• U.S.

The Press: Average Man

13 minute read

(See Cover)

Millions of Americans know Caspar Milquetoast as well as they know Tom Sawyer and Andrew Jackson, better than they know George F. Babbitt, and any amount better than they know such world figures as Mr. Micawber and Don Quixote. They know him, in fact, almost as well as they know their own weaknesses.

If the creator of The Timid Soul had done nothing but invent Milquetoast—the quavering quintessence of the Little Man at his least manly—he would have earned his modest place in the nation’s pantheon. Harold Tucker Webster has done a great deal besides, in the 15,000-odd panels he has drawn in the past 43 years. Last week Webster’s fourth collection of cartoons (Webster Unabridged; McBride; $2) appeared.

Caspar Milquetoast is the only character Cartoonist Webster has ever given a name to—and Caspar,* with appropriate shyness, sneaked into the strip as a space filler. The rest of Webster’s bald-headed bores, thin, puzzled wives, and freckle-faced kids need no name; they are, when they hit the mark—as they often do—Everyman.

H. T. Webster has learned to slice and serve his generous chunks of U.S. life methodically. Caspar (The Timid Soul) appears Sundays and Mondays. The pitilessly fanatic and bad-mannered bridge players run Fridays. Boyhood’s lovingly elaborated triumphs (The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime) and defeats (Life’s Darkest Moment} appear on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Thursdays bring How to Torture Your Husband (or Wife). On Wednesdays, in The Unseen Audience, he pokes a sharp-pointed stick at radio—which of all mixed blessings most needs satirizing, and gets it least. Webster, in fact, is possibly radio’s most effective critic.

Webster is one of the few journalists of his troubled time who has managed consistently to remind people of the news that they are human beings, and that that news is not as bad as it is generally made out.

Right to Left. H. T. Webster insists that Milquetoast is a self-portrait. Short of perhaps Joseph Stalin, it would be difficult to think of any man who looks less like Milquetoast than his creator. Webster carries all of his 6 ft. 3 in. without either the cringing or the exaggerated erectness of the man who is uneasy in this world. His face is handsome, ruddy and unlined, his blue eyes are direct and uncomplicated.

He combines a still faintly rural quietude of speech and motion with a kind of suavity which can come only of many years of assured performance and comfortable living. Such troubles as he has encountered he has taken tranquilly; in 1927, when overwork permanently ruined his drawing hand, he learned in four months to draw with his left. At 60, he suggests a prematurely grey ex-athlete who has not had to work very anxiously to keep in good shape.

A Happy Boyhood. As any reader of The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime might guess, H. T. Webster had a happy boyhood. He spent it in Tomahawk, Wis. (pop. 3,365) where his dad ran the drugstore. Tomahawk (the way Webster remembers it) was a little town afloat in a forest where deer and small game were plentiful, the lakes and streams were stiff with fish, you could run onto the tracks of bear often enough almost to believe you had seen them and killed them, and school was no more interesting than it is in most other places. Webbie used to hide a .38 in his pocket going to school, and fire it off during recess.

From seven on, he liked to draw. He was not an artist; he was a cartoonist from the start. He liked best to draw Weary Willie tramps with baggy clothes so “you could conceal your lack of knowledge of anatomy.” By the time he was 15 or so, Webster subscribed to a mail-order cartooning course, and was the only student to finish the course — the school folded shortly afterwards. That was the end of his formal training.

$7 to $70. He dreamed of some day becoming Charles Dana Gibson’s office boy, and cartooned for the Chicago Daily News in 1903 at little more than office boy’s pay: $7 a week.

For three years, he drew front-page political cartoons for the Chicago Inter-Ocean — a fellow toiler with another famed U.S. humorist, Ring Lardner. And for two years more, at a phenomenal $70 a week, he drew for the Cincinnati Post.

He had saved up enough money by 1911 ($700) to realize a childhood desire: a trip around the world. With George A. (Why We Behave Like Human Beings) Dorsey he made the second steamboat trip in history up the Yangtze Gorges to the then inconspicuous city of Chungking. The Chinese along the rim knocked off work and crowded the banks, in a friendly way, “to watch us drown.” The Chinese also liked to line up, at a courteous distance, to watch the foreigners handle knives & forks. One suppertime a missionary’s wife, annoyed at their staring, slung a glass of water in their faces. Webster, a gentle man, still colors up when he remembers it: “I had to control myself as hard as I ever did in my life, not to give her a piece of my mind.” The round-the-world trip ended in New York, and Webster ended — in time — on that Parnassus of Midwestern newspaper men, the New York World. Webster, along with any number of employes and readers, still remembers the death of Pulitzer’s World in 1931 as nothing short of tragic.

