Raging for centuries, the Culture Wars may sound like a battle between toe jam and yogurt to the average Joe. In reality (however defined), the conflict waged between the humanities and science reached a curious crescendo in the late 1950s, and the consequences of this controversy continue to be far-reaching. Who would have guessed that an academic sparring match between literary critic Frank Raymond Leavis and physicist/novelist C.P. Snow would frame a debate that still nigglingly backgrounds some of the larger questions of our age?
In the context of the looming atomic age, with its potential sky terror from space-racing superpowers and God knows what alien threats from beyond, fear mongering science fiction tales found fertile ground. Given how Hitler had used Darwinism to preach and execute murderous eugenics, it’s no surprise how Einstein’s quaint formula mushroomed beyond theory to Hiroshima. Meanwhile, literati, physicists and regular folk alike had plenty to fear from the competition for German rocket scientists. Funny (peculiar), how the Snow-Leavis controversy percolated into and permeated the funny (Ha-ha) books of the day, informing a fascinating stage in the History of Science Fiction.
Call it homage, influence or outright plagiarism, Mort Weisinger’s cribbing from 40s and 50s science fiction themes and stories carried little in the way of personal literary anxiety. A job’s a job, and a deadline’s a deadline. In other words, Harold Bloom’s contentious thesis (Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry) would be misapplied to Weisinger’s enterprise; however, the issue of influence in the popular arts remains alive. In the case of the burgeoning Superman Family, politically correct commerce drew its counter-influence from the hysteria surrounding juvenile delinquency and horror comics.
Pulp “plagiarism” lent the comics form its formulaic nature, giving many readers what they asked for—on time. Channeling these science fiction influences as Weisinger created the Superman Mythos through his operatives (particularly Binder, Siegel, Bridwell and Hamilton) lent its own air of relative respectability in the hierarchy of trash media. As trash goes, pseudoscientific juvenile pedagogy once trumped horror and crime sensationalism for respectability as less prone to promoting delinquency in the fear-fraught minds of 1950s parents and educators (see David Hajdu’s exhaustive The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: March 2008).
Not that the National Periodical Publications editor/mastermind wouldn’t have preferred an aspiration to higher literary influences, the least of which being Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedy.
Michael Chabon’s recent reference in Maps and Legends to Harold Bloom’s contentious Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry brings to mind Jonathan Lethem’s trickster diatribe “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” found here. With egalitarian aplomb, what Chabon chafes at appears to be Bloom’s dismissal of the “weak” as opposed to “strong” poets: all writers would match Bloom’s definition of weak. Bliss rather than anxiety results from acceptance of this fact. When Chabon writes:
And yet there is a degree to which, just as all criticism is in essence Sherlockian, all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving – amateurs – we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers – should we be lucky enough to find any – some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.
Therefore, Bloom’s contention betrays an elitist bent toward false distinction. How this distinction plays out in Weisinger’s world-building keeps the whip cracking every month as he introduces another super being vs. poignant isolation, another replay of mistaken identity vs. consummation, and another literary/historical/mythological subtext vs. the lowest common denominator of juvenile pulp.