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

Max Eastman, after The Masses expired, immediately founded another left-leaning magazine, Liberator, which he continued until he went to Russia in 1922, spending two years there, studying the language and the soviet experiment and the Maxian theories underpinning it. When Eastman returned to the U.S., he came with a wife, a Russian dancer and painter named Eliena Krylenko, “whose importation [the book jacket says] is considered one of his principal achievements.” He wrote a biography of Leon Trotsky and translated Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. He also produced a dozen or so books about poetry, art, journalism and history, plus The Sense of Humor and Art and the Life of Action, to name two of the more intriguing titles. And, in 1936, came the book at hand, Enjoyment of Laughter, which he offered as a model for textbooks.

Textbooks, he said, should begin with a few succinct statements of principle or a short outline of content; then, in subsequent chapters, elaborate upon those statements, fleshing them out. He begins by stating that “the first law of humor is that things can be funny only when we are in fun.” “In fun,” he explains, describes a playful mood, a “condition natural to childhood.” This principle with a couple nuances he states on a single page at the front of the book; the rest of the book embroiders endlessly upon these themes.

Eastman allows, at the very beginning, that “nothing kills the laugh quicker than to explain a joke. I intend to explain all jokes, and the proper and logical outcome will be, not only that you will not laugh now, but that you will never laugh again. So prepare for the descending gloom.” You can see, readily enough, that Eastman has a sense of humor: he is prepared to laugh, even, at himself. He quotes various humorists on assorted subjects, interviewing several for the purpose; and he quotes humorous texts, too. He also reprints several cartoons by such worthies as Peter Arno, William Steig, Rube Goldberg, James Thurber, Al Frueh, Thomas Nast, H.T. Webster, Otto Soglow, and Art Young, among others, most of whose names no longer mean much to us.

In one of his discussions of some cartoons, Eastman champions pictures that are inherently funny as opposed to those that merely illustrate jokes. In the former, “the wit is not so much illustrated as enriched by the picture.” From funny pictures, we slide easily to gag cartoons in which the comedic import of the picture is “explained” by the caption beneath—in which, to repeat myself, the visual and the verbal blend to achieve a meaning neither of which arrives at alone without the other. Eastman continues: “A gradual realization that there is pictorial humor, and that the comic artist is not a mere illustrator of jokes, has been one element in that maturing and varicolored blooming of the comic arts which has taken place in America in the last twenty-five years. [Since 1911, in other words—the year The Masses was born.] For those in the current of it, [this] distinction ... ought to seem a natural one. It is not only natural, but absolutely fundamental.”

Eastman then makes the observation that, until he makes it here, had wholly evaded me—that is, the importance of The Masses in helping to establish the one-speaker captioned panel cartoon as the most viable expression of that genre. Eastman cites Robert Benchley’s crediting of The New Yorker for “revolutionizing” the single panel cartoon by banishing the illustrated “he-she” joke with its exchange of dialogue under an illustrative picture in favor of the single-speaker caption. As I’ve said too many times before (see “The New Yorker and the Single-panel Gag Cartoon” in Harv’s Hindsight at RCHarvey.com), The New Yorker did not invent the single-speaker captioned cartoon, but it made more extensive use of it than any of the other humor magazines at the time, thereby establishing the superiority of the maneuver. Eastman, in effect, agrees: “Changes hardly ever come ‘sudden and complete’ [as Benchley would have it with cartoons] unless somebody intrudes with forceps. They mature slowly in the womb of time or thereabouts, and you can almost always find that they were present before many people were aware of them.”

He then drops his little bombshell on the Happy Harv:

“There were no he-she jokes in the old Masses, which flourished ten years before The New Yorker was born, and I find by actual count in the first [issues] I take down [from the shelf] that the one-line caption prevails almost six-to-one.” And he cites several examples. The cartoons in The Masses are more often political cartoons than gag cartoons, and political cartoons had used one-line captions for some time by then, but Eastman has a good case for the primacy of The Masses in the emergence of the single-speaker caption. 

I realized while assembling two volumes of Cartoons of the Roaring Twenties for Fantagraphics, culling examples chiefly from the pages of the old humor magazine Life, that the one-speaker gag cartoon was present in the public prints—hither and yon, from time to time—long before The New Yorker debuted in February 1925, but, until Eastman made his case,  I hadn’t  realized that this format prevailed in The Masses. This radical magazine was not popular enough to establish the single-caption cartoon in the way The New Yorker did; but it’s clear that Eastman is right. The Masses made the single-caption cartoon a telling presence in its pages long before any other periodical made such cartoons common.

I suspect Eastman, as editor, hadn’t the foggiest notion of how this presence was coming about or how to explain it: to say that pictures “enriched” the captions doesn’t provide much guidance about how to do the enriching. And “pictorial humor” sounds like funny pictures to me; no mention of the role of words. Over at The New Yorker, the founding editor, Harold Ross, had, at least, a slightly less hazy idea about it: he  attributed the improvement in gag cartoon comedy to captions that were the utterances of a single speaker rather than consisting of a dialogue between a frilly young thing (“She”) and an enterprising seducer (“He”). His tenuous grasp of what was happening he expressed in his insistence that New Yorker cartoons always show one of the characters depicted with his or her mouth open so the reader could tell who was speaking. A strange principle perhaps, but wholly functional as a way of getting better gag cartoons.

Implementing Ross’s dictum, cartoonists began to realize that the comedic impact of their work would be much enhanced if the meaning or significance of the words under their pictures could be understood only by comprehending the role of the picture. And vice versa. In this manner, pictures and words were joined in such a way that the one "explained" the other.

