Friday, November 27, 2015


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 5 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Five (Part 1) - ONCE ABOARD THE LUGGER

When I began earnestly and assiduously to attend to public morals, the stage, financial and political matters, from which precise period there has been observable a steady progress and gratifying improvement, some of which may be attributed, no question, to the assistance of Mrs. Grannis, Anthony Comstock, Carrie Nation, Dr. Parkhurst, Dr. John Roach Straton, William Jennings Bryan and John Sumner, no regular he-artist had covered these subjects adequately.

Mike Woolf was making his pathetic little studies of tattered street waifs sorting over garbage heaps for their Thanksgiving dinners, J. G. Brown was painting charmingly neat newsboys and bootblacks that sold for several thousands each, Kate Greenaway was issuing sweetly soaped and blue-bonneted kiddies, Palmer Cox creating untold merriment with his quaint Brownies every month, the once pregnant pen of Thomas Nast was producing Christmas Carol pretties and parodies of Shakespeare, and Eddie Kemble was just getting his famous Coons to the point where they could support him in luxury.

No really great artist was giving his attention to the cancerous evils that were everywhere in evidence, from three-card monte on Park Row, the Havana Lottery, race-track gambling, roller skating, the danse du ventre (see video), moonlight excursions and the popular badger game up to railroad-wrecking, the Credit Mobilier, crooked life and fire insurance, ballot-box frauds and boodle aldermen. The times were ripe for a new Hogarth, I had no job, at least I had not yet settled on one, and after waiting modestly for a space for a better imitation of Hogarth to appear, I tackled the Herculean task of cleaning the well-known Augean stables.

It was good hunting; in every bush, on every rock sat an Evil preening itself most offensively; they lurked in the least suspicious places, obtruded themselves at every moment without disguise in business, politics, religion, schools, markets and camp-meetings, so that for years I did not have to bother with the sporadic growths of newfangled sins and evils that were discernible to the sharp eye of Virtue. I could afford to let them grow up and ripen while I hacked away at the tough gnarled tendrils of the old poisonous Upas Tree to which no limner since the late Mr. Hogarth had paid the least attention. If that is mixed metaphor, go on and cavil at it.

Good, gentle Murat Halstead had started a paper called the Extra in the Spring of '84, and he bought some of my cartoons. I have forgotten whether the Extra was a daily or weekly paper, I think it was a daily, but these were actually the very first of newspaper cartoons, done with the one object of timeliness, up to the minute and down to the ordinary intellect of the man on the street. Heretofore only portraits and maps had been printed on the fast-running presses. I met "Marse Henry" Watterson in the Extra office one day, and he offered me a job on his Louisville paper but I had seen the Southwest and felt that it was too roughnecked and coarse for a refined devotee of the Pure.

When I maladroitly hinted at my reason for refusing his offer, Mr. Watterson distilled some vitriolic observations that revealed he had thoroughly inspected the Metropolis from Castle Garden up to the famous "Five Houses" which were located where the Astor Hotel now stands. He stated his opinion that New York was the meanest, tightest, coldest-hearted, rottenest, foulest, vilest and most God-forsaken city since Babylon, each of these adjectives being festooned and garnished with Kentucky swear words meaning "damn," oaths that snapped and sparkled like exploding meteors.

Something happened to the Extra; very likely the National Campaign Committee forgot to put it on the payroll, and it joined that long line of wraiths of dead and forgotten newspapers that just before dawn may be seen drifting across City Hall Park.

A month later, just when the June roses were in full bloom, I was the World's cartoonist, rolling in luxury, eating three, sometimes four meals a day, smoking fifteen-cent cigars, and riding to Albany on an annual pass signed by Chauncey M. Depew, with a daily production of from two to ten handmade pictures, each meticulously signed "McD" in letters not larger than those on a modern taximeter dial.

All this was actually the result of pure ignorance and sheer luck combined, and it happened in this wise:

One day in June, I came over from Newark to learn the fate of a rather ambitious cartoon on James G. Blaine, the nominee for President of the Republican Party that year, which I had left with Puck. It had been returned to me without any comment, and it was of no earthly use to me, as I was on my way to the ball game, and the notion of carrying the rejected sheet of cardboard with me was distasteful, yet I hated to throw it into the gutter.

