Uncle Sam

THEY who grow sad over our lack of imaginative insight into the finer meanings of existence, and our consequent barrenness in imaginative creation, may find themselves rebuked, and delightfully rebuked, in looking at our cartoons in magazine and in newspaper. Can one be wrong in thinking that here, in these will-o’-the-wisp flashes of light and of humor on life, one finds a keenness of penetration, insight, and command of means of expression perhaps not found elsewhere in American life?

Best of all the cartoons which both reveal and point the way in our national existence, and certainly the best among the symbols which represent great nations, stands Uncle Sam. Delightful and inexhaustible is the play of imaginative conception in him and about him; in no other representative character is personality so clearly defined; in no other is the range of expression and of action so great. In his steady wear of stars and stripes, with his face constantly changing yet true to type, one finds in him much of the shrewd, old-fashioned Yankee, yet more of Don Quixote. How many are the pictures wherein these two chief strains in him struggle with each other, that keen, bargaining expression blending in puzzling fashion with the wistful look of errantry, of one who stakes all in a perhaps mistaken endeavor to help! Is it through a process of national growth in Uncle Sam, or a deepening penetration on the part of those who irreverently and affectionately interpret him, that, as the years go on, the latter expression of chivalric quest seems to deepen and to gain upon the other?

Inexhaustible are his activities, and of endless variety the moments of thought and of action in which the soul of the nation has been thus caught and fixed. Uncle Sam, farmer, householder, and landed proprietor, has domestic responsibilities upon a scale never known before. One sees him, too complacently, — in a rich-Jonathan moment, — riding the reapers and gathering in inexhaustible harvests; one sees him waking sleepily from a Rip-vanWinkle drowsiness, to guard his forests and waterfalls from despoiling hands; or, with a face less firm than it should have been, settling a dispute among the children, perhaps in a threatened nation-wide strike.

There is often a fatherly or grandfatherly touch about him; guardian of western lands and seas, he has not only his own but his step-children to look after. Here he goes in the guise of a rich old gentleman, fantastic, almost foolishly good-natured, holding by the hand a small colored boy whom he has adopted, — the Danish West Indies, — promising him a gold watch and chain; there he sits, impatient, baffled, with fingers in ears, mouth grim, and hair in flying disorder, listening perforce to the children’s row of Mexico, Cuba, and Santo Domingo dancing before him in the guise of sprawling infants, with toot, toot, toot of cymbal, drum and horn — Europe on the longdistance telephone and Uncle Sam unable to hear.

One cannot touch the many aspects of his whimsical, doubting, determined, sensitive face. Nearly the whole range of human feeling, of human expression is there. Fear he knows, and deep sympathy; his hand is ever swift to his pocket upon tidings of distress anywhere upon the green earth. Perplexity and he are oldest friends; to wavering he is no stranger, and he is blind at times, yet not incurably blind. Honestly he tries to secure a right balancing of the scales of justice for his multifarious offspring, yet often finds this delicate adjustment puzzling beyond his power to endure. Swift are the changes whereby his Hamlet moments of indecision slip into his Napoleonic moments of great deeds. Something of woman’s intuition is in him, and sometimes, too, woman’s overready action in the line of eager and sudden conviction; yet again, sinewy, virile, he shows the muscles stiffening along his arm, and he is become the very incarnation of lean and powerful masculinity, moving determinedly to a goal seen steadily from the beginning.

He is usually and rightly pictured all slimness and agility; they err greatly, and fail to see, who make him corpulent. Grossness is not in him, despite the swollen fortunes of the many under his protection; and they are dull of mind and vision who find it there. He is all will, dynamic force, giving an impression of endless power and resourcefulness, working out in many ways, asking for new worlds to conquer, beseeching difficulties, his energy sometimes applied to airy nothingnesses, for there is even in him a tendency to tilt at windmills when nothing else is doing; he is sometimes erratic, and sometimes hits the nail on the head as it has never been hit before.

Always a man of deeds, never of words save phrase or brief sentence, there is no need of sound issuing from those thin, flexible lips to make his meaning known. His constant changes of expression suggest his great vitality, his sensitiveness to ideas—for he is quick and flexible, and capable of unimagined growth. There is nothing about him irrevocably fixed and determined; his task is yet to do. Let the greatest come to him; he will achieve it! The oddest mixture of worldliness and unworldliness that earth has ever seen, he is in this long struggle for the game, for the stakes, for the fun to be got in the playing, for the wrongs to be righted, as, chivalry in shirt-sleeves, he unsheathes his scythe-like sword.

If one finds a great range of expression and of determination in the Uncle Sam of days of peace, following the ways of duty or of pleasure, there is a still greater range, and a profounder revelation, in the Uncle Sam of wartime. A Dutch cartoon gives us a brawny, square-shouldered Uncle Sam, with a grim, heroic, determined face, wearing not a shade of thought, and grasping a strong sword with a heavy arm; yet to us who know him he is hardly this untroubled man of wrath. Rather, in this great crisis, we feel him catching his breath, with something in his look of a Thoreau, suddenly confronted with a grisly practical problem, and as unprepared as he if surprised by the beat of drums and the tramp of armed men when cooking his lone supper of Indian meal, busy with dreams of peace. There is something of consternation in his face, as of one who can recall no weapon save jack-knife or pitch-fork, and who cannot think where either may be at this moment. The long knight-errantry among homely things has hardly prepared him for this plunge into fighting ranks among the armies of the world. He is a bit awkward in putting on his armor; in this great land of peace only straw helmets are needed; the look of iron comes slowly to his face as he recognizes the need of forging helmets of iron. Here is a bewildered Uncle Sam up a tree, a German wolf symbolizing the submarine campaign, at the foot, while a satchel labeled ‘merchandise’ is at hand, and the cartoon bears the legend, ‘Gentleman now holding responsible position wants chance to travel.’

