Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some “Occasional Comics” by Howard Pyle

“I used to earn a little odd money by drawing an occasional comic,” wrote Howard Pyle in his scrapbook about some of the work he did when he first moved to New York in the fall of 1876. “The Night Watch” (above) was one such drawing, published as “Family Cares” in Scribner’s Monthly for April 1877. “Bliss” (below) was another, which appeared in the same magazine the following month.

From Pyle’s letters home, we know that he drew these two in November 1876. Another picture - so stylistically close to these that Pyle most likely made it at about the same time - was printed in the July 1877 issue of Scribner’s Monthly with the vague title, “A Quotation from ‘King Lear’”.

The original pen-and-ink was, I thought, last heard of when it was sold at auction by Scott & O’Shaughnessy in New York City on April 27, 1916. But, in poking around online, I came across it, semi-misidentified - but viewable here in a nice, high-resolution scan - in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

Along the side of the drawing we see - in Pyle’s handwriting - what was probably his intended caption: “‘Take physic, pomp (Pomp)’ (King Lear: Act III: Scene IV.” I can’t explain the double “pomp” or why the caption wasn’t printed. Perhaps Scribner’s Monthly’s editors - either Josiah Gilbert Holland, Richard Watson Gilder, or Robert Underwood Johnson - assumed their magazine’s readers were versed well enough in Shakespeare to get the “joke” without the quotation itself. I, for one, am pretty thick-witted, so I can’t gauge how funny it is - or if it’s funny at all. And when it comes to his Shakespeare-themed pictures, it’s sort of a shame that Pyle - who loved Shakespeare’s works and times and long-wished to illustrate the Sonnets, but never did - left only this crude, stereotype-ridden “comic” behind.

The extended quote, by the way, is from Lear himself and goes:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.


kev ferrara said...

This is quite interesting.

The Lear quote is about experiencing hardship to give yourself a more empathetic sense of what the less well-off go through. And by that knowledge, to realize that the "heavens" are unjust. So, to right things, it behooves us to give the excess goods we accumulate to the less fortunate. A basic christian plea for charity.

Pyle seems to be making a parallel between the line about taking medicine (physic) so to become more empathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, to the ability of the black character in the image to take real medicine himself. Pyle seems to be saying of the black man "he is sick just as you get sick, so have empathy. For he must be a man just as you are a man. So give him the medicine he needs."

This is much more of an editorial cartoon than a joke cartoon, obviously. And it presumes a strong familiarity for Shakespeare among its readership, probably justified.

The editors' decision to remove the exact quote to replace it with the vague "a quote from King Lear" turns the cartoon into more of a puzzle to solve. I suppose the idea would be the fun of remembering the "take physic" line and applying it to the circumstance portrayed by the cartoon, of the giving of medicine.

But I wonder if, in doing this, they have negated Pyle's presumed message, to give charity to the poor minority, for they are like us, see?

This is assuming I have Pyle's intentions right. It could after all be simply an immature comic statement of the one line in Lear being transposed to such blighted circumstances as the characters shown live within. It really depends on what Pyle social consciousness was understood to be at that time. Pyle was certainly capable of the wittier, editorial version, rather than the simple transposition of the haughty line into low circumstance.

Lorem Ipsum said...

The double "pomp" in "Take physic, pomp (Pomp)" is presumably a reference to the man's name, "Pompey" being a stereotypical slave name.

kev ferrara said...

That's an interesting theory, LI. Was Pomp a common shortened version of Pompey? I've never heard that, but it sure seems possible.

If that's the case, the joke was just a pun which was turned into a bit of puzzle by the editors. Sort of like the Jumble comic strip, where the answers always contain a bit of groan-worthy wordplay.

Ian Schoenherr said...

Thanks for all your input on this, you two. I meant to acknowledge it earlier.

I had almost convinced myself that there was a hidden meaning in this relating to Reconstruction and/or the 1876 election (which was much in the news and on Pyle's mind when he drew this) - but now I've veered to the "groan-worthy wordplay" camp.

Anonymous said...

My take is different. It looks like a cartoon, and the man's reaction is that of horrified surprise, so I think it's a case of the woman thinking that her husband ought to becoming more "empathetic to the plight of the unfortunate" -- that it's her job to force him to be morally uplifted, but he wants no part of it.

It's somewhat funny, but not original, for two reasons: 1) Mark Twain did this same idea, much better, when he had Tom Sawyer take the god-awful 'medicine' Aunt Polly was forcing on him and secretly feed it to the cat. The cat's howls bring Polly out to blame Tom for torturing the cat, but his answer is that since the medicine was for his own good, he was just trying to help the cat be good. This puts Polly in a double-bind, and makes her realize that she's been torturing Tom. This passage would have been well-known to all readers of the day, when it was still fresh. I believe this same idea is probably the original inspiration for A. B. Frost's classic cartoon "Tale of the Cat", who eats rat poison and goes berserk.

2) And speaking of Frost, he was drawing similar cartoons as this (heavy-handed humor, overly-rendered hatching) at the same time, and Pyle is probably trying his hand at imitating Frost. I'd have to check the dates to be sure of who and what came first when.

Neither artist was racially enlightened, but it seems to have been the typical racism of the day: punching down at the defenseless in the name of humor, rather than something MORE evil than that. At least Frost ruthlessly lampooned groups he belonged to, like The Sensitive Artist, The Gentleman Farmer, and the Irish, which I do find slightly redeeming. If not punching across, then at least he imagined he was doing so. [I imagine.]

Roger T. Reed