Mark Twain at the Drawingboard
H.T. Webster, A Timid Soul for the Ages
According to the New York Times, H.T. Webster was to cartooning what Mark Twain had been to belle lettres. And Time magazine once proclaimed: “If the creator of the Timid Soul had done nothing but invent Caspar Milquetoast— the quavering quintessence of the Little Man at his least manly— he would have earned his modest place in the nation’s pantheon.” But Webster had no such highfalutin ideas of himself. He just loved to draw cartoons, saying, once, “I’d rather work sixteen hours a day at this than four at anything else. A great many people may not enjoy looking at my drawings, but I enjoy making them.”
Harold Tucker Webster was born September 21, 1885 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the son of James Clarence Webster, a druggist, and Fannie Marsh Tucker, housewife. Harold started drawing at about the age of seven, and he was “a cartoonist from the start” (Time): he made pictures of Weary Willie tramps with baggy clothes, a choice of costuming, Webster said later, that concealed his lack of knowledge of anatomy. Before he turned 13, the family moved to Tomahawk, Wisconsin, population, about 2,500. It was a typical midwestern small town, “a grand place to grow up,” Webster remembered in 1924 (American Magazine). “It was one of those towns about which George Ade said, ‘People approaching it from the south could not see it because of a clump of willow trees.’” The town was close to three rivers, Webster said; “the woods were filled with game, and the lakes swarmed with black bass. I was crazy about hunting and fishing.” He used to carry a loaded .38-caliber revolver to school in his hip pocket, and during recess, he’d shoot at targets in the woods near the school. He was just an average student, he said. “Mathematics still worries me. I know the multiplication table and I can add, but I wouldn’t attack an income tax blank single-handed.” His academic talent, he divulged, lay chiefly in playing hooky. “Only once was I caught and trounced for the edification of the entire school.”
Webster very early learned the value of his art. He made an elaborate drawing for a church social and was thrilled when a vestryman asked for the original. “The next day,” Webster recalled, “I happened to go through his house with his son, and there, in the kitchen, underneath the washtub, to keep the water from dripping on the floor, was my drawing. It was a painful blow, I can tell you.”
When he was about fifteen, Webster saw a copy of the Chicago Daily News with pictorial reportage of a fire by artist Frank Holmes, and the youth immediately decided that he wanted to be a newspaper assignment artist like Holmes. “I imagined myself out at night in the pouring rain, with a pad and pencil, sketching a great fire. I saw myself in a courtroom, drawing a murderer at a famous trial.” Then he read about how Holmes, finding himself at a newsworthy event without any paper to draw on, had made sketches on his shirt cuffs “and sent the cuffs off to the Daily News.” It was a revelation: “Up to this time,” Webster continued, “I had seen no particular charm in cuffs, but I realized then and there that a pair of cuffs would be indispensable to my career.” When he learned that Holmes operated a correspondence school in illustration, Webster signed up. “His course got me on the right track. It lasted for two years, and I think I am the only one who ever finished it.” Unfortunately for Webster’s career plan, halftoning of photographs would soon make newspaper assignment artists obsolete. “I was preparing myself for a lost art,” he said. But he didn’t know it at the time, and his plans galloped on ahead.
He planned to go to Chicago to study art, and he worked a variety of jobs to earn the money for the expedition. One summer, he loaded bricks in a brickyard; the following winter, he worked at the Tomahawk railway station, sweeping the platform and keeping the stove going. The next year, he drove a delivery wagon for a local general store. Evenings, he worked on his correspondence course assignments and drew cartoons for the village weekly newspaper. “One of them was a girl lying in a hammock,” Webster said, “and the editor used this regularly as the heading for the society column.” The young artist had just learned the “spatter” technique—dipping a toothbrush into ink, then, holding it over the drawing, running a toothpick across the bristles so ink spattered across the sketch, “giving it an elegant tone,” Webster reported. “This form of art created a mild sensation in the village.”
