James Thurber (1884-1961) is one of my favourite writers, and is certainly my favourite cartoonist. This little volume—which is so old and brittle its thin, darkened pages tend to fall apart into hard creamy flakes if you pick the book up—is a heady treasure of his best drawings (up to 1943). I don’t open it very often, content in the knowledge that contained inside (just barely contained) are 240 crumbling pages of the genius that was Thurber. I don’t open it because I am unwilling to lose a precious page or two to paper-dust every time I do.
Thurber never thought he could draw (he seems to have had fewer doubts about his writing). He apparently shared an office at The New Yorker with essayist E.B.White, who began to notice one day that his friend would sometimes scribble glyphs onto pieces of scrap paper and then tear them up and throw them into his waste basket. White invariably fished them out again, glued the pieces back together and, after deeming them good, would take them to New Yorker editor (and founder), the legendary Harold Ross,* who also deemed them good and began to publish them. The book—the one on my desk—is the result.
Here is Thurber’s dedication of the book: “To Andy White who picked up the first of these restless scrawls from the floor fifteen years ago and bravely set about the considerable task of getting them published, this book is gratefully and affectionately dedicated.”
The book also offers a short and, in the case of my copy, tattered introduction by Thurber and White’s fellow New Yorker inmate, the gloriously waspish Dorothy Parker. Parker notes that she has always found it best “to be quiet and alone with a Thurber drawing, that I may seek to fathom what went on in the lives of the characters depicted, before the artist chose his moment for setting them down forever.”
“”Consider, for instance,” she continues, “the picture showing a man, his wife, and a male guest [this one of my favourite Thurbers as well]. They are standing in a something less than glorious enclosure, furnished mainly with a bookcase apparently ordered by mail from the company that did such notable work in Pisa [I do wish Dorothy didn’t try so hard to best or upstage Thurber himself; the Pisa joke adds nothing]. And on top of the bookcase is a woman on all fours. So help me God, there is a woman on all fours on top of the bookcase. And the host is saying, ‘That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris’.” Well, Parker adds, what would you do about that?
Well, the first thing I’d do would be to look at the drawing. All the description in the world—even Dorothy Parker’s—will not suffice. Drawing is drawing. Describing a drawing, especially a gnomic Thurber drawing, is like (poet Kenneth Koch said it about something else) kissing someone through a shower curtain. In the “first wife” drawing, it’s hard to describe the idiotic complacency on the face of the husband, or the utter perplexity on the face of the guest (clearly taken aback) as he gazes up at the first wife. What is even more delicious (the scowl on the crouching first wife’s face is only to be expected), is the look of fierce but carefully controlled superiority on the face of “the present Mrs. Harris.”
It was often said—quite frequently by Thurber himself—that he really didn’t draw very well. This failing, if failing it was, was often attributed to his eyesight, which had always been weak and which continued to worsen towards the end of his life to the point of his becoming almost blind. For my part (and I am joined by many Thurber enthusiasts in this), I think his failing eyesight helped his drawing rather than hindered it. There is never any time or attention spent on detail in his drawings (that’s why Parker’s fussing about with the leaning of the Harris bookcase is totally irrelevant). Rather, the swift strokes of Thurber’s pen (one feels they were swift) were employed only in carving his meaning directly from the otherwise undifferentiated space of what would become the drawing. His cartoons were more like utterances than texts for the painting or illuminating of a social or psychological situation. There is really nothing to look at in a Thurber drawing but the faces of his dramatis personae. And they are fixed solidly—like butterflies pinned to silk—by the artist’s unfailing assurance.
Perhaps one of Thurber’s most celebrated cartoons will serve as an emblematizing of his pointed, graphically economic method: I’m thinking of the infamous fencing drawing, where (the thing is simplicity itself) a large, clearly robust fencer has just thrust at his opponent and cut his head clean off his shoulders. The detached head of the amputee—now a couple of inches above his lonely shoulders—still looks perplexed. Not surprised or horrified, but just perplexed. The cartoon bears a one-word caption: “Touche!”
Harold Ross (1872-1951) founded The New Yorker in 1925 and edited it until the year he died. James Thurber’s book, The Years with Ross (1959) is not only the best book about Ross and the best book, inadvertently, about Thurber himself; it is also the best book about The New Yorker (during its palmiest years) and the best book about the state of American journalism during the first half of the 20th century.