Wednesday, June 08, 2016

"A great cartoonist creates a whole world" (Bob Mankoff): Celebrating "New Yorker" greats Wm Hamilton and Roz Chast


Update: Adding the caption to that final Wm Hamilton cartoon (oops, didn't realize it wasn't included with the graphic!)

by Ken

Some readers will have noticed that after goodness-only-knows-how-many years of daily (and even twice-daily) posts here, I pretty much disappeared from this space -- and even, sometime after that, from my own Sunday Classics with Ken from DWT blog. There were lots of reasons, but overshadowing them all was the deadly combination of deadline exhaustion and a profound sense of purposelessness.

Of course, the habit of scrounging each and every day for a post-worthy subject (often defining "post-worthiness" really, really broadly) doesn't die easily, and in the ensuing time I've been constantly beset by ideas I thought I really should write about. But I learned, not at all to my surprise, that once I didn't "hafta" write, I pretty much always didn't write. So while the profound sense of purposelessness hasn't lightened -- nor, for that matter, has the dread of that implacable looming deadline, even if it's just for some crappy blogpost -- I found myself with lowered resistance the most recent time Howie broached the subject. And, tough negotiator that he is, he pinned me down to a thrice-weekly schedule (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday) of, well, something.

And the obvious starting point is with a post idea I tried to execute a couple of months ago: a remembrance of the great New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton, who died April 9 after a career at the magazine (among other places, of course) spanning "more than 50 years" and "more than 950 published cartoons" (these numbers according to New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, from whom more in a moment). That remembrance proved hard going, though, because I felt obliged to explain first how it happened that, for all the blogfootage I've devoted to New Yorker cartooning and its greatest practitioners, from James Thurber to Roz Chast, I didn't recall ever having mentioned WH. And what could I say except that over my decades of New Yorker readership, I had become so used to his presence that his work came to feel like simply part of the natural landscape rather than an act of human endeavor.

William Hamilton (1939-2016)

The first note Bob Mankoff took of the passing was in an April 10 post called "Remembering the New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton," whose entire text read:
The New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton died on Friday. When someone as witty and clever as William Hamilton passes, you feel the obligation to come up with something commensurately witty to commemorate those great cartoons. I’d rather let some of his best work do that.
Bob's instincts in such matters tend to be impeccable, and the slide show that formed the rest of the post was pretty breathtaking. I've included one sample up top, one that happens to speak really loudly to me at the moment. (It might be said to be shouting at me.) And here are a couple more that also, in my present state of advanced age and unemployment (a state I may want to talk about a bit more one of these days), have seismic resonance for me:

Of course that April 10 post hardly exhausted the subject, and the very next day Bob returned with a post called "The World of William Hamilton," which began:

What separates great cartoonists from really good cartoonists is not any single cartoon—many really good cartoonists have done individual cartoons that are great—but that a great cartoonist creates a whole world.

Like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, James Thurber, and Roz Chast, the great and now, so very unfortunately, late William Hamilton did just that. In more than nine hundred and fifty cartoons published over five decades, he skewered the comfortable class he was a member of with the acerbic wit of an insider.

His drawings were a delight, effortlessly fashioned with an old-fashioned Crow Quill pen dipped in India ink. Above is an image from an episode of “Nightline,” in 1997, catching the master in the act.

Of this particular image, he remarked that he had no idea where the woman he was drawing came from. But one thing he did know was that she looked pompous, and that “being unaware of your own pomposity is always funny.”
This led Bob to an interesting take on his subject's cartoonistic genius:
On “Nightline,” Ted Koppel said of Hamilton, “He looks every inch the patrician Wasp—all six feet five inches, in fact. He could be one of his own upper-crust characters.”

No way. That elegantly attired six-feet-five frame was both imposing and proudly pompous, but certainly not unaware of who he was and the foibles and failings of his tribe.

There’s much talk these days of what the purpose of humor should be. The general consensus is that it shouldn’t kick down but punch up. When I think of Hamilton’s cartoons, neither of these descriptions comes to mind. Rather, I think of him vigorously elbowing to the side—with very sharp elbows, indeed.
Finally, Bob invoked a name that has been plastered all over this space:
Not unexpectedly, tributes from his fellow New Yorker cartoonists are flooding my inbox right now. Here’s one from the inimitable Roz Chast, which I think captures his work and meaning perfectly.

