Max Eastman, The Masses and the Invention of the Modern Gag Cartoon

Whilst wandering lonely as a cloud in a foreign clime some years ago, I toured a couple nifty dusty old bookstores (the dust was a big part of the nift) and chanced upon a tome called Enjoyment of Laughter, a 1936 opus by Max Eastman. It was the author’s name that stopped me. Wasn’t Max Eastman, I asked myself, the editor of the rabble-rousing socialist magazine, The Masses, back in the 19-teens? While the magazine published excellent cartoons by Art Young, George Bellows, Robert Minor, and John Sloan among others, I didn’t think its editor (who, it turns out, was indeed Max Eastman) was renowned for his keen sense of humor. He may not have been much renowned for it, but he had one, enough to prompt him to write this 360-plus page book on the subject.

The Masses, in case you have mislaid your remembrance of it, commenced in January 1911, the property and inspiration of a displaced Dutchman, Piet Vlag. After a year and a half, the magazine was foundering for lack of income, and Vlag deserted it. But its contributors, including Young and Sloan, were reluctant to give up the ghost, so they held a meeting and decided to keep it going as a sort of co-op enterprise. They needed an editor, and they “elected” Eastman, whose chief qualification for the post, it seems, was his absence from the meeting. At the moment, Eastman was finishing a dissertation in philosophy under John Dewey at Columbia University and was already making a name for himself as a public speaker and poetry theoretician. He had recently quit a teaching job to devote himself full-time to writing, and he told them he didn’t want to be an editor and he wasn’t looking for a job that came without salary. They reassured him: the editing, they said, would be done by the members of the co-op; and they would be happy to pay him something once the magazine got on its feet.

Eastman, without committing himself, agreed to attend their next meeting, and there he discovered “the most fascinating sport”—namely, pasting up the printer’s dummy for the magazine, which involved cutting up galleys of type and configuring it around pictures and cartoons and the like. He wrote about it afterwards: “You take a previous issue of the magazine and, with a mighty pair of scissors and a brimming pot of mucilage, insert, in whatever pattern pleases you, the new material in the old forms. ... This art combines the infantine delight of cutting out paper dolls ... with the adult satisfaction of fooling yourself into thinking you are molding public opinion.” Enthralled, Eastman agreed to stay on for an issue or two to see if fund-raising efforts could generate a salary for him. There was never much money, I suspect, but the fascination endured, and so did Eastman.

His was a charismatic personality. Without ever seeing a photograph of him, I’ve always pictured him in my mind as a scruffy Trotsky-like revolutionary, all askew hair and shaggy moustache with a home-made bomb tucked under his arm, the fuse quietly fizzing. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was, according to one historian, “the John Barrymore of American radicalism.” (Barrymore was yesteryear’s Matthew McConaughey.) Tall, courtly and strikingly handsome, he seemed, to one admirer, “very much like Apollo must have been in appearance and in temper. In him, you have wisdom without timidity, strength without insolence, and beauty without vanity.” He had “strength of character,”wrote William O’Neill in Echoes of Revolt: The Masses 1911-1917, “tenacity, great charm, a gift for oratory, clarity and grace of literary style, intellectual flexibility, and considerable organizational powers.”

He needed all of these skills to keep the magazine going. The free-for-alls that passed for editorial conferences needed a referee, and he proved an adroit one. On one occasion, a drawing inspired the group to split into two opposing camps, one insisting that it be published, the other threatening to quit if the drawing was printed in the magazine. Eastman settled the dispute by deciding to publish the drawing on the cover. Since it was not “in” the magazine, those opposed to it were given a face-saving escape hatch, and they took it, remaining in the co-operative.

The general editorial posture of the magazine leaned away from the conventions of the establishment and toward the eccentricities of bohemians everywhere. Politically, the magazine was more socialist than anything else, and in those days, before the U.S. entry into World War I and before the Russian Revolution, socialism wasn’t a bad thing. But when the U.S. joined the hostilities in Europe, The Masses came out ringingly against the War. It’s mailing privileges were promptly revoked by the Post Office, which was empowered under the June 1917 Espionage Act to withhold from distribution anything that promoted “treason, insurrection or forcible resistance to any law of the United States.”

