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"The Limits of Caricature," The Nation, July 19, 1866

The Civil War witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of topical cartoons and caricatures—at least in the pictorial publications of the resource-rich Union. The trend continued after the war, which was not always to the liking of many public figures and arbiters of taste. In keeping with concerns about the growing ubiquity of popular visual media and its effect on public opinion, this editorial is one of many that The Nation and other genteel, conservative periodicals would publish decrying the “leveling” of American society (that is, the diminishing exclusiveness of elite tastes and their influence on cultural standards in general). Suspicious of humor as a means of confronting serious issues, the “distortion” of caricature, unleashed by the war, is viewed here as contributing to the incivility of U.S. postwar society.

Date: July 19, 1866

Publisher: The Nation 3: 55

Source: American Social History Project

We are informed by the newspapers that at the “Ladies’ Fair” recently held in Honesdale, Pa., for a laudable charitable purpose, caricatures of the principal citizens, exhibited through the medium of magic lantern, were among the attractions, and created, as a matter of course, a great deal of boisterous merriment. It is not stated that the victims of these pictorial pasquinades relished the jest, the point of which must have been in a coarse exaggeration of personal peculiarities; however, for the sake of appearances they may have joined in the laughter, as Charles Lamb helped to hiss his own ill-fated farce. It would only have been according to nature if the caricatured were secretly mortified and hurt by the exhibition. We take it for granted that no sensible man is desirous of a ridiculous presentment, although he may have sufficient self-command to conceal his vexation. It is a curious fact that the physically ugly are rarely aware of their homeliness until they are driven almost to conviction of it by persistent ridicule and, even then, they are more likely to attribute malice than truth to the critics of their proportions. In either case, the mortification is much the same, for to be considered ugly is quite as irritating as to be really so. Poor Goldsmith, in his peach-bloom coat, probably believed to the last that his person was a fine one, although his good opinion of his own figure was not seldom rudely disturbed; and we once knew a man who was little better than dog-faced who spent many happy moments before his looking-glass. Such a harmless complacency it is ill-bred and even malicious to disturb. A nose of the big and bottle variety may serve its possessor quite well as if it were of the finest Roman curve or the daintiest Grecian slope; but the laws of beauty have fixed a standard of taste, and any violent aberration from this is a real misfortune, so far as it tends to notoriety and attracts observation. Moreover, it is the motive of this exposure which opens the eyes and wounds the sensibilities of the caricatured. They no more discover their irregularities in a photograph taken by their own desire than they find them in the mirror in which they voluntarily look; but when their neighbors officiously draw them and put palpable ridicule into every stroke, conceit itself is undeceived, or, if it remain indomitable it cannot prevent the wounds of pride nor altogether allay a feeling of anxiety.

The essence of caricature is exaggeration to deformity, and however it may entertain us, there is always the drawback of its untruthfulness; nor is it paradoxical to say that the closer the likeness, the more cruel is the lie. There is a substantial immorality in commenting, however veraciously, upon the defects and deformities of our fellow creatures; but to represent them as more hideous than they really are, while affecting to preserve simple resemblance, is an offence akin to slander made portable and piquant by a few grains of undeniable truth. This is specially to call the attention of the world to peculiarities which might otherwise have escaped comment to limit the efforts of the well-meaning by attaching ludicrous associations to their presence and, perhaps, to obscure modest merit by depreciating the outward form of its possessor. And it may be noticed that while caricature fastens upon foibles and perpetuates the eccentricities of honest men, it is incapable of rising to the sober earnestness of rebuking positive and acknowledged wickedness. Humor is not usually a quality of virtuous indignation; and great immoralities, public or private, are not to be dealt with in a spirit of levity, because to subject them to the ordeal of ridicule would be really to diminish the abhorrence with which they should be regarded.

It is the malicious element in caricature which so often betrays it into mere caricature, just as many a newspaper writer cannot vent his spleen without abuse, and fancies that abuse is severity. In both instances recourse is had to distortion, and distortion, unless under the guidance of an uncommonly powerful hand, is sure to result in feebleness. We may put big heads upon little bodies; we may crook the limbs or arch the shoulders; we may draw a forest of beard or a yard of moustache; we may double a squint or magnify splay feet, but every observer knows at once that this is not the man whose name is underwritten, and the chances are that he gets our sympathy rather than our dislike or contempt. We have seen a portrait of Pope which was hawked about by his enemies, and which made us think the “Dunciad” a mild and well-deserved rebuke; for the etching showed us what beasts the little crooked man had to deal with. The tendency of caricature is to license, and this in turn to vulgarity. This is easily to be observed in literature—the satirist who determines to be cruel usually succeeds so far as to be coarse. It is true that there is a malign power in coarseness which makes it a weapon tempting to the writer who is or who supposes that he is mounted upon his injuries, or who pleases to run a wanton muck against his contemporaries; but he must take heed lest he win admiration for his bad ability at the cost of our contempt for his heart. In literature as in life, a man may do mischief very brilliantly and win only notoriety instead of fame. Archilochus wrote a lampoon upon the three daughters of Lycambes which drove them all to suicide; and Hipponax, we are told, could boast of similar sorry triumphs. There may be power in the talent so exercised, but it is the same power which resides in the pistol of the house breaker or the bludgeon of the highwayman. A good man is not likely to possess it, and will certainly be incapable of using it. When it vents itself in pseudo-criticism, it is the bane of letters, and many a man of generous parts and of real promise has been cut off early in a career which might have been honorable to himself and useful to the world by the flippant fault-finding and poisonous personalities of the monthly and quarterly censors.

The point in which caricature, and especially American caricature, almost universally fails is that of composition. The forlornly absurd pictures in our newspapers misnomered comic, in which public men are represented in impossible situations and doing impossible things are like the vagaries and antics of postprandial dreams. The situations would be childish enough if they were correctly drawn; but to every impossibility of attitude is added the aggravation of linear distortion. The season of the war produced a plentiful crop of these nondescript abominations, which lined the windows of the print-shops, and, as we are sorry to say, seemed to gratify the crowd. If there was fun in them, it was of so recondite a character that a plain man might be excused for failing to observe it. Nor were they particularly gratifying to our patriotism. The Federal generals and statesmen were, as a rule, rendered quite as ridiculous as the Confederate magnates, and, to crown all, the nonsense which issued from loyal mouths rivaled, in pointless folly, the imputed stupidities of the rebels. Though the artist had matters all his own way, he made but a sorry job of his satire.

Upon the whole, we can hardly esteem caricature as an agreeable or particularly useful art; for fairness and good nature are almost impossible in its practice. Since human infirmities are shared by us with a sad equality; since most of us have a common birthright of error and of failure; since he must be an exception to the rule who has no follies to be ridiculed and no eccentricities to be blazoned, the equity of selecting a few as objects of laughter may well be questioned. The decline of caricature as a means of personal attack, which was so unscrupulously resorted to in the days of Gilray, may be considered as a mark of advancing refinement; for it is safe to say that the productions of that artist would not now be tolerated by good society, and hardly relished by the frequenters of gin-palaces and beer-shops. In its place we have that graphic and kindly humor of which the late Mr. Leech was an acknowledged master. If this can afford us an agreeable entertainment without ill-humor, and a hearty laugh without the least touch of spleen, it is surely more worthy of our encouragement and attention than those satiric strokes of the graver every one of which is meant to reach a human heart.