“William Hamilton was the real thing. His cartoons had a distinctive visual style and voice. They took place in a specific world: that of upper-middle class, socially ambitious, attractive men and women, at home, at cocktail parties, and in restaurants. They were ‘Hamilton people.’ His cartoons were funny, but they were not just jokes. They were closely observed social critiques done by someone who was both inside and outside of the world he was critiquing. I often think of one or another of his cartoons. One of my favorites is of a Hamiltonesque couple at a restaurant with their adult son and daughter and they all have cocktails. The mother or father says, ‘It’s so much easier now that the children are our age.’ ”
For the record, Bob added one more Wm Hamilton post, an April 25 "Postscript," noting the publication of one final cartoon:
William Hamilton had a lot to say about the nation’s country-club class and how it viewed itself. His cartoons were peopled by ladies and gentlemen of the Park Avenue variety, speaking confidently about their place in the upper crust, even as that crust was crumbling. Hamilton first found a place at this magazine in 1965, when he was only twenty-six. At the time of his death, last week, at seventy-six, he had published more than nine hundred and fifty drawings that lampooned sophisticates and pseudo-sophisticates with dry, incisive jabs. He was that rare artist whose style suits his humor perfectly; a Hamilton joke is unimaginable rendered any other way. A final one, alas, appears here.
And here it is:

"What the hell are you trying to do?"

Now, speaking of Roz Chast . . .

For a while, while I was grappling with the Hamilton nonpost, I thought maybe it could be combined with exciting news about and from the amazing Ms. Chast, who was to be the subject of an elaborate exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York scheduled to open in May, and scheduled to include an appearance by the artist herself, on May 6.

If that last sentence suggests some uncertainty as to whether the events eventuated, rest assured that they did. The exhibition is open, and will remain so through October 9, and is obviously self-recommending to anyone who is within striking distance of the museum (in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street) and has any curiosity about the absurdities of life as we know it, including a lot of laughter at them.

The exhibition Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs continues at
the Museum of the City of New York through October 9.

Myself, I will have to get back to the exhibition, as there was simply too much to take in after the May 6 event, when we in the audience had an opportunity to go upstairs and peruse it. It's also possible that I was in a state of imminent collapse from all the roaring laughter I did, pretty much nonstop, during Roz's abundantly illustrated presentation. I was hardly alone. The whole overflow audience had been reduced to a state of near-collapse reminiscent of the killer joke in the classic Monty Python "World's Funniest Joke" piece.

The only surprise was that Roz didn't seem, as I expected, in any way reserved or retiring, an impression I'd formed in my head from all her years of self-portrayal, including in particular her 2014 book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which featured prominently in the presentation. (In this space we looked at some of it, in a pair of 2014 posts based on the portion of the book that appeared online in a "sketchbook" and then in a 12-page spread in the March 10 issue of the magazine.)

Here, for example, are just a few bits of her portrayal of her parents, who were born 11 days apart in 1912, had known each other practically all their lives, and "had tough lives," says Roz, "way, way tougher than mine."

Roz ventured that, "between their one-bad-thing-after-another lives and the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, in which they both lost family,"


Just hit the "Roz Chast" label below.

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At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, yes, I did notice your disappearance and worried about it. I missed your posts, Ken, and had to switch my occasional comments over to Gaius Publius. He's great, of course, but not fun. If you want to talk about twisted kishkes, he's the man to give them to you.

Oddly enough, I don't share your taste in music. As an escapee from my native Brooklyn, lo these many years ago, I am so unmoved by New York boosterism that I almost feel pity for those who still buy into the notion that New York is anything more than an overpriced, dysfunctional trap for wannabe's and their plutocratic overlords.

A little story: Any feeling I had for the supposed greatness of New York was permanently flushed away the day I climbed the stairs out of the subway somewhere near midtown. At the top of the stairs, in the rain, stood a strung-out addict mother begging for money with her infant child in a stroller also exposed to the rain. I too had a baby, safe at home, warm and dry. I was at a loss what to do. Give her money? She'd only shoot it into her arm or sniff it up her nose. Where was liberal government? Where were civilized charitable services? Where was anybody who noticed this human catastrophe? This woman and her doomed baby were bits of flotsam adrift on a sea of New York anomie. That day I decided I had to leave New York and I did. I worked there for more years, and my spouse still can't give up his love affair with his fantasy of New York. He has a special sort of selective vision that edits out ugly reality and bathes what's left in a soft, gaslit glow.

But I always appreciated your enthusiasms. As someone who majored in art and architectural history, I quite understand your love of the walking tours. I admired your energy and follow-through. It sorrows me that you now confess to a "profound sense of purposelessness." While I'm not precisely sure why purpose is all that important, I can assure you that if one of your purposes was to inspire thought, you always succeeded. While I may not have agreed all the time, I was always interested in your thoughts. I've missed your thoughts on our current state of political wretchedness.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded, self-referential way of saying, "Please don't stay away so long again. I miss your posts and hope you're back to stay. Screw deadlines, I say write what you want when you want."

At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, my favorite posts of yours are The New Yorker cartoon posts. Thank you so much for those and this one today.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Well, my gosh, thanks for sharing all that!

I'll be back on Friday with, er, something,


At 6:44 PM, Blogger Bill Michtom said...

"At the top of the stairs, in the rain, stood a strung-out addict mother begging for money with her infant child in a stroller also exposed to the rain. ... I was at a loss what to do."

One easy answer, which I have done many times, is take people to a diner and pay for their meal. Another option is to take them to a market and buy food--telling the cashier not to refund it.

Of course, there is the easiest option: don't assume you know what someone will do with your gift.


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