A pre-New Deal American ideal: Harold Gray???s Little Orphan Annie

Protracted things can be the hardest to sense and to see. And so it smacks of paradox to say that a relentlessly triumphant liberalism is now at the very core of the political traditions that conservatives, inasmuch they are traditionalists, have committed themselves to conserving.

But does not much of the gospel of today???s conservatives consist of notions for better administering the nation???s mass of deeply rooted entitlements and social programs? For making them more economical and less intrusive, and keeping them from expanding even more aggressively? To be sure, the venerable rhetorical ritual of denouncing ???Big Government??? is enacted at whiles to show that one has not forgotten the ancient faith. But what result is discernible beyond the soothing effect on the faithful of the ritual itself? (And the loosening of their purse strings?)

No one even dreams of rolling back the Great Society and the New Deal and of re-learning how to ???Keep cool with Coolidge,??? as it were. It would be a reactionary, not a conservative, who would call for a return to an ethos still at the edge of living memory: a pre-liberal commitment to independence and self-reliance so pervasive, and for so many (though not for all) nearly axiomatic, that it scarcely had a name till, in a notable speech (10/28/28) depicting the nation at a crossroads, Herbert Hoover popularized ???rugged individualism.??? Identifying it as ???our American system, ??? he argued forcefully against its abandonment for ???diametrically opposed??? European doctrines of ???paternalism’ and state socialism.

If you would like to call to mind that older ethos ??? nay, see it in action ??? then peer into the time scope of what was once one of the newspapers??? most widely and wildly popular sections ??? so much so that during a newspaper delivery strike in July 1945, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously read the latest installments over the radio to his eager constituents.

The reference of course is to those tiny windows into the soul of an era that our grandparents and great-grandparents called ???the funnies,??? no matter how dramatic, tragic, or violent they might be.

Of these, one in particular stands out for the view it affords of America just before and during the New Deal. Perusing the handsome, superbly annotated volumes of IDW???s recent re-prints, you can follow from its beginning the career of a ruggedly individualistic, red-headed orphan girl whose gutsiness is legendary. She is, of course, Harold Gray???s Little Orphan Annie, whose philosophy of self-reliance and disdain for governmental and other do-gooders mark her as a die-hard opponent of New Deal thinking years before it came to power, and as a veritable ???last ditcher,??? during and after its triumph.

After a stint in a Dickensian orphanage that only makes her stronger, Annie famously finds a home with two-fisted, self-made zillionaire Daddy Warbucks. But alas, if Warbucks is good at making money, he is also good at losing it. Indeed, in one lengthy episode (begins 2/9/31) we find him not only dead broke but soon, after an accident, stone blind. But a little help from his friends adds to his courage, hard work, and eye (sorry) for the main chance, he builds his fortune anew and his sight is restored.

Warbucks is also good at losing Annie. Prior to his frequent travels ??? for example, a yachting trip with a gold-digger wife, or a business trip to lawless foreign parts — he makes provisions for Annie???s care that invariably fall through, forcing her and her dog Sandy to take to the roads and make their way as best they can.

Though often down and out, Annie never even thinks of declaring defeat and surrendering herself and her fate to the public apparatus of institutionalized aid. To the extent that she must rely on the kindness of others, it is from individuals whose respect and friendship she has earned or soon will.

Repaying kindness in kind, she soon becomes a significant benefit to her benefactors, as when she is sheltered for a time by a farm family called the Silos (begins 2/2/25) and later by a kindly old couple called the Futiles (begins 8/31/32). (No surprise that the latter are a rough embodiment of what Theodore Roosevelt, whom Gray greatly admired, called the ???weak good.??? Throughout the strip, Gray shows a Bunyanesque penchant for names that proclaim. Annie???s wanderings are a Pilgrim???s Progress in more senses than one.)

In short, if there is a social safety net in Gray???s strip, it consists in a web of what Aristotle called ‘friendships of virtue.??? Bonds are formed with friends who share and come to admire one another’s qualities.

