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John T. McCutcheon, Dean of American Cartoonists: Adventurer and Inventor of the Slow Ball

When The Chicago Tribune was a serious newspaper back in the early 20th Century, it ran a cartoon on the front page, above the fold—every day. And for over 40 years, that cartoon was drawn by John McCutcheon, an unlikely suspect. A tall, gangly, boney man with generously proportioned facial features, he looked every bit the part that so many of his hayseed characters played in the down-home country cartoons he was famous for drawing. But appearances, like the modest blushes of the farmer’s daughter, can be misleading if they aren’t downright deceiving. And they were with John Tinney McCutcheon: he was among the most cosmopolitan and worldly wise of his fellows. And he was something more than a cartoonist: he was a war correspondent, combat artist, news photographer, and world traveler. 

McCutcheon drew newspaper cartoons for sixty years until he died in 1949. For years prior to his death, he was called the Dean of American Cartoonists, a title conferred upon him, he said, because “I’ve managed to survive the various hazards of peace and war and my aging contemporaries have either died or found a better way to spend their time.” By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, he was well on his way to the deanship.

He was born May 6, 1870 on a farm near South Raub in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. “I was born in a farmhouse on a gentle hilltop eight miles from Lafayette,” he later wrote. “It was surrounded by cornfields. Not far away was the site of the Indian village of Ouiatenon on the Wabash. … Nearby were the Shawnee Mound (named fo that tribe of Indians), the Wea Plains, the Big and Little Wea Creeks, named for another tribe. … The newspapers that occasionally reached us were full of the Indian warfare in the West, culminating in the Custer massacre [in 1876]. There is a family story that, at the age of five, I rushed to my mother, announcing that I had been attacked by Indians.

“On all sides suggestions of Indians and Indian warfare were always present” he continued. “The early fall saw the tasseled rows of corn like the waving spears of Indians, and a little later came the corn shocks, so much like tepees in the haziness of Indian summer. Undoubtedly in my boyish imagination all these impressions were registering. Many years later, seated at my drawing board in Chicago, wondering what I could draw for the next morning’s paper, out of the deep past came the images that resulted in ‘Injun Summer,’ which many people call their favorite cartoon.”

His father, John Barr McCutcheon was a Civil War veteran, a drover with literary aspirations and, later, sheriff of Tippecanoe County and city treasurer of Lafayette; his mother was Clara (Glick) McCutcheon. Young John spent his childhood in the rural areas near Lafayette and carried country life with him in his memories all his life. That, and newspapering.

When John was about twelve, the McCutcheons moved to Elston, “a community of thirty or forty houses scattered along a mile or so of the Romney Road leading south,” according to Vincent Starrett, writing the biographical introduction to John McCutcheon’s Book in 1948. For a while, John published a hand-printed newspaper called the Elston News, “with a circulation of one. It was illustrated with crude cartoons boosting the candidacy of Grover Cleveland.” John was a little more successful as a playwright: he wrote “The Blunders of a Bashful Dude,” which was produced at the local schoolhouse and ran for two nights.

At the age of sixteen, McCutcheon entered Purdue University and graduated four years later with a B.S. degree in industrial arts. He’d started out in mechanical engineering, but it was a course full of the “most malignant form of mathematics” and when a sympathetic friend told him industrial arts had practically no mathematics, McCutcheon transferred gratefully.

About his social life, a Sigma Chi fraternity brother, George Ade, wrote: “He attracted a good deal of attention on the campus by wearing the only cutaway coat, a long-tailed affair. He wore his hair extra-long, too, and was marked as a comer.”

Sigma Chi was Purdue’s first fraternity, and McCutcheon was a founding member. He was co-editor of the University’s first yearbook, the Debris, and he wrote a weekly gossip column for the Lafayette Journal and also contributed to the new campus newspaper, the Exponent, which he helped to start. After graduation in 1890, McCutcheon went to Chicago where he doubled the one-man art department of the Chicago Daily News.

Newspaper artists furnished all the illustrative material for the papers of the day. The halftone engraving process for reproducing photographs had been perfected in 1886, but it was not adapted successfully to the big rotary presses until the New York Tribune did it in 1897.  Until the turn of the century, newspaper sketch artists were graphic reporters, covering all the events that photographers were to cover later. McCutcheon drew pictures of everything. He illustrated major news events, often working from sketches made on-the-spot. A typical day might include a trial in the morning, a sporting event or crime scene or a local catastrophe in the afternoon, and an art show opening or a flood or fire in the evening. When not dashing from event to event with a pad of paper under his arm, he worked in the office, doing portraits of politicians and dignitaries, and decorations for a variety of columns and stories. At the beginning, he was more illustrator than cartoonist, and he also wrote occasional feature pieces and newsstories.