His first published sketch, however, was for an outdoor magazine, Recreation. Webster joined the editor’s crusade against game hogs with a cartoon endorsing the campaign. Said Webster: “I nearly fell a victim to spontaneous combustion when I received a letter from the editor enclosing a check for five dollars. I kept the news to myself so well that it was several hours before the last person in Tomahawk knew what had happened.” Webster followed up his success with a spate of cartoons ferociously opposing the slaughter of game critters, and Recreation published them, one every issue, and paid five bucks each.
By the end of his junior year in high school, Webster had saved $150, which, he thought, would be enough to get him through three months of art school in Chicago, after which he thought he’d find work on one of the numerous Chicago newspapers. He took the night train to the Windy City and the next day reported to Holmes’ School of Illustration. One of his classmates was Harry Hershfield, who would later create the comic strip Abie the Agent. Webster tried the life class, “drawing from the nude, but deserted it for the courtrooms and the streets, where I could make sketches.” Alas, his matriculation was short: “In just twenty days, the school died on its feet,” Webster remembered.
He took a portfolio of his work around to Chicago newspapers, but none hired him. He’d sent some sketches to an aunt in Denver, Colorado, who, encouraged by the applause of her friends, took them around to a newspaper, the Republican, whose managing editor agreed to take on the young artist but without paying him. Webster went to Denver, but the art department at the Republican was already overstaffed with an assignment artist and a cartoonist, and Webster’s work was confined to advertising illustrations and comic drawings. When he heard of a vacancy at the Denver Post, he applied and was hired at $15 a week to do sports cartoons. He soon quit, though, because a well-known artist, Paul Gregg, was joining the staff, and Webster, displaying a diffidence he would later make famous in his most celebrated creation, felt certain he’d be fired to make room for the more experienced talent.
Webster returned to Chicago thinking that his experience on the Denver papers would qualify him for employment at any newspaper in town. He made the rounds; no luck. He went to Milwaukee on the same errand; same result. Back in Chicago, he turned to gag cartooning, writing jokes and illustrating them and peddling them to the Chicago Daily News and Hearst’s Chicago American. “Strange to say,” Webster remembered, “both papers bought them; and I began to sell them regularly. They paid a dollar apiece for illustrated jokes, and I was able to make as much as twenty-five dollars in a single week. I was getting along nicely when the Chicago American was ordered by its owners to run New York work exclusively and to reject outside contributions.”
Just as his budding career seemed on the cusp of collapse, Webster was offered a job at the Chicago Daily News at $7 a week, and for the next two years, until 1905, he produced “an armful of sketches” every day. “The more work they piled on me, the better I liked it,” Webster said, “because I needed both the practice and the experience.” His salary increased steadily, and he was making $20 a week when he heard another Chicago newspaper, the Inter-Ocean, was looking for a editorial cartoonist. He applied and was hired at “the phenomenal salary of thirty dollars a week.”
In those days, most papers published their political cartoons on their front pages, and Webster’s daily turn in the spotlight earned him a reputation that any editoonist would envy. So pointed were some of his cartoons (well, one, at least) that a member of the state legislature once rose before that distinguished assembly and, waving one of Webster’s cartoons over his head, introduced a bill that would make it a crime for cartoonists to ridicule that solemn and August body. The effectiveness of Webster’s cartoons was attested to in yet another equally dramatic way. As the cartoonist recalled: “A reporter came in one day and told the editor that a man had laughed so hard at one of my cartoons while riding on the Elgin Electric that he had suffered a stroke and had to be carried off the train in a dangerous condition.”
