Thus when, in the 1870s, Nast launched his campaign against Tammany and Tweed, it was in greatest measure because the New York City political mob represented, to his mind, everything that threatened the America he cherished. His superb drawings of a bloated Tweed and his “Ring” proved powerful weapons indeed, and no one knew this better than Tweed himself. In a widely quoted remark that presciently foreshadowed the role of television in politics today, Tweed said, “Let’s stop them damned pictures. . . . I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read — but damned they can see pictures.” By the end of the decade, the Ring and Tweed himself were dead — though Tammany continued to thrive — and Nast had made his name:
“Two points make the Tweed period important. First, Nast’s participation in the campaign against Tweed catapulted him to the forefront of his profession. He became a man whose work could change minds, topple leaders, and influence elections. Not mere editorials, Nast’s cartoons captured public attention and inspired public outrage. Editorials supplied evidence. Nast helped people react. Second, the Tweed crusade made Nast a celebrity, toasted in both New York and Washington, D.C., and fame gave him power — political, social, and economic.”
(Univ. of North Carolina) - ‘Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons’ by Fiona Deans Halloran
That’s the right idea but the wrong word. Journalists can exercise influence but not power. Nast couldn’t force Tweed out of power any more than I can force you to buy — or not buy — the book under review today, but he could (and did) influence public opinion, just as I try (with what success I know not) to influence readers’ literary opinions. His campaign against the Tweed machine was his most famous and probably his most successful, but he was also a powerful voice for the rights of African Americans at a time when they enjoyed little support; his drawings from Union lines during the Civil War did much to boost home-front morale at a time when it often was fragile; he was a friend and passionate supporter of Ulysses Grant; he took on various political eminences, notably Charles Sumner, whom he regarded as dangerous; and through all this he refined the art of political cartooning, which as Halloran says “relies on a pointed combination of humor and gravity” and through which he “often demonstrated that his willingness to poke fun never erased the deadly seriousness of politics.”
His most lasting contribution to American culture, though, is the mythology his drawings did so much to create around Christmas. Not merely did he give us the jolly, bearded Saint Nick, but he portrayed innocent children dreaming dreams of sugar plums and weary soldiers greeting Santa in camp. Halloran gets it right: “Personal, familial, illustrative, and emotional, Nast’s drawings of Santa Claus occupy a cultural space separate from his political cartoons. They also reveal a great deal both about the values that motivated Nast and the social context in which he worked. For a man who entered the United States as a Bavarian (possibly Catholic) immigrant, the enthusiastic embrace of all things middle-class offers a striking sense of the power of social norms.”
She gets the idea right, but the language at times leaves much to be desired. Though Halloran — she teaches history at Rowland-Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City — generally eschews the clotted language so popular in academic liberal arts departments these days, her “Thomas Nast” can be a slog at times. She opens with an intelligent but overlong discussion of the themes she discerns in Nast’s life and work, a discussion that pushes the man and his life well into the background. To be sure, she did not have a lot of documentary evidence to work with, but one comes to the end of this book knowing a good deal more about the work than about the man.