The illustrating man
A cartoonist who unseated a corrupt politico — and drew Santa Claus.
The name Thomas Nast may now be known principally to those who do crossword puzzles — he’s the fourletter answer for “Boss Tweed’s foe” — but his works live on in American journalism and culture with remarkable staying power. Remarkable, that is, because the fame of journalists usually is notable chiefly for its evanescence. The best and most widely known journalists of my youth — James Reston, Marquis Childs, Red Smith, even Walter Lippmann — are almost entirely forgotten outside the trade today and only dimly remembered inside it. I can’t think of a single person now practicing journalism whose name is likely to be well-known (if known at all) half a century down the pike.
Yet far more than a century after his death in December 1902, Nast remains a visible and influential presence. Fiona Deans Halloran, the author of this useful if rather strange biography, suggests that there are three principal reasons for this: Nast’s central role in bringing down the Tammany Hall regime of “Boss” William M. Tweed, an enduring symbol of big-city corruption; his popularization of the elephant as the mascot of the Republican Party; and his exquisite drawings of Christmas scenes and Santa Claus, which “of all his work . . . have survived best.” Nast, Halloran writes, “influences American representations of St. Nick more than 100 years after his death, and the sweet, loving qualities that endeared him to children in the 1870s continue to appeal to modern sensibilities.” This is absolutely true.
Nast was neither a reporter, a columnist nor an editor. He was what is commonly called a cartoonist, though he preferred — with some reason — to think of himself as an artist. Born in Bavaria in 1840, he emigrated to the United States with his family before he was 10 years old and quickly displayed an exceptional talent for drawing. By the mid-1850s, when he was in his mid-teens, illustrated weekly magazines and newspapers were emerging as a potent force in the American press, and by 1856 Nast was a full-time employee at one of the most prominent, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. It wasn’t long before he graduated to Harper’s Weekly, beginning a career there that lasted a quarter-century and made him both famous and, at least for a time, wealthy.
The Nast family came to the United States well before the great wave of immigration in the late 19th century. Though there were tensions between immigrant groups and those who thought of themselves as “real” Americans, there were no barriers to Nast’s ardent embrace of his adopted country, and embrace it he did. “For Nast,” Halloran writes, “the American dream was a tangible fact. . . . Nast believed quite literally that an American had freedoms and opportunities denied to the vast majority of the world,” and he celebrated that freedom to the end of his life. He was an unabashed sentimentalist who never doubted “those themes that he believed most powerful in American life: talent, opportunity, and hard work,” by contrast to the “greatest evils [of ] violence, hypocrisy, and greed.”
Thus when, in the 1870s, Nast launched his campaign against Tammany and Tweed, it was in greatest measure because the New York City political mob represented, to his mind, everything that threatened the America he cherished. His superb drawings of a bloated Tweed and his “Ring” proved powerful weapons indeed, and no one knew this better than Tweed himself. In a widely quoted remark that presciently foreshadowed the role of television in politics today, Tweed said, “Let’s stop them damned pictures. . . . I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read — but damned they can see pictures.” By the end of the decade, the Ring and Tweed himself were dead — though Tammany continued to thrive — and Nast had made his name:
“Two points make the Tweed period important. First, Nast’s participation in the campaign against Tweed catapulted him to the forefront of his profession. He became a man whose work could change minds, topple leaders, and influence elections. Not mere editorials, Nast’s cartoons captured public attention and inspired public outrage. Editorials supplied evidence. Nast helped people react. Second, the Tweed crusade made Nast a celebrity, toasted in both New York and Washington, D.C., and fame gave him power — political, social, and economic.”
That’s the right idea but the wrong word. Journalists can exercise influence but not power. Nast couldn’t force Tweed out of power any more than I can force you to buy — or not buy — the book under review today, but he could (and did) influence public opinion, just as I try (with what success I know not) to influence readers’ literary opinions. His campaign against the Tweed machine was his most famous and probably his most successful, but he was also a powerful voice for the rights of African Americans at a time when they enjoyed little support; his drawings from Union lines during the Civil War did much to boost home-front morale at a time when it often was fragile; he was a friend and passionate supporter of Ulysses Grant; he took on various political eminences, notably Charles Sumner, whom he regarded as dangerous; and through all this he refined the art of political cartooning, which as Halloran says “relies on a pointed combination of humor and gravity” and through which he “often demonstrated that his willingness to poke fun never erased the deadly seriousness of politics.”
His most lasting contribution to American culture, though, is the mythology his drawings did so much to create around Christmas. Not merely did he give us the jolly, bearded Saint Nick, but he portrayed innocent children dreaming dreams of sugar plums and weary soldiers greeting Santa in camp. Halloran gets it right: “Personal, familial, illustrative, and emotional, Nast’s drawings of Santa Claus occupy a cultural space separate from his political cartoons. They also reveal a great deal both about the values that motivated Nast and the social context in which he worked. For a man who entered the United States as a Bavarian (possibly Catholic) immigrant, the enthusiastic embrace of all things middle-class offers a striking sense of the power of social norms.”
She gets the idea right, but the language at times leaves much to be desired. Though Halloran — she teaches history at RowlandHall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City — generally eschews the clotted language so popular in academic liberal arts departments these days, her “Thomas Nast” can be a slog at times. She opens with an intelligent but overlong discussion of the themes she discerns in Nast’s life and work, a discussion that pushes the man and his life well into the background. To be sure, she did not have a lot of documentary evidence to work with, but one comes to the end of this book knowing a good deal more about the work than about the man.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party, as seen in this drawing from the March 8, 1884, edition of Harper’s Weekly.