News

A short piece I wrote for The Washington Post
this weekend concurs with the decision of the
City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Monday, February 6, to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent public city park in that city.

I believe this was the right thing for the duly-elected local representatives of the people of Charlottesville to do. However, my argument does not so much stand on the basis of Lee as a defender of the vile institution of slavery. It is true that Lee was not at all an outspoken proponent of human bondage. But as eventual General-In-Chief of the armies of the Confederate States, the fact that his personal attachments to slavery were only mild certainly damns him with faint praise.

(Lee inherited about 70 slaves from his father-in-law when that man died in 1857. The venerated Confederate general abided by the wishes of his wife’s father when he manumitted, or legally freed them, in accordance to the will of George Washington Custis, which stipulated they were to remain in service for five more years. Before that time came, however, Lee in 1859 ordered three runaway slaves severely beaten, sending for a local constable to do the job when one of his own plantation overseers refused to, and standing by close at hand to ensure maximal pain was inflicted. Later, when the Civil War broke out, Lee sent other slaves in his charge to toil further within the Confederate interior to discourage them from seeking their freedom behind Union lines.)

Instead, my argument for removal the statue (or alternatively radically altering its presentation) is that Lee is undeserving because he committed the act of treason against the United States.

Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” And Lee’s actions from 1861-1865 are prima facie evidence that he undertook just this. His commission of the crime is valid despite the fact that the Lincoln Administration and subsequent postwar authorities chose never to put Lee on trial for treason.

The prosecutorial forbearance was by design. In the wake of the war most officers of the federal government were chiefly concerned with rebuilding and reuniting the war-torn country, not persecuting and making grisly examples of secession’s perpetrators and the legions who followed them.

Only a single Confederate officer, Captain Henry Wirz, was ever convicted and executed for war crimes. And even the treason trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was abandoned before a sentence was ever issued. Even Aaron Burr, whose putative attempts to provoke disunion were trifling in comparison, had to sit through a whole trial.

Treason is not a charge to be thrown around lightly. In fact, the Founding Fathers were acutely sensitive to the term’s flagrant and damaging abuse under the monarchy of Great Britain, where one could brutally drawn and quartered for, for example, being Catholic, trespassing on royal hunting grounds, or forging counterfeit shillings. The Founders were so adamant that treason be as narrowly defined as possible in the republic they were constructing that it is the only criminal charge spelled out in the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land.

And as I seek to point out in the piece, no one need cling to a cravenly legalistic, morally blind, paper definition of treason to rightly impugn Lee and the Confederacy, either.

The United States of America would have no moral standing as an independent nation if rebellion was unjustifiable in all cases. There are circumstances that indeed make levying war against and adhering to the enemies of a country a moral imperative. The American Revolution, in which colonists wholly unrepresented in their government stood up to the forces of King George III and colluded militarily with Britain’s enemy, King Louis XVI of France, continues to stand as a defining example. To briefly recap what I set out in the Post, the set of circumstances that gave rise to the Civil War were worlds away from those of the American Revolution because the Southern states had enjoyed not only fair but excessive, preferential representation in the U.S. government.

In the State of Virginia’s own convention in which the Constitution was ratified, the delegates made plain that if the federal government “perverted” its powers to cause the state “injury” or “oppression,” it would consider the sovereignty of its people infringed and the state’s attachment to the union rendered null. However, I have yet to be persuaded how the undisputedly fair election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860—the development that set off the first wave of secession in the South—arose to a “perversion” of the Constitution.

The federal government was furthermore acting under its constitutionally delegated powers under Article I, Section 8 to call forth the Virginia militia to aid it to “suppress insurrections and repel invasions” (which, by virtue of the Militia Act of 1795, Congress legislatively delegated to the Executive Branch and never bothered to take back).

And it is this latter act that has gone down in history as what compelled Virginia—after an initial overwhelming vote in February, 1861 to remain with the Union—to secede. Robert E. Lee, after soul searching, went along with his home state.
So the secessionists in the “cotton states” had nothing close to justifiably revolutionary grounds. Virginia had played a fundamental role in writing the rules of the American republic. And she had seen to it that those rules would be tweaked in her favor (including Thomas Jefferson’s behind-closed-doors angling to get the seat of government on the Potomac rather than in Philadelphia or Baltimore as others had proposed). Yet when a single election did not go their way, they could not abide remaining in the Union. And most Virginians ultimately could not abide siding against them. Not even when a last-minute “unamendable amendment” that would forever negate the federal government’s ability to disestablish slavery in the states it existed was offered.

