The il­lus­trat­ing man

A car­toon­ist who un­seated a cor­rupt politico — and drew Santa Claus.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - yard­leyj@wash­post.com

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.

UNIVER­SITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS

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.

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