In an August 2000 letter to Philip Nel, a scholar of children’s books and comics, the cartoonist Syd Hoff recounted his history with the Left. Nel was working on a book about Crockett Johnson, the cartoonist behind the Barnaby comic and Harold and the Purple Crayon. In the 1930s, Johnson had been the art editor of New Masses, a left-wing magazine to which Hoff had contributed cartoons.
But Hoff, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker and the author of the kids book Danny and the Dinosaur, had done so under a pseudonym. In his work for New Masses, he used the name A. Redfield. According to Hoff, Clarence Hathaway came up with the pen name when he brought Hoff on as a cartoonist for the publication he edited, the Daily Worker. Hathaway was a member of the Communist Party, rising in the organization alongside eventual general secretary Earl Browder, and the Daily Worker was the party’s house organ. Pseudonyms were not unheard of among contributors: with Red Scares an ever-present threat, some artists kept their ties to the Left a secret.
That distance proved wise for Hoff. The FBI did indeed call on him in the 1950s. In a statement to the bureau in 1952, Hoff downplayed the cartoons he’d drawn as A. Redfield, as well as his staff position at the Daily Worker.
“My association with the ‘Daily Worker’ and ‘New Masses,’ the Young Communist League and the American League against War and Fascism was all based . . . on a lack of knowledge or experience as to what they actually stood for,” he wrote, insisting that he could not remember the names of the people he knew at the time (save for that of Hathaway and Russell Limbach, another member of the Daily Worker masthead whose name would’ve already been known to the FBI). “I do not now or did not in the past at any time espouse the doctrine of Communism as I now know it,” he wrote.
The scare never fully seemed dead to many of those who had lived through it. As Hoff wrote to Nel in 2000, “These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a ‘children’s author!’ Please refrain!”
Nel recounts the reality of Hoff’s affiliation with the Left in his introduction to the New York Review Books’ reissue of The Ruling Clawss (Hathaway came up with that title, too), a collection of Hoff’s cartoons for the Daily Worker from 1933 to 1935. The truth was that the Bronx-born Hoff, after dropping out of school at age fifteen and working for a time painting billboards, went to the National Academy of Design at the urging of his cab-driver brother. There, a classmate introduced him to the Communist movement.
During the Depression, Hoff grew closer to the Left. During one Cartoonists Guild picket, he was arrested: “In our cells, we sang ‘Solidarity Forever.’” He joined the John Reed Club, an organization of Communists and fellow travelers, and attended Camp Unity, a Communist Party USA–affiliated (and racially integrated) summer resort. At the latter, he met Abel Meeropol, a poet and songwriter who would go on to write “Strange Fruit.” In 1933, he was brought on staff at the Daily Worker.
The work he produced hardly feels its ninety years. If it weren’t for the attire in which Hoff’s oafish representatives of the ruling class are outfitted — tuxedos aplenty, modest gowns for the women — and his propensity for drawing the rich as almost uniformly overweight, the illustrations could be of the modern-day United States. After all, our era has much in common with that of “A. Redfield’s”: eye-popping inequality, rampant homelessness and police brutality, racism, and the many pompous, moronic captains of industry.
Hoff’s rich are a pathetic bunch. “Well! Well! Well! And how’s the Giant of Wall Street today?” asks a physically imposing personal trainer to his shrimpy client in one illustration. “Well, darling — I believe Fascism is coming,” a man tells his wife in another cartoon, reading from a newspaper. “Oh, my!” she responds, “And this is the maid’s night out!”
Yet another, with a tuxedoed young bourgeois lamenting to his date, glass of champagne in hand: “Papa says if I’m expelled from one more college I’ll have to take charge of one of his factories.” In another, an old capitalist spiffs himself up with cologne and a flower in his buttonhole, only for his maid, the object of his desire, to walk right by him, unnoticing.
While these people see themselves as paternalistic figures to their legion of workers, they resemble nothing so much as giant toddlers.
These industry titans are vindictive too, and stingy, but it’s unearned. Often, they’ve merely inherited their wealth.
A little boy berates a butler, “How the hell many times must I ring for you!” A boss stands on stage in front of a room of workers at a gathering organized to push a company union. He rattles on about “we who turn the wheels of industry,” and his employees stare back, stone-faced. One woman, draped in pearls and sitting on a couch, says to the other, “I’m against unemployment insurance — it’d make people lazy.”
These capitalists are a group living a delusion. They are shielded from the world by a coterie of protections: mansions, guards, servants. “I ain’t afraid of nothing!” one general says to another, never mind that he is not one of the soldiers who will have to risk their lives in the war.
Hoff’s rich are wildly out of touch; they’d be pitiable figures were they not responsible for so much suffering. The women are mostly concerned with their pets or their wardrobes. “I can hardly wait for the new war,” one tells her friends over cards. “It was such fun last time knitting socks and wrapping bandages.” “Don’t be ridiculous!” a lady tells a panhandler. “Everyone knows the depression is over!”
All of it rings true: when I encounter the rich, they are always speaking about themselves, even on the rare occasions that they seem to be talking about something larger. When the world rarely disturbs your domestic sphere, your interests tend to contract to, well, yourself.
It all makes for a very boring milieu. Without fetizishing hardship, one can observe that those whose every tribulation has been cushioned by enormous amounts of money don’t tend to be very interesting; they have nothing to say because they have experienced little.
Hoff draws a bourgeois young couple strolling through a park, having come upon a homeless man sleeping on a bench. “I wish mother would let me live like that for six months so I could write a novel,” the man tells his date.
In his original 1935 introduction to The Ruling Clawss, Daily Worker writer Robert Forsythe (a pen name for Kyle Crichton) wrote that rather than being fueled by a hatred for “the ponderous-paunched females” and their capitalist husbands depicted in the cartoons, Hoff was driven by something else.
“To a man of Redfield’s apparent good sense, it would be extremely foolish to waste good rage over people as fundamentally ass-like as these,” he writes. “What actuates him, obviously, is a feeling of relief and gratitude and superiority. In great part, superiority.”
Such superiority, or arrogance, on the part of the working class, writes Forsythe, “is always a source of great concern to the upper classes.” He continues: “Acting on the assumption that their eminence in life constitutes a condition about which the rest of the world should be envious, they are perpetually nonplussed at discovering that the workers, and particularly the revolutionary artists, consider them not objects of envy but subjects of great comic importance.”
No amount of money can make a person cool: Elon Musk’s life is proof of that. It’s clear that Hoff saw the rich this way, too. Yes, they were the class enemy and inflicted severe harms on the working class and the planet, but they were fundamentally beneath him and his fellow workers, not worthy of hatred. Ninety years later, the buffoonery of the likes of Musk and his many wealthy counterparts have helped restore this view of the rich. If I have anything for which to thank such people, it is that. Syd Hoff may be long gone, but the spirit of A. Redfield should live on.