Lee, so exalted as a man of honor, broke the oath he had taken in 1829 to bear true allegiance to the United States of America and obey the orders of the commander-in-chief of its military. This vow he freely swore at the culmination of his education (paid for in full by by the taxpayers of the United States, South and North) at West Point, where as a young man he graduated 2nd in his class. Lee turned his back on some of his own most dearly-held beliefs. All the more reason to think twice about the value of states and municipalities endorsing him with public statuary.

Let’s face it. Statues like the one in Charlottesville don’t exist as simple reminders of history. They embody a very particular message.

Lost on many contemporary viewers is the historical significance of what kind of statue this is. To sculptors throughout the centuries, horses have been artistically challenging and expensive subjects to render. Few if any American artists had the wherewithal to produce them, and indeed even Charlottesville’s Lee statue had to be produced by an Italian immigrant. Equestrian statues have long been reserved for conquerors and symbols of militarism. Lee as a mounted horseman here carries a special, glorifying significance, designed not to invite critical engagement with the man and the legacy but to immortalize him as a gallant warrior—a “cavalier” as proponents of the Lost Cause like to say.

On the day Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue was presented to the public in 1924, it was draped in Confederate battle flags and attended by singing, all-white schoolchildren—who themselves were staged and dressed to present as a “living” Confederate flag.

Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy had planned and presided over the ceremony. The reigning head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was a Virginia fish and game official named W. McDonald Lee. During his recent reelection as “Commander-In-Chief” that organization, the convention thronged with attendees confirming they were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Reports in many contemporary newspapers suggest Mr. Lee himself was a Klansman. And Julian S. Carr, the Commander in Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, was an open and avowedly a member of the white supremacist terrorists.

Charlottesville’s Lee statue was not intended to chronicle the history of the Confederacy. It was intended to perpetuate it. In spirit if not in practice. That is the message of the statue—and why it is absurd leave the statue to stand as is, or regard it as a mere innocent signpost of a past era.

It is distasteful but absolutely unsurprising that protestors (including a Republican gubernatorial candidate) have denounced the Charlottesville City Council for conspiring to “rewrite history” and besmirch the heritage of the Commonwealth. These pro-Lee activists have compared those who want the statue removed to the hateful swine of the Islamic State—notorious for vandalizing and destroying Middle Eastern archeological sites with religious symbols that predate Islam. The pro-Lee activists have demeaned the Charlottesville City Council members as fascists and tyrants executing the gravest acts of political correctness.

These protestors are as wrong as they are laughable in the extreme of their rhetoric. For to consider their position sound is to believe that perpetuating the spirit of the Confederacy is an acceptable thing for a 21st century municipality to publicly endorse.
I cannot and would not speak for all those who want to see Confederate statues removed. In fact, I don’t doubt for a second that there are many among the ranks of the so-called “campus left” who would like to paper over American history and effectively make all evidence of the Confederacy disappear.

But my contention is the exact opposite.

Confederate history absolutely matters. We should never forget it.

And it’s because Confederate history matters that the statue should not stand as is.

In fact, Americans who choose to be involved in the political process and public affairs in any way should never stop thinking about Confederate history.

Because wrapped up in the history of the Civil War—and, yes, absolutely and unreservedly on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line— are all the evidences of our nation’s capacity to put economic issues ahead of human values; to distort, caricature, demonize, and exploit nonwhites; to place greed ahead of justice; to rush into warfare without a sober assessment of the suffering it will exact upon enemies and allies; to devolve into petty regionalism and ghettoization by ideology; and to demagogue and goad the vast and unprivileged majority into the service of the powerful few.

On the heels of his surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate general forbid his men to melt into the wilderness and sustain the fight through a prolonged campaign of guerilla warfare. Late in 1865, he humbly wrote Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant to request the restoration of his American citizenship. He signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. In the last years of his life, Lee quietly spent his energies reviving a small college in Virginia’s Great Valley. He chose to be buried in civilian clothes. These legendary acts of humility and contrition are, to my mind, singular examples we could all use some looking to in our political, professional, and personal lives. They leave the elder Lee ennobled and elevated.

That’s the kind of statue the public should see. And it’s the exact opposite of what the Charlottesville statue is.

