The U.S. in a Comic Looking Glass: Caricature and National Character

A certain comic spirit, and perhaps more specifically a comic spirit of caricature, has long been caught up with U.S. cultural politics. From the “Join, or Die” provocation that appeared along with Benjamin Franklin’s illustration of a snake cut up into eight pieces (to signify the thirteen original colonies) through the editorial cartoons of Thomas Nast to so many comic pictures that deign to portray a twenty-first-century zeitgeist of militarism and culture wars, caricature persists to capture some of the motivating factors behind our collective thoughts and beliefs and actions—especially in vexing historical moments and perhaps even more so in moments of crisis and conflict.

In Caricature and National Character: The U.S. at War, I consider how the oeuvres of particular editorial cartoonists activate perceptions about shared experiences and collective identities and—most pointedly—characteristics of Americanism in wartimes.

As expressed in a popular maxim, true character is revealed when one is faced with the most critical of predicaments. So, too, is it that a nation’s true character is revealed when that nation is at war. In the fog and folly of warfare, nationalistic myths meet hard realities, the sacred is confronted by the profane, and the sublime is forced to confront the ridiculous. These and more tensions between the visual in comic politics and the comicality in visual politicking get teased out in Caricature and National Character. More specifically, such tensions are taken up for how they play out in images and ideas of what it means to defend American virtues and vices when they are pegged as democratic weapons or put forth as under threat.

Crucially, the comic politics of caricature are present in everyday expressions of warring positions and then again in various rhetorical cultures when the U.S. is, in fact, at war. We see this in the editorial cartoons so rampant during the moments that the U.S. is carrying out an official military engagement. We also see this in the variety of ways that cultural warfare is seen and put on display. Consider the “Spanish Brute” in this editorial cartoon by Grant E. Hamilton, which graced the cover of Judge in July 1898.

Grant E. Hamilton, “The Spanish Brute Adds Mutilation to Murder,” Judge, July 9, 1898, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Or, consider this WWII-era caricature of ideational “bugs,” which represents one of many in editorial cartoons by Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss, “What this country needs is a good mental insecticide,” PM Magazine, June, 11, 1942, Dr. Seuss Political Cartoons, Dr. Seuss Went to War, UC San Diego.

Countless examples are everywhere in public discourse today, dealing with post-9/11 warism, the racialization of warmaking on the home front, gun violence, and more. In each case, what we find are comic pictures that provoke us to pick at the scabs and scratch the surfaces of caricatures that distill who “we” are. What we find, too, are the makings of problems with but also some of the possibilities in seeing a coherent nationalistic image of a people.

The story about the problems and possibilities of wartime caricatures that I tell in Caricature and National Character begins with World War I, when U.S. Americanism was codified as a force for democracy and nevertheless a burgeoning war machine. It traverses matters of life, liberty, and happiness, as well as armed conflict, imperialism, jingoism, racism, and more by engaging caricatures of national character that grapple with American values through a mix of artistry, provocation, and comic effect in the portrayal of “good” Selves and “bad” Others. As I put it in the book, to do this is to take stock of “different perspectives as well as perspectives of difference” in a way that sheds light on a form of “rhetorical laughter that lets us put our ugliest expressions and enactments of collective selfhood back together with the very burdens of good and bad character that might otherwise stay omitted, if not go without seeing.”

These differences and perspectives show forth in the works of representative cartoonists in specific wartimes. For my part, they are James Montgomery Flagg during the First World War, Dr. Seuss during World War II, Ollie Harrington in the Cold War (but really in the Vietnam era), and Ann Telnaes in this post-9/11 era. Each of these cartoonists places distinctive emphases on crises in national character, which are distilled in so many caricatures of patriotic (and unpatriotic) citizenship, political virtue (and vice), civic engagements and civil strife on the home front, and institutionalized politics as they come up against a system of power brokers and—more recently—a feeling of political and cultural partisanship that is suffused with presidential treachery. I look at Flagg’s famous, or maybe now infamous, caricature of Uncle Sam and its iterations.

James Montgomery Flagg, “GET OFF THAT THRONE,” Leslie’s Weekly, December, 29, 1917.

I look at Dr. Seuss’s outlandish caricatures of This and That—This and That American Principle, This and That American Self, This and That American Other. I look at Harrington’s coming-to-grips with homegrown friend-enemy relations through his purposeful use of black children as comic foils for the foibles of the warmakers in the Adult World. Finally, I look at Telnaes’ comic travesties of war culture as something of a Wonderland spawned by the post-9/11 collective neurosis and Trump-era anti-democratic sentimentality—and, lately, by COVID-19 era politicking. All of this is to reconcile an animating idea that emerges out of Caricature and National Character, and here it is:

War has become—or, has long been—a cultural way of life. Not in the sense that ordinary citizens participate in its conduct, but rather that war sustains the very ordinariness of violent rhetoric, political vitriol, and actual violence that characterizes so many views of contemporary national culture in the United States.

This, it seems, is characteristic of our nationalism, and it is everywhere addressed in the caricatures I look at in the book. And it is characteristic of a nationalistic sentiment that translates in ways of seeing the U.S. as a bit like a caricature of itself.

Christopher J. Gilbert is Assistant Professor of English in the areas of Communication & Media at Assumption University. In addition to his book Caricature and National Character: The United States at War (published by Penn State University Press), he is the author of numerous articles and essays, most of which look at the role of humor in cultural politics and particularly comic responses to controversies and conflicts around matters of collective identity in rhetorical cultures. These publications appear in a variety of leading journals including Studies in American HumorThe Quarterly Journal of SpeechRhetoric Society QuarterlyCommunication & Critical/Cultural StudiesText & Performance Quarterly, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Philosophy & Rhetoric, and more, as well as in several edited volumes.

Christopher J. Gilbert’s new book, Caricature and National Character: The United States at War is now available from the Penn State University Press. You can obtain his book with a 30% discount using the checkout code NR21.

Professor Gilbert talked about topics related to his new book at the 2020 Quarry Farm Symposium “American Humor and Matters of Empire.” His talk can be found HERE.