File Under: Middle-Brow

by John Holbo on October 26, 2009

I snagged another good comics history recently. A History of American Graphic Humor, vol. 2: 1865-1938 (1938), by William Murrel. (You could get it through Abebooks; but I bought the last cheap copy. Sorry.) They sure liked to make fun of Oscar Wilde, back in the day.

I like this next one for its precocious meta quality. Making fun of people making fun of Oscar Wilde:


I don’t really have a lot to say about all this. I just thought my post about OCR applications was getting a bit boring, at the top of the page.



jsalvatier 10.26.09 at 5:36 pm

For finding the best price on books, I find that either and/or finds the best price. They both search numerous book retailer websites (including abebooks). I determined this after evaluating about 10 different book price search engines a few months back.


some guy 10.26.09 at 11:44 pm

Murrel’s two volume history is great, if a bit sketchy on some of the key moments, as well as relying on lots of anecdotal history for the post-Nast artists. If you like the post-Civil War comics, be sure to pick up Samuel West’s history of Puck magazine, “Satire in Stone.”

also, Murrell completely ignores the comic strips running in the pre-Civil War issues of Harper’s, but his sections on the Comick Almanacks makes up for that massive oversight. Volume 1 isn’t that hard to find. most university libraries have both volumes.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 12:47 am

Hmmm, it occurs to me T. De Witt Talmage might not be depicted mocking Oscar but being a sincere imitator of the aesthetical manner? Here is one of Talmage’s books:


Substance McGravitas 10.27.09 at 12:50 am

Regardless, the cartoon does not handle the political well, nor is the political an ideal subject for cartoons.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 1:45 am

It is interesting that pretty much all the 19th Century stuff, and most of the early 20th Century stuff, is caricature – political, social, ethnic. It took a while for people to realize that you could do anything else with cartoons besides draw caricatures of famous figures or render stereotypes visually.


Substance McGravitas 10.27.09 at 1:51 am

I wonder when the first cartoon stations of the cross was rendered.


Gene O'Grady 10.27.09 at 2:52 am

Who is the image around the jackass’s neck in the California picture? And what are the sunflowers emblematic of? Makes me wish I knew a little bit more about 19th century California politics.

I did understand that when Wilde visited San Francisco in 1881 he was marketing himself as an Irish nationalist on the basis of his mother’s reputation. Given that it was a city where heavyweight boxers, when they weren’t being lynched, hung out at the opera house and bel canto opera was given in drag there might not have been many other niches.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 2:59 am

I tried to read the emblem around the neck but it’s too small. The sunflowers are, I think, just a Wilde-always-wears-a-flower joke. But maybe there’s something more to it.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 3:37 am

I tried to find the cartoon “Why, Uncle Matthew, Oh why, will not you be always wholly serious?” for you, but it’s been suppressed by Arnold cultists.


Charles S 10.27.09 at 3:41 am

The sunflower is apparently the symbol of the esthetics movement, and the medallion shows Charles E. Locke, who invited Wilde to San Francisco.


Substance McGravitas 10.27.09 at 3:42 am



John Emerson 10.27.09 at 3:43 am

Boom towns always seemed to have opera houses.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 3:44 am

Oddly, the sunflower is an industrial flower.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 3:46 am

The sunflower (genus Helianthus) is second only to the soybean as a source worldwide for vegetable oil. In the United States there are approximately four million acres planted annually in sunflower, primarily in the Dakotas and in Minnesota. Average sunflower yields in the United States range from about 1200 to about 1400 kg/hectacre, with the oil content from harvested seed averaging about 44% on a dry weight basis. Increasing both yield and oil content are currently major objectives in sunflower breeding programs in the United States, Canada, the USSR, and elsewhere; other objectives of such programs include earlier plant maturity, shorter plant height, uniformity of plant type, and disease and insect resistance.

The very rapid expansion over the last decade of acreage planted in sunflower in the United States is due in part to several important developments in the field of sunflower breeding and varietal improvement. One significant development was the discovery of cytoplasmic male sterility and genes for fertility restoration, a discovery that allowed for the production of hybrid sunflower. The hybrids thus produced were introduced during the early 1970’s. They showed about a 25% yield advantage over the open-pollinated varieties, improved disease resistance, greater uniformity in height and flowering; and a greater degree of self-compatibility, which alleviates the dependency on high insect pollinator populations for good seed set.

A description of cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) and genetic fertility restoration in sunflowers is presented by Fick, “Breeding and Genetics,” in SUNFLOWER SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 279-338 (J. F. Carter ed. 1978), the contents of which are incorporated herein by reference. The production of a particular sunflower hybrid using CMS is described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,378,655, the contents of which are also incorporated herein by reference. Although cytoplasmic male sterility is now the technique of choice for producing sunflower plants with substantially non-functional pollen for subsequent use in producing hybrids, other methods, also described in the aforementioned U.S. patent, are available. These include the use of complete or partial genetic sterility based on the presence of recessive genes and the application of chemical gametocides. Plants having a high level of self-incompatibility can also be used in a method for hybrid production.