Less that a year after McCutcheon’s arrival in Chicago, George Ade came to town and, on the strength of McCutcheon’s recommendation, found a job as a reporter at the Daily News. In 1892, the two began a long collaboration as writer and artist, covering the construction and then the ensuing action of the World’s Columbian Exposition under the heading “All Roads Lead to the World’s Fair.”

Ade and McCutcheon continued the fellowship of their college days by sharing a room together and by attempting to see and do everything see-able and do-able in Chicago. They were inseparable companions in work and play for nearly eight years. Their adventures stimulated Ade’s wit, leading to a popular long-running series in the paper called “Stories of the Streets and the Town,” which took the place in the paper of their World’s Fair articles after the Fair closed. McCutcheon illustrated these efforts, and their joint productions were collected in book form.

“Tagging along after George,” McCutcheon wrote, “he chronicled and I illustrated almost every phase of Chicago’s life and activities, although at the time, we did not suspect we were passing through what later decades would call the Gay Nineties. As I remember it, there was joy and zest and adventure in everything we did. There was a lot of hard work, too; but now, in retrospect, it didn’t seem like work. Anyway, we had nothing else to do.”

Ade went on to become a noted humorist and playwright, but not before he wrote a line or two of comics history.

Victor Lawson, the publisher of the News, liked McCutcheon’s work, and when the presidential campaign of 1896 commenced, he gave the artist a five-column front-page hole to fill every day. Lawson wanted a cartoon, a humorous drawing rather than a news picture, but McCutcheon thought of himself as a realistic newspaper artist. Suddenly, as McCutcheon recalled it later in his autobiography, “I had to be made over into something requiring whimsy and, if possible, humor. In this transition, George helped materially. He provided the excellent suggestions that gave my early cartoons whatever distinction they had.” With Ade at his elbow, McCutcheon got through the transition from artist to cartoonist and was soon able to stand on his own.

The William McKinley-William Jennings Bryan presidential race was a particularly bitter contest, McCutcheon recalled, “and there was rich material for cartoons.” And since the News had the largest morning circulation in Chicago and his cartoons were on the front page, they were noticed.

One day, putting the finishing touches on his cartoon, McCutcheon casually and without forethought filled an empty place in the picture by drawing a floppy-eared dog in the space—“an ordinary sort of dog,” he said, “the kind you could buy for about a dollar a dozen.” The next day, again faced with a few spare square inches in his cartoon, McCutcheon inserted the dog. “That afternoon,” Starrett wrote, “a letter came in, asking what the dog meant. It had been there twice, and a reader wanted to know if it had some subtle significance.” It didn’t, but McCutcheon put the dog in the next day’s cartoon, and “twelve more letters came in demanding to know its meaning. Thereafter, the pooch appeared regularly in nearly every cartoon.” 

For a while, when the dog didn’t appear, it excited notice among letter writers: What has become of the dog? Where is the dog? Has the dog died? Have the politicians talked the dog to death?

Starrett finished: “Friends on the paper’s staff wondered if the mystery of the dog was not creating more interest than the presidential campaign. In such fashion did McCutcheon’s droll pup take its place among the lovable dogs of humorous literature.”

In 1895, McCutcheon and Ade had gone to Europe together, sending stories with illustrations back to the News twice a week. Their partnership again resulted in a book. More significantly, the trip gave McCutcheon’s itch to travel a tantalizing rub, and when next he had the chance to scratch, he did—and stumbled into national fame.

Late in 1897, McCutcheon was invited by a reporter friend, Ed Harden, to go with him as a guest of the Treasury Department on the round-the-world shake-down cruise of a new revenue cutter, the McCulloch. They started steaming across the Atlantic from Philadelphia on January 8, 1898. At Malta, the McCulloch was notified of the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor on February 15. At Singapore, the McCulloch had occasion to remember the Maine: the cutter received orders transferring her to the U.S. Navy and directing her to sail to Hong Kong where Commodore George Dewey was assembling the elements of the Pacific fleet. On April 25, Congress declared war on Spain—a war that would last only 113 days but would propel the United States onto the international stage as a world power.

