A new book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of political cartoonist Herbert Block contains a broad sampling from some 20,000 items representing his life’s work. That work is preserved and made available for research in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library.
Born in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1909, Herbert Lawrence Block was a groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. His work spanned nearly three-quarters of a century and 13 American presidencies. With an unerring eye, acute perception and unwavering devotion to the rights and welfare of ordinary citizens, he offered commentary on all the major events in the nation’s recent history, from the stock market crash, bank collapses and breadlines of the 1920s through the millennium.
“No American cartoonist has influenced so many in their profession, their government or their nation as Herblock,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is my great pleasure, as his friend and admirer, to present this magnificent retrospective volume, covering 70 years of world history and revealing the astonishing breadth of his distinguished career.”
Former Washington Post managing editor Haynes Johnson and Harry Katz, former head curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division and curator of the Herb Block Foundation Collection, drew on their knowledge of the astute political commentator and his work to create “HERBLOCK: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist.”
Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, best-selling author and television commentator, provides a biography of Herblock along with commentary on his work. In a series of essays, Katz places Herblock and his work in the context of cartoonists in America. Katz is author of “Cartoon America: Comic Art at the Library of Congress.”
The Library of Congress and the Herb Block Foundation, in association with W. W. Norton & Company, published the book, which accompanies the Library exhibition “Herblock!” that features 82 original Herblock drawings that never have been displayed previously. These works were selected from the Herb Block Foundation’s 2002 gift to the Library of the cartoonist’s entire personal and professional archives comprising more than 14,000 finished cartoons, in addition to preliminary sketches, files and manuscripts (some 20,000 items in all). The exhibition includes three seminal cartoons on loan from The Washington Post collection.
The book comes with a DVD that contains more than 18,000 images of his cartoons. “We have never seen such scope of his work,” said Katz, who with Johnson spoke at the Library on Oct. 15 (see story below).
Block began his career as a professional cartoonist in 1929, working for the Chicago Daily News and the Newspaper Enterprise Association Service. In 1946, he joined The Washington Post and worked there for 55 years, until his death in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2001. When Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer hired Block, he promised him freedom to draw and comment on what he wished, according to Johnson. “They left him alone. That was unprecedented,” Johnson said.
Only once did a Post publisher, Phil Graham, refuse to publish some Herblock cartoons which attacked business interests, but Block shrugged, noting that his work was syndicated throughout the country. It didn’t take long for Graham to restore the immensely popular Herblock cartoons in response to Post readers’ demands, Johnson said.
Johnson said Block’s output was “amazing.” He recalled that Block would appear in his Washington Post office every day at 5:30 a.m. with not just one finished cartoon but five—each with a slightly different perspective of the same subject—from which Johnson was to pick one for publication the next day.
Independent by nature, Block focused his spare, pointed drawings on important events of the time—from the stock-market crash in 1929 through the new millennium beginning in the year 2000—making complex issues seem simple and moral choices clear. “There was no stronger advocate for civil rights than Herb,” Johnson said.
Arranged chronologically, the book illustrates the influence of history on Herblock’s work as well as his influence on historical events as they unfolded.