Since then he has worked for the Herald Tribune, and through the Tribune Syndicate his daily cartoons are published in some 60 papers, his Sunday Milquetoast strip in 20. Their combined circulation is around ten million,, not counting uncountable” millions who read their papers at second hand. Webster’s probable income: about $80,000 a year.

Mugwump. Webster always wanted and meant to be a political cartoonist. He shifted to such relatively universal phenomena as a boy’s fondness for a dog, or a wife’s inability to be gracious when her husband wants a stag vacation, because they syndicated more easily, raised fewer quarrels (of a sort that involved furious letters-to-the-editor) and made more money than cartoons which took a strong stand on the tariff. As for taking a weak stand on the tariff, or on any other political issue, that was for Webster out of the question. Good political cartoons have to be simple, and the only sure way to be simple, without also being vapid, is to be very firm in your convictions. Webster calls himself a Mugwump, but the mug and wump usually lean over the conservative side of the fence, as is perhaps natural in a man who spent his most formative years, very happily, in much the sort of pre-industrial American background which had produced his gods, Lincoln and Mark Twain.

Now Webster dips his pen only rarely into politics. For Lincoln’s Birthday 1940, Webster drew a forlorn, storm-whipped, benighted, wilderness cabin, a light in its window like the fever of birth. The caption: Ill-Fed—Ill-Clothed—Ill-Housed. During the war he drew a cartoon showing soldiers, under fire in the Pacific, listening to a radio’s soapy-voiced report on the progress of a strike. But mostly he is content to give the U.S. newspaper public a much needed, and not too loaded, laugh for its three or five cents’ worth.

Moldy Homiletics. Comedy is about as inconspicuous an item in so-called comic strips today as drugs in drugstores. Krazy Kat died with its creator, the late George Herrimann. The Gumps, which in the days of the late Sidney Smith had a modest resemblance to middle-class U.S. life, has little now. Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, never any too real or too funny, has sunk so deep into moldy homiletics that it is now trying to make Tory a nice word by proving that only rabble revolted in 1776. Fantasy, outside of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, is so fouled up in gamma rays, cloaks of invisibility, space ships, and brutal omnipotence, that it has little time for fantasy’s ancient, essential job of fusing the creatures of earth and heaven. The best of the rest, like Chester Gould’s resourceful, bloodthirsty Dick Tracy, are like entertaining gangster movies that no one would confuse with truth or comedy, or—like Milton Caniff’s extraordinarily proficient and accurate Terry and the Pirates—rattling good straight adventure strips.

Only a few, like Webster, still try to stick to the comic strip’s old and worthy function: holding a mirror to a recognizable U.S. life. The late Clare Briggs’s Mr. and Mrs., as an appreciation of marriage, made books like Cass Timberlane .look as naive as Daisy Ashford. Harry J. Tuthill’s remarkable Bungle Family, almost alone among comics, dared to gaze steadily at the plain, awful ugliness and clumsiness to which the domesticated human animal is liable. When you have counted these —and Frank King’s mild, wholesome Gasoline Alley, Chic Young’s Blondie, J. R. Williams’ homely cowhands and mechan ics in Out Our Way, and Gluyas Williams’ middle-aged suburbanites — you have about exhausted the field. Yet, characteristically, Webster disagrees with the critics who think today’s sexed-up, thrill-happy comics are a menace to adolescent morals. Says he : “I used to hide my dime novels. Eventually I made the discovery that good books were better. I don’t think it matters a hoot.” The Quiet Life. During the 1920s Webster was a member in good standing of that ultra-American generation of writers and actors and cartoonists and illustrators which focused around the offices of the World and The Players and The Dutch Treat Clubs. He has long since receded to the blander pleasures of upper-middle-class suburbia in Stamford, Conn, and —with a mild sheepishness about the stylish address, and sincere enough murmurs about the Websters’ susceptibility to colds— winters in Palm Beach. For years the Websters were enthusiastic theatergoers; now they wonder whether anything is as much worth coming into town for as the last show they saw, Oklahoma! Webster used to play poker every Friday night through Sunday morning, in a room in the old Waldorf-Astoria. The concentration was such that once, when food was sent up, and he chomped a mouthful of broken glass in his lettuce, Webster spat it out without a murmur rather than interrupt the game.

