A century ago, Connecticut’s Art Young was a radical political cartoonist, and many of his drawings would be as relevant today as they were then.
Young came to political cartooning through a roundabout route. Born in 1866 in Wisconsin and raised on a farm, he struck out for Chicago at the age of 18. He studied art there, but also immediately joined the staff of the Chicago Daily Mail, where he was called on to illustrate stories about national and local news.
Illustrators were relatively new for newspapers at the time, and Young had a natural talent. He worked for Chicago papers for 12 years when, at the age of 30, he decided to strike out once again, first for Denver and then New York.
Married to his high school sweetheart, Young started a family, having two sons. But his heart was in his art, and he and a group of other emerging artists joined together to establish an artist’s colony in the area of New York City known as Greenwich Village.
From New York, he moved to Bethel, Conn., in 1904. The move started as an effort to strengthen his marriage. It didn’t work, as he and wife Elizabeth amicably parted. She took their two sons and headed to California, and he took a studio in New York. The farm in Bethel did become Young’s permanent home and his refuge from the city, however.
As he aged, Young made a dramatic political transformation. He came out of Wisconsin a steady-eyed Republican, but the more he was exposed to inequality and the way powerful institutions banded together to oppose labor and oppress minorities, the more radical he became.
By 1906, he was a full-fledged socialist, and he soon found his political beliefs – the pursuit of social justice, equality and workers’ rights – were the most important things in his life. Commissioned by Life magazine to draw a cover to illustrate a story about a Jewish conspiracy to control the Hollywood movie industry, he first leapt at the job.
But after submitting the work, Young’s conscience gnawed at him. He called the editor and told him to keep the money and not use the drawing. He no longer wanted to attach his name to projects he found offensive, like drawings he had done to drum up support for the Spanish-American War.
Instead, he drew steadily for a new Socialist protest magazine, The Masses. At The Masses, he established himself as a full-on critic of the media, big business and established politicians. The Associated Press sued him for libel when he created a cartoon that charged the press agency was lying about the details of a Virginia coal miner’s strike to support mine owners.
The AP withdrew the lawsuit, however, when Young and the magazine subpoenaed the news agency’s internal files. The public speculated it was because the truth that would be exposed in the files was worse than anything Young had charged.
In 1918, Young was again in court, though the charges were more serious. He was accused of treason under the espionage laws. Young’s fate rested in the hands of a jury – a second jury. The first had deadlocked, but only barely – having voted 11 to 1 to convict. As the prosecutors and defense lawyers parried in the courtroom around him, Young decided his best course of action: Fall asleep.
The reason he was in court was a small cartoon panel drawn for The Masses. In it, Young lampooned newspaper editors, ministers, politicians and capitalists for their hypocrisy – claiming to support peace and human dignity, but advocating war with Germany.
The cartoon and accompanying editorial were enough to get Young and several colleagues arrested under the espionage laws when the Post Office refused to deliver the August 1917 issue on the grounds that the contents were seditious.
Long-time rabble-rousers with a sense for the theatrical, the defendants alternately joked about the trial and then turned serious, defending their right to speak out against a war they all opposed. Hanging in the balance, however, was the potential for a lifetime prison sentence.
The second jury also failed to reach a unanimous verdict. After two losses, the prosecutors decided to give up. But the damage was done. The Masses was effectively crippled, and Young, with the taint of the trial, found no one eager to hire him.
The situation was a new experience for a man whose career had been a relatively easy one. He struggled to launch a new magazine, Good Morning, and published two books, one the story of his life and the other a humorous sequel to Dante’s Inferno in which he imagined how Hell would operate given the more modern inhabitants.
In one panel, he noted, political cartoonists would surely have their faces caricatured by the devil, and then their actual features faces would be physically contorted to match the misshapen ones in the drawing.
With Young running low on funds, work finally began to trickle in in 1925 as he traveled into New York from Bethel and made his rounds with the editors.
He published a successful book of eerie sketches of trees, entitled Trees at Night. But the aging radical’s career had peaked. As the socialist movement in America unraveled, Young became less relevant, as did many of the Socialists of the early 1900s.
By 1934, he was running low on funds again, though he was a much sought- after dinner and party guest because of his wit and insights. At that point a collection of his old friends joined together and established a tribute dinner to restore his finances.
It did the trick. Young would go on to publish one final book: Art Young: His Life and Times – an autobiography. He died in 1942 at the age of 77.
This story was updated in 2017.