Born 152 years ago this week in Orangeville in northern Illinois, Art Young became a genuine American voice: rowdy and radical, humble and thoughtful, engaging and entertaining: one of the 20th century’s premier editorial cartoonists. A new book helps remind us what a gem he was.
Technically talented, Young was a cartoonist who was insightful progessive and also amusing and kind. Art Spiegelman, best known for his graphic novel “Maus,” introduces the new book, “To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life and Art of Art Young.”
Young was “the greatest radical political cartoonist in our history, a one-of-a-kind American original,” Spielgelman wrote, adding that his illustrations were “drawn with justifiable anger but permeated with genial warmth.”
Young’s life work was a daring mixture of mischief, criticism and compassion – Spiegelman said Young had a “generous soul and empathic heart.”
Edited by Glenn Bray and Frank M. Young, “To Laugh That We May Not Weep” is a comprehensive retrospective of a compelling figure, with some 800 of his works featured.
Art Young started studying to be a painter at the Chicago Academy of Design in 1884 when he was 18 – a year after he had his first published cartoon, for Judge magazine. Eventually, he decided he’d rather have a lot of readers would see his work instead of a rich guy displaying something in a room. Young was just 20 when he covered the Haymarket trials for the Chicago Evening Mail, after which he drew for Chicago’s Daily News and Tribune, and gradually converted from a Republican to a Socialist.
Modern popular provocateurs known as editorial (or political) cartoonists date to Thomas Nast, the ground-breaking artist at Harper’s Weekly in the 1800s, but the vocation runs through Herblock and Pat Oliphant in the 20th century to today’s Scott Stantis, Wiley Miller and others who survived cutbacks.
Young’s subjects were mostly social topics: extremes of poverty and wealth, hypocrisy by churches, war and gun control, and the mainstream press. But he was less an ideologue than an idealist, not criticizing the upper crust as much as greed.
“I am antagonistic to the money-making fetish because it sidetracks our natural selves, leaving us no alternative but to accept the situation and take any kind of work for a weekly wage,” he wrote in his memoir, published during the Great Depression. “We are caught and hurt by the system, and the more sensitive we are to life’s highest values, the harder it is to bear the abuse.”
Young’s work was featured in a variety of publications – The Nation, The Liberator and the Daily Worker; Puck, Life and the Saturday Evening Post; Pulitzer’s World, Hearst’s Evening Journal and Sunday American; and Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Metropolitan and The New Yorker magazines. But it was after moving to Greenwich Village in 1910 when he became more politically active, especially when he joined The Masses magazine. William L. O’Neill in his book “Echoes of Revolt: The Masses, 1911-1917,” said Young was a “leading spirit” there. With contributors including Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, Upton Sinclair and Galesburg native Carl Sandburg, The Masses was where Young became increasingly known – and notorious. There, he’d say, he received little pay but felt he was “paid a good deal in that coin of consolation, that comfort to the mind when it is relieved of pent-up grievances against social conventions and the tyranny of wealth.”
In 1913, Young was sued for libel by the Associated Press for a sarcastic cartoon depicting news service president Frank Noyes poisoning a well that was labeled “The News” with suppressed facts, bias and lies after a lack of coverage of a deadly, year-long miners’ strike in West Virginia. The AP eventually dropped the suit.
But a few years later, Young once more was in court, charged in a federal indictment for violating the Espionage Act. Under that law it was criminal to publish material that undermined the war effort, and the government said The Masses obstructed World War I enlistment.
Reportedly the only cartoonist ever tried for such “sedition” (so far), Young faced charges along with publisher Max Eastman, editor Floyd Dell (a Barry, Ill., native), business manager C. Merrill Rogers Jr., cartoonist Henry R. Glintenkamp, and writers Josephine Bell and John Reed (author of “Ten Days that Shook the World”). After two hung jurys, prosecutors dropped the case.
Young moved to Bethel, Conn. in the 1920s, working from his studio there, and after he died in 1943, his funeral was attended by more than 500 people from the arts and progressive communities including Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Helen Keller and Sandburg.
Once almost forgotten, Young was remembered then, and now, as incendiary – but humane.
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com. For archives, visit mayflyproductions.blogspot.com.