Webster stayed at the Inter-Ocean until 1908 when he was offered the “outlandish salary” of $70 a week to cartoon at the Cincinnati Post. “So off I went to Cincinnati,” Webster said, “a city so a-buzz with politics [that] there were no end of political cartoons to draw.” But in Cincinnati, he began to stray from the purely political into the hazier albeit homeyier arena of “human interest” with a periodic series under the title Little Tragedies of Childhood, which later became Life’s Darkest Moment. This species of cartoon had been pioneered by the legendary editorial cartoonist at the Chicago Tribune, John T. McCutcheon, who was, Webster avowed, “my hero” in his Daily News days. McCutcheon’s first overt foray into this new field of endeavor had been while he was cartooning at the Record-Herald in Chicago. Some years before, McCutcheon had casually put a nonessential little dog in the corner of several political cartoons and was surprised at the quite unexpected interest the dog stimulated among readers. One spring day in 1902, seeking to revive that interest with something of similar appealing innocence, he drew a front-page cartoon about the kind of boy he and thousands of others had been in the midwest—a kid in a straw hat and patched pants, with a fishing pole over his shoulder and his faithful dog (McCutcheon’s canine of no comment) tucked under his arm, bound for the nearest creek. McCutcheon captioned this opus “A Boy in Springtime.” It was an unusual cartoon for that day: neither topical nor political, it merely incited human sympathy with its homey sugar-coating of nostalgia. When it provoked comment among readers, McCutcheon provided encores in a series of “Boy” cartoons depicting youthful activities throughout the seasons, and he continued the series after he joined the Tribune in 1903. Other editorial cartoonists were soon making similar efforts at homespun small town humor, but at the Tribune, a cohort of McCutcheon’s would soon make a career of the genre. This was Clare Briggs, a protege of McCutcheon’s who worked with him until leaving in 1914 for the New York Tribune.
Briggs was another Wisconsin native. Born in Reedsburg in 1875, he grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, to which his family had moved in 1889. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, he moved, successively, to St. Louis and New York, where he eventually found a position in the art department of Hearst’s New York Journal. After a time, he left for a better job at another Hearst paper, the American and Examiner in Chicago. While there, Briggs produced,
at the instigation of his editor, Moses Koenigsberg, what is arguably the first daily cartoon in strip form, A. Piker Clerk, about a race track tout. Launched in late 1903, the strip was short-lived and, in its last manifestations, only sporadic rather than daily, so the establishment of the
comic strip form in a daily incarnation was left to Bud Fisher, a displaced Chicagoan who managed it successfully from San Francisco in November 1907 when he started A. Mutt, which, by suspicious coincidence, was also about a compulsive betting man at the race track. After seven years at the American and Examiner, Briggs joined the Chicago Tribune staff in 1907, where he stayed until he left for another try at New York. By 1917 at the New York Tribune, Briggs was producing a daily panel cartoon which ran under a series of recurring titles— The Days of Real Sport, When a Feller Needs a Friend, Ain’t It a Grand and Glorious Feelin’? and others that recalled the simpler times of childhood and youth in small town America. Readers usually confuse Briggs with Webster and vice versa because of the similarity in their drawing styles and approaches to the humor to be mined in memory, but by the time Briggs was hitting his stride at the Herald Tribune, Webster, as we’ll seen anon, had already published two books compiling human interest cartoons. Briggs returned to the strip form with Mr. and Mrs., which, beginning April 14,1919, recorded the daily vicissitudes in the marriage of a comfortably mature couple.
Another of Webster’s inventions at the Cincinnati Post was the notorious M. Huc du Boisdieu, a hoax perpetrated by the cartoonist and his editor, Henry Brown. They had watched with amused scorn tinged by a soupcon of envy as the Chicago Tribune ballyhooed its importing of a celebrated English artist from Punch, Tom Brown, who would, for a time, grace the pages of the Tribune with his superior artistry. Webster and his editor decided to mock the behemoth up north by importing their own talent from abroad, a French artist, whom they christened Huc du Boisdieu (pronounced, Webster later explained, “hoodoobidoo”), who would draw for the Post during Webster’s two-week vacation. As Webster tells the tale:
“The Post published powerful accounts of the arrival of the great foreign artist on American soil, with colorful descriptions of his pink spats, his high hat, his white poodle dog, and his valet. But the photograph of the alleged French caricaturist that was printed in the Post was simply one of myself in [false] whiskers. We took the manager of one of the large hostels into our confidence so that M. Huc du Boisdieu was duly registered—but somehow he always happened to be out to callers. I made a number of weird, wild drawings, and they were presented to the public with deep reverence. Those who knew nothing about art thought they were a bit queer, and the artists thought they were so bad they must be truly great.
