| Thomas Nast, posing in the 1870s.|
by Richard Samuel West
Fiona Deans Halloran, author of this new biography of Nast begins her book this way:
Thomas Nast enjoyed the knowing wink. To his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, he told a version of his early life. Another version, more complete but less charming, lay within the reach of any knowing reader. Between the two lay not only Nast’s experiences, insofar as they can be reconstructed, but also his lingering discomfort with the world that produced him.This is right on target, except that it would have been just as correct without the adjective ‘early.’ The author understands that Paine in 1904 created an entertaining promotion, rather than an accurate biography, of the man who may always be regarded as America’s greatest political cartoonist. It would fall from this understanding then that we need once and for all a detailed and rich recounting of Nast’s great life, one that parses the story that has been handed down, separates fact from fiction, and finally gives us the real man, with all his strengths and weaknesses.
| The new biography, front cover.|
Fiona Deans Halloran, 2012, Thomas Nast; The Father of Modern Political Cartoons; A Biography, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 366 pp., hardback with dustjacket, $35, ISBN 978-0-8078-3587-6
| Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 5, 1863 — ‘Thanksgiving-Day. The Union Altar.’|
| Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, since Nr.1, Vol. 1, Dec. 15, 1855.|
More troubling are the many misconceptions and imprecisions in the book. For example, Nast’s drawing ‘Compromise with the South’ is described as ‘a hammer blow for Lincoln and against peace’ (p.59). Not true: it was a hammer blow against a rebel peace, which meant the restoration of slavery, a big difference. The author introduces another misconception when she compares Nast’s work to that of Adalbert Volck’s, the Baltimore dentist who was a Southern sympathizer. His importance is vastly overstated with: ‘There is every reason to think that [Volck’s] cartoons were available in the South’ (p.66). Actually, there is every reason to think the opposite: that hardly anyone in the South was aware of Volck’s work during the Civil War because no evidence has been found of it — nothing in the printed press, nothing in letters. Certainly there was a small group of Baltimoreans who were familiar with his drawings and probably an even smaller group in the South that was exposed to errant copies of his cartoons, but it is hard to imagine those who knew of Volck’s work at the time numbered more than a hundred.
| Harper’s Weekly, Sep. 3, 1864 — Compromise with the South. Dedicated to the Chicago Convention.|
| Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 3, 1866 — King Andy I. How He Will Look, What He Will Do.|
| Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 19, 1868 — “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”|
| Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 5, 1868 — “This is a White Man’s Government.”|
| Harper’s Weekly, June 10, 1871 — Under The Thumb.|
| Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 21, 1871 — The Only Thing They Respect or Fear.|
| Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 23, 1871 — A Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to “Blow Over”—“Let Us Prey.”|
| Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 11, 1871 — The Tammany Tiger Loose – “What are you going to do about it?”|
Furthermore, it is unfortunate that the publisher of Thomas Nast; The Father of Modern Political Cartoons chose to reproduce much of the artist’s work that illustrates this book in proportions so small that it cannot be appreciated. This practice seems to me to be contradictory — displaying a fundamental lack of respect for work that the author is trying to draw attention to.
| Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 30, 1871, Santa Claus’s Mail.|
| Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 30, 1871 — The American River Ganges. The Priests and the Children.|
| Harper’s Weekly, April 13, 1872 — The Republic is Not Ungrateful.|
Richard Samuel West’s latest book, Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling, can be purchased HERE.