The name Thomas Nast may now be known principally to those who do crossword puzzles — he’s the four-letter answer for “Boss Tweed’s foe” — but his works live on in American journalism and culture with remarkable staying power. Remarkable, that is, because the fame of journalists usually is notable chiefly for its evanescence. The best and most widely known journalists of my youth — James Reston, Marquis Childs, Red Smith, even Walter Lippmann — are almost entirely forgotten outside the trade today and only dimly remembered inside it. I can’t think of a single person now practicing journalism whose name is likely to be well-known (if known at all) half a century down the pike.
Yet far more than a century after his death in December 1902, Nast remains a visible and influential presence. Fiona Deans Halloran, the author of this useful if rather strange biography, suggests that there are three principal reasons for this: Nast’s central role in bringing down the Tammany Hall regime of “Boss” William M. Tweed, an enduring symbol of big-city corruption; his popularization of the elephant as the mascot of the Republican Party; and his exquisite drawings of Christmas scenes and Santa Claus, which “of all his work . . . have survived best.” Nast, Halloran writes, “influences American representations of St. Nick more than 100 years after his death, and the sweet, loving qualities that endeared him to children in the 1870s continue to appeal to modern sensibilities.” This is absolutely true.
(Univ. of North Carolina) - ‘Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons’ by Fiona Deans Halloran
Nast was neither a reporter, a columnist nor an editor. He was what is commonly called a cartoonist, though he preferred — with some reason — to think of himself as an artist. Born in Bavaria in 1840, he emigrated to the United States with his family before he was 10 years old and quickly displayed an exceptional talent for drawing. By the mid-1850s, when he was in his mid-teens, illustrated weekly magazines and newspapers were emerging as a potent force in the American press, and by 1856 Nast was a full-time employee at one of the most prominent, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. It wasn’t long before he graduated to Harper’s Weekly, beginning a career there that lasted a quarter-century and made him both famous and, at least for a time, wealthy.
The Nast family came to the United States well before the great wave of immigration in the late 19th century. Though there were tensions between immigrant groups and those who thought of themselves as “real” Americans, there were no barriers to Nast’s ardent embrace of his adopted country, and embrace it he did. “For Nast,” Halloran writes, “the American dream was a tangible fact. . . . Nast believed quite literally that an American had freedoms and opportunities denied to the vast majority of the world,” and he celebrated that freedom to the end of his life. He was an unabashed sentimentalist who never doubted “those themes that he believed most powerful in American life: talent, opportunity, and hard work,” by contrast to the “greatest evils [of] violence, hypocrisy, and greed.”