Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New biography of Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

[1] 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.

[2] 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

But those who come to this biography without much knowledge of Nast hoping to immerse themselves in Nast’s life as he lived it will find themselves scratching their heads. This book by Halloran is not so much a biography as a series of meditations on various chapters in Nast’s life, wherein the author chooses an emblematic incident or cartoon to use to discuss an entire phase of Nast’s life.

[3] Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 5, 1863 — ‘Thanksgiving-Day. The Union Altar.’
So, this is not the book we need, but rather the book Halloran has chosen to write. Fair enough. It cannot be denied that Halloran is a strong writer. The book is well-written. Moreover, the author is an impressive researcher and appears to have investigated all of the important repositories of Nast correspondence and secondary sources. Regretfully this impressive foundational work has not resulted in a reliable narrative. An error-free book is, of course, a great rarity. This new Nast biography is no exception. For example, The countries of origin for the two prize-fighters John Heenan and Tom Sayers are reversed, saying Heenan was English and Sayers American (p.47), though the author does correct herself later.

[4] 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.

[5] Harper’s Weekly, Sep. 3, 1864 Compromise with the South. Dedicated to the Chicago Convention.
Also, in this book terms of printing technologies and periodical history are used loosely. For example, a reference to ‘images in newspapers’ (p.23), implies that daily newspapers of the 1850s and 60s were illustrated, when in fact they were not. Or a reference like ‘Frank Leslie’s and papers like it’ (p.23) at a time — the mid-1850s — when there were no other papers like it, excepting perhaps Ballou’s Pictorial which, though illustrated, was not a news magazine and therefore not a competitor of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

[6] Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 3, 1866 — King Andy I. How He Will Look, What He Will Do.  
The author contends that people cut pictures out of the illustrated weeklies to pin on their walls and cites as proof of this that Frank Leslie’s would occasionally issue a warning on its cover page ‘open before cutting.’ (p.294) People surely did clip engravings they liked but Leslie’s admonition had nothing to do with that. Instead, the paper arrived in people’s hands uncut, that is as a single huge sheet of paper folded over and over. It was customary to run a letter opener along the folds in order to be able to leaf through the publication. The paper merely wanted readers to know that some of the images were so large within the issue that they ran through the folds and therefore would be cut in half if the issue was razored thoughtlessly.

[7] Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 19, 1868 — “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”
And there are the constant references to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News (a conflation I suppose of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and the New York Illustrated News). Similarly, Harper’s Weekly is almost always refered to as simply Harper’s, which is a confusing short-hand because Harper’s Monthly was just as important and just as successful during this period as was the weekly. Etcetera.

[8] Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 5, 1868 “This is a White Man’s Government.” 
Due to the paucity of the record the first chapter on Nast’s childhood is highly speculative. In contrast to Nast’s surely unreliable sunny version of his childhood, this new biography posits a dark and threatening one, with some thug on every street corner waiting to beat up the pudgy little German boy. Well, contrary to popular mythology the streets of antebellum New York were not lurking with danger. There is every reason to believe that Nast the boy would have melted right into the teeming landscape along with all of the thousands of men, women, and children going about their daily business.

[9] Harper’s Weekly, June 10, 1871 — Under The Thumb. 
Next comes the introduction of the Edwards family, among whom Nast would find his wife Sarah. To illuminate the Edwards household the book focuses on their relationship with the Edwards family cousin James Parton and his wife Fanny Fern. It seems to me the author gets this all wrong. Like the suggestion that the Edwards were parochial and small minded in their rejection of Fanny Fern.

[10] Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 21, 1871 The Only Thing They Respect or Fear.
Fanny, for her part, was a progressive, strong-willed, talent — the highest paid woman writer of her day. But she was also deeply suspicious, jealous, and ill-tempered. She was, in fact, not a very nice person. Disliking her was not so much a sign of a rejection of a liberated woman as it was the rejection of a manipulative and unhappy person. While Sarah the mother is accused of hypocrisy, it is not pointed out that Sarah Edwards, senior, the matriarch of the Edwards household, was herself strong-willed and a successful business woman who supported her family while her older self-effacing husband amused himself with half occupations that amounted to little more than excuses to go somewhere each day. The Edwards were a remarkable family of smart independent-minded women. Nast knew he was lucky when he won the junior Sarah’s heart; it is arguably the most fortunate event of Nast’s life.

[11] Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 23, 1871 A Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to “Blow Over”—“Let Us Prey.”
The chapters that follow have similar problems. Stating that Nast wasn’t a ‘political’ cartoonist during the war as the term is conventionally understood, simply ignores the scores of political cartoons he drew for the New York Illustrated News, Phunny Phellow and even Harper’s Weekly during this period. In fact, it disposes of the hundreds of cartoons that Nast drew for Phunny Phellow throughout the 1860s in a single paragraph. In the chapter on Nast’s later career the focus is on the admittedly important work he did for Nast’s Weekly in 1892-93, but the mountain of work he did for Time (1889-90), America (1889-90), the Illustrated American (1890-95), Collier’s Once-A-Week (1890-94), and other lesser journals is ignored.

[12] Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 11, 1871 — The Tammany Tiger Loose – “What are you going to do about it?”
The chapter on Tweed blithely retells the incident in which Nast is offered $500,000 by the Tweed Ring to study in Europe. Surely this story would have been broadcast during the campaign against Tweed, when Harper’s Weekly was throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the New York boss in an effort to prove his criminality. The truth is, the public had to wait thirty-plus years for it to be told, when all the principals were dead, making it a classic example of something to be recounted only with a heavy warning attached to 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.

[13] Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 30, 1871, Santa Claus’s Mail.
Halloran’s best chapter focuses on Nast’s work during the campaign of 1872. It succeeds in part because it covers such a short period of time. The delineation of and meditation on Nast’s evolving relationship with Curtis treated against a backdrop of the political events of the year makes for compelling and persuasive reading. This polished essay amid a multitude of meandering meditations only reminds us of how good a book this might have been. Alas, this new biography must be approached with great skepticism and a firm grasp of Nast’s story so the reader himself can discern the good that is here from the bad.

[14] Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 30, 1871 — The American River Ganges. The Priests and the Children.
A personal presentation of the book by Fiona Deans Halloran given to The Filson Historical Society on March 12, 2013 — 38 minutes long — is HERE. A radio interview — intro at 03:00 and start at 05:00 mins. — can be heard HERE. 

[15] 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.

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