The single panel gag cartooning achieves its apotheosis when neither the picture nor the words have humorous meaning alone. The picture sidles into a reader's consciousness as a kind of visual puzzle, meaningless until reading the caption "explains" it. The picture likewise "explains" the caption. Either way, as comprehension dawns—in the flash of an instant—the humor is revealed, and the revelation, coming, as it does, suddenly, gives comic impact to the combined "meaning" of the visual-verbal blend. In effect, the joke's impact derives from the "surprise" that is sprung upon the reader when he or she understands the full import of the picture or the caption.

Eastman’s cartoonists doubtless had a feeling for the greater humorous impact a single-speaker captioned cartoon had over the old “he-she” cartoon, but they probably hadn’t formulated any definitive notion about its mechanics just yet. Neither, for that matter, had Ross’s cartoonists. Not for a while at least.

I hadn’t expected to chance upon this revelation about gag cartooning when I picked up, then bought—then browsed through—Eastman’s book. But I came upon it anyhow, proving the value of a shelf of dusty old tomes, each the repository of some long lost secret pleasure.

All of which, we are informed by a chorus of doomsayers, will become part of a soon-to-be-forgotten past. And that brings me to a slightly different topic than we started out with—namely, Fishing and Hunting and Bookshops.


The evaporation of Borders is taken as a portent that brick-and-mortar bookstores are among the many species of civilization endangered by the Web and all its hyper-conveniences. And that set me to musing about New York City’s venerable Gotham Book Mart that closed a few years ago. The Gotham Book Mart’s doors opened for business in 1920, the special creation of Frances Steloff, who loved books but didn’t read much because she was always too busy, looking for new talent and nurturing the old, ordering books, pricing them, and selling them—and answering the queries of customers who came in looking for obscure volumes.

It was “a personal bookshop,” W.G. Rogers wrote in a book about the shop and its owner: “it provides a bookish atmosphere, a friendliness, a haven. Sometimes you find your title right off, and sometimes you have to hunt. Real booklovers can be disappointed at being waited on too promptly and too well; the fun is in the looking, and they want an excuse to browse. It’s against their principles not to loiter.”

Frances Steloff was still operating the place when I first went in, going down a couple steps from sidewalk level into a semi-subterranean grotto of bookshelves. A small, white-haired, bowed but intense woman, she sat at a desk in the middle of the store, wearing an ordinary house dress (she lived just upstairs) and an apron, the pockets of which bulged with pencil stubs, notes, Kleenex, a letter from today’s mail, a pair of glasses, a door key, and a sandwich for lunch (which she ate at her desk). Another pencil she poked into her hair. And she was always working—opening mail, sorting the books that piled on her desk along with newspaper clippings, brochures, flyers and other whatnots.

“Christopher Morley [a frequenter of the shop and a passionate lover of books]  turned the place into a literary hangout,” Rogers said.  “He loved to form clubs with no dues and no obligations, like the Three Hours for Lunch Club.” Once a week or oftener, Morley would gather some friends (Buckminster Fuller, William Rose Benet, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and others) and loiter into the shop, arriving early in the afternoon and staying into the evening. After the shop closed, they started singing.

Once, Rogers relates, Mencken and Dreiser were attending Morley’s late and well lubricated soiree, and they ran across some of their own books on the shop’s shelves. At once, they fell to autographing the tomes with long elaborate inscriptions. And when they ran out of their own books, the turned to other volumes. They signed several copies of the Bible, “with the compliments of the author.”

The Gotham Book Mart was a sanctuary for booklovers of a literary turn of mind.

It sold all kinds of books, new and old, but mostly titles of avant garde fiction, poetry and drama.  Joyce, Eliot, Auden, and such moderns as Salinger, Updike, and even, in a special place, Edward Gorey; even after Gorey died, he was a presence in the store with signed copies of his books for sale and periodic exhibitions of his art.

Over the door of the Gotham Book Mart was a wrought-iron sign designed by cartoonist John Held, Jr.; it read: Wise Men Fish Here. It was a motto devised by Steloff’s onetime husband, David Moss, who had been inspired by something Washington Irving and said or written. It’s Held’s sign that makes me think about fishing and hunting and buying books.

When a hunter goes hunting, he knows what he’s hunting for. And when he sees it through the sights of his rifle, he shoots it. When fishermen go fishing, they may hope for a particular kind of fish, but they know they may not hook a representative of that breed because they can’t tell, usually, what, exactly, is lurking below the surface of the water. Still, they’re prepared to take potluck: they cast their line and wait. They know that something, sooner or later, will get hooked. And sometimes they’re pleasantly surprised.

Book buying nowadays is a hunter’s paradise. If you know what book you want, you go on the Web and search for it. Amazon, BookFinder, AddALL. Presto: you find it and buy it.

But fishermen, they go to bookstores. They may not know exactly what they want. But they know they’ll find something, some treasure, no doubt, that they never knew existed. As Morley said: “If I don’t find the book I want, I find something I want more.”

So the fishermen wander the aisles and browse the bookshelves, and, almost always, they find something that looks promising. And then they’re hooked: they buy the book.

For the sake of the fishermen—for the love of fishing, for the joy of finding unanticipated treasure—we need bookstores, the brick-and-mortar kind that you can go into and cast about for a few hours. All kinds of bookstores—those that sell only new books; those that sell well-thumbed old and rare tomes.

Booklovers that go fishing in bookstores may not be wiser than anyone else, but they probably have more fun than hunters do on the Web. And at least one of us found the enjoyment of laughter, too.