Category Archives: Illustration

“It was here that the romance of my life began”

TRoosevelt MouseSeverely myopic young Theodore Roosevelt professed a passion for all sorts of wildlife. But until the age of fourteen, when his father bought him a pair of glasses, his most keen observations of nature were limited to the wild animals he could see close up, the ones he toted home: a family of young gray squirrels he fed milk via a syringe; a disagreeable woodchuck he tried to tame; and “a gentle, pretty, trustful white-footed mouse which reared her family in an empty flowerpot.”[1]

Explorations in natural history through books came a whole a lot easier for Roosevelt than any of his hands-on efforts out in the field. His heroes were Darwin, Huxley and Audubon. When he was ten years old he set up his own small natural history museum on the second floor of his family’s house in New York City, where he tagged the animals he had learned to stuff from his father. Later he donated twelve taxidermic mice to the American Museum of Natural History before its grand opening in 1877.[2]

But it wasn’t all about dead animals for the boy who would one day become the 26th President of the United States and celebrated for championing the protection of America’s wilderness. In addition to the mouse that lived in the flowerpot, other live mice served as his models for the drawings he carefully made, depicting each white-footed species. And when he went off to Harvard, his apartment off campus was said to be filled with litters of mice—whether he had brought them with him or whether his college residence was already infested, we’ll never know. Roosevelt never seemed to lose his love for “beasts and birds,” as he referred to them (no invertebrates, please!). Once he was nestled in the White House, now with children of his own, among the colorful collection of family pets—a badger, a pig, an iguana and a bear cub all of which roamed freely around the White House’s corridors and grounds—was Nibble the mouse.[3]



[1] Theodore Roosevelt, “My Life as a Naturalist,” American Museum Journal, May 1918.

[2] Quoted by Douglas Brinkley in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, from David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback.

[3]American Experience: TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt,” PBS.

(Image: Juvenile drawing of a mouse by Theodore Roosevelt, Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Winslow Homer, 1858, engraving, Eventful History of Three Little Mice“Three blind mice/ see how they run/ they all ran after the farmer’s wife/ who cut off their tails with a carving knife…” A horrifying image dressed in a child’s verse. The English it seems gave the German Brothers Grimm a run for their money. This familiar nursery rhyme was allegedly scribbled in honor of Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary I, who also happens to be called Bloody Mary because she had an unquenchable thirst for the blood of Protestants; she, the “farmer’s wife,” who so generously had three noblemen—the eponymous mice—burned at the stake rather than their eyes poked out.

Taken out of context of 16th century England in which they originated, the unseeing mice today are but a trio of unfortunate tiny rodents, without sight and without tails. And the ambiguity of the lyrics leaves us speculating about the sequence of events—whether the mice were running after or running away from their mutilator when she slashed their tails. The celebrated poet Billy Collins, however, turns our attention to an even more pertinent question: why were the mice blind in the first place? The former Poet Laureate guesses at the answers as empathy sneaks up on him, sneaks into the lines of his “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’”:

…If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
…the thought of them without eyes

and now without tails to trail through the moist grass


or slip around the corner of a baseboard

has the cynic who always lounges within me

up off his couch and at the window

trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.

By now I am on to dicing an onion

which might account for the wet stinging

in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard’s

mournful trumpet on “Blue Moon,”

which happens to be the next cut,

cannot be said to be making matters any better.[1]

But long before the three blind mice softened a cynic’s heart, America’s greatest nineteenth century painter got caught up in the nursery rhyme as well. In his early years as an artist, Winslow Homer earned his keep as a commercial illustrator. In 1858, a Boston publisher hired Homer to contribute seventeen illustrations to a children’s book. Titled Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, it could almost be read as a direct response to the question Collin’s would one day pose. And like Collins, Homer and the tale’s anonymous author treat the mice sympathetically, showing us that their lamentable fate wasn’t because they were naughty but because they were mice simply being mice—in the pantry of the farmer’s wife looking for food.




[1] Billy Collins, “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’” (excerpted), Picnic, Lightning, 1998.

Additional sources: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction” in Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1996 edition, Oxford University Press; Garth Stein, “Billy Collins’s ‘I Chop Some Parsley….’,” Shambhala Sun, July 2010, p. 96.

