It seemed pretty ironic to me that Jim Williams died in Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. I once did a short stretch in Huntington and a rather longer one in Pasadena myself. Both the institution and the city can be described as somewhat posh. They are also somewhat dull. Since Jim Williams wasn’t dull and wasn’t at all posh, I’ve wondered what the hell he was doing in that neck of the woods. He should have died out on the lone pray-reee.
Every once in a while a real original comes along and when he bows out, something goes that will never be replaced. Jim Williams was such an original. He had lived the sort of life that Americans don’t live any more—college football ringer, boxer, railroad fireman, pre-World War I cavalryman, machinist and finally cartoonist. Today they take a job with Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborne at age seventeen, get married and settle in New Rochelle for life, where with other dullards they practice togetherness. I never ran across the word “togetherness” in any of Jim Williams’ cartoons. I think the word would have made him upchuck.
I saw my first Williams cartoon about 1925, when I carried a paper route for the San Francisco Daily News. It featured “Out Our Way”, which was then about three years old. I thought they were great cartoons. I’ve thought so ever since.
What made them great, I think, was that Williams was so much a reflection of what the thinkers call the American culture. The American isn’t much like the happy, smiling, busy guy we see in the advertisement. His humor, when he has it, isn’t the kind of jokebook juke we see on television. The Yank is really a very sad, rather wry-humored guy. His wit, at its best, is close to tragedy. Above all, he’s nostalgic. Everything, he fondly believes, was better when he was younger, poorer, when he lived in the small town with the tree-shaded streets, when life was simpler, when the complications were fewer. He is oppressed, periodically, with a burning desire to take everything on his desk, throw it out the window and go live forever on a raft in the Mississippi, floating through the lazy, endless American summer with Huck and Jim and the King and the Duke.
But the poor guy is trapped in his get-ahead, H. T. Webster-Mamaroneck kind of world, and he can’t do anything about it. In my mind, incidentally, a relationship exists between those two cartoonists, Webster and Williams. Webster showed the American the kind of life he has, and by laughing at it, made it bearable. Williams showed him the kind of life he had, or likes to think he had or wants —a life in the saddle with Wes and Curley and the big colored man and the Chinese cook, and talking about everything under the sun. He also showed the American working in the machine tool plant with manly, honest guys who make things with their hands, and conspiring openly for the downfall of the Bull of the Woods. I think the Bull got punched in the nose a couple of times by his unpolished underlings, but it’s interesting to note that he never got stabbed in the back. Jim Williams never did understand big city ways.
Guys like me, who read Williams pretty faithfully, liked to imagine that as kids we were a great deal like the Worry Wart. In many cases, I think we were. At least, neither the Worry Wart nor myself when young ever gave the impression of having been turned out by Brooks Brothers. We were frankly and unashamedly, slobs. We gloried in our slobbiness. We were eager at all games and completely inept. Nobody wanted us on their team. In some corkscrew way, the Worry Wart always made me happy, because he’d remind me of the times the other kids chose up sides and I was the last man picked, with vast reluctance, to play right field. The first time a fly came my way I would trip over a dangling shoelace. (There goes the old ball game!)
This, I think, is what Jim Williams did for his country. With wry, gentle and sad humor, he recalled for each of us the warm and happy past. It was said of someone (and with advancing years I forget who) that he was America’s conscience. Jim Williams filled a parallel role. He was America’s memory.