Archive for the “postwar malaise” Category

As some of you know, I am working sporadically on a critical reading of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace which explores the brilliant and searing examination of middle-class alienation and despair amongst the American middle class in the post-war era. That Ketcham was able to disguise his indictment of the failures of suburbia and the American dream as a series of allegedly humorous vignettes about a dysfunctional family unable to discipline their attention-starved child is only a testament to his genius.

As it has been awhile since I updated you on the status of this project, I’ve chosen to highlight a few examples of Ketcham’s use of Dennis as a kind of Greek chorus, highlighting the sins of Alice and Henry Mitchell through a series of seemingly innocent statements.

Dennis is clearly suffering either from dyslexia or some other mild learning disability, as an inability to read stands as a severe deficiency for a child in his age group. Rather than seek to get Dennis the help he clearly needs, Henry has condescendingly placed his no doubt prescription glasses on his child, mocking the youth’s desperate desire to function as a normal child.

Ketcham chooses ambiguity here, as the financial state of Henry Mitchell prior to his marriage has never been firmly established. It is possible that Henry worked as an itinerant laborer in the years before the war, which would have represented a distinct decline in Alice’s social class if she had been in a romantic relationship with him. This may explain in some way Alice’s resentment of Henry, and her passive-aggressive attacks against him through her neglect of Dennis, as Dennis now represents an additional anchor tying Alice to her current existence.
However, it is also possible that this is merely the cast-off clothes of one of Alice’s many lovers, as her promiscuity represents her other means of exacting revenge against Henry for destroying her life.
(It should be noted that some lesser Ketchamologists view this panel as proof of a sinister secret within the Mitchell house-hold, that either Alice or Henry is a murderer, but such a fanciful interpretation goes against all the other contextual evidence within the series. A more likely explanation is that researchers holding this view have successfully identified the subtext of Mary Worth and are looking for further examples of multiple murderers on the so-called “funny pages” and in their eagerness to find one have misread Dennis.)

Sexual impropriety is a common theme in Ketcham’s work, but it usually involves either Alice and her many lovers or Henry and his sexual harassment of other women, chiefly as a means of over-compensating for his own repressed homosexual desires. This is one of the few instances in which it is suggested that Dennis is experimenting with his sexuality as well. While it would be over simplistic to read any bestiality themes into this scene, the undercurrent is troubling to modern readers. A more plausible reading is that Dennis simply wishes to “explore his body” in a way that will not be socially appropriate for him for several more years. That Dennis has framed his naked frolicking as an act of aggression on Ruff’s part is telling. What Dennis has learned from his parents and their own sexual acting out is that sex is to be used as a weapon. And so the only way for Dennis to discover the sensation of nudity without feeling guilt is to blame it on the dog.
It is also important that Alice is the one who discovers him in this state. Dennis will certainly be punished for his behavior, and the irony of Alice, whose promiscuity is clearly framed as a negative trait, being the one to administer the punishment, is too narratively compelling to avoid.

To a modern reader, one accustomed to tattoos as a personal statement/fashion accessory, this probably reads as nothing more than a harmless childhood fancy. But it must be remembered that this episode was written at a time in which tattoos were chiefly associated with sailors and criminals. It should also be noted that sailors, especially in the post-war era, had a reputation as promiscuous, venereal disease-ridden adventurers. What Dennis is saying here, is that his ultimate goal and desire is to be a social outcast. It is nothing less than an expression of self-loathing, and evidence that Dennis hates himself almost as much as Alice and Henry hate him.

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Research into my ongoing analysis of the true emotional depths of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, and the insights it provides into the lives of “quiet desperation” the American middle-class of the post-war era lived, continues at a rather glacial pace. But in the course of my studies, I took a look again at some of the Ketcham-inspired color comic books based on his existential opus. While not up to the high standards of searing insight as Ketcham’s own work, they do offer telling glimpses into the lives of these desperately unhappy suburbanites.

Alice Mitchell would rather live a life where she is in constant danger of being killed by poachers than spend one minute more with Henry or Dennis.

George Mitchell’s frequent outbursts of anger have so concerned his wife that she has begun periodically checking his recall for signs of Alzheimer’s Syndrome.

Alice was so heavily dependent on alcohol to make it through her pregnancy, she still sometimes is convinced that Dennis must have some form of physical malformation or mental disability.