(Image: Winslow Homer, from Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1858, hand colored engraving, publisher: E. O. Libby & Co., Boston, Massachusetts.)



Apologia pro vita sua

George Grosz Mouse sketchbook, 1950-1952Mice as subject matter may have been light-years away from the artist’s early, caustic vision of his native Germany between the wars. Yet in the years, 1950-1951, he drew sixteen rodents in the pages of what he called his “Mäusezeichbuch,” his mice drawing book. Several are pinned in the once ubiquitous snap traps—regrettable blows of reality—that have left art historians guessing. Did the artist discover in the mouse a “discourse on nature and the past?” Or did he, now a naturalized American, revel in the post-WWII political irony of the trap’s trademark name, Victor?[1]

Considered “one of the twentieth century’s greatest satirists,” a Hogarth by way of Goya, George Grosz was shaped by both the obscene death and destruction he witnessed serving in the Kaiser’s war and the corrosive contradictions of the subsequent Weimar Republic. He portrayed lust and violence, at once ribald and revolting, as political power’s helpmates; his caricatures lacerated German society: the Church, the Military and the Bourgeoisie. Obese and porcine. Mere gatherings of empirical evidence. “I spared no one…I considered myself a natural scientist,” he wrote in his autobiography.[2] Yet he recognized that he was but both sides of the same proverbial coin. “I was everybody I depicted: the rich, gorging, champagne-guzzling man favored by fate, as well as the one out there holding out his hand in the pouring rain.”[3] While the streets of Berlin simmered, Grosz’s art soon made his name in America, the land of his boyhood dreams, the land of James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans; a hair’s breadth before the Reichstag went up in flames, Grosz accepted an invitation to teach in New York, arriving in 1933.

Sought-after at the Art Students League, however, wasn’t a balm to the realization that his satiric work was now viewed as outdated and depressing, crowded out by abstract expressionism. Like a wind-up toy he shuffled around, looking for his artistic soul. He turned back to the works of the old masters, Pisanello and Dürer, studying the way they painted animals, a duck, a young hare, a couple of squirrels… Later, in his acceptance speech for a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Grosz spoke about “the limitations of satire and desire to be an artist of nature.” The writer Ian Buruma describes Grosz’s talk: “It is a cry from the heart, a desperate apologia pro vita sua, but the audience thinks he is clowning, and interrupts his speech with howls of laughter….”[4]

To the mice, nature morte, Grosz applied the unvarnished truth, much as he did in his earlier illustrations. The creatures are meticulously rendered, “life-size”—their fur defined by each hair, their tiny paws rigid, their eyes unseeing.


[1] See Beeke Sell Tower’s essay “Of Mice and Manhattan: Sketchbook 1950/7 in the Fogg Art Museum,” The Sketchbooks of George Grosz, ed. Peter Nisbet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1993), 122-126.

[2] George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

[4] Ian Buruma, “George Grosz’s Amerika,” The New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, 25.

(Image: Two Dead Mice; verso: blank page, 1950-1951; Drawing, Sketchbook Page; Graphite on off-white wove paper, 6 x 9 3/16 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift in gratitude for the friendship and kindness of Dean Wilbur Joseph Bender, 1955.95.21, for non-commercial purposes only.)


Albertus Durerus Noricus faciebat 1504

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, detail, 1504At Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts there is a silver and glass box with a lock of hair. The provenance of this unusual relic is intact; it dates to 1528 and the hands of a certain Hans Baldung Grien, a former apprentice of Germany’s greatest artist Albrecht Dürer. Baldung had cut off a piece of Dürer’s hair two days after the artist died. This, before Dürer was interred and a group of other artists immediately exhumed his body to make a plaster cast of his face. Such was the intense popularity of this master painter and master printmaker.

Dürer was, in 1494/5, the first northern European artist to travel to Italy to examine the sculptures and the paintings and the first to tote the ideals of the Italian Renaissance back across the Alps; today he’s even called the “first truly international artist.”[1] He sold his copper engravings and woodcut prints throughout Europe, branding himself with a distinct monogram, gaining commissions and being named the official court artist to Holy Roman Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V—all which helped to cement his reputation as not only an artistic genius and an innovator but also a savvy entrepreneur.

