October 2019 archive

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 frequently 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 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.

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.

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 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 responses 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 did not lead to 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 animosity or praise. 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 lesson in research for me.

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