After giving the matter “profound thought,” he got married in 1916 (all of two weeks after meeting pretty Ethel Worts) and gave up poker for bridge. “The thought of life without poker,” he remembers, seemed fantastic, “but when I gave it up it was like recovering from leprosy.” He is a skillful bridge player — though it is safe to say he has taken in more money drawing cartoons about it.

He lives like a man who wants his thrills to come oftener than once in a lifetime. He feels about fly fishing a good deal the way Lucius Beebe feels about trains, and always keeps well ahead in his work in order to be free to accept a banker friend’s annual invitation to fish his private stream in Canada.

Next to becoming a cartoonist, he al ways wanted most to be a clown. When he was grown and married, he got his wish. He made several tours with Ringling Bros., one with his wife and the late cartoonist Clare Briggs. (Even now, when the circus comes to Bridgeport, the Websters dress up and ride in the parade.) Ethel Webster became a good enough bareback rider to receive, and reluctantly turn down, a professional offer. She is also pretty certainly the only non-professional woman ever to ride down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on the nape of an elephant (on the occasion of Mrs. Hearst’s Milk Fund Drive, in 1921).

Webster has always admired and often drawn circus people. He particularly liked one clown who, making him up with all the sweeping care of a Renaissance Master, swiped a smile-line down his cheek, stepped critically back and asked, anxiously, “How do you like it?” The amateur consulted the mirror and said it looked fine. The clown glowed. “That line’s my own,” he said.

Critic, with Six Radios. Webster gets up fairly late in the morning, breakfasts lightly except when the cook irresistibly serves up hamburger & onions, gets to work around 2 p.m., is through by 6. Most of the time he works in a room at the rear of the house, its walls thick with signed originals of such old friends or idols as A. B. Frost (who illustrated Uncle Remus), “Zim” (Eugene Zimmerman) of the old Judge, John T. McCutcheon, Thomas Nast, George Bellows.

Ideas, on the whole, are the hardest part of his job. Fans mail in quite a few, for which he is grateful, but only rarely is one usable. In a sense, like Einstein, Webster is at work all the time: listening to the radio (the Websters have six in the house, though only three work) and, even more relaxedly, keeping an eye & ear open around the house and the neighborhood, and the bridge tables of his gregarious evenings. By the time he is done with each day’s work, it looks pretty good to Webster. When he sees his cartoons in print, however, he suffers the reaction of most conscientious workmen: “They look filthy after they’re made. I can’t understand how I could do such dreadful work. The idea is all right but the execution is painful.”

A Trifle Apologetic. Even when Webster’s figures are meant to be solid, rather than insecure, they often have an air of being a trifle apologetic; and this mitigative, tentative quality shows as clearly in their personalities as in their stance and overall shape. Even Webster’s most crashing bores never suggest their real-life brutality; the wives are always at least trying to understand the jokes even if they never will; the bridge players are, in their own curious ways, so genuinely enjoying themselves that the fact outbalances all censure.

In all Webster’s years of preoccupation with the psychology of timidity he seldom points up, even gently, the littleness, meanness and guile which timidity so often develops, and almost never touches on the propensity for bullying. You have to go back at least 15 years to find Milquetoast rampant. This might be merely the shrewdness of a man who makes his living through comedy. But in Webster’s case it is the innocence of a man whose powers of observation are limited by his kindness.

Non-Practicing Moralist. H. T. Webster, gently gifted, is somewhere near an average man, working, in a way never quite possible to the extraordinarily gifted, for somewhere near average people. He has done them no average service, merely in amusing them; a greater one still, very likely, as the kind of moralist who almost never moralizes.

This is sometimes said to be the Century of the Common Man. Webster was the first to recognize that it is certainly, by some cruel coincidence, the Era of the Timid One.

*Webster once wrote to his friend Franklin P. Adams, who had misspelled it Casper in his column: “Mr. Milquetoast has spoken to me about your spelling of his name. He says that his family has always spelled it with an a, but that they are notoriously bad spellers and you are probably right.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com