When Baldung arrived in Nuremberg on the doorstep of Dürer’s workshop in 1503, the thirty-two-year old Dürer, since his yearlong Italian sojourn, had been spending his time distilling the works of the Italian masters, from Mantegna to Michelangelo, embracing the linear perspective and the classical human form; transforming the printmaking process, inventing a system that produced middle tones as opposed to the customary ‘dark marks on white paper’; and creating crosshatching and meticulously-spaced parallel and curved lines so the subjects he depicted read both light and shadow. Calling on his mastery of drawing and painting, by the turn of the sixteenth century he had deftly elevated printmaking to fine art.

Now under Baldung’s gaze Dürer bent over his latest proofs, fixated on perfecting the male nude in his rendition of Adam and Eve just before the Fall; he had been studying a small replica the goldsmith sculptor Pier-Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi had made of the recently found sculpture Apollo Belvedere. Adam and Eve would become one of Dürer’s most influential and most enduring engravings; he boldly signed the work on a plaque he hung on the tree: Albertus Durerus Noricus faciebat 1504, this sort of inscription we’re told he picked up from the Italians.

The ideal forms of Man and Woman are not to be missed but it is the cornucopia of symbolism that fills the space: the apple and the serpent of course; the mountain ash and the fig tree, representing the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge respectively; the parrot representing Mary, the second Eve; the goat in the background poised atop a cliff representing stability; and the four animals in the foreground representing the four temperaments, the ‘humors,’ which according to a ‘scholastic doctrine’ speak to the bodily fluids that become unbalanced in a corrupt individual—the hare the sanguine, the elk the melancholic, the ox the phlegmatic, and the cat the choleric. While the mouse has been said to symbolize the weakness of ‘man,’ here in this unblemished Eden, the mouse peacefully co-exists with the cat. Little does he know it’s all about to change.


[1] “Dürer and His Legacy,” The British Museum.

Additional sources: Jill Dunkerton, Suan Foister, Nicholas Penny, Dürer to Veronese: Sixteenth-Century Paintings in the National Gallery, Yale University Press, 1999; Diane Lesko, “Albrecht Dürer: Adam and Eve,” Telfair Museum of Art: Collection Highlights, University of Georgia Press, 2005; Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, University Of Chicago Press, 1997; Metropolitan Museum of Art.

(Image: Detail and full reproduction, Adam and Eve, 1504, Engraving, 9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Who in the world needs another Nutcracker?”

Maurice Sendak Nutcracker 1984Bland and banal and predictable were a few of the words that Maurice Sendak immediately thought of when Kent Stowell of the Pacific Northwest Ballet mentioned the Nutcracker to the celebrated—and sometimes crabby—children’s book author and illustrator, inquiring whether he would be interested in designing the sets and the costumes for a new production. Sendak changed his mind about the project once he had a chance to meet with Stowell and understood that the Seattle-based company’s artistic director and choreographer wanted to “renovate” Tchaikovsky’s ballet that had been performed so faithfully since its debut in 1892.[1] Together they worked to adhere more closely to the original storyline.

For many the Nutcracker begins and ends with the rise and fall of the theater curtain, the Land of Sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy in between. Tchaikovsky’s ballet has it seems all but obliterated the spirit of the tale from which it springs. Far more complex and not nearly as light, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which he wrote in 1816, is not for dancing but for reading, not for a child but about a child’s private world. His story within a story echoes the novella’s themes: an infinite longing mixed with fear, the ‘conflicting emotions’ of a child growing up (perfectly suited to Sendak).

