Another Other Half: A Look at Michael Angelo Woolf and His “Waifs” (Part 2 of 2)

By Martin Lund

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Michael Angelo Woolf was never primarily a political cartoonist in the common sense of the word. He made “[s]ome vigorous cartoons of Tweed during Nast’s raid on the ring, and some cartoons which alternated with Nast’s in the Hayes-Tilden campaign [in the 1880 Presidential election], [which] are remembered as his best work in this line.” But, his obituarist stresses, “he never strayed long from the sketching of types and the preaching of sermons in pictures, half humorous, half pathetic.”[24] The foreword to Sketches of Lowly Life in a Great City, a collection of Woolf’s work published shortly after his death, praised his work and personality:“In the tenderness, sincerity, and simplicity of his work are to be found theelements which were most conspicuous in the personality of the late M. A. Woolf, together with unostentatious charity and a humor, unique in contemporary art, which, while always manly and honest, possessed the power to move as well to tears as to laughter.”[25]

The intention here is not to paint Woolf as an unfailingly empathetic man who stood above and aside from the class and racial bias of so many of the other novelists, reporters, and chroniclers who represented late-19th century slum life. Any such illusion should have already been thoroughly dispelled by the first part of this post. But one thing that seems inescapable in a reading of Woolf’s work is his focus on the humanity of slum-dwellers. There are no ethnic or racial stereotypes among Woolf’s waifs, and few ethnic slurs in his waif-work overall. In some of his cartoons, Woolf even positively contrasts Africans and African Americans with whites to bring home his point, albeit in a way that makes the “honor” of such a contrast dubious at best. Thus, in one cartoon, Woolf showed a stereotyped African having his “feet blacked and polished” over the caption “[f]aults of civilization are showing in the Cannibal Isles.”[26] For all the inexcusable grotesqueness of the racial caricature, it is American society that is ultimately the target. In another, he had a disheveled, illiterate Irishman ask an African American boy if a school is a tavern; when the boy asks if the man cannot read that it is a schoolhouse, the Irishman responds: “Hivin save his Riv’rince, do you want to bring me down on a level wid yourself, you young Haythen?” Again anti-Irish sentiment is expressed in the form of caricatured illiteracy, along with poverty and drunkenness. This sentiment is coupled here very noticeably with the racial hierarchy mentioned above, through the idea that the Irish are low also because “even” African Americans can read. The boy, aside from being remarkably short (as almost all of Woolf’s children are), is anonymous, but not racially stereotyped.

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1875.

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1875.

Also unlike Woolf’s other work, or that of reformers like Riis, most of the waif cartoons are not constructed to convey (or force) any sense of shock to the reader. Many of his cartoons of slum-dwelling children instead focus on a humor that is based not so much in dullness as it is in a sense of childlike innocence and precociousness. In one cartoon, for example, one of his waifs comments on a sign advertising steamship tickets to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, that “[t]hey must have had a lot of trouble to name those two places, for there’s a cuss word at the end of each of them.”[27] This form of humor can be seen again and again in Woolf’s work, especially when he ventured into the romantic lives of youths, which he often did.[28]

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Sketches of Lowly Life, 1899, 5.

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Sketches of Lowly Life, 1899, 5.

Woolf also often critically commented on the foibles of the adult, middle class world through his waifs. In the cartoon “A Definition,” one child explains to another that a “furrin nobleman” they observe is travelling incognito and explains that “[i]t’s when a man chance hisself into wot he ain’t an’ expec’s every one to know him as he isn’t.”[29] In another, he provided a glossary to a cartoon showing one girl reading an article about fashion to another, heavy with near-unintelligible “insider” words.[30]

As already discussed, a recurring theme in Woolf’s cartoons was alcohol, which was invariably presented as a scourge. The posthumously published Sketches of Lowly Life, collects several of his combinations of temperance and waifs. In one cartoon, there is a simple contrast: where a “father’s day off” is spent with a bottle, a child’s day off is spent in the fresh air.[31] In another, two waifs stand in front of a bar, asking the bartender if their father has gotten there yet.[32] In yet another, two children look at a drunk; one asks if he has been “a-workin’” the growler again, to which the other replies that no, the growler has been “a-workin’” on the drunk.[33] The familiar theme of the saloon as a destroyer of families was here reiterated, but with a stronger focus on how alcohol affected children.

