Friday, January 19, 2007

Thomas Nast

A few months ago I was at a party at John K's house, and, having had a few drinks, I was railing about how cartoonists were once important and influential contributors to culture, and not the hired "wrists" many of us have become today, grinding out corporate product for a few bucks. Thomas Nast was one of the names I held up as an example of how cartoonists once had integrity and could change society - Well it was obvious that none of the "younger" crowd, many of whom were students or graduates of expensive animation schools, had ever heard of Thomas Nast or had any idea what I was talking about. (could have had something to do with the alchohol)

Steve Worth suggested I write a blog about Nast. At the time I was really busy with work and with finishing my "Attila" movie, and there was no way I had the time to get into this "bloggging" stuff. Well, now my workload has eased off quite a lot, so I have more time to hang out of the internet and post stuff on a blog and read other people's blogs - So here is the promised piece on Thomas Nast

Nast is remembered today as the "Father of American Political Cartoonists". While still a teeenager in 1860 a New York newspaaper sent him to London to cover a prize-fight (In those days, pre-photography, newspapers hired artists to illustrate the news - America was a nation of immigrants, many of whom could not read, so this was a way to sell papers to illiterate "New Americans") He stayed on in Europe to follow Garibaldi's army and document the unification of Italy. Returning to America, he "covered" Lincoln's campaign for President, supporting the "abolitionist" Republican party against the "states' rights" Democrats. (Yes, the Democrats supported slavery! Times have changed!) Nast drew some great propaganda in favor of the Union during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln said of him: "Thomas 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."

But Nast's most famous crusade was against Wiliam Marcy "Boss" Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City after the war. Tweed ran a notoriously corrrupt ring of politicoes, controlling all the politics in New York state. Through the late 1860's, Nast did a famous series of cartoons, mercilessly exposing the corruption of the "Tweed Ring". Tweed tried to bribe Nast, offering $500,000 to drop the whole thing. (I can only imagine how much that would be in today's dollars!) Harper's championed their star cartoonist: "Believing that 'every man has his price' they have tried to buy him off. To their astonishment they found they were dealing with a man who was not for sale. Then they tried the efficacy of threats. Letters of the most violent character poured in upon him ... threatening violence and even death ... The pages of this paper show and will continue to show that threats are quite as impotent as bribes with Mr. Nast."

Nast kept up the deluge of cartoons, and the Tweed Ring was toppled from power in the elections of 1871. "Boss" Tweed fled the country to avoid arrest, but he was recognized as he was hiding out in Spain. Someone recognized him based on Nast's caricature!

Nast continued his career, creating the famous "Republican Elephant" and the "Democratic Donkey" as well as drawing the modern concept of Santa Clause (before Coca-Cola)

Just writing this story makes me feel like a complete wuss! The proud heritage of cartoonism has been laid so low! We cartoonists have sold our souls to faceless corporations for a few pennies - when it was our destiny to change the world!

Research for this post is from "Th. Nast, His Period and his Pictures" by Albert Bigelow Paine, 1971


Anonymous said...

Wow, we acttually learned about Nast in Media arts class, (in our ill-fated "animation" unit.) but we only saw his famous Tammany cartoon which isn't as good as these.

These are great, but they're not as cartoony as later cartoons. (Whoah, an example of something getting better with time, amazing, isn't it?)

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Wow! Nice blog!!!! I just discovered it! All of your entries so far have been extremely interesting!

Unknown said...

hey kent. real nice blog you got going here. i knew a scant amount of thomas nast info before, so thanks for enlightening me. i like the dirty old man version of st. nick. good hanging out with you tuesday night too. c-ya.

akira said...

thanks for posting that stuff, it's so awesome, ive been looking at a lot of daumier, so it's great to see another great artist of similar and different talents.

Jenny Lerew said...

Heh--Kent, your sudden expostulating in the last paragraph reaches a Fitzgeraldian pitch at the end--but what a great summation of Father Nast--who I knew of as a kid(but then, we had some old book on comics of the 1890s-1920s at my house in those years). The extent of my knowledge back then was 1) Nast=Boss Tweed's downfall, and 2) Nast invented the modern image of Santa Claus. It IS a damn shame that cartoonists don't have that sort of influence today, or any shot at it. Most editorial cartoons sure packed a wallop back then-Nast, Winsor, you name it; the tabloid press artists pulled no punches. I was looking at one of the collections of McCay's editorial single-panels at a comics shop the other day, and was both impressed and depressed to see how many of the themes he took on could be reprinted today with NO changes-still being completely true and relevant. Same goes with Nast.
If anything gets my goat it's the silly but prevalent belief that the Good Olde Days were populated by paper doll people in frills and quaint clothes, to a man naive and victorian. The reality as drawn by people such as Nast is something else, and deserves to be remembered and revered.

Kent B said...

High praise, indeed!
Eddie is the best natural storyteller in the business!

Unknown said...

I've seen the two questions before! It was in my social studies book in Elementary school! I had no clue what it was about at the time but I couldn't take my eyes off of it!