Seven-year-old Marie (Tchaikovsky’s Clara) wakes up from a deep sleep and tries to convince her mother that the Christmas Eve antics of Nutcracker and an army of mice led by the Mouse King with seven mouse heads were more than a dream, that she had been caught in a battle between the dolls and mice when she must have fainted and hurt her arm. But her mother says, “Don’t talk such nonsense…What have mice got do with Nutcracker?” A few days later Judge Drosselmeier stops by to see how his goddaughter is feeling; Marie suddenly remembers seeing him that night sinisterly sitting high on top of the clock. She says to him “Oh, Godfather, how ugly you were!” Her mother is mortified by her daughter’s impertinence but Drosselmeier rasps, Doll girl, don’t be frightened/ Bells are ringing loud and long/ To chase the King of Mice away/ Owl comes flying black and gray… and then laughs it off as a silly song. Over the next couple of evenings he tells Marie and her brother “The Story of the Hard Nut,” about a certain Princess Pirlipat and a vengeful Madame Mouserinks, the queen of mice who turns the precious princess into a little nut-cracking horror show. There’s also a character who just happens to be named Drosselmeier and just happens to be the story’s hero who figures out Pirlipat can regain her beauty if she eats the meat of a hard nut that is broken by a young man’s teeth. Drosselmeier finds both the nut and the young man. And as the entire palace is celebrating having their pretty princess back, the young man inadvertently steps on the queen of mice, sealing his fate. He’s now a nutcracker. To “cast off his ugliness” he would need to kill Madame Mouserinks’s seven-headed son and win the princess’s heart in spite of his appalling appearance. Judge Drosselmeier tells his godchildren, “Now you know why people say, that was a hard nut to crack…”

Sendak’s and Stowell’s 1983 reworking of the Nutcracker embraced “The Story of the Hard Nut”; it gave the fairy tale, according to Sendak, “dramatic sense and needed psychological meaning.” While Tchaikovsky’s ballet left out “The Hard Nut,” Sendak’s and Stowell’s decidedly left out the Land of Sweets.


[1] Quotes within: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction,” E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker, story translated by Ralph Manheim, first published, 1984; reprint, Gramercy Books, 2003; Excerpt, “The Story of the Hard Nut” on-line here.

Additional source: The Best Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Dover, 1967; Pacific Northwest Ballet.

(Image: Maurice Sendak, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker, 1984, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

The Hidden Snare

Frank Bartolozzi, after Bunbury,   The Mouse's Peitition, 1791Like Robert Burn’s “To a Mouse,” Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem “The Mouse’s Petition” was in the form of a supplication. Only this time man wasn’t imploring mouse, mouse was imploring man; and as such, compassion shown for animals had entered a new territory. The year was 1773.

At the heart of the poem is a mouse who’s been trapped to become the subject of a certain Dr. Priestley. The mouse pleads for his freedom:

OH ! hear a pensive captive’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries.

His appeal continues on a high note of desperation that’s left others since to reconstruct the story behind it with an equal degree of distress. First the facts: Joseph Priestley in 1700s England was a leading political thinker as well as a scientist. He was credited for the discovery of an air-like substance that we know today as oxygen—but not before he used live mice in experiments with deadly gases. Meanwhile Barbauld, according to William McCarthy’s biography, considered Dr. Priestley and his wife to be her second family.

One evening the poet, who was often a guest in the Priestley home, witnessed a mouse caught in one of the doctor’s live traps. Since it was already nighttime, Priestley’s servant took the mouse to the lab where the small rodent was destined to sit in a cage till the following day. When the doctor entered the lab the next morning he found the mouse with a rolled-up piece of paper stuck in between the cage’s metal bars. On the sheet was written none other than “The Mouse’s Petition” with the pointed inscription “To Doctor Priestley.”

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.
If e’er thy breast with freedom glow’d,
And spurn’d a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

The good doctor, it was reported, set the mouse free.

Upon publication the deceptively sweet poem found its many fans. “The Mouse’s Petition” was critically received and applauded for its condemnation of animal experimentation by the same people who were finding their voices to courageously speak out against animal cruelty and for the rights of animals. As a ‘petition’ the poem, they viewed, could be none other than a political text. It accorded the mouse a consciousness and basically asked: What gives humans the right to have dominion over another creature?

That, however, was not the end of the story. Stirring the pot, Barbauld tossed in a pinch of doubt with the third edition of her poem a year later. She went it seems out of her way to separate herself from her reviewers. She wrote in a note that accompanied the poem’s new publication: The Author is concerned to find, that what was intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as a victim of domestic economy [i.e., in a mouse trap], than of philosophical curiosity.