Woolf’s temperance preaching, when combined with waifs, was often coupled with a framing that bordered on the melodramatic. Take, for instance, the cartoon of a young girl standing in the snow, outside a saloon, waiting: “I guess father’s forgotten all about me; it’s because I’m a woman, I suppose; he was just the same with mother when she was alive!”[34] Other notable examples of melodrama, without the temperance dimension, include “A burial from the slums,” where a child’s casket is taken away on a hearse with only an emaciated dog trotting behind it, or “Alone at the railroad station – Thanksgiving Day,” in which a lonely, poor girl stands to the side as scenes of family reunion and romance play out all around her.[35] Indeed, holidays, and particularly Christmas, were particularly common occasions for Woolf to play up the plight of the poor, with the simple cartoon “The empty stocking” serving as a perfect example: in it, above the caption, all we see is a crying child in a run-down shack, while snow falls outside.[36] But perhaps the most powerful of Woolf’s images, for sheer emotional impact, is a cartoon in which a girl sits by her sick mother’s bedside, while Death stands at the foot of the bed. “She must be getting better,” reads the caption, “[i]t is the first time she has smiled.”[37]

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Sketches of Lowly Life, 1899, 77.

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Sketches of Lowly Life, 1899, 77.

Having looked briefly at some of Woolf’s waifs, it is worth returning to something remarked upon in his New York Times obituary: “He delighted in contrast, the contrast between the waif and the child of luxury, or the contrast between two poor children gazing with awe-stricken eyes into some sumptuous show window and the wealth at which they stared.”[38] There is no lack of examples that can be given of this type of representation. There is the young boy who refuses to look at a giant pumpkin outside a store, because his stomach fills with tears when he thinks “of all the bully pies it’ll make wot I won’t get none of!”[39] In another cartoon, a girl in a run-down apartment reads about a wealthy woman who paid $50 to have her dog buried next to her husband, to which a boy next to her responds feebly that “Some dogs–is–luckier–nor–others!”[40] In a similar vein, another cartoon shows two waifs looking at a beautiful bouquet and sighing: “Ah, there is some pleasure in bein a Fi’th Avenyer corpse!”[41] As one reviewer wrote of these scenes, “[t]he dejected backs that these boys and girls turn to the audience are as eloquent as any faces could be.”[42]

The contrast between the sketches of waifs discussed in this part and Woolf’s political cartoons discussed in the earlier segments might owe to the fact that the latter were mostly from Harper’s, whereas the cartoons in Sketches of Lowly Life are mostly from LIFE.[43] Indeed, although not published exclusively in LIFE, Woolf’s waifs perhaps fit best there. Woolf, according to historian Martha Banta, can even be regarded as serving as a “forerunner of Life’s brief venture into socialism,” but imperfectly so. Banta invites readers to judge the efficacy of cultural work attempting to address social imbalances, by considering the axioms the producers of such work often obeyed:

Sentimentalism toward society’s lower classes is better than the contempt or indifference (the two sides of a single coin) expressed by the privileged, but is of more use to the weeper than to those wept over. Compassion is better than sentimentality when it explores the full meaning of its roots “to suffer with,” but it may not effect radical social change if exessive emphasis is placed upon passive martyrdom.[44]

In Banta’s estimation, Woolf fails because he ultimately reproduces a sentimental realism, rather than a compassionate one. His waifs, she writes, are “childish ‘foreigners’ who play-act at imitating their betters”. This is true, to a point; several of his cartoons do exactly this, but many others lampoon the “betters” the children are supposedly “imitating.” Furthermore, at other times, Woolf’s cartoons reach a crescendo that cannot help but affect the reader. A scene depicting a free fresh-air excursion for the poor in which all the children are seen gorging themselves on a free lunch is captioned like this: “Say, Maggie, run a pin in me. I must be a-dreamin’. This is too good to be true.”[45]In another, titled “Simple Strategy,” two girls stand by a shop window. One asks the other what the use of standing there is, since she has no money. The reply: “Well, I’ll tell yer. I stand an’ aggrawate myself to that extent that the excitement of it gets me hungry, an’ I rushes home an’ eats me dry crust o’ bread wid an appetite.”[46] A third one is best to reproduce in its entirety:[47]

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Sketches of Lowly Life, 1899, 93.

Woolf, Michael Angelo. Sketches of Lowly Life, 1899, 93.

The expression on the girl’s face here is pure joy, expressed over something that, for the more well-off readers to whom Woolf delivered the image, was small. More important, in all these images, while the waifs are “foreigners,” they are not passive martyrs, but active sufferers or transgressive figures. These images are not merely sentimental, but compassionate invitations to imagine how life for “the other half” could be. As such, they stress, if only for a moment, the growing inequality that went hand in hand with New York’s growth and the growing inequality that went with it.

