New biography explores father of modern political cartoons

Nonfiction • Biography explores how Thomas Nast paved way for cartoonists as exposers of hypocrisy, inconsistency.
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Whether Thomas Nast would choose it as his legacy or not, many know the 19th-century cartoonist as the creator of the modern Santa Claus. The cherished depictions of the jolly old elf in blissful holiday settings Nast drew for Harper's Weekly endure to this day and reflect the artist's devotion to family and home.

Yet behind the idyllic images was an infinitely complex man, at once humble, insightful and compassionate but also dogmatic and at times ruthless in his attacks on political rivals, according to a new biography by Salt Lake City historian Fiona Deans Halloran.

Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (University of North Carolina Press, $35) is the most exhaustive and well-researched look at Nast to date. The man widely believed to have created — or at least popularized — the donkey and the elephant as symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties was enormously influential in mid-19th-century popular culture and politics. He shares credit for Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant's ascendency to the presidency and for the take-down of William "Boss" Tweed and Tammany Hall.

Even more significant, "he whetted the American appetite for cartooning," said Halloran, a teacher at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School in Salt Lake City. "He shaped what we expect and what we like in cartoons pretty profoundly. He created a place for art in politics that never went away."

As a doctoral candidate at University of California at Los Angeles, Halloran saw in Nast a pioneer whose life and contributions had never been satisfactorily explored.

Because Nast died of yellow fever while trying to restore his wealth as part of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Guayaquil, Ecuador, his family, in need of money, auctioned many of his belongings, she said.

As a result, "his materials were scattered to the wind" and research for a dissertation on Nash that later became the book was difficult. In addition, despite his intelligence and enormous talent as an illustrator, Nast was not particularly literate. He left no diaries and "rarely wrote anything in his own hand," Halloran said.

What she painstakingly pieced together is the story of an eventful life that speaks volumes about the times in which Nast lived.

According to Halloran's biography, Nast was a Bavarian immigrant who often viewed immigrants with disdain, a probable cradle Roman Catholic who charged the church with many of New York City's ills, and a critic of slavery who depicted blacks as foolish children incapable of functioning in society.

"These contradictions are interesting because lots of prominent people were like that," she said. "U.S. history is fascinating because we find many such as Nast who were heroic in one way and in another way horribly disappointing" as they struggled over what to do about social and public policy amid changing times.

In his work, for example, Nast pointed out the moral failure of Northerners whose abandonment of reconstruction of the South after the Civil War condemned freed slaves to another 100 years of segregation and discrimination.

"He was full of sympathy and compassion and really had a clear-eyed vision of the social construction of race," Halloran said.

Yet Nast was never someone who thought all people were equal, she said.

His unflattering depictions of blacks are an example. Women seeking rights outside the home also were a target, portrayed by him as fat and sloppy as they handed off babies to their fathers.

Despite such contradictions, Halloran said Nast was the forebear of what we have come to expect cartoonists to do: Drawing from his own perspective, he pointed out hypocrisies and inconsistencies in politics and society. He helped shape perceptions of what his world was like. He made people think.

"People have a tendency to assume everything in history is true, that speeches are true," Halloran said. "Cartoonists exist to demonstrate that people sometimes lie. That's a very useful corrective to our tendency to be credulous."

Twitter: @lcarricaburu —

Halloran on "Studio SPJ"

Salt Lake City historian Fiona Deans Halloran will be a guest on "Studio SPJ" Saturday, Jan. 5, at 10 a.m., speaking about her new book Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons.

Listen in • To listen to the program live or later as a podcast, go to

Call in • To ask a question or make a comment during the live broadcast, call 347-857-2441.