Art and Heart: Horace Traubel and Homer Davenport
Tyler Hoffman

In this time leading up to the 2004 American presidential election (Kerry v. Bush), nothing could be more timely than to focus on Horace Traubel and his admiration of cartoonist Homer Davenport; both men were radical reformists fighting for social and economic justice, liberty, and against the Republican Party with its ties to corporate America.

Horace Traubel selected the material for and edited Davenport’s 1900 book The Dollar or the Man?  In the introduction—titled “The Problem, the Cartoon, and the Artist”—Traubel addresses the formal and cultural contributions of Davenport in his typically trenchant and (at one and the same time) elliptical and epigrammatic style.  The title of the book comes from a statement attributed to Lincoln, which stands as the epigraph:  “Both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar.”  The humanist impulse behind Traubel’s and Davenport’s shared liberal politics—their concern for the eclipse of the spiritual by the material in American society—is encapsulated well in that quotation, and most of the cartoons in the book depict big business interests (coal trust, sugar trust, gas trust, Standard Oil trust, etc.) quashing labor and treading on the civil rights of the average American man and woman.  Indeed, the Trusts are figured by Davemport in the form of a brawny grass-skirted giant with all of the implements to subdue the people, to bend them to the will of corporations, which have the President (McKinley) in their pocket.  The book is dedicated to Davenport’s son, “in the hope that if he ever becomes a legislator he will bear in mind the interests of the plain people,” and that democratic concern is at the heart of Davenport’s art. 

Whitman also stands at the entrance to this book. A statement from his essay “The Tramp and Strike Questions” raises pointedly the question of “the treatment of working people by employers, and all that goes along with it—not only the wage payment part, but a certain spirit and principle, to vivify anew these relations.” As Whitman states, he will judge “our republican experiment” as “at heart an unhealthy failure” if America “grow vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably waged populations.”  Here he warns about democracy no longer being for the people, and amplifies these sentiments in Democratic Vistas.

First published in William Hearst’s New York Journal, Davemport’s cartoons take aim at Republican Party candidates, advisers, fund raisers, and campaign managers, including William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and, most famously, Mark Hanna.  Hanna was an industrialist from Cleveland who made his fortune in iron and coal and worked to raise money for Republican Party candidates in the knowledge that the fortunes of big business were tied to Republican successes.  Hanna helped McKinley win the governorship of Ohio and then helped him win the Presidency in 1896.  He was a wildly successful campaign manager, taking money from Carnegie and Standard Oil, among other big business interests.  For McKinley, he raised a war chest of $3,500,000, outspending his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, 20:1.  This mix of money and politics and the rise of the campaign manager in American political life clearly points to our current situation, where American corporations continue to pay to gain access to elected officials and where spending on the 2004 campaign has reached unprecedented heights. 

Indeed, the relevance of these cartoons extends to other current political circumstances.  One of Davenport’s cartoons that pictures Hanna ripping in two the U.S. Constitution presages contemporary cartoons of John Ashcroft wielding the power of the Patriot Act.  Another cartoon takes on the false rhetoric of politicians and their manipulation of the media, as they keep an image of prosperity before the people while all along promoting policies that drive people further into poverty; how can we not think of the current levels of doublespeak, with politicians and their managers trying pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate.  Finally, Traubel and Davenport both feared the imperial ambitions of the U.S., especially in light of the nation’s occupation of the Philippines after the victory in the Spanish-American War.  U.S. expansionism, which was vigorously supported by McKinley and his advisor Theodore Roosevelt, and was opposed by Grover Cleveland, for whom Whitman had high regard, is pictured in these cartoons as a violation of the principles of democracy, as (what it is) an attempt to impose a system of rule on another people.  Bush’s adventurism in Iraq calls out for (and has been met by) similarly sharp critique in the art of the cartoon.

