I’ve been accused of having a dry sense of humor, so maybe that’s why the cartoons and writings of James Thurber appeal to me so. The title of my blog, of course, is a reference to one of Thurber’s best books.
When I was in college, someone in the Dean’s office had the bright idea to make me the dorm resident adviser, or RA. Since I had skipped the first two years of college and Florida Atlantic didn’t (at that time) have freshmen or sophomore students, I was at least two years younger than anyone else around the place. Crazed with the possibilities of my assignment, I bought a can of black paint and a 1/2-inch brush and painted a ten-foot high copy of the “What Have You Done With Dr. Millmoss?” cartoon on a starkly bare buff-colored concrete-block dorm wall.
Some folks liked it but when I left the university, they charged me $150 to have the wall repainted by the college maintenance crew. Philistines!!!
Thurber, a writer and editor for the New Yorker magazine when it was at its best in the 1930s through the 1950s, couldn’t draw worth a hoot in the conventional sense. Yet he loved to create doodles of floppy-eared dogs, timid men and dominant women and some of the editors insisted these be in the magazine. The cartoon below is unusual for Thurber, as it shows a dominant man. The expression on the woman’s face, however, indicates the man may have met his match.
The New Yorker’s founder, Harold W. Ross, hired Thurber initially as the managing editor to make sure the magazine got out on time. He was puzzled by Thurber’s cartoons, but realized they had a quality that others could appreciate perhaps more than he could. Note the stance on the man in the cartoon below. Probably by accident, Thurber conveys that the man has had a bit too much to drink.
Plagued by bad eyesight, Thurber was a crotchety person at times and that sometimes comes across in his cartoons. He also felt that men and women were often at war, and wrote and drew an entire book of cartoons based on that subject. Other of his cartoons, as in the one below, document befuddlement between folks regardless of gender.
Many times his cartoons came about because he didn’t have the skill to draw what he initially intended. The classic first wife/present wife cartoon came about because he couldn’t draw the perspective of a stairway. The seal cartoon at the top of this post didn’t start out to show a seal behind the headboard of a bed but it ended up that way.
At other times, he would be assigned to draw a cartoon that wouldn’t work if a better artist drew it. The famous “Touché!” cartoon was submitted by a cartoonist who drew in a realistic style. The editors gave the cartoon to Thurber to draw, as no one would think his cartoon people had blood.
Thurber’s obvious limitations irritated some readers and even other cartoonists. A cartoonist once wrote a letter to Harold Ross asking, “Why do you reject drawings of mine, and print stuff by that fifth-rate artist Thurber?”
“Third-rate,” Ross replied.
Here are ten of my favorite Thurber cartoons. I urge you to get a Thurber book; all are excellent. Perhaps the best book for someone new to his work is A Thurber Carnival, a collection of his brilliant short stories and cartoons.