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Introduction and Thesis

Over the years, Hank Ketcham’s serialized magnum opus, Dennis the Menace, has attracted more than its share of admirers. It’s one of those rare deep literary works that has attracted both intense critical acclaim and broad popular appeal. It is surprising, then, that so many of Ketcham’s readers have favored a shallow, one-dimensional approach to the material, choosing to read it as merely the adventures of a young boy prone to comical misbehavior, a latter-day Tom Sawyer of the suburban landscape in Eisenhower’s America. When, contrary to this popular misconception, Dennis the Menace is one of the most searing indictments of middle-class conformity and the soul-crushing despair of the new middle class created by post-war prosperity.

Alice and Henry Mitchell, far from being the long-suffering parents of a scampish child, are two desperately lonely, bitter people trapped in a loveless marriage, yet forced by the Republican values of their community to put on the facade of a happy young couple. Henry Mitchell was once a man of hopes and dreams, with lofty ambitions to succeed in the worlds of arts and letters, but a too young marriage has forced him into a soul-crushing corporate office job, where better educated, better qualified men, men who did not put their dreams on hold to start a family, continually surpass him. Alice Mitchell is in much the same position, forced to abandon her dreams of a successful and glamorous life when she hitched her yoke to Henry Mitchell in a youthful infatuation that she mistook for true love. Ketcham masterfully captures the acidic undertone of their relationship, but subtly softens it by presenting it to us through the eyes of their son, Dennis, the true victim of their failed attempts to conform to society’s expectations.

Though never directly addressed in the strip itself, it is clear from the clues that Ketcham leaves that Dennis the result of Alice and Henry attempting, in a woefully misguided manner, to recapture that initial spark that they mistook for love, to bring the two of them back together by creating a new being that is a mix of their traits. However, far from either reminding each other of what they once admired in the other, or distract them from their anguish by the travails of raising a child, what Dennis has instead done is serve as a living reminder of how both Henry and Alice blame the other for the mess that has been made of their own lives. This situation of emotional neglect is what prompts Dennis to act out. He’s not misbehaving, he’s yearning for some sign of affection of acknowledgment from his parents, and only by embarrassing or humiliating them amongst the peers, that the Mitchell’s secretly loathe as the enforcers of the middle-class conformity they feel strangled by, can he elicit any response from them, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle. This is also the chief reason why Dennis “bothers” his neighbors, George and Martha Wilson. He is seeking in them substitutes for the parental figures he subconsciously understands he lacks: a loving maternal presence from Martha and a stern, authoritarian father in George.

Textual Evidence

Dennis gives voice to his unconscious wish and Henry’s secret hope: that he is the product of Alice’s adultery and not actually Henry’s child.

Alice, longing for the touch of a man, has resorted to blatantly seeking an affair in a public place. She has, however, a deep fear of rejection, brought on by Henry’s emotional distance, and has brought Dennis with her, in a dim understanding that she will be unable to act on her longings while he is with her.

Alice is given a brief yet terrifying glimpse into a possible outcome of the neglect with which she and Henry treat Dennis, and predictably she blames Dennis for it.

A certain degree of Henry’s angst over his situation is confusion over his sexuality. So stifled is he by his suburban cage that the only outlet available to him to explore these feelings is faking drowning incidents at the beach, a fact that Alice seems not terribly surprised to discover.

Henry’s attempts to ingratiate himself with his neighbors without spending more than a negligible amount of money is thwarted by Dennis, who exposes Henry’s misrepresentation of the esteem with which he holds his peers. Here the subtle nature of the retaliation Dennis engages in for his neglect is on full display, as his statement seems to come from childhood innocence, and yet it betrays an instinctive understanding of the greater cost and prestige of steaks over hot dogs. A nurtured child would be more enthusiastic about a finger-food like frankfurters.

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Be patient with your child’s methods of personal expression, such as clothing.

Never belittle or call your child hurtful names.

Encourage a sense of helpfulness and civic responsibility in your child.

Share your favorite hobbies and activities with your child; this is an easy way to build a bond between you.

Never ever use the threat of violence as discipline.

Follow these guidelines and you will have a happy, healthy, and most importantly, well-behaved child.

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Although many emotionally distant couples had found that erotic role-playing brought them closer together and renewed their marriage, it only seemed to worsen the relationship between Henry and Alice. Henry would offer to play “Cable Installer and Housewife” and Alice would decide that she would play the cable installer, and never show up for the appointment. In fact, nearly all of the role-play scenarios Alice agreed to seemed to involve Henry wearing a dress. She had told him that her experiences with her room-mate in college were only “experiments.” Had she been lying to him about that all these years as well?

Still, the role-play was more successful than Henry’s attempts to install a sling…

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