Fiona Deans Halloran: The Literacy of Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, by Fiona Deans Halloran

Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the founding father of American political cartooning, is perhaps best known for his cartoons portraying political parties as the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. Nast’s legacy also includes a trove of other political cartoons, his successful attack on the machine politics of Tammany Hall in 1871, and his wildly popular illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly magazine.  In a thoroughgoing and lively biography, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, Fiona Deans Halloran interprets his work, explores his motivations and ideals, and illuminates the lasting legacy of Nast’s work on American political culture.

In the following guest post, Halloran explores the different forms of literacy that shaped Nast’s life and career as a political cartoonist.

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What does it mean to be literate? This question challenges anyone who seeks to understand the life and work of Thomas Nast. First, on account of his literary strengths and weaknesses, and second on account of the supposed literacy of Nast’s audience.

Nast entered the United States in 1846, a child immigrant from Bavaria. Enrolled in an English-speaking school, he unwittingly fell victim to a childish prank. Another boy directed him to a line. Nast stood there, waiting his turn. It was the spanking line. Running home to mama at lunch, Nast flatly refused to return to school. Mrs. Nast tried a German-speaking school with only a little more success. By his teens, Nast cared more for drawings and the excitement of the streets than for anything taught in a classroom.

For the rest of his life, Nast’s writing betrayed his lack of formal education. Poor penmanship, phonetic spelling, and an almost total disregard for the rules of punctuation characterize the few letters that survive. Nast’s wife, Sallie, wrote business correspondence for most of his career. But facility in the written word represents only a tiny portion of his interest in words.

Nast was, as his work betrays and his friends testified, a voracious consumer of language. He and Sallie read the papers every day. They read Shakespeare aloud. They befriended masters of wit and narrative—most famously Mark Twain. And in his cartoons Thomas Nast employed a visual language that referred clearly and repeatedly to literature. He loved to insert ancient and classical references into modern political cartoons. Symbols of theater appeared regularly, too. He borrowed themes, plotlines, and quotes anywhere he found inspiration.

The most famous complaint about Nast’s talent came from his arch-nemesis, William M. “Boss” Tweed. Attacked by The New York Times in print, Tweed hardly batted an eyelash. His constituents, he claimed, couldn’t read. But Nast’s work—that was a different story. Literate or not, voters could easily understand the corruption, greed, and villainy Nast linked to the Tweed Ring. “Them damned pictures,” as Tweed so famously called them, transcended literacy.

But did they? On the most basic level, they appealed to and informed anyone who saw them. It’s true that you need not read to understand the point. But Nast’s propensity for literary allusions played on the very complexities in literacy that his own life demonstrates. As Lawrence Levine showed more than twenty years ago, urban voters enjoyed an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare. They knew the dialog, argued over interpretations by actors, and even rioted to establish their preferences.

So when Nast employed Shakespearian imagery, the literacy that mattered most lay not in the dictionary or the pencil but in the public’s familiarity with the story. He knew that Caesar, Othello, and Richard III lived in the imagination as powerfully as they did on the page. Nast used that knowledge to show New Yorkers a vision of Tweed’s malfeasance they could easily comprehend. His literacy was their literacy, and the bond it forged helped him destroy Tweed and (temporarily) bring down the Tammany domination of New York politics.

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Fiona Deans Halloran teaches history at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is author of Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons.

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