A “Future” of Uncertainty Illustrated by Tom Little: An Archival Research Project at the Library of Congress

Today, when I tell fellow, urban Americans where I am from I more often than not receive the reply, “oh, I’ve driven through”, receive a comment associated with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or hear the all too common “Western Virginia?” from West Coasters. My favorite response is from non-Americans who will eighty-percent of the time respond with a humming or singing of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. As a young child, I remember my out-of-state friends and cousins of a similar age ask if my family had an indoor toilet or electricity, or if a single Starbucks even existed within the state. I presume by now you’ve been able to decipher which of the fifty states I come from. The state is located entirely within the Appalachian Mountain Region which lends itself to the public to receive unsolicited prejudice. The Appalachian Region garners the attention of mainstream America with images, stories, government reports, and popular television shows that portray a region of homogenous people who live as barbarians: backwards, uneducated, dirty, barefoot, immoral, incestuous, etc. A social movement made up of a younger generation living within Appalachia today is actively reclaiming the narrative of Appalachia.

Tom Little. “Where President Johnson Wants to Help.” The Nashville Tennessean. 14 April 1964 (accessed at the Library of Congress, Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room on 27 September 2019)

In my specific keyword search for an item related to Appalachia at the Library of Congress I was struck emotionally by Tom Little’s editorial cartoon, “Where President Johnson Wants to Help”. The image of a young man, representing “future generations” of “Appalachia”, sitting on a hillside looking off in the distance resonated with me. Although the editorial cartoon was published on April 14, 1964 by The Nashville Tennessean, it continues to encapsulate a shared sentiment within Appalachia today. This is a sentiment deeply rooted in the pervasive idea of the “Future” emerging from the discourse of politicians, newspaper columns, nonprofit organizations, and conversations amongst family members in 1964 and today. My personal lived experience of being born and raised in West Virginia until the age of eight and returning in 2015 after 15 years impressed upon me a shared concern about the future of West Virginia that the cartoon effectively elicits. I’m not quite sure how to articulate the feeling beyond this. Although the “Future” presents itself as a shared concern, an individual’s understanding and conceptualization of the “Future” materializes in different ways and is at the heart of many debates in the public and private sphere. Is this the sentiment Little intended to convey on April 14, 1964? Would I feel a similar sentiment in response to the cartoon if I were to have opened the newspaper on the day it was published? How much of this sentiment is imposed upon Central Appalachians from external forces? A larger, final project will address these questions more formally. Here, I just barely touch the surface on these issues. 

The original editorial cartoon came to the Library of Congress by way of Art Wood, an award-winning editorial cartoonist and collector. The donation of his collection originally displayed in the stairwell of his home or his Gallery makes up approximately 16,000 editorial cartoon drawings from the 1880s – 1990s, with an emphasis on the 1940s – 1990s when Wood actively collected. The arrival of Tom Little’s cartoon in a mat indicates that Wood selected the cartoon to be exhibited at his Gallery, but whether the matted cartoon was ever exhibited in the stairwell of Mr. Wood’s home is a mystery. Wood actively sought to collect at least one drawing from every Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial cartoonist. Tom Little received a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. The matting of the cartoon categorizes it as a “Wood Specials” in the collection which prioritized it for digitization and cataloging at the Library of Congress.

The accessible and generous staff at the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division and Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room assisted in my research endeavors to access popular response to the editorial cartoon. The available technologies, professional skills of preservation, and the knowledge of staff members on a diversity of topics expedited my ability to travel through time to the mid to late 1960s. I reverted to newspaper articles in The Nashville Tennessean and The Washington Post and a meeting with Sara Duke, the Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art, to access information about the editorial cartoon, the cartoonist, and the collector.             

