Jules Feiffer wants youth to learn value of failure

Jules Feiffer, one of the most influential editorial cartoonists of the last half century, has recei

One of the reasons Jules Feiffer wanted to write his autobiography was to show young people how important it is to fail.

“Too many young people who have instant success in high school or earlier, like the star athletes or the class presidents, are often not prepared for the pie in the face when they get older,” said Feiffer, by phone from his home in New York City.

“Many of these people fall by the wayside because they can’t deal with rejection. They don’t know how to do it. They have no experience with it, and many of them turn inward and walk away from something that could have led to a great life if they had only stuck it out.”

Prize-winning cartoons

Feiffer, one of the most influential editorial cartoonists of the last half century, has received a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons, an Academy Award for an animated short, and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his play “Little Murders.” His autobiography, “Backing into Forward” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $30, 383 pages), has just been published.

Jules Feiffer at New York State Writers Institute

WHAT: Reading from his new autobiography ‘Backing into Forward’

WHEN: Reading: 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Terrace Gallery on the 4th floor of the New York State Cultural Education Center in Albany. Seminar: 4:15 p.m. at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus


MORE INFO: Contact the New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620.

The title describes how his many rejections and struggles in life often led to his accomplishments. “I was getting rejections from an early age,” he said, “and for whatever reason, I was stubborn and obstinate and I wasn’t going to pay any attention to that failure. I was going to do it my way, and I was going to succeed.”

Feiffer said the book was difficult to write till he found the voice. “I had to create this fictional voice that was me,” he said. “I also never took notes or journaled, but it was strange, when I began writing, the memories started coming out.”

At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Feiffer will read from the book in the Terrace Gallery on the 4th floor of the New York State Cultural Educational Center in Albany. Earlier in the afternoon, at 4:15 p.m., he will present a seminar at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Both talks are free and presented by the New York State Writers Institute and the Friends of the New York State Library.

Feiffer writes extensively about his difficult childhood in the 1930s in the Bronx, and his boyhood love of comics. The book also details his apprenticeship with legendary cartoonist Will Eisner, his hitchhiking adventures in the early 1950s, and his work as a cartoonist, Hollywood screenwriter and Broadway dramatist.

“It was hard to write about my childhood in a rounded way and especially to write about my mother as an oppressive person,” said Feiffer.

“While I was writing this book I tried very hard to present things from her point of view, and this book was rewarding because it allowed me to understand my mother better.”

His mother was a private person and he knows the book would have mortally offended and mortified her. “But as a writer I can’t concern myself with the reaction of a family member,” said Feiffer. “This is where most writers and artists get their best material.”

Despite growing up in what he referred to as a Jewish ghetto, Feiffer always felt he would one day become famous. “I thought I’d one day be a famous cartoonist,” he laughs. “Today I look at that early work and it was woefully bad, but I worked myself into the talent that I became.”

Growing up on the road

He believes one of the most important things he did was to hitchhike around the country in the early 1950s. “Hitchhiking was my way to grow up,” he said. “It was my way to escape the Bronx, get out of my head and see a different part of the world. It was a series of revelations that influenced my work for years.”

One of the revelations was that young people often know more than adults. “Something I learned at that time traveling around the country and something that I keep telling young people today is don’t trust your elders,” said Feiffer. “Go your own way. Even though many older people mean well, they don’t often advise well.”

It was during his travels that he began to realize that even though his family loved him, they didn’t understand him. “This is typical of families, especially loving families. I knew I had to strike out and do my own thing, and that was very important for me.”

Feiffer began to make a name for himself as a cartoonist for the Village Voice in the 1950s. “That was a time of great cultural suppression,” he said, “but it was also a great time for a cartoonist. The tone of the times was set by Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy, and it was essentially very repressive, but there was a tremendous cultural and artistic underground trying to buck the system and my cartoons reflected that.”

Feiffer believes people from later generations can’t fathom how repressive it was in the 1950s. “Younger people have grown up with the freedom to say anything and do anything,” he said.

“In those years, especially if you were a liberal, you didn’t know you had First Amendment rights. You didn’t know you had freedom of the speech, and if you exercised it, you were very likely to lose your job.”

From his work as a cartoonist, he eventually branched out to writing plays and screenplays. “I credit much of that to my weeks spent at Yaddo in Saratoga,” he said. He has spent six or seven residencies at the famous artist’s retreat. “It’s where I wrote ‘Little Murders’ and ‘Carnal Knowledge.’ It’s a magical place of monastic isolation that always fueled my creativity.”

He feels lucky to have had the opportunity to create cartoons, plays, screenplays and now children’s books.

“I’ve loved stumbling into a variety of things,” he said. “When I’m at work on one it’s the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life, till I move on to the next one. Each form does something the other form can’t do, but I’m happy not to do the weekly cartoon anymore because I don’t have the deadline problem, and that’s a relief.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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