Scholars on the right have taken her coda at face value, embracing the mouse’s plight as a mere metaphor for a number of injustices prevalent in the poet’s Georgian society, while critics on the left, then and now, have stood by the verse’s literal interpretation. McCarthy, who spent twenty years researching Barbauld’s life and her works, argues that there really is no ambiguity when it comes to the poem’s meaning, that the poet’s intention is clear. Barbauld, unusually highly educated for a young woman at that time, had a teasing relationship with Priestley and would often enter into a lively discussion about his actions “from the stance of alternative ethics.”[1] The note she attached to the poem’s new edition was nothing more than a realization she had, with her friend, regrettably gone too far.


[1] William McCarthy, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Additional sources: Jerom Murch, Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries, London, 1877; Kathryn Ready, “‘What then, poor Beastie!’: Gender, Politics, and Animal Experimentation in Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition,’” Eighteenth-Century Life, Winter 2004.

(Image: The Mouse’s Petition, etching and stipple, print made by Francesco Bartolozzi, Henry William Bunbury, 1791, The British Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Act like a subject, since you’re not the sultan!”

Rumi The Camel and the Mouse1A mouse finds himself entangled in the tether of a camel, and as the camel begins to move forward, the mouse suddenly thinks that it is he who is driving the beast; he thinks, I’m a mouse of a special kind. The camel has a hunch that his tiny new companion has gained an inflated opinion of his strength. He tells him, Amuse yourself, I’ll sort you out. They then come to a deep river; the mouse freezes in his tracks. The camel says to him, Why are you at a loss?/Step forward like a brave man—walk across!/Great mouse, my guide and leader, don’t stop here/And give up. There is nothing now to fear. The two animals discuss the water’s depth. While the camel shows the mouse it only reaches to his knees, the mouse reminds the camel, A dragon for me is an ant to you. In other words, if the water comes to the camel’s knees, it’s already far above the rodent’s head. The camel sees this as a teaching moment. He tells the mouse, Don’t be so bold again/Or else you’ll burn with soul-tormenting pain! He’s on a roll, Compete with your own species, and beware/You’ve nothing that a camel wants to share. The mouse begs his forgiveness and begs for a ride. Help me to make it to the other side! The camel feels a sense of compassion, Jump!/Climb on my back, then rest upon my hump./This is not difficult for me to do/I could take millions of small mice like you!

“The Camel and the Mouse” is a tale from Rumi, the celebrated thirteenth-century Persian poet, teacher, theologian and Sufi mystic. And like Aesop and the Panchatantra‘s anonymous author, Rumi saw in animals’ true nature, lessons to guide his fellow Sufis along their mystical path toward their ‘union with God’ and utter ‘knowledge of reality.’ The mouse’s lesson in humility and dozens and dozens of other fables appear in his impossibly long, twenty-six-thousand-verse-poem the Masnavi. Its plain title, translated to mean nothing more than a straightforward description of the work’s structure, its ‘rhyming couplet,’ belies the fact that it’s considered the ‘greatest mystical poem ever written.’ Rumi marinates each anecdote in his own words of wisdom and advice. The mouse’s conceit enables the poet to admonish: Act like a subject, since you’re not the sultan!/Don’t row the boat when you are not the boatman/…God said, ‘Keep silent!’ so don’t you forget./Be all ears since you’re not God’s mouthpiece yet!”



Sources: Lines from The Masnavi (Book Two) by Rumi, translated by Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2008;

(Image: A mouse, clutching the reins of a camel, at a stream of water, ink and pigments on thin laid paper, folio from an illuminated manuscript of Rumi’s Masnavi, scribe unknown, circa 1663, the Walters Art Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Enslaved by a metaphor.”

Art Spiegelman first glommed onto the idea of depicting the mouse as a metaphor for the oppressed during his stint as an underground ‘comix’ artist when he was asked to contribute a piece for a comic book called Funny Aminals [sic]. This being 1971, the twenty-three-year-old Spiegelman thought mice tyrannized by cats befitted the Black experience in America. While his efforts didn’t pan out—“just felt problematic”—he saw how neatly his “Ku Klux Kats” could be Nazis instead; injustice writ large if not anthropomorphically. And quite unexpectedly, he saw too in cats chasing mice a relevance to his Polish Jewish family’s history. So he wrote and drew “Maus.” His three-page Funny Aminals story would, fifteen years later, swell into the first volume of Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir.