“Anyhow,” he continued, “they set the whole town talking. Several artists openly claimed to be familiar with the work of M. Huc du Boisdieu. Any number of people swore that they had seen him on the street. Waiters announced that they had served him that very day. A barber divulged the fact that he had shaved him. M. Huc du Boisdieu was invited to address the Art and Drama Leagues. After two weeks, we exposed the swindle, to the great amusement of some and to the mortification of many.”
By 1911, Webster had saved enough money to gratify a desire he’d held since childhood—to make a trip around the world. He arranged with the Post to send back weekly reports of his travels, suitably illustrated, and set off from New York for Italy, from whence, he journeyed to Egypt, Ceylon, India, China, and Japan, returning to the United States at San Francisco. When he arrived back in Cincinnati, he discovered that “terrible things” had happened to his reports: his pictures of Egypt had been published with his letter from Italy, and China and India had been likewise conflated. By then, Webster had decided to assault the bastions of big time, so he left the Post and set off for New York. Although he sold a cartoon to the New York World immediately after arriving, he was unable to find a berth at any of the city’s newspapers. He was not unknown, however, and while visiting the offices of the New York Globe, he was
offered a year’s contract with its syndicate, Associated Newspapers, which had just been founded at the behest of Victor Lawson, publisher of the Chicago Daily News. “I was back at the old stand again,” Webster said, “doing political cartoons.”
But he also returned to the folksy humor of nostalgic recollection with Life’s Darkest Moment. “After making a number of this series,” Webster said, “I became fascinated with the idea and lost interest in political cartoons.” He continued to mine this vein of homely hilarity for the next several years, re-living incidents of his youth in Tomahawk. He expanded his repertoire with other departmental titles—which eventually included The Thrill That Comes Once a Lifetime, The Boy Who Made Good, Boyhood Ambitions, and others in the same spirit. One of Life’s Darkest Moments depicts a young woman seated at her dressing table staring despondently at her reflection; the caption reads: “The girl, who for two weeks has used all the creams, lotions, soaps, and powders recommended by the Hollywood stars, concludes that she is no more glamorous than usual.” Or an elderly man, hat in hand standing before a younger man at a desk, who says: “We took on an old man of forty last year, and we lost money on him. Our policy now is to consider applications from young men only.” The caption: “Fifty-eight.” Among the Thrills, here’s a boy standing in the doorway of the parlor, his hands bandaged but a broad grin on his face as his mother in the next room says into the telephone: “Miss Peterson? This is Mrs. Hoskins. Albert won’t be able to take his piano lesson today. He burned all his fingers shooting off fire crackers on the Fourth. Maybe they’ll be well by next week. Yes, I hope so too. Well, I’m glad it’s over for another year ...” Or the young husband holding a screw-driver triumphantly aloft as his wife, opening a closet door, says: “Why, it works! How wonderful!” The caption: “Portrait of a man with no mechanical ability who has tightened a screw on a doorknob.” In 1915, many of these cartoons were collected in the book Our Boyhood Thrills and Other Cartoons; two years later, another collection appeared, Boys and Folks. When the United States plunged into the hostilities in Europe, Webster plunged, too, heading up the cartoonists’ section of the Division of Pictorial Publicity which was responsible, chiefly, for promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds.