The wild notion of offering it to the kindly Amos Cummings of the Sun, as it was Democratic in tendency, and Cummings seemed a man to whom a novel idea might be broached without his feeling insulted, came to me. I felt courageous enough to venture to urge him to invade a virgin field by printing a regular Puck cartoon in a newspaper. I was resolved to make him a free present, if necessary, of my burden. But as I passed the ramshackle old Western Union Building, 31 Park Row, then occupied by the World, a sudden impulse, really a Heaven-inspired hunch, led me to offer the cartoon to the newcomers from the West who had recently purchased that decadent sheet. I invaded the dingy dark counting room, found the twenty-two-caliber elevator in the rear—and then my courage oozed away.

The idea of offering a cartoon to a daily paper seemed so utterly absurd that I thrust the cardboard roll into the hands of the elevator boy and stammered: "Give that to the editor and tell him he can have it if he wants it." Then I went to the ball game to forget the cares, the hunger and the thirst of a poor country artist who tried to tell a picture once a month to a funny paper.

Creative work, even of the meanest and most inconsequential, is like the diagram of the bed of the Atlantic, a series of depressions with a few needle-like points that reach above sea level, opal tips glinting in warm sunshine while all below is icy, grimy ooze infested with repulsive marine monsters. I was in one of the deepest chasms the next day, with a natural disinclination to work in June greatly increased by deep dejection. At noon I received a telegram from Joseph Pulitzer, the proprietor of the New York World, asking me to come to the World office at once. My experience of newspaper methods assured me that this meant something of vast importance—to me at least. I was thrilled and excited, but on buying a World I was uplifted to the highest altitude I had yet reached, for I found my cartoon, five columns in width, printed on the front page.

I took the next train for New York, and well within an hour I was in the dingy, dirty editorial rooms of the World. When I was ushered into Joseph Pulitzer's room at the left end of the building, he shook hands with me most cordially, swept me with his big brown eyes, which afterward gradually altered to a purplish blue, it seems, and took me into Colonel Cockerill's room. There he said, in a hearty and enthusiastic tone: "We have found the fellow who can make pictures for newspapers! Young man, we printed the entire edition of thirty thousand copies of the World without stopping the press to clean the cut, and that has never happened in this country before!"

I did not tell him that the cartoon looked like the crab's eyebrows without the proper reduction in size to refine its coarse lines. Knowing practically nothing about photo-engraving at that time, the editors had found that the drawing fitted into just five columns, and they therefore ordered it made accordingly, not aware it could have been reduced by the engraver to any desired size.

In much less than half an hour I found myself on the World editorial staff, its youngest member, with a "studio" all my own and a salary of fifty dollars per week, an enormous sum in the newspaper world at the time. There I remained for sixteen years.

That is the true story of my laborious rise to Success; the bulldog tenacity, the sturdy heroic battle with poverty, croup, mumps, unappreciative employers, thirty or forty snippy girl neighbors, a wolf's hunger and a sponge's thirst, all these are in the brief epic! I was twenty-six years old, weighed a hundred and fifty-five at the ringside, and the World was mine—and Joseph Pulitzer's.

It is almost impossible now to make clear the bitter disfavor and fervid scorn in which the World of Jay Gould and Manton Marble was held by persons of refinement and Republican principles in 1884. Its copperhead convictions and sentiments, its Tammany Hall sympathies, its stockjobbing and its coarse vulgar methods had long since reduced it to the condition of a pariah, a slinking mangy outcast prowling in the garbage of the gutters. Of this disesteem, or of its true extent at least, Pulitzer and Cockerill were scarcely aware, or, if they were, they disregarded it, when they acquired what was regarded by Park Row fraternity as the largest white elephant in captivity.

My mother was profoundly agitated and deeply disgusted when I returned home and announced with ill-concealed enlargement of the cranium that I was working for the disreputable and offensive World. She would never refer to J. P. other than "Mister Polutzer," believing that he had led me astray from the straight and narrow Republican path. Politics at that period was near akin to religion; a vote-splitter was a treacherous turncoat, and he rarely openly confessed his treason. But I was publicly advertising my base prostitution.

My father-in-law, the boss of North Newark, who had made me a clerk of election, was highly incensed at my perfidy, but when he learned what my salary was, he was filled with a sudden and sincere respect mixed with admiration that lasted all his life.



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