Christopher J. Gilbert, "Caricature and National Character: The United States at War" (Pennsylvania State UP, 2021)

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Dr. Christopher Gilbert, Assistant Professor of English at Assumption College, has a new book that examines the understanding of American national character and culture through the works of caricature and comic representations. Gilbert specifically focuses on this kind of work that is produced during moments of crisis, particularly during wartime. Wartime often prompts self-understanding for a nation, since there is a demand that the reason for war is made clear, and the role of the nation is seen in this context. Gilbert notes that in the early days of the republic, Benjamin Franklin turned to caricature to help define or start to clarify an American national character, particularly in distinction from British colonial power. And this concept of national character is different than either patriotism or nationalism, since it reflects how citizens, individually and as a whole, understand themselves as a nation, and as separate from other nations. Unique histories, characteristics, and “belonging” all contribute to this broader sense of self for a nation.

Caricature and National Character: The United States at War (Pennsylvania State UP, 2021) examines the various symbols and images that have become part of the American national identity, noting, often, how those images shift and change with time and context. Gilbert notes that these recursive themes and images are distinct in different historical moments, providing a kind of complexity to the images and how and what they communicate. Consider the image of the bald eagle, which has been integrated into American national character for some time, but has been drawn and redrawn to represent imperialism, laziness, or cultural power at different points in U.S. history. Gilbert explains that humor itself is situational and situated, a sign or signal of the time, and that caricature and comic artists and political and editorial cartoonists are commenting on and positioning their work within a particular historical point, and in so doing, also reflecting American cultural politics.

Caricature and National Character brings a variety of artists together in a way that intertwines their work without silo-ing them within chronological periods. Their work is made, in a certain way, to be in conversation, and to help to understand the United States as a warring nation, even if there is no shooting war transpiring at times. The artists and cartoonists are using their own membership within the national character to present ideas and commentary on what it means, in time of war, to protect national character and what it is that needs protecting. These images, which can be explored across history, carry significant weight because they are reflecting on the notion of national character, which is often more clearly on display during times of war.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at lgoren@carrollu.edu or tweet to @gorenlj.

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