The great, woefully under-appreciated American culture critic of the early 20th Century Gilbert Seldes remains my own North Star of pop culture criticism. I could go on forever about this guy, and almost did. I started researching a biography of him and his critical legacy, but Michael Kammen beat me to it with his fine 1996 evaluation of Seldes’ life and work. Still, my own appreciation of Seldes’ open, democratic spirit of criticism is a bit different from Kammen’s, even if I didn’t feel at the time that the world needed a second book-length study of the man. I explored some of those ideas in an essay Tom Heintjes kindly published in Hogan’s Alley No. 6 in 1999. It is reprinted below. I will also post soon Seldes’ original take on Krazy Kat and the comics generally from 1923’s The Seven Lively Arts. Almost a century later, I still think Seldes’ early observations about the unique aesthetic and cultural qualities of the comic strip remain indispensable to anyone trying to appreciate the form. – Ed.
The Critic That Walks By Himself
The longtime and often lonely historians of the American comic strip have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in recent years. What with centennial exhibits, commemorative postage stamps, some truly luscious reprints of seminal work and even—God help us—occasional academic scrutiny, the comic strip form seems poised to assume a place among the “respectable” mass media. But assembling the history of any medium, including the comic strip, requires more than rediscovering its primary documents, however fun that may be. A rich chronicle of an art form must also recount how the medium integrated itself into people’s lives, how it was understood and debated. In America, such a history must begin with the first thoughtful and genuinely critical celebrant of the modern popular arts in general and of the comic strip in particular. He was more responsible than any single American for getting common readers and other intellectuals to think about the comics that they enjoyed. Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was the father of comic-strip criticism, and his insights about the form represent an alternative, albeit now largely overlooked, path in the serious appraisal of our national pleasure.
Comics fans will recognize Seldes as the noted literary critic who announced in 1924 that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat “is the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day” in his famous essay, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself,” from his book The Seven Lively Arts. Much more than a highbrow literary critic who “slummed” among the low arts, however, Seldes devoted much of his life to cultivating a serious, enriching crit icism of the popular media. The Seven Lively Arts, often cited but generally unread, invited Americans to recognize their own vaudeville, jazz, film comedy and comics as opportunities not only for pleasure but for cultural reflection and even public discussion. The comic strip was an especially important part of Seldes’ vision. Beyond the Krazy Kat essay, he defended the entire medium’s serious, exceptional value in American life in several pieces throughout the 20s and °30s. His approach remains unique in its attempt to engage the comics in a critical, enriching way that also avoided the academic method’s joyless chill. Today, when the comics are both celebrated often too superficially—and ambitiously deconstructed of their “ideological underpinnings” by overeager Ph.D. Candidates, Seldes’ probing but sensible insights have only become more important.
Gilbert Vivian Seldes was himself a remarkable figure. He was an eclectic gadfly among the century’s most influential intellectuals: a television programmer, a college dean, a tireless drama and cultural critic and, of course, Krazy’s best literary friend. Not surprisingly, it all began with an unorthodox life. Gilbert was born in Alliance, N.J., in 1893, amid the failure of his Russian father’s anarchist utopian experiment. He and his brother, George, acquired from their father iconoclastic and populist intellectual habits that informed all of their subsequent work. George became a pioneering watchdog of institutional journalism, and Gilbert, according to his own brother, “flew among the literati,. only to shoot them down in print.” His flight began at Harvard University in 1912, where he formed lasting friendships with e.e. cummings (later another highbrow, high-profile admirer of Krazy Kat), Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos. After service in World War II and various journalistic jobs, Seldes the high flier reached heady altitudes indeed. After serving as drama and literary reviewer, he became the managing editor of The Dial (1922-24). This was the most important literary journal of the 1920s and was the main point of entry for literary and artistic modernism during the postwar years. Seldes helped publish T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and introduced American audiences to Europe’s Modernist Mafia: James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Picasso and T. E. Lawrence, among many others. Seldes quickly became a fixture of New York’s literary life and of Paris’ postwar “Lost Generation.” He argued with, championed and by some accounts drank himself silly with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos and many others who supped at the moveable feast that was intellectual life in the 1920s.
