Protest on the Page

When you think about the use of print to engage in “protest,” what kind of causes come to mind? Here are a few that probably don’t:

The denigration of carpetbaggers. The defense of comic books. The promotion of evangelical Christianity. The politics of vegetarian cookbooks. The feminist divide over pornography.

All of these causes are pulled into a new book called “Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent since 1865.” It was edited by three UW-Madison academics and published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

The book, drawn from papers presented at a 2012 conference of the Madison-based Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, embraces an elastic interpretation of what constitutes protest — basically any cause that groups of people use the medium of print to advance.

“Protest can be about anything,” writes co-editor James Danky in the preface.

Some of the book’s 10 essays do address subjects that more neatly fit notions of protest literature, like anarchist printmaking in the early 1900s, dissident (at times communist) pamphlets in the 1930s, and the defamation of Richard Nixon in the underground press.

But others are wild cards, like Carol L. Tilley’s essay on how young people rose up in the 1940s and 1950s to counter claims about the corrupting influence of comic books. One critic called these popular magazines “the curse of the kids, and a threat to the future.”

Such pronouncements drew a compelling response from the accursed. “The whole argument over comic magazines is silly and needless,” wrote one 14-year-old in a letter to the editor. “The kids know what they want. They are individuals with minds of their own.”

Another youngster wrote a congressional subcommittee looking into the matter to say that while he read comic books, “I am as honest and as clean as you would want your own son to be.” Tilley, of the University of Illinois, tracked down this writer, who went on to become a district attorney. In 1955, the subcommittee issued a report concluding there was no proof that reading comic books about horror or crime led to juvenile delinquency.

The essay on vegetarian and vegan cookbooks documents how this genre has served to “present a message of opposition to conventional systems of food production and consumption.” It notes that even those cookbooks that lack any overtly political content challenge “taken-for-granted assumptions about the desirability of meat.”

And protest, in this book, is definitely not the domain of the left. Its best example of how like-minded people set out to use print to advance an ideological agenda concerns evangelical Christians. Beginning in the 1940s, whole publishing networks were created by evangelicals who felt as though their message was being shut out — something surely no longer true. Books became “objects of protest” and weapons in the culture war against liberalism.

The book attests to the power of print, not its correctness or good taste. The first essay shows how white supremacist southerners used newspapers to taint white northerners during Reconstruction, often by suggesting they weren’t really white. And the essay on depictions of Nixon in the underground press notes that these were at times “wildly obscene” while crediting them with “expanding the boundaries of First Amendment press rights.”

“Protest on the Page” is a scholarly work, replete with many footnotes and some jargon. But its subject is invigorating: how ordinary people with passion for a cause seized the available print technology of the day to change other people’s minds, and ultimately the nation.

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