Like radioactive material, an ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering on long after the period of its most deadly potency. We’ve already seen how the minstrel/blackface image lives on in the guise of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon creations. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which now has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser.
My thoughts on this have been inspired by a reading of a new collection of George McManus’ classic comic strip Bringing Up Father, created in 1913. NBM has released a collection of the first two years of the McManus strip.
Reading the strip, I was struck by the fact that the central character Jiggs, a former layabout construction worker who becomes a reluctant nouveau-riche patriarch, derived from the Victorian stereotype of the ape-like Irishman.
The Victorian image, created in the late 19th century by a mixture of English anxiety over the Irish independence movement and the rise of pseudo-Darwinian racial science, typically portrays the Irish as a separate race, closer to our primate cousins than to humans. In countless Victorian cartoons the typical Irishman (“Paddy”) was shows to be violent, ignorant, drink-prone with a pronounced prognathism of the jaw-line to indicate a simian personality. (The definitive study of the “Paddy” image is L. Perry Curtis’ book Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature).
The Simian Irishman of the 19th century was simply a figure of contempt and fear. McManus, who was himself part-Irish, redeployed this stereotype but in a slightly more positive way. McManus’ strip deals with the adventures of Maggie and Jiggs, two Irish-Americans born into working class poverty. Jiggs is functionally illiterate and spent most of his life working in manual jobs, digging ditches and doing basic construction. The couple has a beautiful daughter named Nora, who is of marrying age. For some unexplained reason, Maggie and Jiggs become enormously wealthy. Newly rich Maggie is transformed into a diligent social climber, eager to join high society and find an aristocratic husband for her nubile daughter.
Maggie’s attempts to enter into the realm of high society are constantly foiled by her husband, who retains an atavistic love for working class Irish culture. Time and again, Jiggs embarrasses Maggie and Nora but his uncouth behaviour, which includes smoking a clay-pipe (a tell tale sign of Irish origins), cavorting around in his undershirt and suspenders, and bringing home his uncouth friends from the old neighbourhood. Jiggs clearly prefers the company of his drinking buddies and card-playing cronies to that the counts, dukes, and society ladies that his wife and daughter are constantly trying to corral into their home. Splendidly incorrigible, Jiggs is always trying to sneak off a saloon or a ball-game so he doesn’t have to go to the opera. Despite being married for two decades he also has an eye for the ladies, and forgoes a chance at seeing a serious play performed by Sarah Bernhardt for an afternoon at a burlesque show. While visiting Paris, Jiggs characteristically prefers collecting naughty French post-cards to viewing the masterpieces of the Louvre. (A quick consumers note: McManus’s elegant deco art makes the Bringing Up Father book worth acquiring, although it has to be said that the repetitious gags and one-dimensional nature of the characters makes this a lesser work than such early masterpieces as Krazy Kat or Popeye.)
In this history of popular culture Jiggs is the transitional figure between Paddy and Homer Simpson. Unlike Paddy and Jiggs, Homer is denuded of any Irish ethnic identity; he’s generically “white”. But Homer inherited many traits from Jiggs: both are proudly and pugnaciously plebeian, resistant to reform and attempts at social improvement, fond of alcohol and barroom conviviality, and resigned to their family situation although occasionally balky at following orders. More so than Jiggs, Homer is a positive character: despite all his unhygienic traits, there is something endearing about Homer, at least as he was portrayed in the classic early years of the Simpsons. He seems to have a warm heart and a genuine fondness for his family (Jiggs by contrast seems to remain married only by dint of his lack of resolve and imagination).
In the Simpson episode “Lisa Substitute”, Homer’s daughter, frustrated by his persistent oafishness, calls him a “baboon.” The scene goes like this:
Lisa: You, sir, are a baboon!
Homer: [gasp] Me?
Lisa: Yes, you! Baboon! Baboon! Baboon! Baboon!
Homer: I don’t think you realize what you’re saying…
Lisa: BABOON! [leaves in tears]
Bart: Whoa. Somebody was bound to say it someday, I just can’t believe it was her.
As a historian, I can’t help but think that this scene is a revealing look at the true pedigree of Homer Simpson in 19th century racial mythology. Certainly Homer has one tell-tale sign of descent from that era: his jawline is as pronounced as that of “Paddy” or Jiggs.