We have elected a president who demonstrates a remarkable degree of apathy towards and ignorance about the United States Constitution. From his vow to “protect Article XII” (the document stops at Article VII); to his apparent belief the executive branch has the power to demand apologies from the casts of Broadway plays (especially ones whose artistic form of speech is inherently political) and to compel private companies to wish clientele “Merry Christmas”; to his disregard for the Foreign Emoluments clause; to his call for closing mosques in violation of the Free Exercise of Religion, there is little doubt that whether one approves of him or not, this country is very likely headed towards a constitutional crisis. Very plausibly a multitude of them.

Constitutional literacy, always important, is especially urgent now. It is worth everyone’s time to brush up on the supreme law of the land and be better prepared to think and speak substantively on the issues that are now before us—as well as the ones waiting just around the bend, both anticipated and unforeseen.

One topic sure to be bandied about with great alacrity over the coming years is impeachment.

(And on that note, one should immediately be reminded that “impeachment” only amounts to the go-ahead to conduct an official inquest to determine whether an accused president, vice president, or other “civil officer” should be forced from power. Impeachment, as anyone who lived through and paid attention to the Senate trial of Bill Clinton in 1999 knows, will not always be followed by conviction and removal from office.)

Let’s now take a look at the year 1803, and American history’s first impeachment.  It offers particularly intriguing consequences for the present moment.

The Founding Fathers, as a rule, loathed the idea of political parties. But just a few scant decades after the American Revolution, a two-party system had developed anyway, in spite of their high-minded desires. There were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The Federalists were on the side of an energetic central government and a somewhat open-ended theory of the  Constitution (the “implied powers doctrine” being an example of this).  Federalists approved of an economy tipped in favor of industry and manufactures, a strong military (especially a navy), a modern banking and financial system, a polity geared towards only allowing men of property and virtue to exercise the vote, and the brisk collection of internal taxes to fund the government. (But remember that taxes did not include any kind of federal income or property tax, but instead consisted mostly of duties on imported goods, of which there were a lot in the low-tech days of the Early Republic, and an excise tax on distilled spirits).

The citadel of Federalism was New England. But it should be mentioned that South Carolina—especially the area around the merchant-friendly city of Charleston—was a strong outpost of Federalism. Arch-federalist Alexander Hamilton, for instance, was often gunning for South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to be his party’s presidential candidate.

George Washington would never verbally commit to any party. But for all intents and purposes he was Federalist to the core. Between his first two terms as president and the administration of his successor John Adams, Federalists controlled the U.S. government for the first 12 years of nationhood.

In contrast to the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans preferred state government authority over federal. As the original originalists, they claimed to want the Constitution given a limited, literal interpretation. Democratic-Republicans advocated for an agricultural economy. They favored the citizen militia over a professional military. They generally disdained banks and what we today call “financial instruments.” Instead of restricting the voting franchise to land owners and/or the wealthy, they pushed to allow all free white men to vote. And Democratic-Republicans had little stomach for federal taxes.

The wellspring of Democratic-Republicanism was Virginia. Its presidential triad was Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. The ideology eventually grew to take in many adherents throughout the North and the middle states. And it was rock-solid in the South and the new “western” states like Kentucky and Tennessee.

(If any of this business about the first party system is new to you, it’s interesting to reflect on how neither of these early political organizations offers a straight line of evolution to the contemporary Republicans and Democrats. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were both in certain aspects “conservative” and “liberal.” Federalists, perhaps an easy for some to target as modern liberals, were for instance, “big government”—but also saw themselves as the party against immigrant rights and for the Christian religion. Democratic-Republicans were, like most modern conservatives, for low taxes and regulations but also against a large military. This is an American history lesson nearly everyone should commit to memory: over the two and a half centuries of the U.S. politics, many major positions have dramatically shifted in place.)

When America’s first non-Federalist executive, Thomas Jefferson, took office to become the third president in March, 1801, the party of Washington and Hamilton was on the ropes.

And over the next several years, Federalists’ blood ran cold as they witnessed Jefferson entrenching his political viewpoint in every way conceivable. High-toned, elite New Englanders (or “Nov-Anglians” as some of them then said!) augured their own doom in the Louisiana Purchase and in the Twelfth Amendment.

Then came Jefferson’s power grab into the judicial branch.

When it came to exercising the impeachment power, that grab began, but did not end with, John Pickering.

Pickering was a Federalist U.S. District Court judge in New Hampshire. His gold-quality resume included military service in the Revolutionary War and drafting New Hampshire’s state constitution (the Granite State being, audaciously, the first of all the former British colonies to write its own constitution).

But by the time Jefferson had come to power, Pickering—like not a few of his generation—was heading at a rapid clip towards decrepitude. The judge had degenerated into alcoholism and mental derangement. In other words, the man was incompetent and, by all accounts, insane.

