Occasionally, it’s annoying to live with history. But we do.
A state Assemblyman is asking the New Jersey Hall of Fame to withdraw the cartoonist Thomas Nast from its list of nominees, according to NJ.com’s Statehouse Bureau.
Nast, who lived in Morristown for many years, is considered the “Father of the American Cartoon,” and may be just about the most important political cartoonist in American history.
But he also drew some anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic illustrations. And that’s not just a matter of interpretation. They’re bad.
“For instance, three notable works — The American River Ganges, The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things, and St. Patrick’s Day 1867 — all depict Irish Catholics in a demeaning light,” Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer) wrote to New Jersey Hall of Fame Executive Director Don Jay Smith.
Smith responded that the anti-Irish cartoons were just a small part of Nast’s work, and they had more to do with New York’s Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, than with the Irish themselves. Irish immigrants were just a big part of Tammany’s voting base.
But the larger point is that all our heroes are stained, if you look far back enough. Historical times mean historical attitudes that later generations may find repugnant.
For instance, as a Jew, I wish the following people were not important, and did not deserve to be remembered: T.S. Elliot, Mel Gibson, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Thomas Edison, William Shakespeare, Henry Ford and Walt Disney.
An African-American might also include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and just about every other president of the United States before, say, Teddy Roosevelt.
We have to let historical figures be men of their times (though it’s another thing entirely if we find out Nast was murdering Irish children in his den). Yeah, Nast drew cartoons that denigrated minorities (Chinese, too). But here’s what else he did:
* Almost single-handedly brought down William M. “Boss” Tweed and his Tammany Hall associates, who were draining tens of millions of dollars from New York in the late 19th century.
* Made Santa Claus the fat, bearded man we know today.
* Created the Republican Party elephant and the Democratic Party donkey.
* Gave Uncle Sam a beard.
And just in general, he set the template for future editorial cartoonists right up to the present day. He’s important, and he deserves to be remembered. That is something that will have to irritate the Irish, just like it irritates me whenever I watch (and enjoy) “Lethal Weapon” – or turn on a light bulb.