They are willing to lend not only moral but, when needed, discreet tangible support. For, as the ancient Greek proverb had it, ???Friends??? things are in common.??? Unlike the many for whom material need acts on friendship like a solvent, in Gray???s strip, the good take a quiet joy in rising to the level of this other ideal.

Some of these friends are kindly and innocuous; others, such as the chilling Asp, are deadly dangerous. And though Annie does not turn to religion for help, the uncanny and supernatural do sometimes watch over her in the form of Warbucks??? pals Punjab, a giant of terrifying occult power, and the quasi-divine Mr. Am.

When it comes, friends??? support for Annie is like a quick boost from a fellow climber. Unobtrusive and free from pity, it is in a way deserved, or at least called for. For it is sparked by respect for a battler who, as per the British sporting ideal, is invariably ??? dead game.??? If Annie and her creator had a motto, it could well be the old chestnut: ???It???s a great life if you don???t weaken.???

As for the government, it is typically portrayed as worlds removed from being a panacea. People being what they are, democracy is what it is. In a famous 1935 sequence (3/31-9/1), the voice of the sovereign ???pee-pul??? is fanned to a gale by venal and demagogic politicians like Claude Claptrap, himself the catspaw of a piratical business magnate named Slugg. (Though philosophically committed to an ethic of competition, Gray is far from being an idolator of the successful). At the episode???s climax, despite Warbucks??? heroic and largely disinterested efforts, the ???pee-pul???s??? envious, levelling rancor, fanned to riot, deprives themselves and the world of a miracle substance (???Eonite???) that would have bettered the lot of all.

Small surprise, then, that the self-reliant often ignore officialdom. For example, Warbucks and his friends show a tendency to bypass the police, who at times smilingly admire from the sidelines those resourceful enough to settle things themselves without troubling to engage the official machinery of justice. (More than a few of Gray???s readers voiced disapproval on this score, and Gray’s own feelings were not unmixed.)

And so when, in a revealing Sunday page (1/8/28), bigger, older bullies drive Annie away from the newsstand where she is earning a small living, does she appeal to the authorities? Clamor for help from passers-by? Huh! Rather, she tricks her tormentors into pursuing her through a narrow opening in a board fence where they can only emerge one at a time. As the biggest bully pushes himself through the fence, Annie proceeds to settle his hash with a length of two-by-four vigorously applied to the skull. ???Huh! Think they can ruin my business and get away with it, eh? An??? they tell yuh to forgive and forget ??? huh! Not while I???ve got my health ??? if yer too proud, or scared, to fight for what???s yours yuh don???t d???serve to have anything.???

???Not while I???ve got my health ??? ??? that is, no quitting, no passive acceptance of unjust treatment unless fate has put you physically hors de combat. As for ???too proud . . . to fight,??? this would have immediately reminded Gray???s audience of Woodrow Wilson???s use of these words in reaction to the sinking of the Lusitania. It is a sentiment that had no more appeal to Annie???s creator than it did to TR, Wilson???s arch-critic and antipode.

Like Gray, who was an enthusiastic boxer in college, Annie has not only the punch but the heart of a fighter. An implicit believer in final causes, she acts on the assumption that if we have feet, they are for us to stand on. Like her friend, helper and self-helper Jack Boot, she scorns the ???petty cruelty of professional uplifters and officious busybodies??? (9/27/36). When he (deservedly) comes into money, Jack will use it to found a ???home for other little people like Annie ??? a real home.??? That is, one utterly unlike the callous state-run aid factories administered by the likes of brutish Mrs. Durance (begins 9/7/36) that Annie has hitherto suffered in and bolted from.

Do Annie and her friends prize self-reliance more than safety and security? Or do they, and Gray, think that relying on yourself is the best way to be secure in the long run? For can you really expect others, even if they should be well-intentioned, and no matter how cozy a salary they draw for helping you, to care about your life more than you do?

