Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front, Todd DiPastino, W. W. Norton Publishing, 370 pp, illustrated, index, notes, 2008, $27.95 (hc), $14.95 (pb)
American Civil War readers often encounter Walt Whitman's statement, “The real war will never get in the books.” That statement is now assumed to be true of all American Wars. Todd DePastino shows how cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose subject was the American combat soldier during World War II, did get the real war into the books. Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front is authoritative but not exhaustive biography. DiPastino's focus is on the creative work of Mauldin. There are many more stories that could be told
Mauldin grew up during the Great Depression in the mountainous region of New Mexico. Raised by eccentric parents, Mauldin's family was very poor. Taking advantage of very limited resources such as his high school's ROTC-style club, student newspaper and yearbook, as well as several very fine art teachers, Mauldin managed to gain admission and pay the tuition at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for one year. To establish an income he joined the newly mobilized 45th Infantry Division of the Arizona National Guard and then became the 45th Division News's cartoonist.
Deployed to North Africa in 1943, Mauldin participated in the invasions of Sicily and Italy; later he was assigned to France. In 1944, while on staff at the army's newspaper Stars and Stripes, Mauldin created unique characters that irritated the army brass, even George Patton. The weary, disheveled, officer-abusing enlisted men Willie and Joe became soldiers' heroes as the cartoon characters uttered thoughts that could not be spoken to an officer.
After the war and in the course of his life, Mauldin published several bestselling cartoon collections, two autobiographies, acted in Hollywood, ran unsuccessfully for Congress and received his career with two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning. Thoroughly researched with the immense cooperation of Mauldin's family and friends, DePastino's biography is an introduction to an American who set standards for illustration and content that are stilled used today. His impact on his profession is immense. Charles Schultz, leader of a machine gun squad in Europe and creator of the cartoon Peanuts, recognized Mauldin as a hero of both WWII infantrymen and cartoonists.
DiPastino's focus is on Mauldin's career and dwells on family issues as they relate to his journalism. The author's thorough research supports his frankness in describing the women, alcohol, and personal tensions in Mauldin's post WWII career. Containing more than ninety cartoons and photographs, DiPastino's work sets the reader within Mauldin's historical era. Accessible in style, DiPastino's work moves thoroughly but not tediously through WW II and post-war veteran issues, American journalism and politics, and the changes in Mauldin's drawing techniques. Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front is recommended for advanced placement high school students and up. Anyone who enjoys reading a biography of a soldier and artist whom the odds of success were set firmly against, who at times created his own luck and at other times had unexplainable good fortune, who was born with a gift and did not squander it will be satisfied with DiPastio's work.
Image: Bill Mauldin, Willie and Joe (1944)