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Into the Interior

How William Steig’s inner turmoil changed him

Paul La Farge
February 26, 2008

The retrospective of William Steig’s work up at the Jewish Museum through March 16 (it moves to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco in June) makes at least two things clear: that Steig’s drawings are funny enough to make you laugh even in a museum, and that over the course of his long career (he sold his first drawing in 1930, and his last in 2003), Steig was more people than most people remember him being. The surprise, for those who know Steig through his children’s books or his drawings of “Small Fry,” is not that he was also an adult artist, who raged and was mordant and took a lively interest in sex—every children’s author has an adult self. It is that there was a Steig who didn’t care at all what you thought of him, a tormented, difficult Steig who makes you wince more than he makes you laugh. This is the Steig of the middle years, and without him there would likely have been no Steig at all.

William Steig was the third son of Joseph Steig, a housepainter from Lemberg (now Lvov), and Laura, a dressmaker, from the same part of what is now western Ukraine. He grew up in the Bronx, between Crotona Park and Claremont Park, where he had a congenially rough childhood: working as a lifeguard and painting houses in the summers, spending his time at the Tremont Avenue public library in fall and winter. His parents encouraged their children to pursue their artistic interests, to the point that when Steig’s brother Henry expressed interest in becoming a dentist, his mother discouraged him. Henry became a jazz musician, a novelist, and a jeweler instead. William was willing to study art, at least sporadically: He dropped out of City College after two years, the National Academy of Design after three years, and the Yale School of Fine Arts after five days. He dreamed of going to sea, and had papers to ship out when, in 1929, the stock market crashed, and took his parents’ savings with it. He had to go to work, making pictures.

One of the drawings Steig sold to The New Yorker in the 1930s—when the magazine paid $40 a pop, big money—was a collaboration with a staff artist. It shows a group of beret-topped schoolchildren in a museum, standing with their docent by an Egyptian sarcophagus. A youth in striped jersey with a pugnacious lower lip and unruly hair approaches, and is rebuffed by the docent, with a question: “Pardon me, young man, are you a member of this Study Group?” Steig, whose own hair stood on end like deep pile carpet, drew the boy.

Steig brought the Bronx to The New Yorker’s genteel Manhattan. His cartoons feature men in undershirts and women in nightgowns, laundry hung across bedrooms, angry couples arguing, and above all the precocious, snowball-throwing, pop-gun-shooting children whose exploits he recorded in the series “Small Fry,” which ran for more than twenty years. Steig’s depiction of lower-middle class life in these cartoons is only superficially sweet. One of the “Small Fry” drawings from the 1940s shows a family of three playing poker: The mother holds her cards demurely to her chest, while the father, in shirtsleeves, roars across the table, “I call your bluff!” to his impudent son, who sits behind a wall of poker chips. The father’s aggrieved anger is palpable, and the son looks angry also; one gets the sense that he is about to teach his father a much-needed lesson. (It’s impossible not to think of young Steig, drawing furiously to support his parents.) The cartoon wouldn’t be funny at all if it weren’t for the way it stands authority on its head: we are invited to laugh with the son, the upstart who holds all the cards.

Perhaps because he was himself no aristocrat, Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s storied founding editor, was enthusiastic about Steig’s work. Ross published sixty of Steig’s drawings in 1932, seventy in 1934. He also permitted Steig to write his own captions, or, rather, to draw his own ideas (the magazine’s usual practice was to buy an idea and assign it to a staff artist). Steig was becoming an insider. He moved from the Bronx to Greenwich Village, and went to parties with Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. At one of these parties he met Elizabeth Mead, the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s sister; they married in 1936.

Steig’s drawings reflect his success only darkly. His work for The New Yorker dwindled in the late ’30s, in part because the magazine was by that point publishing cartoons by an artist whom Steig saw as an imitator, and in part because Steig’s own interests were leading him in a new direction. Sometime around 1937, he began a series of “symbolic drawings”: surreal illustrations of character types and states of mind. He had sold people on the Bronx, but would they go for this? One image from 1939, titled “Pleasant chap—but never a friend,” shows a serene man in jacket and tie, balancing spherical objects on his head, arms, and hands. His eyes are closed. The image is mysterious and unsettling; it leaves the reader wondering why this fellow is unbefriendable, and what the joke is, exactly. But there is no joke, or else the joke is on the reader, for expecting the drawing to have a punch line. The Lonely Ones, Steig’s second collection of symbolic drawings, published in 1942, is even bleaker. W.H. Auden, reviewing the book for The Nation, wrote that Steig “is unequivocally pessimistic: the only virtue he grants the human species is a capacity to perceive and laugh at its folly.”

Steig was going into the interior, and it changed him. In the three years between About People (his first collection of symbolic drawings) and The Lonely Ones, Steig’s lines loosened. He gave up the heavy gray shadows that gave his figures solidity; he spent much less time worrying about backgrounds. His drawings stopped looking like those of his contemporary, Charles Addams, and began, for all their allusions to Picasso and the Surrealists, to look like the drawings of Steig.