With mice standing in for Jews, for the small Spiegelman clan, the narrative shifts back and forth in time: from the comic book artist getting his father to speak about the past; to his father and his mother during the Holocaust; to his and his father’s complicated relationship, replete with recriminations, disappointment and guilt as he continues to work on Maus—all very meta.

Spiegelman elevated balloons of dialogue and bubbles of thoughts to literature; his graphic memoir is now considered a ‘modern classic.’ It’s been hugely influential; it’s sold over three million copies worldwide, translated into more than thirty languages. And inasmuch as he dragged his heels to revisit “the book that both ‘made’ [him] and has haunted [him] ever since,” he finally agreed to do a follow-up. His aptly titled MetaMaus is based on a series of conversations Spiegelman had with the scholar Hillary Chute. Covering practically every aspect of the creative process behind Maus,* he answers the three questions that have bombarded him ever since Maus, Volume I: My Father Bleeds History appeared in 1986, “Why the Holocaust?” “Why Comics?” and surely the single most important: “Why mice?” To which he nods to Funny Aminals and says, although he had some vague notion “of Jews as defenseless scurrying creatures,” it wasn’t until he began reading up on the Holocaust, research for the short story, that he discovered numerous works from the 30s and the 40s of Jews pictured as mice and rats, as vermin. “Shockingly relevant,” is how Spiegelman puts it; dehumanization was “a necessary prerequisite” for murder.

Meanwhile, Spiegelman realized, mice and cats were just the beginning; every nationality needed an animal to represent it. The international group of patients at the Czech sanatorium where his mother once stayed quickly became a zoo on the page; and the child of a Nazi and a Jew forced the artist to make some sort of a cat-mouse hybrid. And there were the wartime favorites: American dogs and Polish pigs, British fish and Swedish reindeers… “At a certain point,” Spiegelman sighs, “I did feel enslaved by my metaphor.”



* Mentioned briefly in this earlier post when both a scholar and a critic had found similarities between 17th–18th century Japanese illustrations of mice and Spiegelman’s mice.

All quotes by Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus, 2011; additional sources: Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History, 1986; Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale, And Here My Troubles Began, 1991.

(Image: Self-portrait by Art Spiegelman, 1999, from MetaMaus, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Walt, Ben/See you again”

In the early 1950s, a great American poet penned a poem for a great American artist. The story goes: The poet, sitting in the artist’s studio, was tired of sitting still, posing for his portrait. So he took a break, picked up a sheet of Maillol paper and a pen, and jotted down a handful of lines. The end result was “The End of the Rope,” in which he paid tribute to “Walt and Ben.”  The last lines read: Let’s say we’ve a little unraveled/the end of the rope/and go on from there.   Walt, Ben/See you again   Some day     , signed by its author William Carlos W      s, edited by a mouse.

William Carlos Williams and Ben Shahn first met on June tenth, 1950, when Williams and his wife visited the Shahns in Roosevelt, New Jersey, after the poet had received a doctor of letters degree from nearby Rutgers University. Both men, New Jerseyans, had championed in their art an intellectual understanding of their state’s historical significance, the narrative of its industry and its workers: Shahn had made a mural, depicting the story of Jersey Homesteads—with its roots in the New Deal, the small town (now known as Roosevelt) was founded in 1936 as a resettlement for immigrant families who had worked in New York City’s sweat shops; Williams, the medical doctor-cum-poet, wrote his five-book epic poem Paterson—once said to be Whitman’s America for the twentieth century—using the Jersey city as a symbol for modern man. So it was only fitting that on that summer day, with Williams having just completed Book Four, Shahn gave him a painting he had made of a factory building and tracks and titled Homage to Paterson. This, the start of their friendship. In Paterson’s Book Five, Williams would again mention Ben Shahn’s name within lines of his poetry.

