same thing. And they're both smart. Now there's one man whom smug fears above everyone else. Who do think it is. Linda Johnson. Charles de Gaulle. Norman Mailer. You've already guessed so I'll tell you his fellow workers of the Village Voice know him as a thin studios intellectual type soft voiced gentle. Always willing to give up his place in line at the water cooler. But he has a secret weapon Well not so secret he has a pen. And when he wields that pen he becomes. A thin studious intellectual type. Still soft voiced but he's well beyond Shazad and smug is absolutely powerless against him. So I guess as long as he's around don't want to anyway. His name is Jules Pfeiffer but maybe a couple name at least I see it's on the cover of his books the most recent of which are the unexpected memoirs of Bernard Rogan Darla which is a cover name to end all cover names and the large family size colorful and critical survey of the great comic book heroes very good for large families especially around Christmas time it isn't gentleman and any stray smug agents if they still have the courage to stick around as to Jules. Thank you. Thank you I think. In. His book starting out in the thirty's Alfred Kazan lists some of the writers who influenced him as a boy they include Blake Lawrence and isn't Whitman the writers who influenced me as a boy include Jerry Siegel author of Superman. Bob Kane author of Bad Man Jack Cole author of plastic men and we'll know author of the Spirit now considering Kazan's back around it seems only logical that he became a critic of literature considering my background it seems only logical that I became a critic of society. It might be interesting for a few moments particularly in this company to evaluate the use come up looks made of their intellectuals you're in the late thirty's and early forty's the period when I studied and learned life from them comic books use their intellectuals badly. Had they lived in the world of comics professors Kazan Inge lazing and I'm afraid would have had a rather rough time of it first of all they read books now comic books well produced in the east lived by the values of the frontier that's the over there either. They were they were hills full of enemies out there if they weren't Indians they were and I guess and it is as we all know read lots of books in order to overthrow the government in any event anybody who read books was immediately suspect in this way comic books did no more than reflect the biases of our public education system as a product of the New York City public schools I too well remember that anybody who read for pleasure who read ahead of the class was regarded by students and teachers as a show off. Nobody who was normal read anything that wasn't required. And in the same vein it was well known to any devoted a of those adjuncts to our education system Action Comics Adventure Comics and station comics all American comics that any comic book character who was a bookworm had to have something up his sleeve he had to be either a mad scientist or an Oriental mastermind of the two the mad scientist has turned out to be the most stable archetype changing very little over these many years he's almost always elderly with bad eyesight bad posture and tentacled hairy hands which are seen most often holding a test tube or leaping snake only through the pages of a thick book doing research on a formula to rule the world. The Oriental mastermind on the other hand has gone through several shifts of a Dennehy each one contingent on changes in U.S. foreign policy. Before December seventh one thousand nine hundred eighty one he was always Chinese from December seventh one thousand nine hundred eighty one till August one thousand nine hundred five he was Japanese after nine hundred forty eight he went back to being Chinese He has now entered his most incarnation of all. In today's comic books and they are still out today he is interchangeably Chinese and North of the enemy's not ever to be confused with South Vietnamese in comic books the South Vietnamese all look like Americans. Come to think of it there's something to be said for that interpretation. It may be said that boy intellectuals in comic books fared better than their adult counterplots in the sense that they weren't cast as villains they were cast as sissies. The boy intellectual wore his hair and bangs and his glasses were oversized he wore shirts with lace collars buster brown suits and little black dancing pumps he'd be called by the bigger kids he was always the shortest by one of two names the brain boy the professor heroes generally had a hard time with the language and comic book stupidity has always been one of the first signs of heterosexuality. Americans Americans as we all know secretly regard themselves as being dumb Perhaps that's why we still feel uneasy about educating our negroes they are the only group in the world we still feel smarter than in any case the boy intellectual the brain the professor had for his real name something like Mervyn or used as Marmaduke I now recall was very popular he was of course an athletic at his best suitable only as a mascot to the real boys to prove himself he would have to get into a fight and show he could win he would later explain to his oversized now admiring buddies that he done it with a knowledge of physics and weight displacement. What do you know his companions would exclaim then that book stuff is good for some. Comic books then the spite their lack of pretense abound in societal parallels to give a recent example the first use of nausea gas in the it was not by a real troops but by all paper troops in a comic book called Del jungle war stories it should not be surprising you can always take the pulse of a time by studying its second rate arts its western and crime movies radio and T.V. shows it's true love magazines it's comic books they are all close approximations of the fantasy life of the lowest common denominator and each indicates in its own way how we liked to see ourselves say twenty five years ago and how we like to see ourselves today so the stylish gangster in movies of the thirty's was James Cagney at all times of free spirit non-conformist a man who went wrong because of the times and the stylish gangster of the sixty's is James Bond the complete organization man a man who's just doing his upper middle class job and even commits his murder is sophisticated sixty's on the side of freedom vintage wines and the law in my day Superman was the total individualists unfettered by either the laws of gravity or the Courts of Justice today's Superman has like the rest of us responsibilities. He's got to emasculating girl report is competing with each other to see who's life he more often has to say he's got a hero worshipping newsboy he has to look after he's got even Batman and Robin and hosts of other masked cape and leotard heroes suddenly dropping in on short visits from rival comic books expecting to be looked after expecting to be taken care of so married or not Superman's a family man loaded with other people's demands other