Webster participated enthusiastically in the social life of his professional milieu, joining other cartoonists (including Briggs, once the latter arrived in the city) and writers, actors, and illustrators in the after-hours convivialities that commenced near the offices of the New York World and continued at the Players or Dutch Treat clubs. He went angling whenever he could get away and never passed up an annual invitation to join a banker friend fly fishing in his private Canadian stream. And on weekends, he regularly convened with friends in a hotel room at the old Waldorf-Astoria for a ferociously dedicated poker game that began on Friday evening and didn’t end until Sunday morning. The concentration at these contests was so intense that on one occasion when Webster chomped on broken glass in the lettuce on the food tray that had beenclass=Section2>
sent up, he spit out the shards without comment rather than disrupt the game. Like his youth, his card playing found its way into his cartoons in a series entitled Poker Portraits, one of which shows a gigantic fellow puffing on a cigar with a huge stack of chips in front of him as he announces, “I’m betting two berries.” Next to him, Webster has drawn a minuscule man, who mutters: “I’ll drop.” The caption: “The psychological effect of a big stack.” Another in the series depicts a poker table laden with bottles of whiskey at which are seated a clean-cut young man and several unsavory-looking mustachioed hoodlums, one of whom arises, and points a pistol at another, saying, “You lie! I saw you steal that ace!” On the floor are a couple dead players. Pointing to the young man is an arrow that says: “Her darling boy.” The caption reads: “How our mother used to picture a friendly game of penny ante.” Then in the summer of 1916, Webster’s life changed forever.
On August 2, Webster married Ethel Worts, a pretty girl from Toledo, driving her to the Little Church Around the Corner on Manhattan’s 29th Street, after a brief courtship that the cartoonist described with characteristic understatement: “On one important evening in 1916, [cartoonist] R.M. Brinkerhoff introduced me to a young lady who was then studying at Columbia University. We went to dinner, and from there, by easy stages, up to the altar. I was very deliberate and cautious about it. It was all of two weeks before I married her.” Webster soon gave up poker in favor of bridge. The idea of life without poker seemed utterly fantastic to him, but, he said, “when I gave it up, it was like recovering from leprosy.” And while he was recuperating, cartoons about playing bridge replaced those about playing poker in his repertoire.
The comedy in the bridge cartoons springs from the compulsive dedication of bridge players. They are obsessed with the game, and to dramatize the fixation, Webster arranged in his cartoons for everything else in life to pale into insignificance. Here are two women in an art museum contemplating Rodin’s “The Thinker,” which inspires this comment by one of them: “The Thinker? Hmm! I don’t see what on earth he can be thinking about. He has no cards in his hand.” Or a butler standing, impervious, before his irate master, who, seated at a table with three empty chairs, roars: “What’s that, Meadows? Christmas! Do you mean to tell me they all stayed away from the bridge club for such a puerile reason? Bosh!” And finally, in the middle of the bay, a submarine surfaces next to a solitary fisherman in a rowboat; from the sub’s conning tower, a sailor yells at the fisherman: “Say, buddy—what’s four doubled an vulern’ble?” In Webster’s cartoons, everything in life became a metaphor for bridge or vice versa. There were also jokes about couples’ bidding mistakes and their quarrels after the game that revealed both the obsessiveness of bridge players and the pettiness of marital discord.
In his marriage, Webster found the harmony of partnership. “My wife is my severest critic,” he said. “I’m really not the World’s Worst Bridge Player, but she tries to make out that I am. And how she rubs it into me since I got out a book on bridge. As a matter of fact, I play bridge mostly for the material I get out of it for pictures.” But Ethel was a partner in other, perhaps more meaningful, ways, too. Soon after he married, Webster was able to realize yet another youthful dream: he became a clown at the circus. He and his wife and Briggs toured several times with Ringling Brothers circus—the cartoonists as clowns, Mrs. Webster as a bareback rider.