Another important development in sunflower breeding was the introduction into the United States of high oil varieties from the USSR in the mid-1960s. These varieties had oil percentages (total oil relative to seed weight) in the range of 40-45% as compared to 30-35% for varieties grown previously. The oleic acid percentage for the oil of these and other commercially grown varieties varied, especially with environment, but rarely exceeded 40 percent. In the late 1970’s researchers in the USSR reported in the the production by chemical mutagenesis of an open-pollinated sunflower cultivar (“Pervenets”) which produced an oil having an oleic acid content, expressed as percentage of total fatty acid content, of approximately 70% to 80%, with proportionately less linoleic acid. See Soldatov, “Chemical Mutagenesis in Sunflower Breeding,” in PROC. 7th INT’L SUNFLOWER CONF. (Krasnodar, USSR 1976) 352-57. Pervenets germplasm became generally available to sunflower breeders in the United States after 1980.

Sunflower oil is comprised primarily of palmitic, stearic, oleic, and linoleic acids, with oleic and linoleic accounting for about 90% of the total fatty acid content in conventional oils. It has been recognized that there was an inverse relationship between oleic and linoleic acid which was highly influenced by environment, especially temperature during the growing season. Heretofore, cool northern climates yielded high linoleic acid-content sunflower seed, whereas high oleic acid values were characteristic of seed grown in warmer southern areas. While a high linoleic acid concentration is desirable in sunflower oils used in soft margarines and salad dressings, a high oleic acid content is preferred for many other applications, since oleic acid is oxidatively more stable than linoleic acid. As a consequence, oxidative stability of conventional crude sunflower oil derived from seed grown in southern climates is nearly twice that of crude oil extracted from northern-grown seed.

With the Pervenets cultivar, however, an increase in oleic acid percentage of total fatty acid content from 64% to 79% during seed formation and ripening was observed in conjunction with a decrease in linoleic acid of from 26% to 15%, see Soldatov, supra, compared to a 21-54% increase in the linoleic acid content of conventional seed. Moreover, while higher growing temperatures promoted rapid oleic acid development in Pervenets plants, the comparatively higher oleic acid-linoleic acid content ratio characteristic of the cultivar remained substantially unaffected by environmental conditions. See Kharchenko, “Genotypic and Phenotypic Mechanisms Ensuring Regulation of Fatty Acid Biosynthesis in Sunflower Seeds,” Fiziologiya Rastenii (Russian) 26:1226-32 (1979).

The development of the Pervenets cultivar therefore held particular significance for the possible enhancement of oxidative stability in sunflower oils. As an open-pollinated cultivar, however, Pervenets is heterogeneous for high oleic acid content; that is, individual plants producing various levels of oleic acid are present in the variety and the high oleic trait is not expressed reproducibly over many generations of sunflower plantings. Even for those Pervenets sunflower plants which do produce high oleic seed, the content of linoleic acid, expressed as percentage of the total amount of fatty acids, can be substantial, ranging as high as 26% or more. See Soldatov, supra at page 356. Moreover, the Pervenets cultivar does not consistently express various other characteristics, such as adequate disease resistance, which may be critical to the commercial viability of a new crop. Pervenets seed is also basically indistinguishable from the black or black-and-gray striped seed produced by conventional, commercially grown oilseed sunflower hybrids. As a consequence, Pervenets seed cannot be readily recognized as such, if it is mixed with other oilseed at some point during the multi-stage processing of seed into oil.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 3:47 am

In case there was any doubt.


Gene O'Grady 10.27.09 at 4:09 am

Strangely enough, our year in Italy with always cooked with olio di girasole (a wonderful word), but switched to olive oil on return to the US since we couldn’t find sunflower oil.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 5:39 am

I think Oscar Wilde was an open-pollinated cultivar. Sadly, he was denounced as a pervenet and, eventually, had to go to jail.

This was a grave injustice.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 5:45 am

Someone left a comment, praising Murrel’s books and the comment got stuck in queue, then I turned it on. But now it isn’t here. I can only conclude that my finger must have slipped and hit the delete button instead. For which I sincerely apologize and promise to do better next time, and I meant nothing personal by it.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 6:50 am

Oh, wait, someguy’s comment finally showed. (Better late than never.) There were pre-Civil War comic strips in Harper’s? I’m still waiting for my copy of volume 1 of Murrel’s history to arrive. Copies of volume 1 seem to be easier to get. At least I found it more easily. I’m planning to enjoy it less but learn more, since I have no idea what pre-civil war material is going to look like.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 10:38 am

If you had read the link carefully (you didn’t, did you?) you would have found that we can look forward to stubby, knee-high sunflowers, just as our amber waves of grain are now about ankle high. The only nice looking crop any more is corn, because cornstalks actually have an econmic use, being fermented and fed to cows.