The transformation came at a price. Harold Ross declined to publish the symbolic drawings, which he found “too personal and not funny enough,” and Steig’s relations with The New Yorker grew strained. (They would remain so until 1951, when William Shawn, a Steig admirer, became the magazine’s editor.) Steig’s marriage seems to have crumbled under the strain of professional frustration, wartime anxiety, and, just possibly, the fact that Steig’s parents were living with the married couple. He and Elizabeth separated in 1949; Steig would go on to marry three more times.

In 1946, Steig went into therapy with the Austrian psychoanalyst (and biologist, sexologist, physicist, astronomer, and meteorologist) Wilhem Reich, who believed that mankind and the universe alike were permeated by a life energy called orgone. If your orgone became depleted, Reich believed, you could recharge it by sitting in an orgone accumulator, a box made of alternating layers of metallic and nonmetallic materials. Steig bought one of the boxes, and used it for the rest of his life. (He lived to the age of ninety-five.) He was in therapy with Reich for about a year, and emerged a different man. According to Claudia Nahson, the curator of the Jewish Museum exhibit, he laughed all the way through his last session.

The therapeutic relationship bore fruit in the 1948 book Listen, Little Man!, written by Reich and illustrated by Steig. It is not a pleasant book. At paranoid length, Reich takes to task the “little men” who had doubted his theories, and although the book has another dimension—encouraging, antifascist—its tone is primarily one of anger and mistrust. It seems possible that Reich’s railings against the American medical and scientific establishment struck a chord in Steig the outsider, the kid from the wrong side of the Harlem River.

In fact, as Jonathan Cott notes in his excellent study of children’s literature, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, Steig and Reich shared some beliefs before they met. Steig’s cartoons of angry husbands and bitter wives, cruel bosses and cowed clerks, are, in Cott’s words, “an American rendering of the powerful critique of compulsive marriage, the authoritarian family, and the pandemic sense of social powerlessness that Reich had observed in Vienna during the twenties.” The gentle, perverse humor of Steig’s cartoons sometimes makes it hard to see that, like Daumier and Nast, he was a fierce critic; where they lampooned politics and public life, Steig called into question the privacy of the home and the solitude of the mind.

In his review of The Lonely Ones in The Nation, Clement Greenberg wrote that “for what he is, Steig is certainly very good, but I am not sure that he is satisfied to be taken just for what he is.” Indeed not. The “symbolic drawings” feel as if they are straining toward something else: a higher art, a more meaningful recognition. They deserve that kind of recognition, I think, although not in precisely the way that their author might have hoped. Steig was no Picasso, nor even a Dalí, but as much or more than any other artist of his generation he ushered in the great age of psychological cartooning, which we are now living in. His Lonely Ones characters are one-panel precursors to the isolates who droop through Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan (2000) and the self-deluding enthusiasts who spring up all over Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York (1998); Steig’s drawn recollections of his childhood, some of which were published in The New Yorker as “A la recherche du temps perdu” in 1959, laid a few bricks in the foundation of Alison Bechdel’s Proustian Fun Home (2006). Loneliness, sadness, and dissatisfaction, all mixed with humor, run through the great graphic novels of the last ten or twenty years, and Steig was an Old Master of those emotions in pen and ink.

Steig’s work led him in a happier direction. In the late 1960s, at the behest of a friend, he began to make books for children, another form for which he turned out to have a gift. In the last thirty-five years of his life, Steig wrote and drew more than thirty children’s books, among them Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), which won the Caldecott Medal, and Shrek (1990), which eventually became a movie, then a franchise. These books also have their dark parts. The protagonist of Sylvester, for example, turns himself accidentally into a stone, and spends much of the story waiting helplessly to be rescued. But mostly their tone is hopeful, even joyful. Sylvester’s despairing parents get their child back; even Shrek, the outsider’s outsider, finds happiness with his ugly princess in the end.

What went right? Steig had many reasons to be happy in the last decades of his life: He had finally found a wife with whom he got along; the income from his children’s books allowed him to quit drawing advertisements, a job he likened to “being forced to produce Disney trinkets in a Chinese prison.” He had the orgone box. It is also possible that Steig had made peace with something: not a demon, exactly, but the situation he had been in all along, as an artist whose success depended on the delight of others.

That kind of peace is a long time coming. In 1953, at roughly the midpoint of his career, Steig was already reaching for it. He writes in the preface to Dreams of Glory, a collection of New Yorker drawings, that he finds it “impossible to imagine man creating humor for his own amusement—or for his own good, as man paints or composes music to realize his affinity with God. Humor, more than other forms of expression, calls for a communicant, and it is natural for the communicant to want to know from whom he is hearing….” Then, realizing that he is in danger of losing the reader, Steig concludes: “This is quite a philosophical preface for a light book. I have wrestled with myself in front of you, and I feel better now about this publication. I want you to know that I mean you well and that I work for you as well as for myself.”