Seldes enlivened the next four decades of American culture with volumes that satirized Prohibition (Drinking in America), chronicled the 1929 stock-market crash (The Years of the Locust), offered recommendations for renewing the depressed nation (Mainland and Your Money and Your Life) and, of course, continued his lonely crusade for greater public scrutiny of popular art (The Great Audience and The Public Arts). He also spent the 1930s as the first director of experimental broadcasting for CBS’ fledgling television venture. The final pioneering effort, among the “firsts” in his life, was as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, among the initial and one of the premier academic institutes dedicated to media study. Seldes traversed highbrow and lowbrow cultural battle lines at will. He reproved his fellow critics and artists for not treating the common man’s taste and art seriously and respectfully. Yet he scolded the general moviegoers and comics readers themselves for the same offense: not thinking hard enough about the forms that brought them such pleasure. He observed early on an American trait that remains with us, a trait that insists on receiving pleasure from the “lively arts” but refuses to think and talk seriously enough about them. Like the Krazy Kat he loved, Seldes was a critic who walked by himself, always insisting that serious criticism of the popular arts would not only improve their quality but would also enhance the pleasures we got from them. In other words, Gilbert remained his freethinking father’s son, a refusnik by nature. As early as 1923, Seldes was becoming disenchanted with the posturing of effete literary life. He believed that while the guilty pleasures of vaudeville houses, movie theaters, jazz clubs and the comics pages of the daily paper were the really important aesthetic experiences that merited discussion, the new, postwar generation of critics and artists, for all of its talk about liberation from old snobberies and avant-gardism, was unwilling or unable to see it. So, from a room in Paris, paradoxically, Seldes spent a year composing The Seven Lively Arts, the first sustained critical evaluation of the popular arts in America.
The key point of interest in Seldes’ book for comics fans has been its chapter on Herriman’s famous strip, which he declared an “invincible creation,” a “masterpiece” in the most “despised medium.” While it is familiar enough to comics devotees, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself” is worth another visit, especially within the context of the critic’s life and other work. Seldes celebrated Herriman so effusively because he saw in the simple cat, mouse and dog situation an eternal, abstract struggle between sentimental romanticism (Krazy) and existential nihilism (Ignatz). That infamous brick with which Ignatz obsessively “kreased that Kat’s bean” was so obviously more than a mere slapstick device. “The brick has little to do with the violent endings of other strips, for it is surcharged with emotions. It frequently comes not at the end, but at the beginning of an action: sometimes it does not arrive. It is a symbol.” The real joke is that Ignatz himself is hopelessly literal-minded, thus doomed never to understand the rich meanings that the Kat attaches to these daily concussions, nor, for that matter, will Krazy ever see things as they appear to be. She infers love from the mouse’s angry brick or camaraderie from Offissa Pupp’s pursuit of the felonious rodent. “In my Kosmis,” Krazy says to herself, “there will be no feeva of discord ., . all my immotions will function in hominy and kind feelings.” Seldes adds, “So at the end it is the incurable romanticist, the victim of acute Bovarisme, who triumphs; for Krazy faints daily in full possession of his illusion, and Ignatz, stupidly hurling his brick, thinking to injure, fosters the illusion and keeps Krazy ‘heppy.’ ”
Such is our Krazy. Such is the work which America can pride itself on having produced, and can hastily set about to appreciate. It is rich with something we have too little of—fantasy. It is wise with pitying irony; it has delicacy, sensitiveness, and an unearthly beauty. The strange, unnerving, distorted trees, the language inhuman, un-animal, the events so logical, so wild, are all magic carpets and faery foam—all charged with unreality. Through them wanders Krazy, the most tender and the most foolish of creatures, a gentle monster of our new mythology.