Those silos you see out in the country are toxic because of the fermentation. Every once in awhoile someone falls in and dies. It would be pretty hard to work that into a murder mystery, though, since the victim would have to be dropped in from 40 or 50 feet high, which is hard to plausibly manage.


Glen Tomkins 10.27.09 at 12:04 pm

The shadow of a shadow

The cartoon of this Talmage character is probably actually a reflection of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, which had characters who were caricatures of Wilde. Patience opened in 1881, a year before the date on the newspaper, and set performance records in its day, such was the mania for G&S at that time, with the early 1880s probably the peak of that mania.

Of course, the operetta itself could be read as maintaining that Wilde’s aestheticism was itself a mania at that time, so perhaps the cartoon is simply a direct take-off on that mania. The female lead, and the ladies of the chorus, are portrayed as gaga over Bunthorne, the aesthetic poet, to the point that the rival poet, and then the officers of a regiment of Dragoon Guards, are driven to imitate Bunthorne and take to carrying around large flowers, all to win the affections of the ladies. Of course, insofar as Bunthorne is a stand-in for Wilde, this narrative is obviously rather explosively ironic already, so it’s hard to say if having everyone, even Dragoon Guards, go Wilde, is a reflection of any sort of actual mania for aestheticism, or is actually just more irony playing on the wild unpopularity of poets and poetry, at least as compared to stuff low/middle brow enough to spark a popular mania.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 12:31 pm

You know what other flower is industrial? The rose. Disenchantment all over the place.


belle le triste 10.27.09 at 12:34 pm

My recollection is that Wilde’s US tour was actually pretty successful — because he was a bold and funny speaker, with considerable physical charisma, people of all classes came to gawp at the freak but went away charmed and entertained. One of the strengths of the Aesthetic movement, a bit counterintuitively given our present-day perspective, was that its precepts were both practical and accessible: as with the flower thing — you don’t have to buy into fancy expertise and the heavy history-bound theory of the academy, you just pop a (green) carnation in yr buttonhole every day, and think about how things look or feel in your own immediate surroundings, as you would like them. Match your mastery to your reach; trust your own sensibility — stuff like this.

And Wilde’s plays were as popular as Gilbert and Sullivan’s — are they more or less midbrow? I’d say they occupy almost exactly the same cultural tranche — the japanoiserie of Mikado overlaps with its bleed into the decorative arts (again, simplicity and accessibility trumping heavy hand-me-down parochialism…)


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 12:40 pm

Wilde spoke at Leadville, Colo., which still is a mining town. I spent a few weeks in Leadville 30-odd years ago, and in the public library they still had a ~1890 edition of Marx’s “Capital”, its pages stained by greasy fingers. True story.

The moral of the story is, mining towns are more interesting than farm towns, at least in the beginning.


belle le triste 10.27.09 at 12:42 pm

Sorry, that last bit’s a bit compressed, isn’t it? What I’m getting at is that G&S, Wilde & the Aestheticals, and the Arts and Crafts movement in its then quite anti-parochial and outward looking mode, are really all part of the same thing, anti-lowbrow AND anti-highbrow as highbrow was then rather heavily conceived: a kind of radical midbrow…


Glen Tomkins 10.27.09 at 1:21 pm

Irony sets everything adrift

So I certainly wouldn’t claim that my take on matters such as the relative popularity of Wilde and G&S is the only reading possible. I just think that having the Dragoon Guards appear with sunflowers and lillies in hand in Patience works because aestheticism was ludicrously not even in the ballpark of being so popular a craze that even military types would ape its trappings. I see it as the same move a contemporary film makes when it has the football team take up ballet. No, this is not meant to imply that ballet is as much a popular mania as football, quite the opposite.

Wilde may have eventually achieved some low/midbrow popularity, with his later farces and the Picture of Dorian Gray, and then notoriety with his legal trouble, resulting in poetry that the highbrows might see as his best work — but in 1882, when the caricature was published, this was all way in his future. All he had published was some poetry and one clunker melodrama about Russian nihilism. That lecture tour of America in 1882 was paid for by D’Oyly Carte because they feared Wilde and aestheticism was just too unknown in America for Patience to work at the box office.

