On Saul Steinberg (1914–1999)

The New York Times obituary quoted a fellow cartoonist as saying, “Steinberg was not a warm man. He was chilly and Olympian with a somewhat hauteur tone [sic],” but in my slight acquaintance with him he consistently appeared gracious and kind. Our acquaintance was slight but long: in 1945 I wrote him from my small town in Pennsylvania asking that he send me, for no reason except that I wanted it, the original of a drawing I had seen in The New Yorker, of one man tipping his hat and another tipping back his hat with his head still in it. At this time I was an avariciously hopeful would-be cartoonist of twelve or thirteen and Steinberg a thirty-one-year-old Romanian Jew whose long American sojourn had begun but four years before. Perhaps he thought that his new citizenship entailed responding to importunities from unknown American adolescents. He sent me not the original but a duplicate he had considerately made, with his unhesitant pen, and inscribed it, in impeccable New World fashion, “To John Updike with best wishes.” Nearly fifty years later, when I turned sixty, he sent me a pencil drawing of a rabbit on a fragmentary table drawing a Steinbergian scroll, with the inscription “John Up 60! Love from Saul ST.”

He would not, perhaps, like having these small personal generosities broadcast in this telling; his sensibility was fertile but fastidious, expressed in the haute-bourgeois polish of his tailoring and the soft but distinct phrasing of his speech, as if he were translating, with a barely perceptible hesitation, out of an arcane, possibly wordless inner language. He spoke not exactly with an accent but with an un-American tendency toward epigrammatic precision. He made little of his Romanian origins; “pure Dada,” he called his native land. Yet if one thinks of the Romanians, all exiles, that have figured prominently in the culture of the twentieth century—Brancusi, Ionesco, Tristan Tzara, the aphorist E.M. Cioran—one glimpses a shared economy, a willingness to invent visionary forms and to seek a comprehensive simplicity. Ambitions so innocently sweeping might have less easily arisen among natives of a less marginal European country, with enough gravity of tradition to hold creative spirits in place.

Steinberg studied and made his artistic beginnings in that lightest-hearted of major nations, Italy, receiving in 1940 a doctoral degree in an architecture he never practiced but whose linear basis and laden notation infused his innovations in cartooning. His father was a printer and bookbinder who became a manufacturer of cardboard boxes, preparing the way for his son’s mature romance with paper, with alphabets, with trademarks and documents and maps and fingerprints and rubber stamps and all such variegated fauna of the two-dimensional, man-created world. Hilton Kramer, one of the many art critics provoked to wit by Steinberg’s own, wrote, “There is a kind of primitivism in all this, an animism, for everything in Steinberg—even the most inanimate object or abstract thought—is teeming with aspiration, ambition …

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