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Herblock in the Hosbog: Musings on the Political Cartoonist with the 'Saber-Toothed' Pen

by on March 18, 2011 6:25 AM

Took a stroll in the Hosbog (H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens) this morning. At first glance it was still in its winter sleep. But when I looked closer I saw the awakening signs: green shoots -- daffs, mostly, some no taller than a thumb’s length -- poking out of the mulchy ground.

Among the plants that wait winter out above ground, I noticed the hydrangeas, whose blooms dry out and present so many tiny papery surfaces that the whole plant quivers at the slightest shiver of air.

Farther on I came across a bare plant with tall, straight stalks ringed with vicious thorns, some in a perfect ring, like a spiked dog’s collar or Lady Liberty’s crown. Its name: devil’s walkingstick. As soon as I saw it an empathetic pit-of-the-stomach thrill went through me, as if I were watching myself grab hold of this booby-trapped staff.

It’s a short walk from the Hosbog to Penn State’s new law school building. There, I went online to learn more about Aralia spinosa, as the botanists call it. I found much comment on the loveliness and edibility of its leaves and the medicinal uses of its berries, but it was the references to the plant’s spiny stems that interested me.

“Drive your tractor near one while mowing and your shirt (or skin!) will be in shreds,” wrote one poster.

“This plant may have all sorts of positive qualities, but until you have grabbed onto one while climbing up a hillside, you have not experienced pain,” wrote another.

And my favorite:

“This is one of the most viciously spiny things in the vegetable kingdom! You can plant it under a vulnerable window to deter burglars or use it as a living fence in place of barbed wire. Between its sinister spines and the way bonelike leaf stems and midribs pile up around the base as it sheds its leaves, there is something downright spooky about this plant. Plant it along the edge of the woods next to where you pile your Halloween pumpkins.”

The business about deterring burglars made me think of Herb Block, which isn’t surprising – everything reminds me of Herb Block (aka Herblock) these days. For those of you who missed last week’s reading assignment, I’m enmeshed in an oral history project on the life and work of Block, the great Washington Post editorial cartoonist.

We often use the word “watchdog” to characterize journalism’s role in warning the public of threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The image of the living fence works just as well.

The devil’s walkingstick merges the benign qualities of the walking stick – think of the gentle souls one meets on the trail – with the viciousness of those spikes. By all accounts, Block was a gentle soul in his daily dealings with friends and coworkers. But in his daily cartoon he came in spikes high, the Ty Cobb of the editorial cartoon. As I mentioned last week, Herblock’s favorite target, Richard Nixon, described his nemesis’ work as “vicious.” Which it was. Nixon deserved it.

I also learned from my googlings that Aralia spinosa is a very peculiar plant, just as I learned from my interviews at the Library of Congress last week that Herblock was a very peculiar fellow.

Bees and butterflies love the devil’s walkingstick’s flowers; birds love its berries. It looks tropical but grows in the north. Its leaves are the largest in the continental United States (technically, that is – each leaf is composed of lots of leaflets); they’re good blanched and served with hot sauce. “Various parts of the plant have been used to treat boils, fever, toothache, cholera, eye problems, skin conditions, snakebite, and venereal disease,” according to floridata.com.

Herblock insisted that every newspaper, knickknack, coffee mug and food container in the immense clutter of his office at the Post and his house in Georgetown was there for a reason and could not be discarded or moved. One of his assistants – they call themselves Blockettes – recalled the time she had to cross “Mr. B’s” field of vision en route to the trash can with a bag of desiccated fruit and long-expired foodstuffs she had culled from his refrigerator. She never made it.

Where was she going with that?

She told him.

What’s in it?

Some very old yogurt.

Yogurt doesn’t go bad, Mr. B declared. Put it back. She did as she was told.

Such stories make Block sound like a tyrant to work for – except that there are all these other stories that make him sound like a pussycat. One of my interviewees described his pen as “saber-toothed.” Another called it a switchblade. So we might think of Herb Block as a saber-toothed pussycat.

Or a devil’s walkingstick.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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