people's problems is it any wonder that these days he often has his weaknesses his failures that in a recent issue he lost the fight to a girl. One difference between our idealism in the thirty's and all cynicism in the sixty's is that today we even allow our Superman to turn impotent the big hits on television this season are all about heroes who have won lost their memories and are searching for their identities to have been falsely accused of murder and are on the run three have but one year to live and I looking for the answer if the show's a hit two years to live. So impotent crisis of identity guilt alienation fatalism to know the true temper of a nation's people turn not to what sociologists turn to it's junk. Ten years ago these comic book Confessions of mine along with countless confessions of others about old radio programs old B. movies old pulp magazines would have been considered frivolous but now in an age of pop everything they are pops of the well it's pop pop sociology. Superman Batman and the rest in my day were anti angsty anti Beckett anti all be running a parody world self-parody on one level on another level parody of the grown up world to which they were unequivocal a hostile no soul or write a roading analyses for superheroes their solutions were drastically simple a quick shot in the mouth on behalf of the underprivileged what a relief for a country growing out of its most serious the pression into its most serious war in a country where no one discussed the urban middle class because there wasn't much of one to discuss nor worried about the increasing motiveless crime rate because crime in those days was simplistically still being committed by the poor but now the poor no longer protests by only stealing but by taking drugs and the middle class joins wholeheartedly in both youths and almost everyone else is running amuck violence is in Alice streets on Al television screens and seemingly everywhere else these days except in a cleaned up comic books day by day the ante on violence is raised in novels in theaters on presidents and on the part of presidents and as the ante on violence rises so does the ante on culture everyone reads more goes to more concerts buys more paintings and brightly discusses the cultural revolution while taking taxis everywhere to avoid being mugged. That comic book dream world of youth has proved to be a documentary paranoia as it turns out doesn't and when you grow up it just gets incorporated into other facets of existence so that it becomes eat sleep work love duck. Little wonder then that each generation must make a faddish retreat from the present camp and backward into youth and make of the thirty's once remembered for Apple's selling window jumping into Hitler those wonderful years of The Green Hornet and Superman all label the twenty's that period of mass deportation prohibition and labor revolution the jazz age Americans who are told constantly that they have no sense of history have been told not enough of their replacement for history their sense of nostalgia and the style to that blots out the vapid remorseless president with hoped up X. Serves out of the vapid we Muslims passed side by side with the Cultural Revolution we have seen a counter revolution of junk a diabolically contrived inversion which is a deification of the very values we abandoned not very long ago in order to claim culture all that we now label pop culture. Stands as living proof of America's psychic need for mediocrity even if we have to social work it into art there is room important room for junk in our culture and the great comic book heroes is I hope one valid contribution so long as it keeps its place but good lord let's not make it respectable let's buy all copies and just as we used to in the old days hide them inside copies of something serious time or life will do very nicely thank you. And English writer reviewing one of Alfred caissons books a few years ago described in one neat witty and precise sentence one of Mr caissons chief virtues a critic and one that many of us contemporary slack he would rather get the best out of an author than get the better of him was the case was born in Brooklyn in one hundred fifteen went to C.C.N.Y. and during his last year there began writing books reviews after graduation he worked as a freelance critic and teacher and when a Columbia nine hundred thirty seven began writing a study of modern Dominican with your cold on native grounds which was published five years later and established Kazan as one of the most astute and forceful interpreters of that literature he was for a time they had literally out of the New Republic and for another time in one of those shifts in the American Jobs spectrum that European sometimes find it so hard to understand a reporter on the staff of Mr Lew says Fortune magazine in one hundred fifty one that was published the first volume in an autobiographical work a walk in the city describing his childhood years in New York. The second volume which is just appeared is starting out in the thirty's combining movingly personal family narrative with a memoir of that clash ball ringing arena that was the American literary scene in the years of the Depression and the new deal just Alfred Katie. Thank you I want to pay a tribute to my two old friends I read a Vandoren a bill Rosenbaum whom I've been writing reviews since I was ten years old. They were only three years older in those days Sigmund Freud who had to hear many autobiographies call them all lies and he said in his usual half hearted Pfeifer ish way whoever undertakes to write about graffiti binds himself to lying to concealment to flummery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding since biographical material was not to be had and if it were it could not be used truth is not accessible mankind does not deserve it and wasn't Prince Hamlet right when he said who would escape a whipping if he had his deserts there are in point of fact no true autobiographies there are no autobiographies there is no such thing as autobiography there are only autobiographies and each is as different as the man writing it as different as his reason for writing it so different as the be not merely a different book but almost a different form in each case the person writing it Tacitus think the Gustin Henry Adams Sammy Davis Jr puts himself in the center of his experience because that is the way in which he sees and has seen his life it is a way of writing his life in order to rewrite it but in rewriting it he discovers or thinks he discovers what is guiding light has been and this light or the principle of the autobiography has discovered becomes hopefully a lie to other people makes them read one story for their own sakes. In the end nothing is so precious so incommunicable as one's life and the taste of remembered existence is what we say from death we find our lives dramatic we dream in scenes in episodes and personalities we dream novels stories our lives for naturally in the scenes an epic episodes I dreams do there was a president some years ago not to