“Mr Benito Micawber Waits for Something to Show Up”

“Mr Benito Micawber Waits for Something to Show Up” (July 3, 1943)
by Gerald Aloysius (Jerry) Doyle, Jr. (1898-1986)
16 x 18 in., ink on board
Coppola Collection

Jerry Doyle spent most of his career at The Philadelphia Record, The Philadelphia Daily News(1951) and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He retired in 1973. Doyle’s support for the New Deal meant that his cartoons generally expressed support for President Roosevelt, whom he depicted as tall, imposing, powerful, and larger-than-life. Doyle’s early and continual criticism towards Hitler and Mussolini made him the only American cartoonist to be put on the Nazi hit list. He wrote the book “According to Doyle – A Cartoon History of World War II” (1943). His son, who carried his name, was also a part-time cartoonist (1926-2009).

Wilkins Micawber was a clerk in Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel David Copperfield. He is traditionally identified with the optimistic belief that “something will turn up.” His name has become synonymous with someone who lives in hopeful expectation.

Mussolini’s dreams of waging a short war almost independently from Hitler faded away during 1941 in the snows of Greece. His main concern became how to secure an important place for Italy in a German-dominated Europe. Hitler blamed his need to go rescue the Italians on the Greek front for delaying his invasion of Russia.

As the war turned against Germany, Mussolini wanted to find a political solution to the conflict by negotiating a separate peace agreement with Moscow.

By mid-June, 1943, the war was all but lost for the Italians. The Italian population was alienated, and the Grand Council and the king were pressing Mussolini to negotiate a way out of the war.

Mussolini was completely isolated. He was playing both sides. And although years later, Mussolini’s alienation is notably described in Bosworth’s biography of him as Dickens’s Wilkins Micawber who, despite ‘of being utterly devoid of plans’, obstinately hoped – somehow – ‘that something positive would turn up,’ it’s pretty clear that this was a contemporary editorial position.

In late June, Mussolini was continuing his psychological contest with Hitler. On July 1, 1943, against the Hitler’s wishes, Mussolini met with the Romanian deputy premier, Antonescu, with whom he agreed to promote the long-debated inter-Axis conference (and a Nazi-Soviet settlement, which was of no interest to Hitler).

The Allies were knocking on the door, and the first invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe would begin on July 10, 1943, when Patton’s army landed in Sicily.  In his last speech before the invasion, Mussolini was still declaring his confidence in being able to repulse the Allies and demonstrate the futility of taking on the Axis. ‘Maybe then’, he said, ‘whoever until now has let himself be slaughtered all to the good of the Anglo-Saxon plutocracy will realize that the game is not worth the candle.’

This is a great saying that we have lost. It refers to playing a game of cards for stakes that are so low that it is not worth the price of the candle being used to light the play.***

On the day of the landing, the Italian government secretly agreed to the Allies’ terms for surrender, but no public announcement was made until September 8.

On July 25, 1943, following the agreement, Mussolini was voted out of power by his own Grand Council and arrested upon leaving a meeting with King Vittorio Emanuele, who tells Il Duce that the war is lost.

*** candles were a real expense, of course, as much as paying an electric bill is today; perhaps not surprisingly, there were many phrases that related to not wasting your candles. I wonder if its use by Mussolini in 1943 might not have been the last highly visible occurrence?

A brief view of the early etymology:

Stephen Gosson’s “The ephemerides of Phialo… And a short apologie of The schoole of abuse,” (1579): “I burnt one candle to seek another, and lost bothe my time and my trauell [work].”

In William Lambarde’s “Eirenarcha,” (1581): “I shal but set a Candle in the Sunshine.”

‘Not worth the candle’ is ultimately of French origin. It appears in Randle Cotgrave’s “A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues,” (1611), where it is listed as: “Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle.”

The first known printed record of the phrase in English is in Sir William Temple’s “Works,” (1690): “Perhaps the Play is not worth the Candle.”

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