While Teddy Roosevelt readied his Rough Riders for a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, Dewey was ordered to steam for another Spanish possession, the Philippines, and to attack Spanish vessels in Manila Bay. McCutcheon and Harden, as guests of the Treasury Department, were permitted to accompany the expedition, transferring to the USS Olympia, Dewey’s flagship. They and a third member of the McCulloch party, Joseph Stickney, a former editor for the New York Herald, were the only eye-witness newsmen on hand for the historic assault on Spanish colonial might in Manila Bay, the only reporters who could have heard Dewey’s order to Captain Charles Gridley at 5:23 a.m. on May 1: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

They may also have heard Dewey’s other famous order, given after the fifth series of broadsides crashed into the Spanish fleet—the order to “draw off for breakfast.” Often cited during Dewey’s aborted run for the White House in 1900 as an example of the commander’s laconic imperturbability under fire, the order was actually issued because the air was so filled with smoke as to make accurate firing impossible.

The three newspaper reporters had a ringside seat for the biggest news event of the year. McCutcheon took photographs, sketched, and kept a running diary of the day’s action. Spanish resistance ashore and afloat ceased in a matter of hours, but since the telegraph cable from Manila to Hong Kong had been cut, the correspondents couldn’t file their reports of victory until Dewey sent his own dispatch-bearing boat to Hong Kong four days later.

The trip took a day-and-a-half, and the newsmen arrived on a Saturday (Friday in the U.S.). McCutcheon followed the usual practice of foreign correspondents: he sent a short bulletin at high rates, followed by a longer dispatch at the cheaper press rates. But Harden, more experienced in such matters, sent his bulletin “Urgent,” a classification of transmission that cost $9.90 a word (five times the bulletin rate) and took precedence over all other telegraph traffic. His bulletin reached his paper, the New York World, before Dewey’s dispatch reached President McKinley. Harden scooped McCutcheon, but neither reporter’s paper was the first U.S. newspaper to use their stories. Both of their papers had gone to press by the time their reports came over the wire on Saturday (now Sunday in Hong Kong).

Under the usual news sharing arrangements of the day, the stories were made available to other newspapers. In New York, the story hit the streets first in Hearst’s Evening Journal; in Chicago, in the Tribune (which, under Jim Keeley’s enterprising editorship, put out an extra; Keeley also called President McKinley, who still hadn’t heard of Dewey’s victory). But McCutcheon’s paper (now called the Chicago Record) cabled for more details, price no object, and McCutcheon filed a 4,500-word report (at $2,700) which was the first long account by any eye witness, and it was picked up and reprinted all across the country. McCutcheon was famous. Hearst cabled him, offering a job at any salary he wanted to name. McCutcheon stayed with the Record.

He also stayed in the Far East. The Record ordered him to sign up cable correspondents in the region, so after briefly covering the Filipino Resurrection that ensued in the wake of Manila Bay, McCutcheon scratched his itch for the next two-and-a-half years, visiting all the places whose names ring with the romance of far-off climes— Borneo, Bombay, Saigon, Singapore, Shanghai, Peking, Hong Kong, Afghanistan via the fabled Khyber Pass, Ceylon, Lahore where he visited the offices of the Civil and Military Gazette at which Rudyard Kipling first made his reputation, Samarkand, Kashgar, Peshawar, Znzibar, Madagascar, and the Transvaal of South Africa where he reported on the Boer War.

In later years, McCutcheon continued scratching his itch, often in war zones. As Editor & Publisher reported when he retired in 1946, he hunted big game in Africa in 1909-10 with Theodore Roosevelt, sending cartoons and articles back to his paper. He finessed an invitation to go to Vera Cruz and in other parts of Mexico during the 1914 troubles; he palled around with Richard Harding Davis and met Pancho Villa and drew his portrait as the Mexican sat, ominously, with a pistol on the table at which he was posing.

McCutcheon was still in Mexico when the belligerencies leading to World War I commenced in Europe. Eager to see the action, McCutcheon left for Chicago where he obtained correspondent credentials from his paper, drew five memorable war cartoons (including the famed “The Colors”), and embarked for England and from there to Belgium, which the Germans had invaded, officially launching WWI, just ten days prior to the cartoonist’s arrival in Brussels. With no official papers or specific assignment, he and Irvin S. Cobb, a 200-plus pound newspaper humorist, commandeered a taxicab and headed toward Louvain to witness the action. Neither the U.S. nor Britain were yet officially in the war, so McCutcheon and Cobb felt they could play the part of innocent correspondents stranded between the lines. They were soon surrounded by the Germans, who, although declining to make them prisoners, wouldn’t let them leave the city for two days.

