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Reviewed by:
  • The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg
  • Jonathan Greenberg
The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg. Iain Topliss. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Pp. xiii + 325. $45.00 (cloth).

The cover of Iain Topliss's study of four New Yorker cartoonists features a 1946 Charles Addams drawing called "Sad Movie." The cartoon depicts not the movie itself but a well-dressed middle-class audience whose faces—eyes wide, brows furrowed, tears running down cheeks—tell us that they find the film upsetting, maybe even tragic. In the second row, slightly off-center, sits the character later named Uncle Fester, his face lit up with a grin. As in so many Addams cartoons, no caption is provided. His smile is the only punchline the joke needs.

The joke, as Topliss points out, hinges on the disjunction between the tears of the crowd and the glee of the lone deviant viewer. Yet, as Topliss also notes, it wouldn't be accurate to call Uncle Fester the object of our laughter, since, despite his violation of the social norm established within the cartoon, the cartoon's "reader" sides with him against the rest of the audience. The reader, laughing too, is complicit in Fester's perversity, sharing his emotional distance from the [End Page 401] movie and his aesthetic superiority to the crowd. If "the mind is like an audience," as William Empson wrote, then this audience is like a mind: each of us has a sadistic ghoul in the seats of his own intrapsychic cinema.1 Indeed, we might even say that this audience is an image of the modernist mind. For whether you take your version from Addams or Arno, Steig or Steinberg, modernism—or more loosely, being modern—involves codes of sophistication, models of how we might respond emotionally not simply to the fact of human suffering, but to the aesthetic representations that suffering necessarily assumes. Call it the Uncle Fester Principle.2

This modern, public mind—one part Uncle Fester, many parts affluent middlebrow—is precisely what Topliss focuses on in studying The New Yorker. Although the magazine was, and remains, written for a white, professional elite, Topliss argues that for this very reason it offers a privileged look at "the inner history of the middle class" (3). The signature genre of The New Yorker has always been the cartoon, and Topliss, having looked at some 69,000 of them, concludes that their middle-class readers were less conformist than usually depicted—that the cartoons in fact register a struggle against the demands of conformity, showing us "microconflicts in the fraught biography of the modern subject" (5). The very topicality of the cartoon enables it to capture what Raymond Williams called "new social experiences"—experiences that are, in Topliss's words, "individual, contingent, and deeply personal, yet at the same time social and general" (10). Private, interior moments of confusion or realization occurring in the rush or routine of daily life, these experiences are yet public because they turn out to be shared across a social class.

Fittingly, then, Topliss's analysis works in both public and private registers; a sociological introduction and conclusion (addressing readership and advertisements) sandwich four psychoanalytically oriented chapters. One can only gesture at the complexity of Topliss's thorough, often brilliant, portraits of these artists, which together give something close to a history of the magazine itself. Peter Arno is read as a Baudelairean dandy, moving through a new New York, "the very capital of capitalism" (21) in search of pleasure; the Babe Ruth cartoonist in the magazine's 1920s murderer's row line-up,3 he rejects American Puritanism and forges a new standard of sophistication: "If you got Arno, you belonged. A taste for Arno signaled your membership in a new imaginary community created by the magazine" (28). This taste had both exclusive and democratizing aspects. Arno's erotically charged drawings, in spite of their sexism, grant sexual desire to the newly liberated urban woman; his infatuation with Manhattan's elites is modified by his attention to the sardonic chauffers, waiters, and butlers who served them...


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