Thursday, December 01, 2011

Thomas Nast: Cartoonist, Icon and Bigot

Above: Thomas Nast: not worthy?

The New Jersey Hall of Fame wants to induct Thomas Nast. This 19th century cartoonist created (according to his Wikipedia page):

"... the iconic drawings of Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, the Republican Party elephant, the Democratic Party donkey and Columbia, the image of America as a woman."

And he brought down Tammany Hall.

But the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is part of the New Jersey Hall of Fame, points out that Mr. Nast was a bigot. Nast, who was a German Protestant, was anti-Irish, and anti-Irish Catholic. He portrayed the Irish as drunks in his cartoons.

Worse yet, the New Jersey Hall of Fame did not call upon the AOH to vote.

New Jersey AOH State President, Sean Pender, wrote Don Jay Smith, Executive Director of the Hall of Fame.

“Mr. Nast made no bones about his disrespect and contempt towards the Irish Catholics of the late nineteenth century. What is further hard to believe is that the procedure that your organization employs to review nominations did not come across this.”

More here, from Ray O'Hanlon, writing for the Irish Echo. 

So long as we're cherry picking, we might also add that Thomas Nast supported the plight of the Native Americans, that he supported Abolition, that he fought to end political corruption. Tweed offered him a $100,000 bribe, to stop drawing those "damned pictures," which he turned down.

Late in life, to give you an idea of the esteem in which he was held -- this cartoonist, Mr. Nast, was appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to United States' Consul General for Ecuador. After selflessly helping many people and businesses there escape a yellow fever epidemic, he succumbed and died from the disease on December 7, 1902.

Judging people from history with our present-day morals is a dicey thing to do. Heck, we have slave holders on our money.

Racist immigrant humor was, unfortunately, typical back then; a staple of the cartoon and the music hall -- just like flatulence jokes and getting hit in the nuts is part of popular humor now. To condemn a man for his faults and not weigh it against his roster successes is not realistic. And I would like to think that we are living in a world where Protestants and Catholics can get along.


Mike said...

Nast's anti-Irish cartoons went beyond depicting them as music hall drunks and Steppin McFetchit fools. They were not only deeply offensive from a graphic point of view, but upheld, most often, the teaching of Protestant religion in schools and promoted the notion that Catholic politicians were absolutely beholden to the Pope -- which may have been true to an extent, but no moreso than Protestant politicians would vote their religious convictions.

It's not just a matter of going along with the prejudices of the time but of actively campaigning to uphold them when they are challenged. That's quite a different thing.

Though I bristle each year when the award in his name is bestowed, I think he belongs in the hall of fame because he did, indeed, transform cartooning, and to a greater degree than DW Griffith transformed cinema. But, like Griffith, his promotion of toxic, actively racist attitudes needs to be footnoted whenever his name is mentioned.

As I used to say when presenting his portion of the history of cartooning, I acknowledge his greatness and I hope, wherever he is today, that he's nice and warm.

Dan Reynolds said...

I don't have too much to say about his anti-Catholicism other than to say, being smart and accomplished doesn't make someone all-knowing or even wise. I'm sure he know understands better what bigotry leads to.
I will say, though, think you're off the mark with the statement..."Racist immigrant humor was, unfortunately, typical back then; a staple of the cartoon and the music hall -- just like flatulence jokes and getting hit in the nuts is part of popular humor now..."
I don't understand any comparison racism and flatulence jokes. I'm nonplussed about this. One is morally wrong and repugnant, the other is, well, just hot air. Bad people are racist. EVERYONE is gassy.

KevinK said...

I suppose we should remove any positive reference to any notable slaveholders in our nation's history as well, then?

Lampooning cultural or ethnic stereotypes because his political (and thoroughly corrupt) targets were predominantly Irish seems classless and ignorant by today's standards - but even in WWII our government produced wildly insulting propaganda mocking the physical and cultural stereotypes of our enemies.

Nast's cartoons need to be considered in the context of his day. To do otherwise would be revisionist and dishonest.

MichaelDooley said...

Here's my column on the Nast controversy; I'd like to hear what you think...