When they got back to Brussels, they learned of the nearly complete destruction of Louvain by the invaders. McCutcheon and Cobb and two other American newspapermen were the only on-the-scene reporters during that period of the war’s beginning. A glutton for war reportage, McCutcheon lurked around long enough to be detained again by Germans. Released after a couple days, he went to France and caught a ride with a French plane flying over the German lines while a German Taube machine-gunned him from above. He made two other trips to Europe during the war, witnessing on one of them the “great Serbian retreat” of 1915.

McCutcheon rode horseback through Persia and Chinese Turkestan, ventured into the jungles of New Guinea, explored the Gobi Desert in a motor car, and made two airplane trips to South America. Said Starrett: “He has witnessed every war since the Spanish complication of 1898, including the Russo-Japanese War, which he looked in on for four days before the Japanese invited him to leave.”

But all that lay in the future. For almost three years after Dewey’s triumph at Manila Bay, McCutcheon was trekking around the far side of the globe. He was gone from Chicago so long that the girl he left behind decided he’d rather travel than marry so she wed another. When he returned at last to Chicago, McCutcheon settled his debt to George Ade by supplying him with material for his first operetta, “The Sultan of Sulu.” (About this time, McCutcheon’s older brother, George Barr, published his first novel, Graustark.)

Once settled again behind his drawing board at what was now the Record-Herald, McCutcheon began to pioneer a new kind of cartoon. One day in the spring of 1902, seeking to revive the kind of reader interest that his nonfunctional little dog had inspired, McCutcheon put into his front-page slot a picture of the kind of boy he (and thousands of others) had been in Midwest’s recently concluded century—a barefoot kid in straw hat and patched pants, going fishing. With the dog under his arm. McCutcheon entitled the cartoon “A Boy in Springtime.” It was an unusual cartoon: neither topical nor political, it was purely a matter of human interest. When it provoked comment among readers, McCutcheon provided encores in a series of “Boy” cartoons that depicted youthful male activities throughout the seasons.

In another popular series of cartoons that year, McCutcheon reported on the American tour of Prince Henry of Prussia, depicting in elaborate and recognizable detail the landmarks and incidents of the dignitary’s progress through several cities.

The next year, 1903, Jim Keeley successfully wooed McCutcheon to the Chicago Tribune. McCutcheon was extraordinarily loyal to the Record-Herald and gave Lawson a chance to match the Tribune’s offer. At first, Lawson did. But Keeley came along a little later with another, higher, offer. This time, Lawson couldn’t match it. Nor could he accept McCutcheon’s astonishing offer to stay for $100 a week less than the Tribune’s bid: even that was more than anyone else on the Record-Herald was making. McCutcheon went to the Tribune, taking his “Boy” and the dog with him, and he stayed there doing front-page cartoons until he retired in 1946.

McCutcheon also took with him another human interest series he’d begun at Lawson’s paper: “One very dull day, when ideas were scarcer than hen’s teeth,” he wrote later, “I found myself in desperation for a subject. As a final resort, I drew a picture of a church social such as I had known in the early Indiana days. I called it ‘Bird Center.’” Prompted by favorable reader reaction, McCutcheon drew a second in the series the next week and accompanied it with a text article of social notes and comments as if it were a news item in a small town newspaper.  

 

 

 

McCutcheon began introducing familiar types of characters into these cartoons—the minister and his wife and numerous children, the local doctor, the judge, the town drunk, the Civil War vet, a tintype artist—and before long, a slender plot developed. “Nothing very dramatic, but there were little love affairs and little ambitions that were gradually unfolded as the series advanced. Each drawing represented some small-town gaiety. One week the good people of Bird Center were observing the Fourth of July. The next week, they were having a baby show. Then they were all picnicking in the woods.”

The cartoons were eventually published in book form. In the introduction to the book, McCutcheon explained his purpose in drawing the series. “It was to show how very cheerful and optimistic life may be in a small town. If it seemed to satirize some forms of gaiety in the smaller communities, or to poke a little good-natured fun at some of the ornate pretensions of the society in larger communities, so much the better, for then the cartoons might be endowed with a mission. You will find Bird Centerites in large cities as well as in small ones, and it is to be regretted that there are not more of them. For they are all good, generous and genuine people, and their social circle is one to which anyone gifted with good instincts and decency may enter. The poor are as welcome as the rich, and the one who would share their pleasures is not required to show a luxuriant genealogical tree. There are not social feuds or jealousies, no false pretenses and no striving to be more than one really is. No one feels himself to be better than his neighbor, and the impulse of generosity and kindness is common to all.”