Seldes’ style for celebrating any popular art was hyperbolic, sometimes a bit precious, and always ready to see in the simplest expression the stuff of classical themes. Much of his characteristic excess, however, was a calculated response to his own postwar milieu. In The Seven Lively Arts, he hoped to provoke and inspire his own generation of otherwise rebellious artists and intellectuals. The era’s effete malcontents, such as Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, enjoyed thrashing America for its bland, middle-class gentility but failed to recognize the genuine vitality of its commonplace amusements. Seldes used Krazy—along with the work of Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson—to issue a wake-up call to the high-minded social critics of the Lost Generation about the diverse roles that art could take in American life.
Unlike the enduring and “universal” high forms, what Seldes named the “lively” arts, were immediate; they spoke plainly to the shared experiences of a given people and time. He stressed, they were capable in their own way of satisfying aesthetic desire and even of cultivating a more critical audience. He pointed out the folly of snubbing Chaplin’s timeless pantomime, the liberations of jazz or even the satirical possibilities of Jiggs simply because they seem to pale before the complex profundity of high drama, symphonies or painting. The comic strip cannot and should not bear the aesthetic standards of the novel, for instance, which favors social realism, plot devices and narrative resolution. This kind of literary chauvinism missed the charms that Seldes wanted to point out as unique to the comic strip, which relied on brief slices of everyday domestic life, caricature and satires of manners and morals.
The new popular arts needed to be appreciated first on their own terms and according to what their forms were best able to express, some of which was beyond the scope even of the classical arts. For instance, silent film was about the physical expression of emotion, movement and the manipulation of space, time and objects. Its reigning genius, Chaplin, succeeded because he understood and then innovated within his form’s basic language. Seldes applied this same principle to understanding the special artistry of George Herriman, who exploited the comics’ special ability to communicate tone, mood and, in this case, irony. In many ways, the essay about Krazy Kat is so airy and adjectival because Seldes is trying to evoke the essence of a masterfully produced comic strip’s imprecise aesthetic effect. As we will see, even more important to Seldes was this medium’s facility for making fantasy a plausible setting for encountering very real themes.
Seldes’ approach to Krazy Kat also embodied a subtle rebuke to critics and academics who sought to translate the lively arts into what they are not. Krazy Kat or Popeye (or The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, for that matter) cannot be analyzed merely for specific political or social meanings. In fact, Seldes foresaw the chilling effect that misguided scholarly overanalysis of popular art could have on our pleasure of it. In praising Herriman’s “expressionistic” masterpiece for its “pitying irony” and its “language inhuman,” Seldes approached the comic strip’s social value as abstract and gentle. The comic strip’s meaning and cultural impact do not come in the form of explicit or even articulate “messages”; rather, they come by injecting into the culture a certain set of tones, attitudes and sometimes extravagant ways of seeing the world, if only temporarily. He would conceptualize the theme better elsewhere, but in discussing Krazy Kat, Seldes recognized That the best comic strips worked because they communicated postures and moods that could be “rich with something we have too little of.”
Seldes’ exorbitant praise of Herriman, then, must be understood as part of the larger project in The Seven Lively Arts: precluding an emerging split between the intellectual high-brow critic or artist and the common American audience. That gulf was, by 1924, becoming observable. Publishing, once the primary cultural gatekeeper of quality literature, was increasingly dominated by mass-marketing concerns, as was the new wave of popular magazines. The proliferation of newspapers, the stunning power and popularity of film and the emerging radio medium were all signs of a more democratized approach to “culture,” once the domain of experienced critics and artisans. Automatic disdain for the new popular culture, in any of its forms, was the necessary entrance fee to the modern intelligentsia. The forms of “respectable” art themselves were becoming increasingly inaccessible to the common audience—perhaps deliberately so. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which Seldes himself helped publish in the United States, actually came with footnotes. Joyce’s Ulysses seemed to require cryptographic skills. And Pound in his poetry apparently assumed his readers’ familiarity with up to eight classical and foreign tongues. Accessibility to an untutored audience, whether in painting or fiction, let alone in film or the comics page, now was eschewed by young intellectuals as bourgeois, unimaginative and complacent, just like the poor sots who appreciated it.