While there was scarcely anything in the magazine advocating the use of force, there was plenty that voiced serious reservations about going to war—hence, resistance to authority and the government. In one of Henry Glintenkamp’s cartoons, for example, a skeleton is depicted measuring a man in front of a stack of coffins; coupled to the caption, “Physically Fit,” the picture clearly states that those who were deemed “physically fit” for military service were being sent to their deaths.

Art Young’s famous cartoon captioned “Having Their Fling” depicted an editor, capitalist, politician, and minister dancing gleefully to a tune played by the Devil and his orchestra in the background and throwing into the air leaflets reading “All for Democracy,” “All for Honor,” and “All for World Peace” and “All for Jesus.” Despite these uplifting slogans, the dancers revealed the real motives for the war in the coins they were flinging around as they danced. 

Today we should count ourselves lucky that, for the most part, such expressions of contrary opinion are tolerated and not virtually banned, as they were ninety years ago. The editors of The Masses saw the threat to freedom of the press in the postmaster’s action and decided to go to court to challenge the decision.

It was the first “Roe vs.” case: the lawyer for the magazine was Gilbert Roe, who argued that although such cartoons as those I’ve described criticized the government, none of them threatened to obstruct or overthrow it. At the first court encounter, the judge agreed, but the government appealed, and the Circuit Court upheld, for the moment, the decision not to mail the August 1917 issue. The legal machinery clanked on, ponderous and slow, while the editors assembled the next issue for September. Oddly, when they presented that issue for mailing, the postmaster revoked its mailing privileges on the grounds that it had skipped a month of mailing and therefore no longer qualified as a “monthly periodical.” On appeal, the judge admitted that the postmaster’s ploy was “a rather poor joke,” but he upheld the decision. In the ensuing interim, the magazine was distributed only through newsstand sales, and without subscription income, its publication could not be sustained, rendering any and all pending legal matters moot. The last issue was dated December 1917. But The Masses had not yet escaped; there was still a war going on.

A second trial, a posthumous engagement, so to speak, resulted from the government bringing suit against the magazine’s editors for conspiring to impede enlistment in the military. It reached court in April 1918, long after the demise of The Masses; the jury split and the judge declared a mistrial, but it was beside the point by then. One of the most engaging outcomes was a self-caricature Young drew of himself asleep at the defendant’s table, captioned, “Art Young on trial for his life.” (For more about Young, a short biography and a somewhat longer appreciation, visit Harv’s Hindsight at RCHarvey.com.)

If all of this sounds suspiciously like it could happen here even today, despite our advanced state of civilization since the early years of the last century, you might be right. As a society, human [sic] sapiens doesn’t learn much or very fast: it tends to repeat itself relentlessly, particularly when reacting to events out of fear. Today we scoff at the hysterical absurdity that resulted in Rudolph Dirks’ renaming his German juveniles comic strip The Captain and the Kids so that the previous name, the Teutonic-sounding Hans and Fritz, would not offend the sensibilities of a nation now chanting hatred for Kaiser Bill and his Germanic hordes. (Dirks’ original Katzenjammer Kids, then being produced by Harold Knerr, was re-named The Shenanigan Kids for the same reason.) But not so long ago, in a fit of identical logic, we blithely changed the name of French fires to freedom fries.

None of our political cartoonists were indicted for expressing anti-Iraq invasion views, but it’s pretty clear that the Bush League was expert at intimidating the owners and publishers of the organs of mass media. In the first blush of 9/11 hysterias, the news media, in the spirit of patriotic unity that then prevailed, went along with whatever the government proposed; intimidation was hardly necessary. Later, the veiled presence of Darth Cheney and his minions was widely acknowledged, but by then, few were any longer intimidated by government. By public opinion—or fear about what they imagined public opinion might be—yes; but not by government. Still, even though we remain vulnerable to our basest fears and trepidations, our political cartoonists expressed themselves mostly in the outspoken unfettered spirit of The Masses cartoonists. And for that, we must be everlastingly grateful. Still, not all subjects are fair game for editoonists. The Prophet Muhammad isn’t, and, more sinisterly, we have learned, alas, that criticizing Israel is so often translated into anti-Semitism that the Jewish state is virtually immune from attacks by cartoonist critics.