These introductory words could have been McCutcheon’s credo as a cartoonist. Many years later, he explained himself at greater length: “Broadly speaking, all cartoons fall into two groups, the serious and the humorous. Each has its place. I always enjoyed drawing a type of cartoon which might be considered a sort of pictorial breakfast food. It had the cardinal asset of making the beginning of the day sunnier. It is safe to say the prairies were not set afire by these cartoons, yet they had the merit of offending no one. Their excuse lay in the belief that a happy man is capable of a more constructive day’s work than a glum one. The diet of daily news is so full of crime, crookedness and divorce that it is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to become a muckraker who allows the dark spots to dominate his vision. … But some subjects should not be treated lightly. Some evils demand more stinging rebukes than can be administered with ridicule or good-natured satire. In such cases, a cartoon must be drawn that is meant to hurt. All the same, I have not liked to draw that sort of cartoon, and it was invariably with a feeling of regret that I turned one in for publication. It would seem better to reach out a friendly pictorial hand to the delinquent than to assail him with criticism and denunciation.”

It was clearly against McCutcheon’s nature to draw too many of the hard-hitting kind of editorial cartoon. In the years of the New Deal when assault tactics were more in keeping with the Tribune’s editorial stance, the paper brought in Carey Orr when it needed merciless salvos. McCutcheon’s cartoons continued to be “a gentle mixture of corn shucks, bombazine, bent-pin fishhooks, and ‘slippery ellum’ whistles.” Albert Beveridge, a turn-of-the-century U.S. Senator with whom McCutcheon developed a lasting friendship, always addressed his letters to the cartoonist “Dear J.J.,” which, Beveridge explained, stood for “Gentle John.”

But McCutcheon’s gentility had a canny aspect, too, as he once told Editor & Publisher: “Very often when a public man is attacked with intense bitterness, he unintentionally gains the sympathy of readers and the effectiveness of the newspaper’s attack is thereby weakened . A man can survive violent attacks but rarely ridicule.”

McCutcheon’s idea of a balanced week of cartoons, observed Starrett, is four pictures intended to influence public opinion and two or three intended only to make readers smile.

Of the former variety, Starrett lists McCutcheon’s 1931 Pulitzer-winning cartoon, “possibly the greatest of them all,” entitled “A Wise Economist Asks a Question.”  Pungent though it is, it also has about it the ordinary aura of the best of McCutcheon’s homespun down-home efforts. “The Colors,” pictured above, is undoubtedly one of the great anti-war cartoons. Starrett also remembers “the terrible drawing that blasted the plan to reopen the Iroquois Theatre after the fire that too more than six hundred lives. ‘Matinee in the Charnel House,’ I believe the caption read.”

Another of McCutcheon’s more poignant creations was called “Mail Call”: it depicted a lone soldier without mail in a crowd of happy recipients. “A cartoon is worth at least a thousand words,” wrote the Trib’s Sid Smith. “One reader wrote 11,384 letters to men in service because of it.”

Starrett calls “The Mysterious Stranger” one of McCutcheon’s masterpieces: it hailed the entrance of the state of Missouri into Republican ranks during the 1904 presidential campaign, a historic defection from the Solid South that had, heretofore, belonged entirely to the Democrats. It was entitled, however, not by the cartoonist but by his editor (who may have had in the back of his mind one of the Bird Center cartoons that had run the same year; in it, the mysterious stranger was a vaguely threatening presence).

As a notable cartoon, “The Mysterious Stranger” has a wholly unremarkable genesis. McCutcheon had spent a whole day, Starrett said, devising a cartoon that he thought would provoke much comment and applause, and then his editor phoned him and told him about Missouri’s defection, saying, “I thought maybe you would like to use it in your cartoon.”

McCutcheon was perplexed. He’d just finished a masterpiece of a cartoon, but he realized it was wise to please his editor. So he hastily drew the cartoon that became “The Mysterious Stranger”; it took him about half-an-hour. Then he sent both cartoons over to the editor. “Next day,” he said, “I reached eagerly for my paper, expecting to find the masterpiece on the front page and the Missouri cartoon on the back page or missing entirely. But the Missouri cartoon was on the front page, and it was some time before I found the other, back among the election returns.”