Yet, the Federalists were desperate to hang onto Pickering.

After all, were Pickering to retire, resign, or pass away, Jefferson would naturally appoint a Democratic-Republican to take his place. The Federalists had already lost the presidency. And Congress. The judicial branch was their only remaining bulwark. Yielding any more power to their political rivals would be the pits.

Jefferson, however, wanted Pickering out. And a “party man” in.

In fact, Jefferson personally initiated the impeachment proceedings. He did so with a message to the House of Representatives. (Under Article I of the Constitution, the House has the sole power to impeach a federal officer).

The House’s Democratic-Republican majority did not require much prompting to take Jefferson’s cue. They began the impeachment process. They drafted a four-part Articles of Impeachment for Pickering and delivered it to the Senate. The Senate—intended to be the more refined, conservative, far-sighted, and responsible body of Congress—would exercise its Constitutional power to conduct Pickering’s impeachment trial.

If found guilty, the Senate, and only the Senate, could remove Pickering from office.

For Democratic-Republicans to furnish Jefferson with the result he was spoiling for, what exactly would they have to prove?

Article II, Section 4 spells out that:

Unfortunately for Jefferson, there were no treason or bribery cases to make against Pickering. He had done nothing against the law. There was no offense to indict against a particular statute.  That left Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans with only one other option:

“Other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

But what exactly are “high crimes and misdemeanors?” On its face, the former expression (“high crimes”) is far more serious than the latter (“misdemeanors.”)

This is one of the Constitution’s many “terms of art:” those catch-all phrases that reflect areas where the mighty power of language utterly breaks down.

No conceived earthly dialect has the power to succinctly specify all things that might fall within these certain Constitutional categories. So we are left with a kind of unsatisfying generalization that, nevertheless, we need to somehow make work.

“Keep and bear arms,” “cruel and unusual punishments,” “necessary and proper”—these are all similar terms of art that tend to lead to tedious and digressive debates about their meaning. And like a witch’s curse that just can’t be dispelled, they keep coming back to beguile us.

“High crimes and misdemeanors” is an especially problematic phrase. What is a “high” crime? The language of the Constitution intentionally places the term “misdemeanor” in the plural. Does that mean that those lesser infringements must be multiple in number? And how does the word “and” operate here? Does it imply or necessitate that crimes as well as misdemeanors must have been committed in combination? Is impeachment possible for just one high crime? What about two high crimes and one misdemeanor?

The Founders left us with this disheartening problem because they foresaw an intrinsic flaw with the impeachment power.

Namely, the danger that impeachment could be used to remove duly elected or appointed officers simply for political reasons—because they hold unpopular beliefs, or take unpopular action.

In the Constitutional debates in 1787, a “maladministration” standard was floated for impeachment. To put that another way, the Founding Fathers debated whether or not an unsatisfying performance in a given in a U.S. government office of trust should be grounds for impeachment.

Ultimately this was decided against. Wiser minds understood that “maladministration” is a charge too closely tied to opinion. One person’s “maladministration” could easily be another man’s highly principled reason for voting a certain way on a certain bill, or pardoning a notorious criminal, or signing a widely condemned international treaty. The Founders wanted both to give the people a chance to communicate displeasure with their leaders but also shield those leaders from popular or partisan “witch hunts.”

In The Federalist #65, Hamilton attempts to clarify “high crimes and misdemeanors” by describing impeachable offenses as “the abuse or violation of some public trust” and immediately injurious to “society itself.” This might fairly be called heaping more terms of art upon other terms of art. The legal definition of “abuse” is open to debate, as is “immediately injurious.” Again, it comes down to the insufficiency of language.

Returning to Pickering, and in defense of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, the man was clearly unfit for office.

But in what must be described as a flaw or oversight in the Constitution, there is no legal method to remove a president, vice president, or civil officer for reasons of incompetence, substance addiction, or insanity (unless that incompetence or insanity leads to an indictable legal offense).

So, again, that left Jefferson’s party with the challenge of taking Pickering’s condition and constructing a case that it amounted to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Given that they were acting largely from political motivations, it turns out that they did not quibble much over the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” No. The faction that staked a claim to “strict constructionism” and narrow interpretation of the Constitution were just fine to be extraordinarily broad and permissive with Article II, Section 4. Especially in Part 4 of the Articles of Impeachment against Pickering:

So in review, the precedent set by America’s very first impeachment trial included:

  • “Loose morals and intemperate habits”
  • Public intoxication
  • Infringement of the Biblical Third Commandment
  • Generally behaving in such a way as to be “degrading to the honor and dignity of the United States.”

