Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons

by Fiona Deans Halloran 
The University of North Carolina Press

A disclosure: I am a political and satirical cartoonist. I have, for the past twenty years, drawn political caricatures for "The New Yorker."  My knowledge of Thomas Nast has, until now, been cursory, even as the spirit of Thomas Nast and his work has made an impression on and affected my work. During my childhood, a Thomas Nast print (coincidentally, his first to feature both the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant) hung in our home, and I frequently mused on it, its biting character, composition, and imagination. I knew Nast for his wonderfully lacerating cartoons that helped bring down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall (Nast's caricature of Tweed at times seem an antecedent to Charles Addams's ghoul), for his invention of the Republican elephant, and for his many charming portraits of Santa Claus.

In Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, Fiona Deans Halloran provides a superb overview of Nast's life, from his family's origin in Germany's Palatinate to his youth in 1850s Lower Manhattan among a dynamic mix of Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant cultures. She tracks his growth as an artist from self-taught youth to student at the Academy of Design, as well as the rise and  fall of his career and fortune, with a good deal of detail about his domestic family life included along the way.

There is little record of Nast's early life, but Halloran fills in the blanks with descriptions of the European political upheaval that sent families such as Nast's packing for America. She includes what the young Nast was likely to experience in his neighborhood, a  "teeming jungle of crime, commerce, and colorful humanity" bordered by Wall Street to the south, Franklin Square, "the center of newspaper production for the city," to the north, Broadway, with the newly-invented department stores just to the west, and the notorious Five Points slum, one block west and five blocks north.

Halloran provides a vivid outline of the politics of the timethe arrival of thousands of middle class, intellectual victims of the 1848 revolutions. These émigrés brought their liberal political and anti-clerical ideals with them. They quickly became engaged in politics, sometimes pitting them against native-born Americans and the Irish, who were busy practicing their own politics in their newly adopted homeland through patronage and political clubs. The Irish were heavily Democratic, and often in violent conflict with their fellow black New Yorkers, a conflict which culminated in the terrible death toll and destruction of the Draft Riots of 1863. Nast, whose family left the Catholic Church after arriving in the States, held great sympathy toward the black freedmen; the themes of violence, hypocrisy and greed vs. integrity and idealism echoed throughout his life and identified him forever with the Party of Lincoln. Nast's youthful experience also explains the source of much of his anti-Irish drawings and sentiment --- an aspect of his work that can be repellant to present day sensibilities.

Halloran recounts the teenage Nast's arrival at the beginnings of American illustrated journalism, working for "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly" and "Harper's Illustrated Weekly" as these burgeoning enterprises transformed the American publishing landscape. Nast watched first-hand as these publishers took on public issues such as swill milk (from cows fed on wastes from distilleries and breweries), and police corruption, all the while building influence and increasing circulation. According to Halloran, "Illustrated journalism, Nast learned, was a business. Its success rested on the public fascination with journalism that could show the news as well as report it." Eventually, Nast joined the ranks of these "pictorial journalists."

Nast's rise was meteoric. His drawings on behalf of the Union cause during the Civil War struck a mighty chord with Northerners (and conversely, drew the ire of Southerners). His September 1864 drawing "Compromise with the South" in Harper’s Weekly had huge influence and was reprinted by the Republicans as a campaign poster. It showed a battered, one-legged Union soldier shaking hands with a finely-dressed Jefferson Davis, while in the middle Columbia weeps. Besisde her is a tombstone “in Memory Union Heroes in a Useless War.” The illustration led President Lincoln to say of his work, "Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce." Halloran traces the evolution of Nast's style from the sentimental illustration of the Civil War years to the wickedly funny, political caricature that reached full flower in his Boss Tweed drawings, but there is something slightly mechanical and dutifully academic in her heavily footnoted analysis.

I reread the chapter on “Compromise with the South,” because I recalled it as being particularly ponderous and frustrating. It’s a chapter not without interest, and it is worth noting that the drawing was a hugely popular, highly political sentimental illustration (compared with Nast’s later, barbed, satirical drawings) but Halloran belabors the whys of its connection to the public and to Nast’s other work, and seems to be straining for an argument. This leads her to muddled statements such as the following: “That readers were able to discern Nast’s thoughts and feelings in his illustrations seems a far more likely reason for his appeal than either his technical skill or his emotional connection to the public.” She uses it and others to build a long-winded argument to support her final statement: “’Compromise with the South’… stands not just as the beginning of his cartooning but as the ultimate expression of his view of the war itself.”  Fair enough, but she says everything she pretty much needs to say in her final paragraph.

Ultimately, as Halloran focuses on the details of Nast's later life later in the book, the evocation of politics and larger events suffer, as well as the reader's experience of Nast's work itself. For starters, the book is a lousy shape and size (a compact 9.5" x 6.5") for showing off Nast's drawings. For the reader intimately familiar with his work, this may not matter, but for others who wish to enter the realm of Nast's drawings or to follow references between the text and drawings, it is a huge obstacle. Halloran does a good job of explicating much of the imagery in the drawings and their connection to contemporary politics and culture, but the drawings are reproduced at such a tiny scale as to make study impossible.