Seldes’ praise of Krazy Kat attempted to trump Lost Generation contempt for America’s common culture. In the strip he found a useable surrealism that addressed itself to the crowd instead of the elite. It had an avant-gardism all its own, pitting Krazy’s romantic imagination and her dreamlike approach to reality against Ignatz’s vicious insistence upon mechanical reason. For Seldes in 1924, Herriman’s Kat was, indeed, “a gentle monster of our new mythology.” She represented the ways in which the singular imagination can so quietly defy and upset the new order of literal-mindedness, the postwar world of industry, progress and science. That such a rich portrait of the nation’s underlying cultural tensions, such a compelling counterpoint to the hurly-burly years of 1920s America, could find a place on the comics page and in so many readers’ hearts was, for Seldes, so much more evidence that the intellectuals were wrong: wrong about popular art, the intelligence of its audience and about American culture altogether.
In fact, the popularity of the comics especially implied to Seldes that Americans were a much more reflective and self-critical tribe than the critics ever imagined. “We are not actually a dull people,” he insisted to his fellows. “We take our fun where we find it, and yet we have an exceptional capacity for liking the things which show us off in ridiculous postures—a counterpart to our inveterate passion for seeing ourselves in stained-glass attitudes.” The genius of American culture, in fact, resided in these tensions, between traditions of self-celebration and self-denigration. The sentiments of the comic strip or Chaplin were more invaluable precisely because they perpetuated this healthy American dynamic and provided a safeguard against our self-glorification. A good, modern popular culture could be a check against new gentility, stifling conformity and self-delusions. This same quality of commonplace subversiveness in the American comic strip, what he called “daemonic” in Al Jolson and “monstrous” in Krazy Kat, is
what Seldes fleshed out elsewhere.The highly quotable Krazy Kat essay is best remembered by comics historians, but it was not the critic’s best statement on the medium.
A forgotten chapter of The Seven Lively Arts, “The ‘Vulgar’ Comic Strip,” actually was a more substantial and general view of the form, as was a later and even sharper refinement of his ideas about the comics: “Some Sour Commentators,” a 1925 column for The New Republic. One of Seldes’ curious propositions about the evolution of the comic strip flies bravely in the face of modern conventional wisdom, that the usual restrictions placed upon the mass arts were not necessarily bad influences on the comic strip. The fact that comics ran in a wide variety of newspapers of all political stripes, that they needed to address the young and avoid offending anyone, made the form “a changing picture of the average American life—and by compensation it provides us with the freest American fantasy.” Subsequent common wisdom held that commercial need and mass appeal almost naturally degraded an artist’s vision of its original integrity. Seldes’ alternative view is a good example of his broad, sympathetic embrace. The comics are not to be viewed as an erosion of the novel or a compromising of high artistic intent. Comics are an art that exists in, and even flourishes because of, such constraints. Generally, he resisted the emerging avant-garde notion of the artist and his form as inviolable, sacred and apart from the real world. Even in his praise, for instance, Seldes recognized that an insightful office boy and editor Arthur Brisbane were responsible for first recognizing the beauty of the cat and mouse structure and urging the artist to pursue it. Chance, audience response, commercial coyness and even the kibitzing of others were precisely the factors that critics of popular culture invoke as reasons why the low arts are beneath serious scrutiny.
For Seldes, creativity could exist in the comic strip both despite and because of the form’s necessary compromises. In the comics’ case, the bland demands of mass marketing helped force the medium to cultivate itself as an art of the everyday and domestic rather than the political. And most of all it allowed the comics artist to engage fantasy more forcefully than the more respectable arts. Seldes praises several artists, among them Clare Briggs (Mr. and Mrs.), Tad (Indoor Sports) and Tom MacNamara (Us Boys) For endowing the commonly felt aspects of everyday American life with respect and genuine sentiment. Seldes used the word “genuine” to describe much of what the best strips did well; for him, a disingenuous quality in the lowand high arts was the real enemy of good taste. But “genuine” functioned in place of a more rigorous analysis and conceptualization of popular forms that Seldes unfortunately never fully accomplished in his work but only suggested in a hazy, sometimes precious prose. He approached comics as he also did dance, slapstick comedy or music—as forms that are best able to capture and deepen our understanding of moments in time, of passages of feeling. The best comics, he suggested, were not about linear storytelling or, heaven forbid, punch lines. They investigated the common ephemera of physical movement, gesture, language and tension between characters in special and satisfying
ways. These elements do not translate readily into politics or complete ideas; they are more sensual and transient.
