The Press: Boston's Dahl

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Like many conservative New Englanders, the 100-year-old Boston Herald regards tradition as no laughing matter. Yet for 16 years it has permitted itself and its readers a daily exception. In the cartoons of droll, deadpanned Francis W. Dahl, it has needled the Watch & Ward Society, kidded the champions of real New England (tomato-less) clam chowder,*poked fun at the customs and costumes of Beacon Hill.

Bostonians have loved every minute of it. One night a Herald engravers' plate was broken just before deadline, and the paper landed on 144,000 breakfast tables with no Dahl, but a printed box asking readers if he was missed. Four thousand readers promptly sent testy notes to the editor, saying yes. The omission has never been repeated, although Dahl seldom makes his 8:30 p.m. deadline with more than minutes to spare. When Dahl goes on vacation, the Herald exhumes his best sketches and reprints them. Rather than miss a day, it had him draw left-handed for six weeks when he broke his right arm five years ago. Since draftsmanship is the least of Dahl's assets, the switchover didn't show much.

Because he concocts his cartoons out of local news items, and refuses to change his ways, mild-mannered Francis Dahl has never been syndicated. But for his collections of reprints (LeftHanded Compliments; What! More Dahl?), he would be unknown outside New England. This week, in his fourth book (Dahl's Boston; Atlantic Monthly Press—Little, Brown; $2.50), he offered the world peripheral to Boston another peek at "the American Athens." This time Dahl had a collaborator: cheery, pipe-smoking Charles W. Morton, associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

"Dahl's Boston," wrote Morton in an aside, "is essentially a village, not a city. ... Its physical center is the village green, or Boston Common. It has a bandstand, Symphony Hall; a library, the Athenaeum." Morton could not resist a jab at its press: "Its newspapers are dailies instead of weeklies, but in other respects they are reasonably to be compared with the lesser journals of Berkshire County, rural Indiana, and Long Island."

Dahl's latest is full of crudely, shrewdly drawn glimpses of Back Bay folk and subway riders, the people who feed the Boston Common pigeons and the suburban firemen who are forever rescuing treed cats. Some of the cartoons are local jokelets which only Bostonians are apt to appreciate. At the book's end is one of Dahl's rare political gibes. It begins by noting that Mayor James M. Curley, who used to sue almost every time his name was mentioned in print, had been sentenced to jail for war-contract frauds. There follow six blank panels and a postscript : "No grounds for libel here."

Bostonians might resent such darts if an outsider threw them. But Dahl hails from neighboring Quincy (pronounced—in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—"Quinzy"), is accepted as one of the family. He started on the Herald in 1928 as a $20-a-week illustrator. By last week, on his 39th birthday, his bosses (who hand sonorous, syndicated Columnist Bill Cunningham $25,000 a year) had raised Boston's top local cartooner to $115 a week.

*Dahl's recipe: ''Mainly clams and milk, with just a soupc.on of mud in it."