- Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran
There is an old adage that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For over one hundred years, Albert Bigelow Paine’s biography of Thomas Nast has been [End Page 613] considered the definitive (albeit imperfect) source on Nast’s life and work. Fiona Deans Halloran, in her new biography of Thomas Nast, attempts to change that. Unfortunately, her efforts have failed.
Draper Hill, political cartoonist for the Detroit News and Nast scholar before his death in 2009, knew how irresistible it was to have too much information. His exhaustive research kept him from completing his biography of Nast. Halloran might have taken his cue and cut extraneous information from her book. For example, scalding descriptions of the animosity that existed between the wife of a family friend and Nast’s future wife, Sallie Edwards, provide a tasty morsel of gossip but serve as little more than a diversion from the topic of Nast. Throughout her book, Halloran makes assumptions and leverages them to impose her own views. In chapter 2, she asserts that Nast gleaned his political values and education from the mean streets of New York City, a place rife with immigrant Irish lowlife, when in fact we have no evidence to believe Nast had anything more than an average childhood. She then claims Nast must have grown up in a reasonably literate household because his father was a musician who could read sheet music.
In briefly discussing Nast’s anti-Catholicism, Halloran liberally blends in popular contemporary views of Irish immigrants until her premise seems to dwell more on ethnic Irish identity than on Catholicism. Halloran writes that Nast chose to travel to England to cover the Heenan-Sayers fight because of his keen interest in boxing, although in the next paragraph she focuses on Nast’s need to earn money and further his career. Halloran writes that Nast’s participation in the fight to destroy the Tweed Ring “catapulted him to the forefront of his profession” (120). It can be argued his political cartoons that helped elect Lincoln and Grant had already done that. She gets the dates wrong when writing that Nast’s winning of a lucrative contract with Harper’s Weekly led to the purchase of his home in Morristown, New Jersey, when in fact the two events happened in reverse order. Halloran also asserts that Nast’s house and its contents were “a cartoon world” that shaped him, contributing to “the maturation of his work,” and that the Morristown house “cemented Nast’s status as a mature cartoonist” (195, 197). Villa Fontana may have resembled a cabinet of curiosities, but it is doubtful the house or its contents were capable of wielding that much influence on Nast’s career.
Despite her criticisms of Paine, Halloran repeats anecdotal material from his biography as though it were fact. Halloran repeats the story that Nast moved his family to Morristown because of threats from Tweed’s henchmen, a story that has never been substantiated. In fact, Halloran [End Page 614] repeats events from Paine’s book so often her book sometimes reads more like a review of Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures.
Halloran also contradicts herself. She confuses John Heenan’s and Tom Sayers’s countries of origin, though to her credit she later corrects herself. And Halloran completely misses an important point about Nast’s Christmas drawings. Despite their popularity, they were not drawn exclusively for commercial gain. They were often drawn to amuse his children, who were usually the subjects in his Christmas drawings (as were his home and many other sights in Morristown). Halloran also writes that Nast used his youngest child, Cyril, as a model for some of the Christmas drawings, overlooking all the other Nast children who appeared in numerous Christmas illustrations.
Halloran incorrectly describes the Grand Caricaturama, confusing it with the Grand Masquerade Ball (Bal d’Opera) held at Manhattan’s Academy of...