It should be noted that not every one of Woolf’s cartoons are infused with either sentimentality or compassion. In “A private rehearsal,” for example, he paints a couple of begging children as liars who invent sufferings to get money.[48] But, in general, what makes Woolf’s work stand out among his contemporary artist-reporters discussed in this piece, is that he did not present the world of the waifs as anathema, nor did he sensationalize it. His slums were not an abomination where inferior “Others” lived, but a place where human life happened. It is this he most often represented in his waif cartoons – whether they ultimately conveyed sentimentality more useful to the weeper or compassionate invitations to suffer with the waifs – in terms as simple as a young boy on a stoop, weeping over the death of his dog, his “chum.”[49]

It is useful here to turn to philosopher Marshall Berman and his analysis of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, “The Eyes of the Poor.” In “Eyes,” Baudelaire described a scene familiar to Woolf’s readers: a poor family stares at the wealthy patrons eating on a café terrace. The most affected are a couple, whose responses differ wildly: the man feels a little ashamed of “our glasses and decanters, too big for our thirst,” and feels kinship with the onlookers, but the woman wants only that the man get the manger to shoo them away. The man, it turns out, hates the woman for her response. For Berman, the scene is thoroughly modern, a product of the restructuring of Paris in which social classes were brought closer to each other while also being driven further apart economically.[50] Late 19th century New York was in some senses similar; the middle and upper classes uptown benefited from the working masses downtown, but they did not want to see them.[51] In his most radical cartoons, Woolf reproduced Baudelaire’s poem, but switched the perspective. Had he read the poem, he would likely have identified with the man, wishing to move closer to the outsider, and that his readers should join him.

As a cartoonist, Woolf’s stock in trade was “amplification through simplification,” often reducing the Lower East Side to a child stand-in, either trying to play up their humanity or their pain. This, again, was a matter of ideology. He tried to awaken his readership to the people who lived so close to them, yet in a world apart. He did this imperfectly, of course, not least because, like Riis and other realist photojournalists and cartoonists, he turned his own waifs into representative specimens of how “lowly life” was lived in the “Great City” he described. But he still differed in that he did not focus on squalor or chaos, and did not emphasize greed, lust, laziness, and hedonism; his was not a “discourse of the exotic and unequivocally inferior in need of salvation, isolation, or reform.”[52]Upon his death, one notice quoted Woolf at length on his work:

If my little pictures have anywhere awakened a feeling of charity for my little friends I am supremely happy, and feel repaid for my work. It has been my constant care to keep in mind the fact that where a blow and ridicule would harden a sensitive nature, tears of pity and sympathy might soften the thorns which have entered the hearts of thousands of the slums.

Although imperfectly so, the work Woolf left behind often suggests that this sentiment was held in earnest.

Martin Lund is a Swedish Research Council International Post-doctoral Fellow at Linnaeus University (Växjö, Sweden) and a Visiting Research Scholar at The Gotham Center for New York City History.


Endnotes (continued from Part 1)


[24] Author Unknown, “M. A. Woolf Dead.”

[25] Woolf, Sketches, v.

[26] Woolf, 99 Woolf’s, 24.

[27] Ibid., 13.

[28] Cf. Ibid., 6, 7, 9, 10, 15, 30, 35, 42, 55; Woolf, Sketches, 5, 17, 47, 53.

[29] Woolf, 99 Woolf’s, 6.

[30] Ibid., 45; see also 7, 29.

[31] Woolf, Sketches, 61.

[32] Ibid., 65.

[33] Ibid., 69. See also pp. 71, 73.

[34] Woolf, 99 Woolf’s, 5.

[35] Ibid., 63; Woolf, Sketches, 171.

[36] Woolf, Sketches, 175. Pp. 175–179

[37] Ibid., 77.

[38] Author Unknown, “M. A. Woolf Dead.”

[39] Woolf, 99 Woolf’s, 18.

[40] Ibid., 33.

[41] Woolf, Sketches, 67. See also pp. 79-81, 85, 87, 89, 93, 99, 179, and 99 Woolf’s, 19, 44.

[42] E. J. N., “Sketches of Lowly Life in a Great City, by Michael Angelo Woolf. Edited by Joseph Henius. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.,” The Wellesley College Magazine, 1899, 406.

[43] E. J. N., “Review of Sketches.”

[44] Martha Banta, Barbaric Intercourse: Caricature and the Culture of Conduct, 1841-1936 (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 253.

[45] E. J. N., “Review of Sketches,” 89.

[46] Woolf, Sketches, 93.

[47] Ibid., 99.

[48] Woolf, 99 Woolf’s, 52.

[49] Woolf, Sketches, 105.

[50] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 2010), 148–155.

[51] Mele, Selling the LES, 31–32.

[52] Ibid., 32.