In 1919, Webster joined the New York Tribune and its syndicate, and gave up political cartoons altogether in favor of his steadily expanding roster of human interest titles, Events Leading Up To the Tragedy, And Nothing Can Be Done about It among them. When he left for the New York World in 1923, he added a Sunday comic strip to his line-up. Beginning October 14, The Man in the Brown Derby provided weekly glimpses of the ups and downs in the life of Egbert Smear, an Everyman happily married to an Everywoman but exasperated and challenged by modern life. It was in his daily panel cartoons, however, that Webster invented one day in 1924 his most memorable series, The Timid Soul, starring Caspar Milquetoast, who, the cartoonist remembered, “slipped into the world almost unnoticed, apologetically you might say, hatched for the sole purpose of filling a three-column space in the paper” (Literary Digest). With the arrival of Milquetoast, observed comics historian Coulton Waugh in The Comics, “a new era in timidity dawned over comic art.”
Mild-mannered and cringingly unassuming, Caspar looked the part: tall and slender with a sadly drooping moustache and thinning hair and no chin at all, he peered hesitantly out at the world through dainty pince-nez spectacles and was always prudently attired in coat and tie. In one frequently reprinted cartoon, Caspar, holding his wee hat firmly perched on his head, strides briskly by a sign that says, “No Loitering”; the caption reads: “Mr. Milquetoast shifts from first to high.” In another appearance, Caspar inherits a farm and when he goes to inspect it, he finds the gate barred and a sign displayed: “No Trespassing.” Says he: “Well, I guess there’s nothing I can do about it,” and he wanders off, going home. Webster’s favorite in the series shows Caspar standing in a downpour, water running off the brim of his hat, hands plunged deep into his pockets, shoulders hunched against the wet and the cold, muttering: “Well, I’ll wait one more hour for him, and if he doesn’t come then he can go and borrow that $100 from someone else.”
Once Caspar’s personality was established, the jokes were foregone conclusions. Webster’s ingenuity lay in selecting situations that challenged Caspar’s anxious angst, revealing the ludicrousness of his tiny terror while, at the same time, implicating us all by suggesting that we are likewise intimidated by the lowering circumstances of ordinary daily living.
Caspar is so mealy mouthed that he’s almost sickening, Waugh said, but he is redeemed by a signal fact: “Most of us have a Milquetoast streak. We are too lazy to face difficult, biting issues; we excuse ourselves by thinking we are good-natured.” But we enjoy Caspar, Waugh continued, because “he acts with a timidity far in excess of that of the average man. We would not be as puling as that, we think, and we are quite right. In this realization, we glow with a happy, suddenly inflated ego.” Webster insisted that Caspar was sheerly autobiographical although the creator’s appearance belied his assertion: the cartoonist was a towering six-foot-three-inches tall, broad of shoulder, ruddy of complexion, and lofty of mein, with a rampant coxcomb of gray hair, the very picture of robust manliness and self-confidence.
But beneath that radiant exterior, cringed a Webster we can all recognize. Said Robert E. Sherwood: “In identifying himself with Mr. Milquetoast, Webby was aligning himself on the side of the Angels, he was standing up as one of the Pushed as opposed to the Pushers. He was our champion.” Frank Sullivan agreed: “Caspar the Meek stands at the other end of the hierarchy from the mighty Paul Bunyan. I am always dreaming of the day when the worm will turn and Caspar will give Paul a clout on the jaw that will send the big oaf flying. That is because, along with my fellow-Websterians, and the master himself, I am part Caspar.”
Caspar’s immediate and enduring success arises from his readers’ ready recognition of themselves in him. And Webster, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, identified so completely with his creation that he could, on occasion, speak for him. When the newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams (the famed “FPA”) misspelled the character’s name as “Casper,” Webster wrote to correct his friend: “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.”
In 1927, Webster prepared for a three-month trip to Europe by producing in one month enough cartoons for the syndicate to distribute in his absence. His marathon at the drawing board aggravated incipient arthritis in his right hand, the use of which he lost within a few years, forcing him, with great patience and dedication, to learn to draw with his left hand.