Several of Davenport’s cartoons seek to recapture Lincoln as a genuine leader and true hero of the people, a noble president whose legacy has been forgotten by a ruling elite who looks only to the bottom line, who puts personal profit for a few ahead of the welfare of the many.  Industrialists like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Sage appear as villians in these pieces, and are shown fattening up while the people starve.  Traubel’s introduction reminds us of the costs of such behavior, and in it he announces, in millennial tones, that “the juncture for social mercy has arrived…. We have reached the crossroads. Shall we go further chatteled or free?” (1, 2).  Traubel goes on to observe that “The crass and stained knife of our dispensation has parcelled all property and the possibilities of property in lien to the few members of a caste, whose foundation, labor, the only indispensable factor in the social regime, is despised and without suffrage” (3). In the end he sees that “As long as a dollar anywhere goes farther than a man so long will democracy play foul to its prophecy” (3).

Traubel’s ultimate faith in the triumph of democracy is revealed in his arrangement of Davenport’s cartroons in the book.  The first 52 give an unremitting view of the dangers of the trusts in American life—the slavery under which the people serve; the final two in the sequence, however, depict, respectively, Uncle Sam taking the trusts to the woodshed and the trusts being tied down (conquered) by the “little people” in an image straight from Swiftian satire.

Traubel appreciated fully Davenport’s simple style, stating that “He comes fresh from the farm and the workshop, with mud on his boots and grease on his hands.  He has manners without mannerism and faith without a code”; indeed, Traubel notes, “He is like Grant, Lincoln, Whitman, in demonstrating the power of our democracy to recoup itself without stint from the crowd…. He proceeds to make the cartoon classic, so severely does he apply it to the gravest uses of a humanized heart” (5-6).  “His pictures invite battle and tears,” Traubel declares, and his “devotion to the fundamentals of social justice” makes clear whose side he is on.

The paragraph from the introduction in which Traubel details the poetics and politics of the cartoon is quite simply masterful.  A history of the theory of such art would simply be incomplete without it.  I reproduce it here, as final sum of Traubel’s (and Davenport’s) devotion to the ideology of art and heart:

The cartoon has an Adamic directness. It comes by ostensible fiat, not by known law. Every cartoonist of genius plunges out of chaos shaped to a particular exigency. He is a surprise – a differentiation. He has his unmistakable individuality of technique, which builds, serves, destroys, in certain contingencies of circumstance, and goes out, a light quenched. No second torch is lit from that flame. Yet the cartoon is classic. Without formal ancestry or grandeur of pedigree it arbitrates the destiny of man and time and tries by some consensus the waifs of social struggle. The cartoon with Jovinian éclat and unconcern sheafs in one fist the lightning of social interrogation. “The slang of art,” it has been called – bringing to the esthetic, as slang does to language, its everlasting felicities. The cartoon dares any venture of speech. No sneak or snarl in society can escape the cartoon. The cartoon is everywhere before anything else – even anticipates its subject creatures. It goes and comes by free will. Grim with quick pardon, weeping with laughter, profound with frivolity, brutal with finesse, magnificent with modesty, the cartoon is everything it does not pretend to be, the horizontal to your perpendicular and the circle to your square. The cartoon is the master of paradox. Its good humor gives it a pass to the heart of its victim. The cartoon is fierce in encounter and quick to forgive. It is not malicious. It deals with man not as a malevolence but as a foible. It is more powerful than marching armies and more subtle than scholastic verbiage. It is the quick fast and hard of agitation, the jocular madcap of humbug custom, the blasphemy making faces at half gods. It coalesces the freest method with the sternest hope, creating harmony between cross purposes, reducing enmities to their logic in imbecility. The cartoon epitomizes data in law and accepts convention in undress. What army could march without its cartoon? What cause succeed? What dream be communicated? What faith expressed? The cartoon is in the van, standarding revolt. For the people will tolerate in the cartoon what no other agent of expression is at liberty to inflict. The cartoon penetrates the boudoir without illicit curiosity and rebukes vice without a puritan condescension. While not good god good devilling the flagrant descent of human fallibility it so impartially administers rebuke and so without venom draws the demonic back to the line of law that critics who lack humor charge it with choosing a harlequin disguise and a counterfeit fate. The cartoon must be taken with your religion. Its novitiate vestibules the most sacred revelation. The cartoon levelled to a grace sincerity, taken to heart in its best annunciations, mastered by a pen steadfastly faithful to ideals, goes into households as a friendliest counsellor, enlivening routine, instructing doubt, exploiting between grace and gay the prophecy of evolution.