Doug Marlette
Class of 1981

MarlettesmThe first editorial cartoonist to be named a Nieman Fellow, Marlette won the 1988 Pulitzer, for work that appeared in the Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And while proud of those distinctions he would reject them as the embodiment of who he was or what drove his creativity. Who was Doug Marlette? Marlette was “mercurial, inquisitive to a fault, and hilarious to an even greater fault,” and “incapable of making art that was cold to the touch,” his closest friend, the writer Pat Conroy, has said. Marlette knew how to deliver a line: “A well-turned phrase in a Percy novel could take out an entire subdivision,” he once wrote, about Walker Percy. Marlette hated hypocrisy — he hated a phony. He so enjoyed eviscerating certain contrivances and social maladies, you could almost imagine him licking his fingers. In the 35 years that he spent making editorial cartoons for the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta ConstitutionNewsday, the Tallahassee Democrat and the Tulsa World, he earned a devoted following, and an equally devoted posse of enemies. His were wicked, witty, moving and often enraging observations on intolerance, ignorance, negligence, malfeasance — name an area of human folly or error and Marlette probably skewered it. He rebuked politicians and religious fundamentalists in particular, doing so with a deeply held belief in First Amendment freedoms. “Those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar,” he wrote in a 2004 issue of Nieman Reports. “No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. … Free speech is the linchpin of our republic. All other freedoms flow from it.” While on his Nieman Fellowship, he crafted the idea for his narrative comic strip, Kudzu, which became a beloved and widely circulated depiction of life in the fictional Southern town of Bypass. “I wasn’t interested in the topicality of ‘Doonesbury’ or ‘Bloom County.’ Sometimes you have the feeling that the more topical strips are written for the editors of Rolling Stone,” he once told the Washington Post. “I wanted to write something that didn’t require a master’s degree to read.” In his 50s, he moved into novels, publishing The Bridge and then Magic Time, and surprising himself with his own longform storytelling potential and range. He looked forward to more, but with a certain existential awareness. (When parting with a friend, he liked to quote his pal Bland Simpson, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing, and long of the Red Clay Ramblers: “See you in a minute.”) On the morning of July 10, 2007, Marlette was being driven from the Memphis airport to Oxford, Miss., where high school students were adapting Kudzu into a musical to be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The highway was wet with rain. The automobile skidded off the road, crashed. Marlette died instantly. He was 57.


>His 2005 commencement speech at Durham Academy. Excerpt:

The novelist Walker Percy once said that you can make straight A’s in school and still flunk life. Which is another way of saying, you can win the race and still lose your soul. As you venture out into the world, you need to know more than how to win the race. Unfortunately, our culture has sent you exactly the opposite message.

Practice, practice, practice. It’s hard to get worse at something if you practice. But talent is not enough. Talent is not creativity, just as a seed is not a crop. You have to till the soil, plant the seed, work it, water it, harvest it. Creativity is hard work.

You are not your resume. External measures won’t repair you. Money won’t fix you. Applause, celebrity, no number of victories will do it. The only honor that counts is that which you earn and that which you bestow. Honor yourself.

>“The Voice of Independent Journalism,” Nieman Reports, Spring 2004. Excerpt:

Why should we care about the obsolescence of the editorial cartoonist? Because cartoons can’t say “on the other hand,” because they strain reason and logic, because they are hard to defend, they are the acid test of the First Amendment, and that is why they must be preserved.

Marlette’s commemoration of the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Marlette’s commemoration of the 1986 Challenger explosion.

>Conroy’s eulogy, July 14, 2007. Excerpt:

“I’m no writer,” Doug said. “I’m a cartoonist.”

He was wrong about not being a writer, but that boy was born to be a cartoonist. His political cartoons were claymore mines buried in the path of whatever caught his eyes of wrath on a particular day. He could throw a spitting cobra into the lap of a lying politician, or send a B-52 bomber crew to clean out the riffraff in the North Carolina, or Oklahoma, legislature. His cartoons could cut and hurt and slice and dice and fill the water with enough blood to gather a battalion of great white sharks for a feeding frenzy. And by the way, no one was safe from his terrible, blood-soaked pen. In the time I knew him, Doug received death threats from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, blacks, whites, and gays — and as far as I could tell, he deserved every one of them. But to Doug Marlette, his cartoons were his personal response to the immense challenge raised by our founding fathers and the Constitution. A free speech fanatic, he was one of its most eloquent and passionate defenders.

>The Bridge, a novel. Excerpt:

I brought the devotion of an only child to the question of what to do with the beautiful but troubled woman who was my mother, a devotion bordering on worship. Not only had she fed and clothed and loved me, but she had also championed me, defending the tender, softer, more vulnerable places in a boy’s heart that are not always acknowledged in a hostile and indifferent world. For that I would always be grateful. She had nurtured my budding talent as an artist, always making sure I had plenty of paper and pencils and crayons around to draw whenever the urge struck. When I was four years old and only just starting to discover that I could squeeze pictures from my fingers, make my hand replicate with a pencil or chalk, however crudely, a rough facsimile of whatever my eye beheld, my mother, recognizing my talent, would take me for walks in the neighborhood and teach me to look more deeply at the shapes, contours, and lineaments of nature, to observe more attentively its textures and outlines and to see its colors more profoundly.

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

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