Webster returned to the Tribune (now the Herald Tribune) in 1931, just before the famed World came to an end; and Caspar displaced Egbert Smear in a comic strip on Sundays and also appeared in one of Webster’s regular panel cartoon rotation on Mondays. In the next several years, Webster retired some of his older series titles and inaugurated new ones more in tune with the times: They Don’t Speak Our Language about slang (and Webster produced an essay on the subject for The Forum in December 1933); Trailer Tintypes about the growing population preoccupied with recreational travel in houses on wheels; How to Torture Your Wife (the husband with his plump wife next to him comments on gown worn by the svelte manikin in the store window: “Why don’t you get something like that?”) paired with How to Torture Your Husband (for instance, in a picture of a couple standing in front of Ye Itty Bitty Tea Shoppe, as she says to him: “Why, you said we could lunch any place I wanted”; or, the wife saying, “Did you say something, dear?” while standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing her husband’s pipes), and The Unseen Audience, a comment on radio, for which, in 1948, the cartoonist received the Peabody Award for distinguished service to the medium. A fairly typical example shows a couple sitting on the rear deck of a dilapidated barge while the radio says: “Take a look around your house today, and see if you can find any unused diamonds and gold jewelry.”
Although The Timid Soul receives most of the notice in histories of the medium, Webster produced many individually memorable cartoons. One of them, which ran in December 1944 in the series entitled simply Dogs, took what Newsweek called “a devastating poke at the hysteria” of World War II as manifest in the way French “collaborators” were treated by their countrymen. Frenchmen who, for one reason or another (self-preservation? providing for one’s children?), cooperated with the German occupation, were verbally branded as “collaborators” and subjected to the humiliation of having their heads shaved so they could not go out in public without displaying the badge of their shame. To take his poke, Webster risked the wrath of dog lovers everywhere who doted on this series. The cartoonist drew a “pathetic picture of a shaved French poodle leading her brood of low-slung obviously dachshund-sired pups across a street to avoid the canine jeers of two sister-poodles. The title: Collaborationist.” [This cartoon appears in the Gallery at the end of this effusion.] After distributing the cartoon to the 80 papers that published Webster’s cartoons, the syndicate and the cartoonist awaited a storm of protest from either “hypersenstive fanciers of dachshunds—[which were] stoned during the last war [as everything Germanic was disdained] but used to sniff out mines in this one—and French poodles alike.” But no such thing transpired. Those who spoke about the cartoon extolled it as one of the best examples of Webster’s work. Still, Webster admitted that “I have kept the cartoon from the eyes of Petunia and Delphinium, my wife’s French poodles. Both have liberal views, but with a war on, they might be silly enough to feel insulted.” Among the most fondly recalled of Webster’s cartoons were two he drew in honor of Lincoln’s birthday, in 1919 (“Hardin County, 1809") and 1941; both of which appear in the Gallery below.
Webby (or “Web,” as he preferred) arose early every day, but didn’t go to work until afternoon, when, at about two o’clock, he repaired to a room at the rear of their spacious house near the shore in Stamford, Connecticut, where the Websters lived since the late 1920s. By six o’clock, he’d finished with his cartoon and with whatever correspondence has required of him. He got about a dozen letters a day, he once reported. “People like to write in when they discover a slip in one of my drawings,” he said. “For instance, a woman once wrote to me that I didn’t know anything about knitting a sock. I had drawn the sock with the foot completed—in order to show that it was a sock. She maintained that you started knitting a sock from the top and not from the bottom.” He always answered letters from kids: “I remember that I once wrote to a newspaper artist when I was a kid myself. I enclosed a stamped self-addressed envelope, but he never replied. I was acutely disappointed.”
Getting ideas was, as it is for most cartoonists, the hardest part of the job. And like most cartoonists, Webster got his ideas from Schenectady. No—of course, I’m kidding. Webster got a lot of his ideas from his own boyhood. But many came from contemporary life around him, and he picked up ideas by listening to the radio or reading the newspaper or talking with his friends. Said he: “I used to worry about having to produce a cartoon every day. But I’ve learned that an idea always comes along at the last minute. Just when I’ve decided that the last idea in the world has been drawn, up turns another. Nowadays, if one doesn’t come, I’ll stay up til it does, all night if necessary. It’s a case of sitting on the nest until something is hatched.”
