The Gang

JOSEPH KEPPLER

Austrian immigrant artist and founder of PUCK magazine, 1877-1917. Descendant of Johannes Keppler, 17th Century planetary scientist and author of Harmonices Mundi. Drew the pictures, sold the ads, wrote the copy. Got Presidents elected and corrupt trusts busted. Invented the color comic book.

Jacob Riis

Danish immigrant writer and photographer, pioneer in the use of documentary photography as a tool of social improvement. Wrote How the Other Half  Lives, important muckraking exposure of society’s underbelly. Took TR with him as his body guard and got him worked up about unacceptable living conditions etc.

THEODOR ROOSEVELT

The new Police Commissioner given the job of taking on a department which was the headquarters of most of the criminal activity taking place in the city, primarily bribes to ignore illegal activity. He eventually found that he had to start a whole political party to upset the status quo.

Nikola Tesla

Serbian immigrant scientist and inventor of AC current and the induction motor, the power of Niagara Falls, the radio, neon and fluorescent lighting, the electric starter in your car etc. He stated, as his goal, to make life easier for all of us, to remove the burdens, and not just of the few.

Mark Twain

Tesla’s friend Samuel Clemens, who loved all of the strange toys in his laboratory and liked to visit him to play with them. While Tesla was lighting the world, Twain was getting the world to lighten up.

What unites these folks, aside from their temporal and geographical proximity, is the courage it took to take on the cruelest elements of their society, with nothing but their extraordinary courage and determination to arm them. Each knew that they had to reinvent the language, add another dimension, shuffle the cosmic deck and sit in the dealer’s chair to be able to make a difference. They fed off of one another’s willingness to take on the most deeply-entrenched forces of their time, and,  incredibly, each managed to prevail, at least for a time.

It was a black and white world back then but Tesla used colored light and multi-hued lightening flashes and Keppler used off-color humor and color inks, to transform our world. They saw the future and realized that we were headed to a place where verisimilitude was going to be essential and we would not get there without a full measure of truth-telling in the process. PUCK magazine took on the most powerful people and forces in the society, dressed them in ladies clothes or portrayed them as animals, pulled them off their pedestals as rudely as humanly possible. Tesla took on Thomas Edison, the titan of titans, and humbled him by proving that he didn’t know what he was doing.

Twain was the first stand-up comedian. There were some before him, and lecturing and giving talks was a common event in the pre-electronic universe, but his version was unusually pertinent, moved issues and changed results and he used a sharpness of humor and genius for the unexpected that is still on display on Colbert and Jimmy Fallon’s beats. They named the official humor prize after him for good reason.

TR is hard to fit into this picture until you realize that he took the edginess of PUCK and the social sensitivity of Riis and revolutionized politics in his time with concerns for nature and the common man, busted trusts and attacked monopolies. He was immersed in the angry righteousness of these two immigrant firebrands and it worked against his earlier macho experiences and transformed him into a different person.

The sum total effect of the creativity and compassion of these three pattern-smashing immigrants and two classic Americans, and the work that they did, has contributed mightily to whatever remnants of humanism that have survived the century long onslaught, through wars, depressions etc. on our empathies. That they shared the same space and time, must have had some contacts and surely had great influence upon one another is remarkable, verging on amazing. The energy that they contributed to and drew from this location is clearly evident in our own, now ubiquitous, color-saturated technologies, and our reliance on sassy humor to give us essential relief from the many hazards of this existence, points up how powerful their contributions to our welfare have evolved.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s