The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast


The symbols that Nast originated during this period were to outlive their creator. Between 1870 and 1874 the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey made their first appearances. Both were conceptions of Thomas Nast, based on the fables of Aesop. Today’s familiar images of Uncle Sam, John Bull, and Columbia also were conceived by Nast during this period.

My grandfather was a controversial character. Whereas the staunchly Republican Union League Club of New York honored him for his ardent devotion to the preservation of the Union, the New York World in 1867 accused him of bigotry and pandering to the “meanest passions and prejudices of the most unthoughtful persons of the day.” To Nast all things were either black or white. There was nothing in between. He was absolutely merciless in his attacks upon those with whom he disagreed. The Ku Klux Klan, anarchists, Communists, corrupt politicians, and even the Irish and the Catholic Church were among those upon whom he vented his wrath. Obviously one’s opinion of the artist depended largely upon whether one agreed with his views or not.

By 1877 my grandfather was a relatively wealthy man with an unusually good income in terms of that day. Not yet forty years old, he had just about everything that he could wish for —a nationwide reputation for integrity, a lovely home, a devoted wife and family, and financial independence. Sarah Nast had contributed greatly to her husband’s success. She regularly read to him as he worked. Shakespeare and the Bible were the inspirations for many of the artist’s drawings, and Sarah Nast often supplied the ideas and captions for them. My grandmother was a charming hostess and entertained her husband’s distinguished friends graciously and unostentatiously. General Grant and his wife and Mark I wain were guests on more than one occasion.

As the result of his national prominence the artist frequently received offers to lecture, few of which he accepted. It was an activity that he cordially disliked. For one thing it kept him away from his home, where he now did all of his work. Equally important was the fact that he suffered so acutely from stage fright that he often became ill before an appearance.

Some offers were hard to refuse, such as one extended by the Boston Lyceum Bureau offering ten thousand dollars for a ten-week tour. But at the time the artist was too busy with his assignments for Harper’s , work that he much preferred. Two years later he was approached again, with an offer of “a larger sum for a hundred lectures than any man living.” But Nast again declined.

In 1877, Mark Twain, Granddad’s good friend, proposed in a letter a plan that must have been very tempting: My Dear Nast: I did not think I should ever stand on a platform again until the time was come forme to say “I die innocent.” But the same old offers keep arriving. I have declined them all, just as usual, though sorely tempted, as usual.

Now, I do not decline because I mind talking to an audience, but because (i) travelling alone is so heart-breakingly dreary, and (2) shouldering the whole show is such a cheer-killing responsibility.

Therefore, I now propose to you what you proposed to me in November, 1867, ten years ago (when I was unknown), viz., that you stand on the platform and make pictures, and I stand by you and blackguard the audience. I should enormously enjoy meandering around (to big towns—I don’t want to go to the little ones) with you for company.

My idea is not to fatten the lecture agents and lyceums on the spoils, but put all the ducats religiously into two equal piles, and say to the artist and lecturer, “Absorb these.” …

Call the gross receipts $100,000 for tour months and a half, and the profit from $60,000 to $75,000 (I try to make the figures large enough and leave it to the public to reduce them).

I did not put in Philadelphia because P____ owns that town, and last winter when I made a little reading-trip he only paid me $300 and pretended his concert (I read fifteen minutes in the midst of a concert) cost him a vast sum, and so he couldn’t afford any more. I could get up a better concert with a barrel of cats.…

Well, you think it over, Nast, and drop me a line. We should have some fun.

Yours truly,

Samuel L. Clemens.

It seemed a fascinating plan, but again my grandfather had no inclination to leave his home and family, and so he again regretted.

By 1879 Thomas Nast was beginning to get restive. Changes in management at Harper’s had resulted in less freedom to express his own views. A new generation of publishers did not wholly agree with what they considered their artist’s tendency to advocate startling and, in their opinion, sometimes radical reforms. Then, too, with the introduction of new techniques in reproduction, the hand-engraved woodblock, which Nast had used to such advantage, had become outmoded and the new methods were less suited to his style. Consequently, as Nast’s drawings appeared less frequently in the Weekly , he took advantage of the opportunity to travel and invest his savings. While my grandfather would have been the last to realize it, he had, at the age of thirty-nine, reached his peak.