On the other hand, the freelancing cartoonist in me agonized over every harrowing detail in Halloran's telling of Nast's changing fortunes. We learn of his travels abroad where he journeyed with Garibaldi in the fight for Italian independence; his long and complicated and ultimately destructive relationship with George W. Curtis, the political editor of Harper's Weekly; his growing irrelevance; his shift from prosperous family man to near pauper, through a failed investment in a Ponzi scheme started by Ferdinand Ward, himself the subject of a recent book ,>; his death abroad of yellow fever after a last-ditch effort to provide for his family by being appointed ambassador to Ecuador by President Theodore Roosevelt.

To her credit, Halloran does make a connection between Nast and some of today's artists, such as Drew Friedman, who once modeled a drawing on Nast's famous finger-pointing cartoon about Tammany Hall. She also points us to, a website that has archived Nast's drawings, highlights a different one every day and allows visitors to explore his drawings at a much more appropriate scale.

Yet despite Halloran's best efforts, Nast's work itself remains curiously inert in her study, out of reach to the reader. She writes,

Among academics, Nast has become a source for useful illustrations and hardly anything more…Teachers love his drawings, understandably. They are a great way to illustrate the issues that were important to nineteenth-century Americans. Yet, again, Nast himself is largely absent. His work must speak for itself, because his personality, politics, and artistic goals are largely ignored.

Ironically, by concentrating on biographical detail and not showcasing Nast's drawings, this biography ends up asking us to accept the greatness and relevance of Nast's work but never actually reveals it.

The two main Nast biographies that Halloran and other sources mention are Morton Keller's "Art and Politics of Thomas Nast (Oxford University Press. 1968. 366pp) and Albert Bigelow Paine's "Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures (New York: Macmillan. 1904. 583pp). Paine was Nast's chosen biographer; Paine interviewed him towards the end of his life, and wrote what is considered to be a laudatory portrait of the artist.

To read through Keller's book is to experience Nast (and book publishing) in an entirely different way, highlighting shortcomings in Halloran's book. Keller's is a 12" x 9" hardbound volume, beautifully printed and lavishly illustrated. It is essentially a series of brief essays that cover American politics during Nast's working career (i.e., "Civil War," "Reconstruction," "Tweed," "The Passing of Political Radicalism," etc.), each one followed by 20 or so related drawings. Even at 2/3 their original size (!), the drawings have an extraordinary richness and impact. Contrary to Halloran's opinion, Keller writes, "The drawings speak for themselves," and indeed, I have to agree.

Keller writes concisely about each political period, and brings them alive in all their drama and vitality in a way that Halloran's concentration on Nast's biographical details does not. This makes it easier to see Nast's drawings as players in that drama. Halloran helps parse the iconography and symbols in Nast's work, but Keller allows the reader to luxuriate in the drawings themselves. And they are astonishing to look at --- the amazing and complex compositions, the humor and vitality of the line. There are elements that call to mind Chris Ware, even Robert Crumb. Although not an art historian, Keller argues very simply and persuasively that while Nast's style was directly influenced by British graphic artists of his time such as John Leech, Sir John Tenniel of "Punch," and John Gilbert, the spirit of Nast's drawings owe most to the French Honoré Daumier and his "passionate commitment to a cause." For Daumier, it was Liberty and the Republic; for Nast, a more perfect Union.  While Halloran tallies the huge number of drawings that Nast did weekly for Harper's and describes the ultimately debilitating effect on Nast, it is the drawings themselves in Keller's volume that make one wonder at the sheer physical achievement of it all.

Halloran's portrait makes the professional caricaturist in me think in personal terms about Nast --- do I work as hard? Am I as productive or effective? How do I deal with the constant physical and psychic toll of drawing? Am I as idealistic? Self-regarding? Bourgeois? How well do I work with others (read: my employer)? What prejudices undermine my work? Will I also make stupid investments? Will decline come swiftly and unexpectedly? Certainly not bad questions to ponder.

Keller's portrait better places Nast in the grand arc of political caricature, from his own British and French antecedents to the cynical and absurdist caricaturists of our own time. It begs the question:  Are there political cartoonists closer to our own era whose work was similar in approach to Nast? Interestingly enough, Herb Block and Bill Mauldin come to mind, cartoonists who also came of age during a cataclysmic war (WWII), who remained idealistic (Herblock took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as did Walt Kelly), and who eventually were crowded out by cartoonists with a far more ironic and blackly comic take on politics.

Perhaps some advice pertinent to the traveler is pertinent here to the reader. When traveling, take more than one guidebook. When brushing up on your Thomas Nast, take along both Halloran's and Keller's volumes. Together, they will be worth the voyage.