One of the greatest of American cartoonists of the twentieth century was Gluyas Williams (1888-1982), who retired, much too early, in 1953 (he lived another three decades). The name Gluyas was his mother’s maiden name and was of Cornish origin. Born in San Francisco, he lived most of his life in Massachusetts, and drew a great deal of his inspiration by watching people getting on and off the train at the West Newton, Massachusetts station.
Here is a typical full-page drawing Williams did for The New Yorker, dated April 26, 1941; it is part of “The Inner Man” (i.e., feeding the inner man) series, this drawing depicting “The Cocktail Party”:
Notice how Williams contrives to fill his canvas from top to bottom and from side to side with a multitude of sharply observed individual sketches. Every character is doing something, so there is a sense of movement. The range of individual emotions and attitudes is striking—from assertiveness to mild anxiety. It is a view of the human comedy without condescension. The writer Edward Street declared:
He sees humans as confused, insecure, well-intentioned duffers bluffing their way through the world of half-baked customs and screwball mores which they do not understand but cannot sidestep.*
Another writer, David McCord, agreed:
This universal human quality—a love, not a contempt, for his fellow man—is what sets Gluyas Williams in a class by himself. Satire has no place in his method of characterization. Even his painfully correct reporting of some of America’s incredible playgrounds shows not the slightest trace of mockery. That crowds of men and women can look and act as they do, and affect to find pleasure and recreation in the sordid mass, is part of the subdivine comedy in which he enters as a spectator, never as a critic.
However . . .
Consider the following drawing, part of “The Reading Public” series (The New Yorker, November 15, 1941:
Lolling in bed, 2:30 in the morning, smoking his cigarettes as he reaches the final pages of a mystery novel, he reads:
Yes, “[s]atire has no place in his method of characterization” in the drawing itself. But Williams does demonstrate a fine satirical sense of parody in the literary portion of the work. Here he has got down pat the essence of the English detective mystery novel of the age. Every word, every inflection, is dead-on typical of the genre. For example: the elaborate timetable of the movements of the characters—down to exact minutes, which somehow get registered in people’s minds for later retrieval—which the detective pieces together, in retrospect, for the benefit of the less-astute narrator (and reader).
This is absolutely brilliant satire. Parody at its best. Without resorting to exaggeration or distortion, Williams highlights the clichés and conventions of the English detective novel. The “novel,” in other words, is not “new,” but formulaic.
True to his nature, Williams’ satire is gently done. But sharply observed and perfectly drawn like his cartoons.
How one wishes Gluyas Williams were around to gift us a picture of the crowd at the women’s final of the US Open tennis tournament this past weekend—with their boos and catcalls protesting the treatment of their favorite, Serena Williams, by the match umpire. My first thought upon reading about the brouhaha was: Were those people New Yorkers? Where was the traditional New York rooting for the underdog? Granted that that Serena Williams is one of the greatest racket-wielders of all time, but, hey, she was playing against a twenty-year-old! I can only surmise that like so much of the city these days, the stadium was infested with gentrifying out-of-towners.
But I digress—well, actually I don’t digress because I haven’t gotten started yet.**
Well, to get to the point—there did emerge from the event a now-notorious cartoon from the down-under newspaper The Herald Sun. Here is Mark Knight’s cartoon:
Serena throwing the tantrums of all tantrums, jumping on her broken racket and screaming for all she’s worth. Serena, not as a grown woman, but as a bratty child--notice the pacifier. (And off to the side, the umpire implores her opponent to let Serena win in order to stop the ruckus.) The drawing is indeed satirical—a caricature that reduces its victim by distorting her features and exaggerating her actions for a critical commentary. Her actions are exaggerated—Serena did not jump up and down on her racket. And her physical features—except for the hair—are grossly distorted. Distorted in a way that has led people to call out the work as racist.
Caricature relies on distortion. A pointed nose gets longer and pointier. Ears expand to rival Dumbo’s. Chins either recede into nothingness or jut out like the prow of a ship. It all depends on what the victim’s features were to begin with. Here’s Daumier’s caricature of King Louis Philippe:
Notice how the portrait emerges from Louis Philippe’s physiognomy. From now on when we see the King, we see a pear, and when we see a pear, we see the King.
To return to the depiction of Serena Williams in the cartoon. Aside from the hair, what feature is there that builds from the player’s face? Look at the lips—are they anything like Serena’s? Or are they like this:
A racist stereotype.
So, yes, Mr. Knight has drawn a funny, satirical cartoon. But one that is deeply flawed; because it depicts a racist idea of a black woman and not Serena Williams.
Satire comes in many varieties. It can be coolly intellectual or emotionally boiling. It comes in words; it comes in images. It comes as parody. It comes as caricature.
Sometimes it can be extremely nasty.
(Strangely, Williams’ given name is spelled wrongly here in the address.)
** Somehow I seem to have developed a case of Tristram-Shandyitis. If you haven’t read that classic novel, please do. It’s a gas.