The “Boy” cartoons number among the smile-fostering breed, but the greatest of these is undoubtedly “Injun Summer,” which was published September 29, 1907.  “That is a little

early for Indian summer,” McCutcheon confessed years later, “but possibly there hadbeen an early frost that year and a semblance of autumn haziness; or maybe I was absolutely stuck for an idea and had to use the first one that came along. Such things do happen. The cartoon was born in a brief period of tranquillity between wars, and I like to think of it as a symbol of peace and plenty.”

The two drawings that make up the cartoon are accompanied by a “lengthy discourse with the plain-spoken charm of Mark Twain,” wrote Sid Smith a few years ago in the Chicago Tribune. “McCutcheon’s astute folk poetry captured the sere, prickly, enigmatic mood of nature’s most puzzling season” as well as a mood of peace and plenty. (We’ve broken the cartoon into two fragments above in the hope that the text between the pictures is readable; if not, click on Page at the top of the screen, scroll down to Zoom, then enlarge the picture by clicking on 150%.)

The nostalgic vista in which a farm boy’s imagination turns a cornfield at dusk into an Indian encampment came right out of McCutcheon’s childhood. Picturing a shared and mythic past, it struck such a resonant chord among the Trib’s readers that, starting in 1912, the paper reprinted it every year during Indian summer season. Until 1993. It last appeared the previous year on October 25. Said Smith in remarking the passing of the tradition: “The drawings may be timeless, but the text had outlived its day. Complaints had been voiced for several years about its offensiveness to Native Americans. Wisps of smoke have continued to rise from those smoldering leaves, however; every fall, some readers complain that they miss it.”

McCutcheon was also a gifted writer. He remained in the Philippines after the Manila Bay adventure and reported on the subsequent Filipino Insurrection. His report “The Battle in Tilad Pass” was valued by the Daily News’ managing editor, Charles H. Dennis, as “the finest piece of war reporting that he had known.” His four-paneled “The Colors” illustrates the four lines of his poem:

Gold and green are the fields in peace,

            Red are the fields in war,

            Black are the fields when the cannons cease

And white forevermore.

Cryptic on their own, these lines become poignant and powerful when coupled to his pictures which take us, line by line, from a harvest of peaceful plenty, to dead soldiers, to mourners, to, finally, the white gravestones that mark where the soldiers have fallen.

But the piece I like the best (not that I’ve seen all of the McCutcheon oeuvre) is called “The Ballad of Beautiful Words,” which consists of nothing but lists or words that McCutcheon groups in rhyming stanzas.  The poem is accompanied by a couple of illustrations; to read the words, click on Page/Zoom/150%. Here is the first stanza:

Amethyst, airy, drifting, dell,

            Oriole, lark, alone,

            Columbine, kestrel, temple, bell,

            Madrigal, calm, condone.

 

 

McCutchen became one of America’s highest paid cartoonists, and he supplemented his pay with freelance work. But he was not much tempted by money. In the late twenties, he turned down a chance to make $100,000 a week for drawing two cartoons every week to advertise cigarettes. He refused the offer, he explained, partly because he didn’t smoke cigarettes himself (he preferred cigars) and partly because he was uneasy drawing for advertising.

On April 1, 1910, Robert W. Paterson, editor of the Chicago Tribune and son-in-law of the lately deceased founder Joseph Medill, died, and the management of the paper fell, briefly, on the shoulders of Paterson’s nephew, Medill McCormick, who quickly proved to be not quite up to the task and retired, first, into a sanitarium for his health and then into politics, leaving the paper to his younger brother, Robert “Bertie” McCormick. Bertie masterminded the transition from one generation to the next, recruiting as his partner his cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, Robert W.’s son. The two could not have been more unlike: Bertie was aristocratic, “an English gentleman in the ducal tradition,” says Lloyd Wendt (in Chicago Tribune, his history of the paper)—shy, aloof, fastidious, his wardrobe supplied by London tailors and bootmakers; Patterson was a commoner—gregarious, understanding, and wholly oblivious of his perpetually rumpled attire and “totally at ease with ordinary people.”

Patterson had worked on the Trib for a time, but had spent the last several years as a gentleman farmer and author, writing novels, plays, and tracts that championed such a range of social and political reform that Patterson decided, unabashedly, that he was a Socialist. “Plowing is better exercise than polo,” he said, alluding to one of his cousin’s recreations. Contemplating this duo at the helm of the Trib, Chicago’s journalistic community sat back to watch what they were certain would be a loud struggle for control of the paper that would end with it in shreds. But McCormick and Patterson solved the presumed conflict of their political views by simply alternating control monthly of the Trib’s editorial pages. And the paper thrived.