The Websters regularly wintered in Palm Beach, and Web made annual trips to Maine where he fly-fished for Atlantic salmon. Wherever he was, he convened friends for regular games of bridge. On September 22, 1952, the day after his sixty-seventh birthday, Webster died of a heart attack, stricken on the platform of the Stamford railroad station as he was returning from a fishing trip. It was the way he would have chosen, said Phil Calhoun, one of Web’s oldest card-playing friends: “It was sudden, at the end of a happy weekend with his old friends. It was at a time when age had not dimmed his view of life or his talent for expressing it.” Calhoun eulogized his friend by quoting what someone had written about Joseph Addison: “His tone is never that of a clown or of a cynic. It is that of a gentleman, in whom the quickest sense of the ridiculous is constantly tempered by good nature and good breeding.”
Robert Sherwood, another friend, took umbrage at the notion that Web’s humor was “gentle.” The distinguishing quality of American humor, he wrote, “is its bite, its capacity to inflict wounds, to wield the meat axe or the whip.” Webster did that, Sherwood maintained, but he did it, I say, not by slashing left and right but by showing us the truth about ourselves, and the truth sometimes has a cutting edge. Webster blunted the edge a little because he was fond of people. Even Sherwood admitted that: “Webby had a huge heart as well as a sharp bite. When you have known someone like him you want to remember him and the contributions that he made to the art of living.”
Webster was a member of a small elite brotherhood of cartoonists —Clare Briggs, Thomas A. Dorgan (TAD), J. R. Williams, and Gluyas Williams—who found a gentle-seeming comedy and the accompanying truth of humanity in the humdrum homeyness of ordinary life with its everyday drama of modest hopes and minor frustrations. Webster laced American culture with the phrases of his series titles and enriched the lexicon with the name of his principal creation: “milquetoast” is found in most standard dictionaries as a noun denominating “any person with a meek, timid and retiring nature.”
Sources. Webster’s career and his place in cartooning history are noted in the standard references: Cartoon Cavalcade (1943) by Thomas Craven, The Comics (1945) by Coulton Waugh, Comic Art in America (1959) by Stephen Becker, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974) by Jerry Robinson. A short autobiographical note appears in Literary Digest (November 25, 1933, 9). The most detailed biographical information, albeit only through 1924, can be found in “This Cartoonist Gives Us a Look at Ourselves,” an interview by John Monk Saunders in The American Magazine (September 1924, 50-51, 186-186) and in Current Biography (1945). Webster wrote an essay elaborating on the slang of his series and titled the same, “They Don’t Speak Our Language,” in The Forum (December 1933, 367-372), and he was the cover subject in Time (26 November 1945, 58-64). Webster’s books are: Our Boyhood Thrills and Other Cartoons (1915), Boys and Folks (1917), Webster’s Bridge (with text by William Johnston; 1924), Webster’s Poker Book (with text by George F. Worts, Marc Connelly and R.F. Foster and Foreword by George Ade; 1926), The Timid Soul (introduction by Ring Lardner; 1931), The Culbertson-Webster Contract System (with Ely Culbertson; 1932), Webster Unabridged (1945), To Hell with Fishing (with Ed Zern; 1945), Who Dealt This Mess (with Phil Calhoun; 1948), How to Torture Your Husband (with Caswell Adams; 1948), How to Torture Your Wife (with Caswell Adams; 1948), Life with Rover (with Philo Calhoun; 1949); and The Best of H.T. Webster (foreword by Robert E. Sherwood, biographical introduction by Phil Calhoun, 1953). Webster was a member of various New York clubs: Dutch Treat, Players, Society of Illustrators, and Coffee House. An obituary was published in The New York Times, September 23, 1952.