Talk about life imitating art, or an artistic life imitating un-life-like art, or something. But however you label it, you could make a case that Wilde turned later to the lighter, more accessible, stuff that made him popular, because of his experience of the artistic and financial prospects working as a shill for a G&S operetta that caricatures him.


belle le triste 10.27.09 at 1:47 pm

It’s probably worth making a distinction between popularity and celebrity — or popular notoriety. Hadn’t Wilde already got disparaging mention in a Times leader while he was still a student — and I think not yet published at all? For the amoral nihilism of one of his quips? (I may be misremembering this anecdote.)

Really all I’m mainly saying is that the way we see low, mid and high as outlaid in the 1940s and 50s in the US may not at all be a good fit for cultural subcurrents in the late Victorian era.


John Holbo 10.27.09 at 1:48 pm

“If you had read the link carefully (you didn’t, did you?)”

What link?


Glen Tomkins 10.27.09 at 2:46 pm

The cycle of fashion

It’s the nature of fashion that it mixes high and low brow, but the process wouldn’t work unless there were a perceived difference big enough to provide all the energy that drives the whole comedy. Something like the aesthetic “movement” starts with a small privileged coterie striking out in some direction defined mostly by it being in the opposite direction from the common herd. But, of course everyone wants to be unlike the common herd, so soon everyone’s carrying sunflowers (if 0nly notionally and ludicrously to make G&S’s point, and not at all in real life) and it’s no longer hip to be an aesthete. In fact, my use of “hip” in this sense means that I’m so last generation. And I’m sure someone will point out that the young people have moved past such expressions as “so last year”, precisely because even old poops like me are using it now.

So, yes, the content changes, what is considered high fashion today will soon be middle-brow sophisticated, and then even the middle-brows will get hip that this particular thing is so last year that only the clueless drone low brows are still into it. Of course, the day after that happens, all the cool kids will adapt that particular thing as the new, retro, standard of cool, and the process starts all over again. It’s difficult enough keeping track of all the epicycles in this LaBrea Tarpits of fashion when we’re talking about today. Try to figure where in the cycle people were with a particular cultural referrant in 1882, and you’re in deeper trouble. To stick with G&S, they did The Mikado because there was a fashion in Britain for all things Japanese at the time. But The Mikado itself became such a raging mania, that you can’t sort out Britons carrying Japanese fans in the late 19th Century as being because of the original fashion, or because of G&S’s Mikado. I suspect that the original craze was mostly abstruse, high brow, and confined to a fashionable set. G&S making it into the Mikado is how it passed to the lower orders and into a true popular mania. But the more fashionable people could still stick with the trend, because G&S also made it available to them as an ironic comment on the vulgar herd by laundering it through the Mikado.

Even for 1882, this sort of analysis makes my head hurt. Try sorting this sort of thing out for a Platonic dialogue, and you’re in the middle of the deep blue sea, with the nearest dry land thousand of miles away.


Stuart 10.27.09 at 3:50 pm

I determined this after evaluating about 10 different book price search engines a few months back.

No doubt the search engines that aggregate the best results from lots of different price search engines are on the way, if not already here for some industries.


John Emerson 10.27.09 at 4:52 pm

John, I pasted the link right into the comment box. Jeez. How much easier could I make it for you?


some guy 10.27.09 at 6:57 pm

most, but not all 19th century cartooning was caricatrural due to the massive influence of first, the English caricaturists of the eigteenth century, and second, Thomas Nast. but there were many exceptions, AB Frost’s comics being the best example.

There weren’t many, but there were BOTH comic books and comic strips printed in America before the Civil War. Frank Bellew’s first work for Harper’s (a continuing series of comic strips about the hapless Mr. Slim, published back of the book) was done at the same time he was socializing with Emerson and Thoreau, though Bellew is now primarily known as a political cartoonist.

anyway, Murrell’s tastes are interesting, with lots of Wales and not enough Opper in volume II, and an overemphasis on the overtly political while giving short shrift to the social comics of the 1880s and 90s. alas.


Jeffrey D. Rubard 10.27.09 at 9:10 pm

John, you know how “Aristotle would have loved…”?


Martin Wisse 10.27.09 at 9:25 pm

John, since you’re interested in the subject, have you’ve seen David Kunzle’s two volume history of early comics?


some guy 10.27.09 at 11:50 pm


yes, this is my academic area


John Holbo 10.28.09 at 12:44 am

I can only conclude that the comment box ate the link, John Emerson.

some guy, thanks for the notes. My copy of volume 1 just arrived yesterday, as it so happens. I’m looking forward to reading it, and I’m glad to hear about what might be left out. Martin, I haven’t seen Kunzle’s history, although I’m vaguely aware of it. I’m getting more into this early stuff and am happy to hear about good things I should read.


Salient 10.28.09 at 11:44 am

{John H, I think John E’s trying to be obscurely playful in not alerting you to the fact that he changed his name link from the usual trollblog link to the web page — which I guess is the link in question.}

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