Seldes championed the comic strip as “the most despised and with the exception of the movies – – the most popular” lively art because he understood that, like film comedy and vaudeville, it was a comedy of manners and morals—and one that Americans sorely needed in the postwar atmosphere of upward mobility, heightened materialism and social anxiety. Seldes recommended the best strips, like Mutt and Jeff, Bringing Up Father and The Gumps, as exemplars of the only American art that dealt satirically with everyday life. More importantly, they worked as counterpoints to what he perceived as the otherwise prissy tone of contemporary journalism. “When nearly everything else in the same
newspapers is given over to sentimentality and affected girl-worship, to advice to the lovelorn and pretty-prettines, it is notable that the comic strip remains grotesque and harsh and careless.” Bringing Up Father’s thematic warfare over taste, often “using vases as projectiles,” or Mutt’s daily humiliations of Jeff posed effective resistance to the idealizations of modem domestic existence. Visually, they were the antithesis of the gently watercolored covers of Collier’s or advertising and its beatific visions of postwar suburban harmony, comfort and happiness through consumption. Seldes celebrated that strips like Bringing Up Father and Mr. and Mrs. always were there to belie the silliness of the new American illusion: “Every social quality which makes domestic life unendurable to people at all sensitive is recorded, all the nagging and worrying and stupidity, the quarrels about money and the cut of clothes and the neighbors; all the meanness of human relations.” Vulgarity is a virtue, argued Seldes, when it is aimed properly at false piety andempty manners. He was quite serious about the idea that the best cartoonists, like Tad, Clare Briggs and Rube Goldberg. offered Americans ‘“‘more acute, more savage” social criticism and satire than the “politer’ literary contemporaries.
Compare them with the work of popular realistic novelists and their superiority is evident; for although they cannot deal with sex in any way, and are prevented by their own vast circulations from touching on anything serious, they have not allowed these disabilities to make them report everything as candy and pink roses.
The comic strip was among those everyday American “minor arts” that served as a sort of national id. Their particular and enlivening social role depended upon their occasional vulgarities, violence and sensuality. “America is a Protestant community and a business organization” that desperately needs “daemonic” cultural figures like Al Jolson and Fanny Brice who seemed to be “possessed’ “on stage.
I use the word possessed because it connotes a quality lacking elsewhere on the stage, and to be found only at moments in other aspects of American life—in religious mania, in good jazz bands, in a rare outbreak of mob violence. The particular intensity I mean is exactly what you do not see at a baseball game, but may at a prize fight, nor in the productions of David Belasco, nor at a political convention; you may see it on the Stock Exchange and you can see it canalized and disciplined but still intense, in our skyscraper architecture. It was visible at moments in the old Russian Ballet.
For Seldes, the best comic strips of his day worked in much the same way as Mack Sennett’s comedies, which he argued was “one of the few places where the genteel tradition does not operate, where fantasy is liberated, where imagination is still riotous and healthy.”