Not surprisingly, McCutcheon liked Patterson better than McCormick. He got along with Bertie, and McCormick never frustrated the cartoonist or bullied him, but McCutcheon liked Patterson.

He got to know Patterson better than most of the Tribune’s employees. Both went to Europe in 1915 to inspect the embryo war, and the two spent several months together, sharing a cabin on the ship to France and a hotel room in Paris. On the trip across the Atlantic, they played dominoes by the hour and talked. McCutcheon, already long established as the star of the Trib’s front page, learned his boss’s philosophy and generally approved of it.

“He was intellectually honest,” McCutcheon said. “I could not imagine Joe Patterson misrepresenting a fact although the truth might be awkward and have unpleasant consequences.”

In France, the two indulged a common love of adventure one day at Villacoublay when the French offered them a chance at flying in one of their new monoplanes. After three months, Patterson left Paris and returned to Chicago. McCutcheon was sorry to see him go: the experienced world traveler had found in Patterson not only a good traveling companion but a friend. “One could not have wished for a more interesting and companionable shipmate,” he said. “In those days, Joe never asserted the importance which his position gave him, and it was not difficult to abandon the relation of employer and employee.”

The feeling, apparently, was mutual: Patterson often said that McCutcheon was the only person with whom he really liked to travel. And the two took several trips together in later years until Patterson moved permanently to New York to direct the fate of the New York Daily News, which he launched in June 1919. Curiously, before the Paris trip, McCutcheon heard through a mutual acquaintance that Patterson was almost afraid to go with him because he liked him so much, and “he felt certain we would not come back friends. This was his way of saying that he considered himself very hard to get along with.” For McCutcheon, that was scarcely the case.

McCutcheon’s passion for travel led him to finagle an unusual contract with the Trib in later years. It permitted him to take four months leave every year (albeit only the usual two weeks’ vacation pay). After his marriage in January 1917 (at the age of 48 to a woman of 23 whom he’d known since her birth), most of his travel was to a tropical island he purchased in 1917 just north of Nassau in the Bahamas. He bought the isle site unseen; his first view of it was when he and his bride, Evelyn nee Shaw, visited the place on their honeymoon.

For the 32 years of their marriage until he died in 1949, she “had the happiness of being his secretary as well as his wife,” she said. Over many of those years, McCutcheon, driven by his wife’s insistence, dictated swaths of an autobiography. When he died without finishing it, his widow finished it for him, filling in the gaps in the narrative from his speeches and letters and “from my own Boswellian notebook.” During the years he worked on it, McCutcheon called it “the Opus”; published in 1950, it is entitled Drawn from Memory.

The McCutcheons also had a home in Chicago’s Lake Forest, and it was there, on June 10, 1949, that the cartoonist died, quietly, in his sleep, a revered practitioner of his craft and an admired and loved man. In the last few years prior to his retirement in 1946, he had drawn fewer and fewer cartoons, but until early in 1946, he had produced a cartoon every week for the front page of the Sunday Tribune.

A testament to his popularity and the affection Chicagoans felt for him took place in the 1940s when he was honored at the Tribune’s Music Festival at Soldiers Field. A crowd of 90,000 people stood and cheered as McCutcheon rode around the arena in a carriage drawn by white horses. Later, they all saw his “Injun Summer” brought to live in a realist pageant.

When McCutcheon died, encomiums flowed.

The Chicago Tribune eulogized: “It’s a great pity that men like John McCutcheon can’t go on living and working forever for the world never has had enough of them. John could not have been the cartoonist he was if he had not been a skillful and ready draftsman, the master of three or four matured styles. But this was only the beginning of his art. His special excellence lay in a combination of highly developed sense of irony, a delight in the ridiculous, a small boy’s curiosity, a big boy’s delight in excitement and adventure, and an all-pervading warm of personality.”

Others had been saying as much for years.

In an appreciation prefacing a 1940 booklet of cartoonists’ commemorations of McCutcheon’s achievement, O.O. McIntyre, the nation’s most widely syndicated columnist, wrote: “John T. McCutcheon used his pen for an alpenstock and scaled the Matterhorn. No cartoonist of his or any other time has so influenced public thought and clarified it for better thinking about affairs at home and abroad. The chief duty of a cartoonist is exclusion. He must drive from his mind all motives but public good. The second is to get an audience and keep faith with them. McCutcheon has done all that—and a little bit more for good measure.”