There is a touch of vulgarity — is it in subject or in artist?—in a London Uncle Sam (Land and Water), as, hands in pockets, cigar in mouth, swallowtails impertinently flying, he steps up to a burly German with a mixture of bravery and bravado, saying, ‘Well!’ Yet we who read his mind from within know that he has not for a moment held this attitude of swagger.

Well we recognize the truth of the puzzled Uncle Sam in a sketch by one of our own cartoonists, as, with revolver in hand, arms uplifted, he is held by a peace-at-any-price personage in a Quaker hat, while a grim hand holds a U-boat at the water’s edge, and a bandit-like personage cries, ‘Hands up!’ And we know, and share, his sadness of heart, as in another he crowds OldLady Pacifist over the precipice into war.

Springing to his ship-building, toiling at the forge, policing the seas, sadly calling out his boys, he has known no moment’s rest since his decision was made. Finer than in many of the humorous cartoons he is in James Montgomery Flagg’s war poster, crying out to youth to enlist in the navy. The direct, commanding finger, the steady mouth, the piercing, determined eyes, hint something of his best, as firm as he would like forever to be while Brother Jonathan’s practical genius carries out something of Don Quixote’s inspiration. True to the very soul of him is another sketch, where, beating plough-shares into swords, he is saying, ‘ I hate this barbarous stuff, but if I must, I must!’ So he toils, his sleeves rolled up, the wind of destiny blowing his beard, his face all resolution above his starry vest, his arm all inspired muscle.

Again we see him, weary and forspent, the hair on his brow wet with perspiration, wading intrepidly through the sea, with a large bag of food on his shoulder, a bag of dollars under his arm, the coast-line of America in the distance, pity and resolve in his tired face, as, ‘submarines or no submarines,’ he carries aid to stricken Europe. Here, as in another, depicting Uncle Sam climbing out of the slough, and just beginning to get his feet on firm ground, with his eyes on the hills ahead, he takes on the aspect of the immortal Pilgrim, progressing slowly, and in burdened fashion, toward that heaven of being of service which is the only Heavenly City that modern eyes discern — and heaven enough it is for the present, if we but reach it.

In all this our own artists can best depict him: oddly true in externals as are many of the caricatures coming from foreign lands, sympathetic as are many of the cartoons done nowadays in England and in France, all are drawn more or less from the outside. Only his own sons can truly interpret Uncle Sam and the grand national adventure of democracy; Uncle Sam and the epic, sometimes the comic epic, of republicanism; Uncle Sam, inheritor and protector of the Rights of Man, of all the revolutionary ferment of the eighteenth century, of all the struggle of the nineteenth toward justice and equality and opportunity. Who else would be wise enough to see him as Laocoön, his spent sons, the Senate and the House, beside him, all writhing in the coils of the giant serpent, Politics? Our own cartoonists, working within the heart of the struggle that knits Uncle Sam’s brows, share his perplexity, know his vast problem, the vastest that ever confronted nation or human ruler, and fashion him subtly, his chin upon his hand in puzzled thought, his to make good the aspiration of humanity in the matter of wise freedom. By far the most intellectual of the personages representing the nations, a thinker trained, not in the schools, but in life, he knows himself the leader of the fairer hope of mankind, and gives evidence of profoundest meditation, facing the mystery and the uncertainty of the future.

We hardly realize, perhaps, how great is our debt to these gentlemen of the brush and pen; these ephemeral sketches constantly reveal the potential greatness of our country, and as constantly suggest a definite ideal, a standard of achievement of which we must not fall short, helping to work out, in more ways than we know, a vast destiny.

One wonders, not only at the imaginative insight, but also at the greatness of the conception which has come into existence, partly by the help of these interpreters. A touch here, a stroke there, and it grows wisely and nobly, Uncle Sam in his quick remorses and quicker resolves, done to the very life. Deftly they give gentle prick or stimulus toward the right path, if he has wandered from it; with conscience as sensitive as his own they often point the way. They reveal the fact that his greatest sons have lent him something of their outer features, as well as of their souls; one sees him now with the eyes of an Emerson, alert for the ideal issue, now with something of the sorrowing face of Lincoln, looking out upon the world-war.

So has a national symbol, at first but a derisive attempt to rouse laughter over the rough ways of rustic folk, taken on great aspects; and the Uncle Sam who was originally but a purveyor of provisions at Troy, New York, has already become purveyor of spiritual things. There is about him a certain central simplicity of high intent, as befits the leader of the world’s democracy, a singleness of mind. In all the bewildering variety of his experiences, his unnumbered dilemmas, his endless cogitations, there is a singular intentness in his gaze, a steady and guiding aspiration that none of his unexampled material temptations can destroy. He has deep faith, and stern conscience, less changed from Pilgrim Father days than we are prone to think. In these puzzling moments when, not only must the world be set right, but the cruelly difficult decision must be made as to what is right, one sees growing within him a stern strength of resolution to do his duty at all costs. He is an incorrigible idealist, for all his preoccupation with practical matters, and we hardly need the star upon his hatband to remind us how irrevocably he has hitched his wagon to a star.