Shahn was a singular artist who triumphantly melded together social realism with abstract design and mastered photography—working along side Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He was also a gifted engraver. Apprenticed at age fourteen to a lithographer, he fell in love with the Roman alphabet and found “the wonderful interrelationships, the rhythm of line as letter moves into letter.”[1] In 1963, he sat and admired “The End of the Rope” in Williams’s “scrappy” hand. He wrote, “I often wonder how many poets write in longhand… One might surmise that verse written to the staccato clack-clack of the typewriter might differ enormously from that written in the noiseless and rhythmic movements of the hand.”[2]

Meanwhile a mouse had discovered Williams’s piece of poetry. Sometime between the poem’s birth and its reemergence a dozen years later, a mouse had resided in Shahn’s house. When Shahn took out from storage the exquisite artist’s paper with the poem, to have it reproduced in his Love and Joy About Letters, he saw the verse had been slightly revised. The mouse had nibbled away at the page, chewing to bits Williams’s “Williams” and, it’s been speculated, the last word of the last line See you again   Some day “soon.”


[1] Ben Shahn, Love and Joy About Letters, 1963.

[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: “William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963,” Poetry Foundation; William Carlos Williams and Christopher MacGowan, “The End of the Rope,” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962, reprinted 1991; Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, 1990; Frances K. Pohl with Ben Shahn’s Writings, Ben Shahn, 1993; Howard Greenfield, Ben Shahn: An Artist’s Life, 1998; “Oral history interview with Ben Shahn, 1964 April 14,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Ben Shahn, Museum of Modern Art.

(Image, click to enlarge: “The End of the Rope” by William Carlos Williams for Ben Shahn, Love and Joy About Letters, 1963, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“The Ringdove”

The king asks the philosopher what is the import of community, how can people who come from different backgrounds learn to trust one another. The philosopher illustrates his answer with the tale of talking animals: a crow, a gazelle, a tortoise, and a mouse.

Doves have fallen into a snare; encased in the net, they manage to fly away in unison just as the hunter approaches. The doves land next to a burrow of a mouse, a friend of their ringdove leader. The mouse gnaws through the net and releases the birds, and with this action he’s impressed a crow who’s been observing the camaraderie between the two species. The crow shouts to the mouse that he too would like to be friends. The mouse, well aware that crows are his natural enemy, believes however the crow is sincere. The crow suggests he and the mouse move to a safer place, distant from the homes of men, near to a pond of a tortoise. The mouse and the crow and the tortoise spend their days enjoying one another’s company and the tranquility of the secluded area. One day a gazelle wanders by, scaring them until they realize the gazelle is only looking for water; they soon become a happy foursome. But on another day the gazelle disappears into the hunter’s trap. As with the doves before, the mouse chews through the ropes. The gazelle then asks, what happens when the hunter comes back? He says, while he and the mouse and the crow could flee, their hard-shell pal is much too slow to run. As they discuss their quandary, the hunter shows up and captures the tortoise, ties him upside down to a stick. The other three devise a rescue plan. The gazelle would feign injury and lie in the middle of the hunter’s path; the crow would pretend to lick his pretend wound to make the scene all the more convincing. When the hunter arrives, the gazelle would leap up and lure him away so that the mouse could free their tortoise friend. Their plan is a great success. The hunter, having lost both his ‘catch,’ has become suspicious of the area and decides to move away. The mouse, the crow, the gazelle and the tortoise embrace and kiss one another. “[N]ow they could live in complete peace and happiness.”

“The Ringdove” is found in the literary classic Kalila wa Dimna, a collection of fables based on the Panchatantra that Ibn al-Muqaffa—“one of the most brilliant exponents of the classical age of Arabic literature”—translated into Arabic in the eighth century from the Sanskrit original via a Persian version. The philosopher tells the king, and tells us today, twelve centuries later, community is everything—especially when times are tough. He might also be saying, don’t hang out with tortoises; they can cause you trouble.



Source: Esin Atil, Kalila wa Dimna: Tales from a Fourteenth-Century Arabic Manuscript, Smithsonian Institution, 1981.

(Image: “The Mouse Gnawing the Net Imprisoning the Doves” from the Kalilah wa-Dimnah, illustrated manuscript, completed in 1354, artist unknown, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)