Saturday, September 25, 2010

Lines of Contention by J.G. Lewin and P. J. Huff

I have fondness for political cartoons, though I find that these days they tend to be a bit less clever than I remember them growing up. I have several books containing political cartoons on a variety of subjects, so when I saw this collection on a recent trip to Harper's Ferry, I jumped on the chance to add it to my shelf.

Lines of Contention focuses on the many political cartoons of the Civil War, a time when all eyes--even those in Europe were on the United States and how a dark horse presidential candidate would deal with a major challenge to the idea of a united country in the face of a significant ideological difference.

These cartoons may be crude and offensive more often than not, but they carry with them the voice of a generation and show that popular opinion was as apt to swing violently then as much as it is now. We may ask for cleaner portrayals, but the shifting sands of opinion, blunt panic or belligerence, and generally weak understanding of details show up just as often here as they do in the cartoons of the week feature in a major magazine.

Lewin and Huff give a strong introduction to this collection discussing the importance of political cartoons (which may have started with none other than Benjamin Franklin) and how we can use them to see what people were thinking. I also like that they discuss the difficulty of mass reproduction, the large number of newspapers in the 1860s (Gettysburg alone had 11, if I am remembering correctly), and that just about every paper had a strong bias one way or the other, which comes out in these cartoons.

The book is structured into several chapters, and my only problem with the way the book is put together is that the cartoons are not always in chronological order. It can be a bit disconcerting, and I am a pretty solid Civil War buff. I do appreciate that each comic is given a context, and figures that might be familiar to a person with a Civil War Preservation Trust member but not to the general public are pointed out and explained. There were a few even I didn't know!

My favorite part of this book by far was that Lewin and Huff searched for less common cartoons to include, staying away for the most part from drawings we've seen a million times in other books. Jeff Davis in drag is pretty familiar by now, but how about Lincoln eating his treasury secretary as a fish? Or Lincoln cowering before the might of the British as a trapped raccoon (with likely double meaning)? There's even one of Congress as a bunch of unruly schoolboys, doodling and feuding during a lesson on the Constitution. I greatly appreciated the chance to see these kinds of commentary, and I think anyone who picks up this book will feel the same way.

If there is one thing I'd have changed, it would be to give a bit more attention to Confederate papers, or at least talk about why there are less of them. Were they too offensive for print? Burned and lost in Sherman's raids? Just non-existent? It's a question that we don't get an answer to, which is a bit of a shame.

Still, Lines of Contention was a great book to read and one I'm happy to own. It fills a gap in Civil War history for many readers, including myself, and really helps show what the public was thinking during the long conflict. If you or someone you know is a fan of both politics and the Civil War, pick up a copy of this book. You'll be glad you did.

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