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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.
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.