Any day now, New Jersey governor Chris Christie will announce this year’s inductees into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. The list of 50 nominees include actor Alan Alda, President Grover Cleveland, the African-American doctor James Still who used herbs and natural remedies, and the entire E-Street Band.
But one of them has stirred up controversy.
The 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast is widely considered the father of American caricature. Nast invented the GOP elephant and the Democratic donkey. He developed much of the myth surrounding Santa Claus, including the toy workshop at the North Pole.
“He didn’t echo events: he created fresh imagery that made them more powerful,” said illustrator Rob Byrd, an instructor at the University of the Arts. “He expanded the verbal vocabulary, graphically, which had never been done.”
For almost 30 years, Nast drew finely detailed and staunchly opinionated caricatures for Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular magazines of its era. Some of those drawing demonstrated a hatred of immigrants — particularly Irish immigrants — and Catholics.
Now, the Irish Anti-Defamation Federation is asking that Nast be removed from consideration into the Hall of Fame, that he never be considered in the future, and that the HOF issue a public apology.”He has cartoons of the Irish looking like apes, running around with bottles of liquor,” said Timothy Wilson, chair of the Federation. “He says a lot of nasty things about them.”Much of the anti-Catholic sentiments in Nast’s work stem from a debate over religious instruction in public schools, which the Catholic church was advocating at the time. For Wilson, his anti-Irish and anti-Catholic ideas trump his contributions to the art and craft of illustration and newspaper editorial.
Tony Auth disagrees. The longtime editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer says Nast was once praised by President Lincoln for his editorial illustrations during the Civil War.
“By today’s standards they would undoubtedly be considered racist,” said Auth. “This occured a long time ago. It’s not fair to judge people by today’s standards. Lincoln, by today’s standards, would be considered racist.”
The public voting period for the New Jersey Hall of Fame is over. The governor will announce the inductees when his schedule permits.