Artist/activist John Sloan wrote: “McCutcheon is an artist whose pen drawings have been a record of the life of the people of the United States as seen through the eyes of a kindly, critical, appreciative, and very human spectator of their antics.”

Vincent Starrett: “His pictures reflect the man. He admires those things which decent people admire—dash, courage, honesty, honor, feminine virtue—and hates those things hated by decent people—sham, egoism, conceit, affectation, chicanery. … His pictures are popular because of the same qualities that make McCutcheon himself popular. Nobody meeting the man could be insensible to his personal charm. A sympathetic listener, a modest talker, his graceful and winning personality have made him one of the first citizens of America.”

At his retirement, Editor & Publisher observed that “the Encyclopedia Britannica credits McCutcheon as being the chief exponent of one school of newspaper art—that in which the ‘homely, quasi-rural setting and characters are presented somewhat in the manner of the comic strip’—as contrasted with the other school dealing in starker form of pictorial presentation.”

But McCutcheon’s cartoons sometimes cut to the quick, as the Trib’s obituary noted: “By no means all of his cartoons were tender. He was quick to redress a wrong, but his pen was curative rather than punitive, reflective rather than battering., laughing rather than sneering. Ministers praised him for using his talents to see the truthful elements beneath current events.”

Carey Orr, who followed McCutcheon as the Trib’s editorial cartoonist, wrote perceptively about his predecessor: “John McCutcheon was the father of the human interest cartoon. His Bird Center series was perhaps the first to break way from the Nast and Davenport tradition of dealing almost exclusively and in the most intense seriousness with political and moral reforms. McCutcheon brought change of pace. He was the first to throw the slow ball in cartooning, to draw the human interest picture that was not produced to change votes or to amend morals but solely to amuse or to sympathize.

“The reader felt these qualities in McCutcheon’s work. The reader said to himself, ‘This man understands me.’”

A 1903 collection of McCutcheon’s cartoons for the Record-Herald was prefaced by George Ade, who knew McCutcheon at that time better than anyone—and was also more engaged in the cartoonist’s perspective than anyone else. Said Ade:

“Those who have studied and admired Mr. McCutcheon’s cartoons in the daily press doubtless have been favorably impressed by two eminent characteristics of his intent. First, he cartoons public men without grossly insulting them. Second, he recognizes the very large and important fact that political events do not fill the entire horizon of the American people. It has not been very many years since the newspaper cartoon was a savage caricature of some public man who had been guilty of entertaining tariff opinions that did not agree with the tariff opinions of the man who controlled the newspaper. The cartoon was supposed to supplement the efforts of the editorial in which the leaders of the opposition were termed ‘reptiles.’

“The first-class, modern newspaper seems to have awakened to the fact that our mundane existence is not entirely wrapped up in politics. Also, that a man many disagree with us and still have some of the attributes of humanity. In Mr. McCutcheon’s cartoons we admire the clever execution, and the gentle humor which diffuses all of his work, but I dare say that more than all we admire him for his considerate treatment of public men and his blessed wisdom in getting away from the hackneyed political subjects and giving us a few pictures of that everyday life which is our real interest.”

The Trib’s editorial writer concluded McCutcheon’s obituary with this: “Our distress at his going is tempered by the knowledge that he lived a full and happy life, a life spent in the sunshine. He made the sunshine.”

We conclude with a short exhibition of McCutcheon cartoons and drawings. As you wander through these galleries, notice the variety of graphic styling on display—and in each style, a consummate mastery.


3 Responses to John T. McCutcheon, Dean of American Cartoonists: Adventurer and Inventor of the Slow Ball

  1. Pingback: Comics A.M. | Canadian city learns to love Marvel’s ‘origin bomb’ | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  2. R. Maheras says:

    Great piece, R.C., about one of my favorite cartoonists!

    A fellow Chicagoan most of his life, this cartoon McCutcheon drew in 1903 about Chicago politicians one-upping New York City politicians is one of my favorites:

    http://home.comcast.net/~russ.maheras/McCutcheon-1903-Chicago-Alderman-72dpi.jpg

    I guess it’s especially ironic that in the intervening 109 years, nothing regarding Chicago politicians has changed.

    A few years ago I had the privilege of a private viewing of 17 original cartoons from the 1920s/1930s by McCutcheon, which were hanging in the John McCutcheon Room of the Chicago Club. McCutcheom was a long-time member of the club. The art was far larger than I ever expected, so it looked great framed and mounted on the wall.

  3. Brian Huntley says:

    Thanks for this – such a different world than current newspaper cartoonists enjoy.

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