America from the New Deal on does not do much to refute Sallust???s glum dictum that ???Few desire freedom, most are content with fair masters.??? To which Gray and Annie effectively retort: Nuts! If we think of the famous fable of the dog and the wolf in La Fontaine, we can see that Annie, like many Americans of Gray???s day, consistently and emphatically sides with the wolf. Better to be free and independent, even if sometimes famished and often insecure (‘rien d???assuré???), than to be fed regularly by a master but always to obey, to wear a collar, and to be on a leash.

Even in the funny papers life is often far from funny. But Gray???s gospel is that in the long run you fare best by standing tall, and on your own feet.

In Annie, this holds not only for the usual vicissitudes of life ??? the ???ordinary fortunes of war,??? so to speak ??? but even in the face of the most crushing reverses. And so, in a sequence noted above, the once-rich as Croesus magnate Warbucks, though reduced not just to destitution but to blindness, staggers but does not fall. Though devastated he is not crushed. With Annie???s help and his own grit he sets out to rebuild his life, going forward as best he can, with hope or without it.

Before long this attitude will show itself in the spirit of Churchillian defiance when England, alone and almost unarmed after Dunkirk, steels itself against an expected Nazi invasion. There will be no surrender, or even negotiations. These are simply out of the question. If they come, ???Take one with you.’

In another epic struggle, this one fictive, it will emerge in the quiet but ever-deepening resolve of two very ordinary Hobbits going alone into the horror of Mordor. Hope and despair become simply irrelevant, for the task is theirs and it must be done.

Like Churchill, like Tolkien, Gray too affirms that heroic resistance to life???s setbacks and perils is not just the job of a handful of famous heroes. Rather, it is part of the everyday task, perhaps even the everyday duty, of ordinary people.

At one level this is a terrifying message: you want me to do this? And at another, it may seem needless: Why strain to be heroic if we can outsource the solutions to our problems? Why not let social engineering mitigate our misfortunes (though, perhaps, by leveling our fortunes)?

In Annie, which is effectively a reply to such plaintive queries, Gray speaks to his audience with the profoundest respect. For he takes for granted that we are not perpetual minors, of necessity the wards of a social collective, but that we and no others are fit to be entrusted with final responsibility for the only life we will ever have. For Gray, as for Milton, our dignity lies in being free to fall but sufficient to stand.

It is not surprising, then, that in Gray, the best characters do not aim for a leisurely ???happy ever after.??? At one point in the strip Annie has a chance to settle down into a loving home and, so far as can be foreseen, bring her adventures to an end (9/27 ??? 10/3/36). Instead the episode gives us a ???road-ending??? characteristic of the Chaplin films of the day. But whereas the Little Tramp has typically failed to find the happiness and security of a home, the Little Redhead has deliberately bid all of that a fond farewell.

For the road is not only its own vocation, but its own reward. There you are sure to find the scope for your powers that bestows a joy on life which is all the greater for being earned. As she tramps the long miles to the next big town, she confides her feelings to her dog: ???Th??? smells, noises, millions o??? folks ??? havin??? to think quicker and move faster than th??? next guy, if yuh s???pect to eat reg???lar ??? whatever it is, it sure puts snap and ginger into us — eh, Sandy???? The reply, an enthusiastic ???Arf,??? can be taken as Gray???s last word on the subject.

Though kin she has none ??? she doesn???t even have a last name! ??? friends she has in plenty, winning them by her virtues wherever she goes. Small but standing tall, ???up and doing with a heart for any fate??? (A TR favorite from Longfellow), she meets whatever fortune throws at her half-way and head-on.

So then, would you like to pay a visit to a once (and future?) America — one where, along with so much else, you can still see a pre-liberal conservatism in its natural habitat? If so, then, as the old saying goes, ???I???ll see you in the funny papers.??? The old ones, of course!

Archival prints of Little Orphan Annie are available through IDW Publishing.