 

Now remember, these Articles of Impeachment were drafted and sent up the chain of command by the House. How did it play in the Senate? The august body with the actual power to remove Pickering from office?

The Senate (with a total membership in 1803 of 34) voted 20-6 in favor of removing Pickering from office.

Two Federalist Senators were present but refused to vote. In additional protest and/or discomfort over the fast and loose play with the Constitution, three additional Senators did not show up for work that day. They did not vote at all.

Jefferson had scored. And in fact he replaced Pickering with the Democratic-Republican district attorney of New Hampshire John Samuel Sherburne, who had also acted as a witness against Pickering in the impeachment trial. This is an additional and quite flagrant conflict of interest.

Thus emboldened Jefferson did not stop with Pickering. He went on to try to bring down another Federalist judge, this time Samuel Chase, a Supreme Court of the United States justice. The Democratic-Republicans did not fare as well in that case. But through impeachment and other means (like refusing to deliver a commission in the famous Marbury v. Madison case), Jefferson by one count succeeded in removing eighteen of thirty Federalist judges between 1801 and 1803.

What should be our takeaway from all this?

First, whenever a politician or a politician’s camp raises a hue and cry about a “partisan witch hunt,” remember that those are nearly as old as the republic itself. And had no better endorsement than the lofty states’ rightist/small government man Thomas Jefferson.

And if “loose morals and intemperate habits” as well as conduct “degrading to the honor and dignity of the United States” sounds like any high civil officer you can think of these days, remember that American history is standing by to provide a sound precedent for what form “high crimes and misdemeanors” can take.

Citations here and here

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powerpuff_comic_conIt’s the most wonderful time of the year to be a comics lover. And I’m honored once again to be on a Comic-Con panel thanks to the gratifying enthusiasm of Tracy Edmunds at Reading with Pictures, the foremost advocate for using comics and graphic novels in the classroom to promote literacy and learning for all students.

The panel takes place Saturday, July 23, at 11 am at the main branch of the San Diego Public Library.

More info here.

I don’t know what’s going to be better about this talk: that you don’t even need an SDCC badge to get in; that it was picked as a top thing to do in San Diego this weekend; or that the centerpiece of the panel will be the scintillating Nathan Hale whose latest book, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #6: Alamo All-Stars, made the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Big hat’s off to Nathan Hale! And to using this dynamic medium for teaching history!

 

a_boston_picture_book copyResearching my latest project, lately I have been (psychically if not physically) spending quite a bit of time in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts—and contemplating how those cities should be drawn. This has been cause for me to reacquaint myself with a favorite illustrator, Barbara Westman.

My new book (the details of which I will announce soon), like The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation, and The Comic Book Story of Beer is also a nonfiction graphic novel. Its subject matter isn’t one immediately associated with the star urban centers upon the dirty water of the banks of the River Charles. But it turns out it really should be.

Nevertheless, the preparatory work for the manuscript has necessitated envisioning both Boston and Cambridge at many points across the 20th and present centuries. This proud and pleasant diversion into the state where I grew up (but regrettably have never lived as an adult) recently sent me scrambling to Alibris to acquire and in some cases re-acquire the collected works of one of my favorite illustrators, Barbara Westman.

I first came across her work in my perfectly sufficient yet perfectly unremarkable elementary school’s perfectly sufficient yet perfectly unremarkable library. I have ever been a mediocre achiever when it comes to cross-referencing memories to years—they mesh with quite less than rack-to-pinion gearing efficiency in my head—but I would have to guess this was in 3rd or 4th grade. And that first impression-making collection was probably A Boston Picture Book, published in groovy old 1974.

westman_charles_streetIt was a case of love at first sight. Because having been born and raised in its suburbs, Boston had undeniably come to serve as the Ur cityscape of my imagination and boyhood aesthetics. And over the course of an early lifetime that tracked with the slow and painful realization that I couldn’t really draw and would probably never be able to, Westman’s pen and ink and watercolor drawings somehow gave me a temporary palliative, candy-bar-and-Coca-Cola high and boost of confidence.

For here were drawings that seemed like something a hard-working kid might be able to pull off. In other words, at an age where I still essentially beheld photorealism as the homing beacon to which all artistic endeavor must naturally slog, Westman’s depictions of Boston neighborhoods, landmarks, and people seemed to succeed solely on charm and on elbow-grease attention to detail (i.e., hand-drawing all those little bricks and roof tiles).