Four days prior to the publication of the editorial cartoon is an article in The Washington Post titled “LBJ Gets $4.2 Billion Poverty Cure” written by Laurence Stern. “Appalachia’s hills and hollows harbor some of the Nation’s worst pockets of economic distress. Employment in mining and farming has shrunk and Appalachia is walled off from its more affluent regional neighbors by poor roads.” The newspaper article reverberates the narrative of Appalachia as cut off from civilization and the pervasive poverty of the region. Finding this news article in my initial excavation of Little’s editorial cartoon to identify the “trigger” or idea behind the drawing led me down a path of “Letters to the Editor”, additional news articles addressing aid programs directed at Appalachia, and articles commenting on the work of Tom Little.

Unfortunately, the path I took led to no information specifically addressing the editorial cartoon, “Where President Johnson Wants to Help”. Although The Washington Post article I presume the cartoon is responding to contains language that promotes a damaging narrative of Appalachia, Tom Little’s editorial cartoon does not provoke public animosity or praise that I could find. The opportunity to view the original editorial cartoon in person and meet with the curator ignited a personal realization that the absence of information is just as exposing and revelatory. The absence of commentary, reproduction, or “Letters to the Editor” in direct response to the cartoon published on April 14, 1964 suggests the idea that the cartoon was interpreted as “uncontroversial”, in despite of the language of the article it presumably responds to and the cartoonist’s career of creating “cartoons [that] angered, embarrassed and touched the raw nerves of his subjects as well as his readers” (The University of Tennessee Knoxville “Tennessee Newspaper Hall of Fame”). Let this be a personal lesson in research.

A review of newspaper articles in the late 1960s and 1970s, “Letters to the Editor”, and articles remembering the life of Tom Little as a cartoonist helped to form assumptions about Little’s intention with the cartoon in 1964 and whether the readers of The Nashville Tennessean received the cartoon in the way Little intended. A question that emerges from the cartoon is whether the young man in the cartoon is witnessing the effects of the War on Poverty on Appalachia or if he is waiting for something to come around the mountain. Another news article, “State May Get $7 Million Hike in Food Grant” written by Julie Hollabaugh and published on the 22 March 1964 includes a list of potential benefits of the program: “job-training projects”, “distribution of surplus foods to needy families”, establishment of health and medical services for poor in rural areas, welfare expansion directed at “rehabilitation of the family”, and additional programs and services related to workforce development. Newspaper articles and “Letters to the Editor” suggest conflicting responses to the federal aid program. The Education News Editor of The Nashville Tennessean shares on 19 April 1964 that,

“hopefully, some of these youngsters will be put onto better pathways soon. President

  Johnson’s war on poverty plans careful attention to these plights of American youth”.


Whereas, The Jackson Sun published on 31 March 1966 an article from Washington about,

“Republicans continuing their own probe into the poverty program. Their four

investigators have traveled throughout the county amassing evidence on the peculiar

manner in which the War on Poverty is being fought. Consider the Women’s Job Corps

Center at Charleston, W.Va. Police complain that Job Corps enrollees have caused major

problem, that several girls have been engaged in prostitution and organized vice”.


Despite conflicting public responses to the program, information about Tom Little as a cartoonist strongly suggest the aim of the cartoon was meant to capture the general sentiment of a young Appalachian man living in 1964. In an article in The Nashville Tennessean remembering the life of Tom Little titled, “Cartoonist Tom Little Had Impact on His Times” states,

“the man who hated pretense and humbug, the man whose compassion found him on the

side of the underdog, the crippled child, the deprived family, the elderly ill and the

ordinary folk who had no great voice in the affair of the day. Tom Little tried to be that

voice through crayons that slashed at selfish, privileged interest, indifferent politicians,

the corruption of power and world leadership that took nations to war, willy-nilly.”

The young man is waiting on the side of the mountain to see what unfolds after hundreds of years of his own country doing wrong by his people and his land. I believe he is content. He knows better than to be anxiously anticipating the outcomes of a federal aid program pointed at the Appalachian region. And, maybe, the reason the cartoon resonates with me and elicits a feeling I struggle to articulate is because I know this young man today.

Duke, Sara. Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, October 17 – 27, 2019.