Ultimately, Seldes’ most valuable insight was that “the appreciation of aesthetic qualities is universal,” and not the privileged joy of the officially cultivated. “It isn’t” he added, “thank Heaven, always put into words.” In fact, putting this democracy of tastes into words was the dubious challenge of The Seven Lively Arts. He tried to render the artistic complexities of the everyday arts without a smothering analytical chokehold. Highbrow appreciations of Chaplin, for instance, had “so reduced Charlie to angles that the angles no longer made them laugh.” Seldes even derided academic attempts to understand the comics, because they fumigated the artistry of their fun in order to examine them joylessly as social “artifacts.” The lively arts required a more populist criticism, one that bravely put aside “a desire to be superior” on the part of the critic and audience and sought instead to “multiply all the pleasures.” Seldes was toying with a notion that Vachel Lindsay had seen more clearly in his Art of the Motion Picture a decade earlier, that the modern popular arts invited a more inclusive type of criticism. The deeper, subtler social worth of popular art was not to be found in explicit sociological messages but in the process of discourse that it invited. The accessibility of film, Lindsay suggested, permitted a sharing of ideas and tastes among virtually anyone who could see that no other art made possible. Seldes intuited that comic strips, jazz and popular music were, too, common sites for democratic evaluation, a level critical playing field for sharing, arguing over and comparing tastes and thus values and visions of existence. Seldes saw the future of genuinely popular art in America resting as much with the quality of the audience’s response to a medium as with the caliber of the art’s creators. His own eccentric style was strident and extreme. He bandied about hyperbolic evaluations (“genuine,” “perfect” and “*pure”) but in a spirit that was also remarkably open and perhaps deliberately imprecise. The Krazy Kat essay is an excellent example. It was, in essence, truly playful, always on the edge of self-mockery, never exclusionary; always inviting the reader to join in the fun. He did not presume, as most others did and have since, that the intellectual value of popular art is found in locating the meanings and effects that we think mass audiences must be finding there. He treated the minor arts just as traditional critics wrote about the major ones, by offering his readers ideas about how one could experience the work more richly and deeply. What seemed to matter most to him was not what these arts or individual texts “meant,” in some final authoritative sense, but what we as the audience did with them. Even further, he felt that critic and audience were obliged ta.discuss, judge and penetrate these arts in an effort to improve them. Somewhere within the process of viewing, discussing, criticizing and creating:lively arts like the comics, a subtle but invaluable democratic process was at work.
After the 1920s. Seldes only returned to the comic strip in order to celebrate Al Capp and the superiority of Li’l Abner. During the Depression he turned his wandering eye towards a related art—animation—where he trumpeted Mickey Mouse as the age’s remarkable hero. By the 1950s, in a reprinting of The Seven Lively Arts, the critic admitted to having lost interest in the comic strip. He avoided specifics, recognizing that he just might not be up to appreciating the form any longer. We can speculate that Seldes’ altered taste was, indeed, registering a sea change in comics themselves after World War II. The raucous impoliteness of the comic strips’ earlier era was gone, and this, after all, is what excited him about them. The rise of the adventure strip probably was too banal for him as well. What made popular art lively to Seldes almost always was extreme sentiment, self-parody and fantasy of a fantastic sort.
Seldes’ solitary defense of the comic strip during its adolescent period should be enough to revive interest in him today. But I believe that his stature should be more than historic; his criticism of the form leaves us insights and approaches to the medium that are still valuable. Most of all, he gave us an example of respecting a popular form as one would a classical one, by judging it first on its own terms and with an eye towards what it does well, perhaps even better than other forms. His regard for the comics as unique, often contrary, voices in a larger cultural milieu and among other media also must be taken seriously. He found that the richest implications of certain comic-strip artists and their characters emerged when we consider them as a whole, in relation to—and sometimes as reactions against—a prevailing mood: Krazy Kat’s “Bovarisme” in an age of science or Jiggs’ attachment to the ethnic ghetto in an era of upward mobility and material ambition. Nevertheless, Seldes warned early in the history of the popular arts against easily reducing a form like the comics to political ideologies or social implications. He explored the comic strip as an art that at its best involves readers in highly intangible, often ineffable aesthetic qualities: moods, tones, attitudes and postures. More than any modern art form, Seldes discovered, the comics make the mundane, the routine and even the petty grumblings of our everyday lives meaningful. And perhaps they also make the routine and otherwise unremarkable dissatisfactions of living all the more usable and worth more serious scrutiny. This last notion makes Gilbert Seldes’ lost legacy of criticism most worth retrieving, for he reminds us that art is a necessary part of life. But it is the critical reader who brings life to art by becoming part of a neverending conversation, both with the art and with the audience.