Richard West is the owner of Periodyssey, a business that buys and sells old American magazines, and the author of several books on 19th century cartooning, including the recently released William Newman: A Victorian Cartoonist in London and NY. In the following interview, we discuss his new book about William Newman, the mystery man of 19th century American cartooning.
ephemera: How did you become interested in William Newman?
West: As a collector of 19th century American humor magazine, I had been an admirer of Newman's work for Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun for decades. But I was frustrated by how little was known about him. No one knew even the most basic facts--when he was born, when he came to the US, when he died.
William Murrell in his History of American Graphic Humor (1933) identified him as Newcomb without being able to supply any other information about him. As late as 2002, Gary Bunker, in his prize-winning From Rail-Splitter to Icon, assigned some of Newman's most famous work to another cartoonist. So there was little known about Newman and much of that was incorrect.
ephemera: How did your interest turn into a book project?
West: In 2005, I got an e-mail from Jane Brown, a scholar in England, who was interested in learning more about Newman's time in America. I was delighted to find someone who had even heard of him. She was able to tell me a number of things right off that I didn't know--the various magazines Newman had worked for in England, the dozen children's books that he had illustrated, even some family details. Almost immediately, we decided to collaborate on an article about the man. The mss eventually grew to sixty pages. When we published it in 2007 in the magazine American Periodicals, we had to cut it by a third to respect their submission guidelines. So, the following year, we restored the cut text, made some revisions and corrections, added many more illustrations, and my company, Periodyssey, published it as a book.
ephemera: Tell me about the book. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in writing it? How do you overcome these challenges?
West: Nothing about Newman was on the surface. We had to dig for primary source material. Jane spent a good deal of time visiting libraries in Great Britain. Luckily for me, I had been unwittingly amassing a very large collection of Newman's US work as I went about collecting humor magazines over the years. It turns out when I went to consult library collections, I discovered I owned more of his work than all of the research libraries in the US put together. That made the work on my end significantly easier and the book less costly to produce (virtually no reproduction or reprint fees). Jane turned up his baptism certificate, which gave us a birth date. I found his death certificate, which led us to his grave in Brooklyn, along with the names and dates of family members buried with him. Jane turned up census and marriage certificates in England. I found a diary of a cartoonist who worked with Newman that confirmed the date of his emigration to the US and his connection with Momus magazine. So that's the way it went, one piece of the puzzle at a time, until we had him fairly nailed down.
ephemera: Who is the audience for the book? What will they discover by reading it?
West: Well, it's an old saw that authors write the books they want to read. This was a book I very much wanted to read. Now that it's done, I can think of no greater satisfaction than being able to travel back in time to hand a copy of it to Mr. Newman. I'm sure he would be bowled over by it and get extreme joy seeing his humble life treated with the respect it deserves. As for the larger audience, fans of American political cartoon history should get a lot out of the book. I would like to think scholars of the Civil War and Reconstruction would find useful information in it. Perhaps even those interested in the mid-19th art world could read it with profit. But I have no illusions of its mass appeal. I am not and never will be booked onto the Today Show to talk about William Newman. Those who care, however, will find that Newman's story provides us with, I think, a fascinating glimpse into the hard-scrabble life of a commercial artist in mid-19th century London and New York, working prodigiously, earning little, finding pleasure in family and church. Also, they will see for the first time a lot of great cartoons.
ephemera: What are your favorite items in the book? What do they tell us about the world of William Newman?
West: I think Newman's late Civil War cartoons for Frank Leslie's Budget are Fun constitute the best cartoons being drawn in the US at that time. They are full of action, comic exaggeration, and whimsy. I consider his cartoon, "General Sherman's Great Feat...", a triumph, transcending the generally staid cartoons of the time with unprecedented energy and imagination. It shows Sherman, at that time marching to the sea, crashing through a wall map of the South, surprising President Davis and General Lee in conference. Newman's best cartoons capture the emotions of the time. You can imagine readers greeting this cartoon with whoops of joy, just as they greeted the news of Sherman's march itself.
ephemera: Thank you, Richard.