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Few figures in the history of art or journalism in the United States have been so mythologized as the political caricaturist Thomas Nast. Despite his fame, comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid to Nast’s career, perhaps because editorial cartooning falls outside the traditional disciplinary concerns of pertinent academic fields. Fiona Deans Halloran’s new biography of Nast fills a conspicuous void by supplying an engaging and erudite account of the life and times of the celebrated artist.
For over a century the standard reference for all writing about Nast has remained Albert Bigelow Paine’s authorized 1904 biography Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures. But Paine’s book, which relied heavily upon interviews conducted with the artist late in life, often reads more as hagiography than history. Thus Halloran’s biography, which begins and ends with reflections upon Paine’s earlier work, provides a welcome alternative to Paine’s quite sycophantic appraisal. Although references to Paine’s seminal source necessarily abound, Halloran effectively anchors her narrative with surviving correspondence and diaries, plus other primary sources.
Eight of Halloran’s twelve chapters focus upon the years from 1863 to 1877, when Nast enjoyed celebrity as the premier artist for the popular illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly. But the first two chapters, dealing with Nast’s youth, a period from which virtually no primary documents regarding the artist survive, present the most innovative contributions to the field. Detailing Nast’s family circumstances and social environment growing up in lower Manhattan, “within easy walking distance … of a warren of the most terrible slums in America,” Halloran successfully undermines the rosy tales Nast recounted to Paine about his childhood (p. 12).
This explicit skepticism toward Paine’s fawning and anecdotal chronicle might have been applied profitably to later sections of the [End Page 302] book as well. While steering clear of Paine’s overt hero worship, her account of Nast’s heyday does embrace some of the fanciful elements of Paine’s biography. For instance, her telling of the famous episode of Nast’s persistent caricatures lambasting “Boss” Tweed and his cronies retains the portrayal of Nast as virtually the sole adversary confronting Tweed. Halloran writes that “The New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, and Nast’s unrelenting pencil were the primary weapons in the fight” (p. 119). Yet, the story of Nast’s single-handed assault upon the Tammany Hall political machine surely deserves to be treated with as many grains of salt as his nostalgic childhood reminiscences. Other historians have described a far more complex scandal stemming not just from Nast’s brilliant cartoons, but from resentful antagonism toward Tweed from some of his underlings, hostility from reformers within the national Democratic Party, as well as opposition from powerful Wall Street interests.
If there is a weakness to Halloran’s volume, it is perhaps the dearth of attention paid to Nast’s artistic output beyond the pages of Harper’s Weekly. Although such a focus is logical, since Nast became a national celebrity through his long association with that journal, a more complete and nuanced picture would have emerged with sustained examinations of his other artistic pursuits, both “high” and “low,” from paintings to book illustrations to cheap caricatures. A few factual errors accentuate the disregard of Nast’s professional activities outside of Harper’s Weekly. Most notably, Nast’s decorative caricatures for the spring Opera Ball in 1866 are mistakenly conflated with his Grand Caricaturama, a theatrical production mounted twenty months later that featured large, painted, satirical canvases by Nast accompanied by musical selections (pp. 92-94). With regard to the Harper’s Weekly work, Halloran offers excellent analyses and explanations of quite a few cartoons by Nast, but many of the reproduced woodcuts are only mentioned briefly (and several in the closing chapters are printed with very poor image resolution).
Despite some shortcomings, Halloran’s spirited account provides a refreshing alternative to Paine’s outdated volume. Joining Morton [End Page 303] Keller...