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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mon, 31 Oct 2022 07:34:31 -0500
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The following book review was written by Kevin Mac Donnell for the Mark
Twain Forum.


_America's Most Influential Journalist: The Life, Times and Legacy of
Thomas Nast_. By John Adler. Harpweek Press, 2022. Pp. 830. $75.00.
Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-578-29454-4.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.

Copyright (c) 2022 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Most of those familiar with Mark Twain's biography know perhaps five things
about the Mark Twain-Thomas Nast relationship: That Nast approached Twain
in 1867 about a joint lecture tour and Twain declined because he was about
to embark on the _Quaker City_ Excursion that would lead to the writing of
_The Innocents Abroad_; that ten years later Twain approached Nast about a
joint lecture tour and Nast, weary of the lecture platform, declined,
allowing him to spend more time with his family; that Twain wanted Nast to
illustrate a book about England that he was planning to write in 1873; that
in November 1884, Twain and Cable stayed overnight in Nast's home during
their famous lecture tour, and bothered by the ticking of the clocks, Twain
tiptoed about the house in the middle of the night stopping every clock he
could find; and, finally, that Albert Bigelow Paine's 1904 full-length
biography of Nast prompted Twain to invite Paine to become his own official
biographer. But, as with most friends and acquaintances of Mark Twain, more
is known about Twain than those who populate the chapters of his biography.

Some of those secondary figures, like Joe Twichell and William Dean
Howells, have been the subject of excellent authoritative biographies,
while others, like George W. Cable, James Redpath, Charles Dudley Warner,
and James B. Pond, have been less fortunate, with shorter biographies--or
none at all. Nast falls somewhere in between, with Paine's 1904 biography
of Nast, like his 1912 biography of Twain, serving as a primary source of
information about its subject, upon which all subsequent biographies have
heavily depended. None of those subsequent biographies could fairly be
considered authoritative or exhaustive in their coverage, which comes as a
surprise, considering that Thomas Nast was the most famous and influential
political cartoonist in nineteenth-century America.

Nast is probably best-known for his cartoons that are credited with
bringing down Boss Tweed's corrupt Tammany Hall. In fact, when Tweed fled
the country to avoid prison, first to Cuba and then to Spain, it was a Nast
cartoon that led to his being recognized and arrested. Nast, like Twain,
knew that nothing could withstand the assault of laughter, and his art,
making a mockery of corruption and hypocrisy, influenced the outcomes of
national elections for three decades. The Republican elephant we know today
was Nast's creation, and although the Democratic donkey was around before
Nast, it was he who popularized it. Likewise, Uncle Sam was already a
symbol of the US, but the goateed Uncle Sam we know today was the image
popularized by Nast. The figure most often associated with Nast is Santa
Claus, and although images of a bearded Santa preceded Nast, the familiar
fat and jolly costumed Santa we know today was Nast's creation--Nast's
modern Santa appeared in more than fifty cartoons.

While Nast's creations are still familiar, Nast himself is not. But thanks
to the exhaustive result of John Adler's twenty-seven years of research,
Nast steps out of the shadows, to stand side-by-side with more of his
cartoons than have ever been collected in a single volume. The Nast that
emerges is a complicated man whose progressive politics was usually in
alignment with Twain's. He opposed slavery and later, racial segregation,
and portrayed black Americans sympathetically, if sometimes
stereotypically. He also witnessed terrible racist violence by Irish
Catholics, which provoked his anti-Irish and anti-Catholic cartoons, which
are not understood out of context today. He befriended President Grant,
whose memoirs Twain would later publish, and his cartoons were a key factor
in Grant's winning the presidency, which prompted an admiring letter from
Twain. He satirized not only Tammany Hall, but also the Credit Mobilier
scandal, just as Twain did in _The Gilded Age_. He became a Mugwump and
supported Grover Cleveland, as did Twain. He satirized bigotry against
Chinese Americans, as did Twain--but in contrast to Twain he supported the
rights of Native Americans. By the time he declined Twain's plan to do a
lecture tour together in 1877, Nast's career was at its apex, but soon
began a steady downward slide, thanks to competition from other cartoonists
like Joseph Keppler (who famously drew Twain on stage in 1873 in a pose
similar to Nast's portrayal of Twain in search of a copyright in 1882),
competition from other illustrated magazines like _Puck_, and a new editor
at _Harper's_ in the 1880s whose politics and vision for the magazine
clashed with Nast's.

John Adler, now in his 90s, began his research for this book on Nast in
1995, identifying all but five of the more than 450 people Nast depicted in
his more than 2,200 published cartoons. The most important of Nast's
cartoons appeared in _Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper_ in the late
1850s and in _Harper's Weekly_ in the 1860s, 70s, and 80s. Adler reproduces
over two dozen cartoons from _Frank Leslie_, 800 from _Harper's_,
approximately 200 more from other diverse sources, and about 100 cartoons
by others, including some depicting Nast himself. Nast's output was not
limited to magazine cartoons; his illustrations appeared in over 100 books,
including Twain's 1871 _Burlesque Autobiography_ (Twain also contributed
stories to three issues of _Nast's Illustrated Almanac_). His influence was
profound and enduring: President Lincoln reportedly called him his "best
recruiting sergeant" during the Civil War, and he was cited in 1988 by
Chief Justice William Rehnquist in _Hustler Magazine Inc._ vs. Jerry
Falwell. In addition to organizing this broad sweep of visual and factual
information, Adler also devotes attention to small details, such as
establishing the correct date of Nast's birth, once and for all,
reproducing Nast's Bavarian birth certificate. Of the more than 800 pages
of this book, hardly a page does not contain one or more Nast cartoons, at
times giving the reader the sensation of reading a graphic novel. The
volume concludes with 70 pages of endnotes, a subject index arranged in
outline form under themes and topics, an index to proper names, and a
comprehensive bibliography.

The typical Twainian will want to trace the parallels between Twain and
Nast's satirical approaches to the issues of their day, many of which
resonate in the present social climate, and this book offers fertile
ground. The general reader desiring to document Nast's astonishing
political influence, study his artistic techniques, track the social
movements of that era, sort out Nast's complicated relationships with the
political and literary figures of his time, or simply learn more about
Nast's family life and personal struggles, will find it all in this handy
hefty five-pound volume. Nast once wrote that he wished to be a "visual
historian" and Adler's stated aim is to "provide today's readers with the
same degree of insight and comprehension of his work that his original
viewers had" (iii). Thanks to Adler's hard work and grand presentation,
Thomas Nast has been granted that wish.