2009 was the centenary year of the birth of a great American artist and writer. At his peak he had some 60 million fans who regularly followed his work. Author John Steinbeck once declared this individual should have received a Nobel Prize in Literature. His admirers ranged from Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx to John Kenneth Galbraith and Queen Elizabeth II.
So why did the 100th year since his birth go by with nary a peep from major media outlets and the cultural influence professional elite?
Simple. Toward the end of his career, Al Capp’s satire targeted the wrong people.
Before there was Pop Art there was popular art, and the most popular art was the comic strip, and the most popular of the comic-strip artists was Al Capp. Last year marked his centenary, a time when his accomplishments should have been celebrated nationwide with exuberant features and illustrations. Instead, Capp’s name was neglected by everyone except pop historians and those with indelible memories of Dogpatch, U.S.A. The reasons have less to do with fashions in newspaper comics than with trends in newspaper politics. In the mainstream media, the man in cap and bells wins ovations so long as he toes the line, mocking red-staters and GOP conservatives. But woe to the jester who kids the Left.
Capp put the Left in his satiric guns sites, but only toward the end of his career. Capp was, as Kanfer makes clear, a “New Deal Democrat” who built his career “sniping at plutocrats and politicians.” Capp’s comics about Li’l Abner earned him a film deal with RKO, garnered advertising endorsements, inspired a Broadway musical adaptation, and landed him on the cover of Life and Newsweek magazines. Capp also “became the subject of a two-issue profile in The New Yorker,” Kanfer notes.
Then Capp noticed the New Left’s totalitarian nature in the protests occurring “in [his] own neighborhood: Harvard Yard.” College radicals became “S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything)” and Ted Kennedy became “O. Noble McGesture.” Kanfer provides a few of Capp’s memorable quotes concerning the 60’s so-called Progressives and their relationship, or lack thereof, with work, art and film:
Hardhat iconoclasm became Al’s preferred mode of expression: “Anyone who can walk to the welfare office can walk to work.” “Abstract art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.” “I have never actually seen a French New Wave movie, because of my conviction that they are all Doris Day scripts filmed backward.”
Through Capp’s experiences, Kanfer provides a lesson on the extent of so-called Progressive tolerance:
Back when Al had tilted against the Right, against Senator Joe McCarthy’s irresponsible accusations, and against gluttonous businessmen and establishment politicians, he had been hailed as an exemplar of courage wrapped in comedy. But “when I began to mock the liberals,” he observed, “there came a deluge of hate mail which never ended.”
Stefan Kanfer recommends The Best of Li’l Abner and The World of Li’l Abner as sources through which to judge Capp’s “unerring eye for the poseur in business, in the academy, and in politics—left, right, and center.” In honor of Capp’s centenary, which the nation’s cultural elites chose to ignore because his worldview did not mesh with theirs, we should pick up Kanfer’s recommendations.