By DONNA URSCHEL
The Library has acquired the archives of "Herblock," created by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, and on March 12 opened a celebratory exhibition of 15 Herblock drawings in the Thomas Jefferson Building's Swann Gallery.
The exhibition provides a concise overview of Block's 70 years of wielding his mighty pen.
"You can get an intimate look at some of the best work he ever created, spanning his career from the 1930s through the last drawing he drew in 2001," said Harry Katz, head curator of the Prints and Photographs Division. "It's a very moving experience to see the last drawing," which features George W. Bush and is titled "It's the speak-loudly-and-poke-'em-with-a-big-stick policy."
Donated to the Library by the Herb Block Foundation, which Block's estate established after his death in October 2001, the archives include 14,000 original drawings, about 6,000 preparatory sketches, and voluminous correspondence, clippings and photographs.
In addition to the archives, the Herb Block Foundation will provide funding to support the preservation of the collection and to maintain a permanent Herblock exhibit in the redesigned Jefferson Building Visitors Area that will open in 2005.
"It's an absolutely remarkable gift that was 30 years in the making," Katz said.
During the last 10 years of Block's life, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Katz, and the Manuscript Division's Marvin Kranz, an American history specialist with an interest in politics, worked closely with Block and his staff, including Jean Rickard, Block's assistant for 44 years and now executive director of the foundation, to acquire the comprehensive collection.
"[Block's] main concern was that he wanted his drawings safe and wanted high schools to have access to them," said Katz. "He knew it was critical to keep the collection together, and we were the only institution with the resources, staff, funding, and facilities to house, treat, catalog and create online access to his work."
Unlike other cartoonists who often give away original drawings or destroy early work, Block kept his drawings intact. He stored them in a vault in the basement of his Georgetown home.
The collection will allow people to see the origins of a remarkable career and how it evolved artistically, and it will provide a historical overview of the United States from 1929 to 2001. "In Herb Block's case, because he is doing social and political commentary, you're not only getting the benefit of seeing how his technique progressed, but also how our society progressed. You can track the Depression, the rise of fascism, and all the different threads that have affected our lives through the generations. It's all there in one bundle," said Katz.
To highlight the collection over the next several years, the Library plans a series of publications and smaller exhibitions, culminating in a major Jefferson Building Great Hall exhibition in the fall of 2009 for the 100th anniversary of Block's birth.
Born in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1909, Block landed his first job as an editorial cartoonist at the Chicago Daily News at the age of 19 in 1929. Taking the advice of his father, he combined his two names into the pen name "Herblock." In 1933, Block left the Daily News to work for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), a Scripps-Howard feature service headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, where he won his first Pulitzer Prize. In 1942, Block joined the Army and spent the rest of World War II working for Army publications.
In 1946, Block moved to Washington to work as an editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. He worked at the Post for 55 years, until the age of 91. He won three more Pulitzers, two for individual work and one he shared with other Post staffers in 1973 for coverage of Watergate.
For Block's 50th anniversary with the Post, Katherine Graham wrote, "The extraordinary quality of Herb's eye, his insights and sharp comments immediately stood out. When the Post was struggling for its existence, Herb was one of its major assets, as he has been throughout his 50 years here. The Post and Herblock are forever intertwined … and he has been its shining light."
Through the decades, Block's point of view never wavered. He favored civil rights, gun control, and candor in government. He was one of the first journalists to stand up to the smear tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and even coined the term McCarthyism. He supported campaign finance reform and environmental protection.
"His mind turns to the rascals, the phonies, and the frauds," Graham also wrote. "He has pursued them for 50 years without ever flagging."
The Library's acquisition of the cartoonist's material started in 2000, when it displayed 121 original drawings from Block in a major retrospective of his work titled "Herblock's History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium" (see Information Bulletin, October 2000). It was the first time his original drawings had been displayed since an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1950.
"In 2000, we finally convinced him to do a show, and thank God we did, because it was the year before he passed away," Katz said. "Everybody who knew him had the opportunity to thank him and acknowledge him for the contributions he had made through the decades."
In a tribute to Block in 2000, Katz said, "No editorial cartoonist in American history, not even Thomas Nast, has made a more lasting impression on the nation. For more than 70 years, through his cartoons, Mr. Block has chronicled the best and worst America has to offer."
Recently, Katz said, "The idea that someone would have that level of talent, dedication, and commitment, who would withstand the physical, emotional, and intellectual stress of the decades, and continue to maintain the highest level of integrity and relevance, is astounding."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.