Sunday, September 23, 2012

Known By His Legacy, Not His Name

Pharaohs sought immortality through mummy-wrap, entombing themselves with a few of their favorite wives, servants and pets. For those of us without the shekels to build a pyramid we may be best remembered by the deeds we bequeath. At least the gift endures if not the name of the giver.

Consider the image we have of Santa Claus, the Republican elephant, Uncle Sam and the Democrat’s donkey. One man created the first two and popularized the others. He is credited with being instrumental in the elections of three presidents, Grant, Hayes and Cleveland. Lincoln called him, our best recruiting sergeant.  He was hailed as the father of the American cartoon. His fifteen minutes of fame lasted forty years. During the Gilded Age he was as famous as his friend, Mark Twain. A household name 150 years ago, now only history buffs know Thomas Nast.

He is said to have added the whiskers to Uncle Sam and depicted him often enough for it to become a national icon. Nast was an ardent abolitionist and supporter of Native Americans and Chinese-American rights. He carried Harper’s Weekly for several decades. When he left in 1886 the magazine lost its political significance.  One of his passions was exposing the corruption of Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed in particular. Nast was offered a bribe by Tweed of $500,000 to leave the country. He declined.  In fact it was Tweed who fled after his arrest and was identified in Spain by Nast’s caricature drawings.

Nast’s depiction of cherubic Santa came to him partly from the folk lore of his native Germany and partly from Clement Moore’s poem, The Night Before Christmas. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Nast is that he never learned to read or write. His wife is said to have read the poem to him as he made his engravings. It was also his inspiration to locate Santa in the North Pole along with elves and a workshop, making him a universal figure for all children.

Later in life he started his own publishing house and newspaper (he was not related to Conde Nast) and still relied on friends to read the sentences out of which came his drawings. He saw words as pictures. One of them is worth a thousand of these squiggly things. History and the passage of time do strange things, lifting some names up and devouring others. Even though Thomas Nast got misplaced in the national chronicle his contribution is beyond authorship.

For the rest of us who do not live out loud and may not even exist according to Google there are enough daily acts of kindness, beyond all measure, to assure our claim for remembrance among those we have touched.  

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