Born in Chicago on October 13, 1909, Herbert Block grew up in a family where art, history, and politics really mattered. His father, an accomplished chemist, also had a talent for writing and cartooning, contributing to such turn-of-the-twentieth-century humor magazines as Life, Puck, and Judge. He also supported his son's early studies at Art Institute of Chicago. He "showed me something about drawing," Herb Block says. His father also had worked as a reporter for the Chicago Record, and Herb's older brother Bill was a reporter on the Chicago Tribune and later the Chicago Sun. During high school Herb Block drew cartoons, and wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper. From his earliest years, he prepared for a career as a journalist.
After graduation from high school worked briefly as a police reporter for Chicago's City News Bureau. He also wrote frequent paragraphs on topical subjects for a contributors' column in the Tribune. Because pen names were common then, his father suggested combining two names into one, and "Herblock" was born. Enrolling at Lake Forest College in Illinois, he majored in English and political science, studying under a professor who had worked for the Secretariat of the League of Nations. Talks with his professor furthered his interest in international affairs. Near the end of his sophomore year, he applied for a job at the Chicago News, which offered him a tryout to replace an editorial cartoonist who was leaving. The tryout worked so well that it ended his academic career.
Just nineteen in 1929, Herb Block joined the major leagues of newspaper cartoonists. Among these were veteran Chicago Tribune cartoonists who had not long before generously taken time to look at his school paper efforts, discussed them with him, and given him originals of their drawings. Among these established cartoonist were Carey Orr, Gaar Williams and the much-loved and highly respected John T. McCutcheon, a Chicago institution. Herb Block was a particular fan of "Ding" Darling of the New York Herald Tribune, whose cartoon opinions were characterized by humor and vitality. Others were Edmund Duffy of the Baltimore Sun, whose crayon drawings were striking, and Chicago News colleague and front-page cartoonist, Vaughn Shoemaker, whose work was noted for its clean pen lines. He drew from them all in refining a style that remains to this day clear, concise, and compelling.
Early in 1933, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office amidst economic devastation, Herb Block left the Chicago News, hired as only editorial cartoonist for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), a Scripps-Howard feature service headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. "The Cleveland job was a whole new ball game," writes Herb Block in his memoirs. His Chicago News cartoons had been syndicated nationally but now reached a much larger number of papers. His commentary grew sharper and more prescient through the 1930s, responding to widespread unemployment and poverty in America and the concurrent rise of Fascism in Europe and communist tyranny in the Soviet Union.
The Depression politicized Herb Block. Sheltered from economic hardships by his steady income, he observed the suffering around him and used his editorial panel as a vehicle for progressive reform. He admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies and recalls that "during the early days of the New Deal I did get to see what government could do." Herb Block came into his own during then, stirring domestic controversy with powerful images attacking the volatile oratory of such American demagogues as Father Coughlin and Huey Long. Largely supportive of New Deal policies, he nonetheless questioned President Roosevelt's efforts in some areas, notably an unsuccessful attempt in 1937 to increase the number of Supreme Court justices.
In foreign affairs he hit his stride, warning of the threats to peace posed by Fascism in Europe. He created derisive portrayals of military dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco scheming and dreaming of conquests and empires. And he brought their activities to the notice of a public and politicians who, after the disillusionment that followed War I, had turned inward to isolationism. Targeting dictatorships, Herb Block used symbols to carry his art and his message: a sharpened Soviet sickle poised to execute political prisoners or a Nazi cap extinguishing the lamp of German civilization.
Herb Block was an early advocate of aid to the allies resisting Nazi aggression, and was for measures to prepare America for what was becoming a great world struggle. He noted Nazi outrages, giving them graphic form and visual power. He drew metaphors for the resilience of the human spirit, the inhumanity of war, and the duplicity of dictators, finding heroes among innocents and victims and taking to task villainous politicians. By 1941, with Britain under siege by the Nazis and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor still on the horizon, Herb Block's cartoons took aim at the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
Fred Ferguson, president of NEA, opposed what he called the cartoonist's "interventionism" and what Herb Block called "anti-isolationism." Ferguson summoned him to New York in spring 1942 to discuss their differences. "My life has been full of very fortunate coincidences," Herb Block has said, for, even as he sat in the New York office awaiting the disagreeable face-off, he received the news he had won his first Pulitzer Prize, vaulting him into national prominence and leaving his unappreciative publisher speechless. His 1942 Pulitzer Prize, based on cartoons of 1941, vindicated Herb Block's stance and solidified his reputation as one of the country's foremost political commentators.
