"Why can the United States not have a comic paper of its own?" enquired E.L. Godkin of The Nation, one of the most distinguished intellectual magazines of the Gilded Age. America claimed a host of popular and insightful raconteurs as its own, from Petroleum V. Nasby to Mark Twain; in addition, cartoonists like Thomas Nast had emerged to place visual humor on a plane of excellence equal to that of its text-based counterpart. In spite of this fertile deposit of literary and graphic satire, no American publication devoted solely to humor had been able to survive for more than a few months. Magazines with names like The John-Donkey, Momus, and Mrs. Grundy passed through history leaving little trace in the public memory. [1]

Godkin offered one possible reason for this phenomena, that "a country must supply a good many strong social contrasts for the professional joker to play upon"; believing his to be a homogeneous environment the editor reasoned that American political leaders and other prominent figures were too publicly accessible to be accorded the kind of reverence a British Lord might have, and thus the satirical potential in placing Americans in socially absurd situations diminished significantly. However, the most talented humorists of the era did not need to draw material from social contrasts alone. Godkin's observation that America reflected "an absence of class distinctions" and had undergone a "complete democratization of institutions" since the end of the Civil War illuminates the true bedrock of Gilded Age satire, as well as the source of discontent that helped to fuel it. To claim a level society at any period of American history, much less one in which some men amassed legendary material fortunes while others toiled for twelve or more hours a day in squalid factories, would be spurious; nevertheless, something that citizens of all social castes did have in common was a familiarity with certain narratives, symbols, and activities which Lawrence W. Levine has described as elements of "shared culture". There is no doubt that physical distinctions existed in society, but on an imaginative level many people responded to Shakespeare as comfortably as they did to the circus. [2]

Similar to the democratic nature of entertainment, the government of the Gilded Age reflected an egalitarian-- though some would prefer the term uncritical-- style of operation. The institutions which had guided the country out of colonialism and through a great rebellion had deteriorated under the guidance of men who had the same rights and privileges as any other enfranchised male, but whose educational and ethical backgrounds did not match those of their antebellum predecessors. Gentlemen who contributed to magazines like The Nation or The North American Review perceived themselves, and not the 'spoilsmen', as the rightful inheritors of the supposedly sterling American tradition of statesmanship. The dismay over the corruption and inefficiency which had come to characterize government service in their exile prompted the 'Nation men' to unite as a party of dissent which could play off of the desperately partisan Republican and Democratic organizations in order to select the candidate with the best ideas.

Unfortunately the Mugwumps, as these gentlemen came to be known, did not maximize their familiarity with the shared culture but rather unveiled their own inherently anti-democratic disposition in their attempts to clean up government. Godkin accurately describes reform-minded men as having little understanding of the effectiveness of mainstream vehicles of dissemination due to "their own natural want of humor, and partly to their careful cultivation"; this cultivation misled them into thinking that they could raise public consciousness by publishing elaborate arguments in highbrow publications which had few readers outside of the educated aristocracy. Lacking popular support, the dispassionate, issue-oriented Mugwump agenda could not enjoy lasting victory in the nineteenth century; only an approach steeped in pop culture would successfully reach a body politic so captivated by spectacle and humor. In the late 1870s a liberal Austrian immigrant named Joseph Keppler combined Mugwump ideology and illustrated satire, creating at long last a popular medium for the expression of intellectual politics.

About the Hypertext
This hypertext is intended to provide you with as many ways "in" as possible. The Text-Based section is an analysis of cartooning as well as Gilded Age political culture; the individual essays can be read in a linear progression or independently of each other.
"A Brief History of Cartoons" documents particular highlights in the development of the artistic as well as editorial nature of the genre; "Mainstream and Elite Political Culture" describes the political environment in the decades after the Civil War and also sketches the Mugwump perspective; the final section, "A Popular Medium", deals specifically with Puck and Joseph Keppler's efforts to convey Liberal viewpoints to the general public. This final essay in the Text-Based area offers links to most of the Image-Based features, which engage with a variety of cartoons published between 1880 and 1884. The explorations of "Our National Dog Show" and "Inspecting the Democratic Curiosity Shop" are deconstructions of particular cartoons; "Caricature and the Carte-de-Viste" examines Keppler's and his assistants' artistic styles during the emergence of photography; "The Campaign Against Grant" is a selection of lithographs which appeared before the Republican convention of 1880. The "Cartoon Archive" presents all of the cartoons used throughout this project in large, high-resolution .jpg's. So browse at your discretion. If you have questions or comments, use the mailto: tag on the title page of this project. Thank You and Enjoy. . . .

Dan Backer