Westman’s lines were loose, her characters’ heads were large and often goofy, and her compositions were often raucously crowded, with cluttering, often comic, popping signage every which way. This additionally played to the fact that I was learning to love graphic design. The editorial remarks Westman snuck onto street signs (like the parking restrictions that simply bark, No, no, no!) cracked me up, and at first I almost could not believe her audacity to take this kind of poetic license with real places.

government_centerWestman’s drawings also became sort of fetish objects for me simply because they served as easily-accessed representations of other fetish objects of mine: big Boston buildings. I wanted in to the city for as long as I can remember. And not because I felt (or feel) myself too sophisticated for suburban life. Boston seemed the place where the action was, and where I wanted to be, because it was such a happening, target-rich environment of exciting school field trip-type places like the aquarium and the Museum of Science and the U.S.S. Constitution and that really cool kids’ museum with the giant milk bottle snack bar outside. I’m not lying, either, when I say that it was the offbeat and somehow classier toys and souvenirs in the gift shops of those kid-friendly institutions that really got me going.

Lucky for me, whose juvenile and adolescent sensitivity and proneness to anxiety could hardly have handled it, I don’t believe I was ever technically unclear about my sexual preferences. I always loved girls. But I was never butch, not by any stretch of the imagination. I identified with the “opposite” gender more than my own. At family get-togethers the men would listlessly gravitate to my grandfather’s den to watch football amid bursts of smoke from the cheap tobacco in the typically shirtless old man’s pipe. But I was the type who wanted to sit in the kitchen with my warm and unprepossessing WASP grandmother and her dusky and broad-faced all_those_little_bricksItalian hairdresser sisters-in-law up from Rhode Island and listen to the gossip. I got something—I’m still at pains to describe just what—from what at the time seemed to be the feminine worldview. I was even drawn to the newspaper comic strip Cathy because I found her defining character traits of fussiness and indecision both winning and cute. (My father, however, once employed a rare heavy hand in discouraging me from buying a softcover Cathy omnibus at a certain point in my preteen years. He was usually tolerant of my odder choices, although I would tend to attribute this more to the low expectations I had inspired in him than for enlightened progressive parenting).

Barbara Westman’s drawings were also highly feminine. And I responded eagerly to this. It would be the same years later when I finally got to know the cartooning of Roz Chast and Lynda Barry, to which I pledge sentimental attachment for life.

lampoon_building_etcLater, it was a thrill to learn that Westman had devoted an entire book to Cambridge, The Bean and the Scene. Cambridge had presently become the emotional equal of Boston in my estimation, especially once I discovered comics and, in turn, The Million Year Picnic, the seminal comic book store on Mt. Auburn Street. Again, it would take many more years for me to acquire the cultural knowledge and personal experience to get some more proper sense of Boston’s rightful place in the universe. But in those days Boston and Cambridge struck me legitimately as the crossroads of the world. Far more so than New York City, in fact, which to my 1970s and early 1980s self had been irretrievably colored by a reputation for filthiness, coarseness, unjustifiable swagger (the Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry even affected a decided non-sports fan like me),crime, and violence.

A reviewer from the Harvard Daily Crimson, however, was not so thrilled with Westman’s characterization of the community. In the only real piece of criticism I have been able to find on her work, The Bean and the Scene was excoriated. And, I find myself now having to add, not entirely unfairly.

I must confess my online research skills have been incompetent to establish whether or not Ms. Westman is still with us. For someone who has a number of New Yorker covers to her name and multiple pieces in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, it’s a bit surprising Westman boasts no Wikipedia page, no passing references in even the Boston Globe archives, nor nearly any other mainstream newspaper or magazine I can find—to say nothing of a personal website or fan page.

barbara_westman copyI do know that she married the late philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, noted for his belief that art history was “over.” And, since her husband was based at Columbia, it seems Westman shifted her life and focus to New York City. She and Danto were photographed in their living room for the New York Times Magazine posing under a self-portrait clearly rendered by Westman. They look every inch the picture of that sort of soaringly accomplished yet eccentric Manhattan couple, so blending the highbrow with the bohemian that you can imagine them maintaining it vulgar to be written about too much. Or, heaven help us, have a social media presence.

Barbara Westman, if you’re out there, I hope you find this as a long overdue memorial.

You are to Boston what Bemelmans was to Paris. And I for one only wish there was more.

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