In early 1943, he was drafted into the Army at the age of thirty-three. He produced cartoons and articles and edited a "clipsheet" that was distributed throughout the Army, until he was mustered out of the service in 1945.
He moved to Washington, hired as an editorial cartoonist by the Washington Post to begin work at the start of 1946. He has remained in that position ever since, drawing daily cartoons from the nation's capital for more than half a century. The late Katharine Graham wrote recently, "The extraordinary quality of Herb's eye, his insight and 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. If the Post is his forum, he helped create it. And he has been its shining light."
In Washington, he has achieved a rare freedom from editorial control, sharing preliminary sketches with trusted office colleagues before selecting and creating a final cartoon for publication. He and the Post were in agreement on the excesses of the "anticommunist era" and the damaged caused by the reckless opportunism of McCarthy. Later, however, during the Vietnam War, he came more and more to oppose American government's policy, and his cartoons ran counter to the newspaper's editorial position.
A strong believer in civil liberties, he directed cartoons against the House Committee on Un-American Activities from its earliest days under Congressman Dies in the 1930s until its expiration decades later. Whatever the motives of some individual committee members, he held to the view that there was something ironically wrong and not in the American tradition about a group of congressmen setting themselves up to decide who and what they chose to label "Un-American."
Herb Block's "instincts are common-sensical," according to the late Katherine Graham, former Chairman of the Washington Post Company. His steadfast support for established values and reform policies transcend party politics: "My feeling was best expressed in a statement by a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that the object of government is to do for people what they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do as well for themselves."
Numerous editors have attempted unsuccessfully over the years to influence or alter his cartoons, suggesting he take a different approach or voice a different opinion. Herb Block has invariably demurred, standing by his work and upholding his now legendary reputation for editorial independence. A thoughtful journalist and gifted cartoonist, he is universally admired for his integrity. Recently Katharine Graham wrote of him, "Herb fought for and earned a unique position at the paper: one of complete independence of anybody and anything."
Herb Block's longevity is due in part to the journalistic passion inspired by his father and older brothers. Unlike many cartoonists, he chooses to work daily in his office adjacent to the newsroom rather than draw at home or in an isolated studio. He takes full advantage of the instant access proximity provides to expert verification of facts and the latest news from Washington and around the globe. Close attention to breaking news and consultation with coworkers keeps his work fresh and his mind open to viewing new issues.
When a drawing goes to press, however, it is Herb Block's own, without question. Through the decades he has remained true to certain issues and principles: supporting civil rights measures, gun control, campaign finance reform, funding for education and democracy for residents of the District of Columbia, among other issues. "Taking one issue at a time and one administration at a time and dealing with it the way you see it," is how he describes his approach. His longtime assistant, Jean Rickard, suggests that his parents instilled in him a strong sense of wrong and right, the confidence to express his views openly and the courage to stand up for what is right. For example, on the issue of racism, which Herb Block began addressing immediately after World War II (in advance of virtually all other American cartoonists), he notes "I never had those feelings growing up. My father and mother felt that you should simply be a good citizen and think about the other guy."
Herb Block has been thinking about "the other guy" throughout his career. For more than seventy years, cartoon after cartoon, day after day, he has chronicled the best America has to offer and the worst, from the depths of the Great Depression into a new millennium. No editorial cartoonist in American history, not even Thomas Nast, has made a more lasting impression on the nation than Herbert Block. His influence has been enormous, both on his profession and the general public, although he modestly sloughs off such praise with anecdotes. One was about a comment related to Post publisher, Phil Graham during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Walter Winchell told Graham that he had come upon Senator McCarthy shaving at midday and complaining that he had to shave twice a day on account of that guy [Herb Block] and his cartoons. Apparently his caricatures of the senator as an unshaven, belligerent Neanderthal in a suit found their mark. When asked if he feels he played a role in checking McCarthy's rise to power, Herb Block quietly responds, "I sure tried to." Richard Nixon expressed a similar reaction to the cartoons, saying at one point he had to "erase the Herblock image."
Humor has been one of his greatest assets, drawing people in, encouraging them to read the cartoons and consider his opinions. Laughter warms the coldest heart and lends perspective to serious issues and events. "I enjoy humor and comedy," he says, "and try to get fun into the work." Humor is an important vehicle for delivering a message, making "it a little easier for the medicine to go down." Herb Block's cartoons may never cure cancer or the common cold, but for the better part of a century they have helped ward off the ill effects of war, bigotry, economic opportunism, political arrogance, and social injustice. What more could we ask of one man?
Harry L. Katz
Prints and Photographs Division