Posted Note: Thurber's Unbaked Cookies
My Posted Note series continues with:
Thurber's Unbaked Cookies
Twenty something years ago when my wife and I moved into our home, I tacked James Thurber's New York Times obituary on my office wall, just to the left of where I work. During creative lulls my gaze sometimes drifts over to the obit, scanning the headline, "James Thurber is Dead at 66; Writer Was Also Comic Artist."
"Writer Was Also Comic Artist" ( italics mine). How wonderful that the Times recognized Thurber's art, right there in the headline. Though Thurber may be most remembered as a writer ( "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") his art was no less a gift to us than Charles Addams' work or Steinberg's or Hokinson's or Peter Arno's or Steig's or ________'s (you fill in the blank).
Unlike those other giants of the field, Thurber took a lot of heat for his art; his drawing style appeared less finished than the work of his peers. It looked as if it was done in a hurry. Shadows and shading weren't part of his cartoon world, nor was there a dutiful representation of human anatomy. Thurber's people had limbs that flowed in graceful lines from shoulder to hand without the hint of an elbow, and from hip to foot without suggestion of a knee. His people's eyes were accomplished with a dot and a slash, similar to the style a child uses when he or she first learns to draw.
New Yorker historians remember that Harold Ross, the magazine's founder and first editor, initially didn't care for Thurber's drawings. When Thurber first submitted them to The New Yorker, Ross said to him, "How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?" It wasn't until Thurber and his friend and colleague E.B. White had a hit on their hands with their 1929 publication, Is Sex Necessary? that Ross caved, demanding to see a previously rejected Thurber cartoon: "Where's that goddamn seal drawing, Thurber?"
Once Ross became a reluctant believer, Thurber's drawings became a fixture in the magazine ( but sadly, much less a fixture on the cover, with just a half-dozen to his credit). As readers today speak of a Booth dog, back then it was ( and for some, still is) the Thurber dog they pictured in their mind's eye. There was also the Thurber woman, glowering and towering over the Thurber man, the meekest sort of fellow, beleagured, and misunderstood.
While Peter Arno's couples were, most times, in sly cahoots with eachother, Thurber's were conflicted. Thurber, mining the humor found in the battle of the sexes, made the cartoon personal ( it's important to remember that he, unlike many of his colleagues, wrote his own captions). Those "unbaked cookies" as Dorothy Parker so famously described Thurber's people, were knee-deep in angst, just like the rest of us.
Like the very best cartoonists working for The New Yorker ( then and now), Thurber brought the personal to his work; he wasn't churning out gag cartoons ( i.e., illustrating comic drawings with joke captions) -- he brought some of himself onto the page. Looking at any Thurber drawing, I "see" Thurber in it -- I'd go as far as saying I can feel his humor as well. Addams' work has the same effect on me, as does Arno's, Steinberg's and Ziegler's ( to name but a few).
With Thurber's 115th birthday near -- he was born December 8th, 1894 -- it's time to pull The Last Flower off the shelf as well as The Thurber Carnival (if you don't have a copy, no worries! They're both still in print). Behold, once again, or perhaps for the first time, his comic genius.
Suggested reading, viewing:
Thurber's New Yorker work can be found at The New Yorker's Cartoon Bank: www.cartoonbank. com
On Youtube: a 1953 animated version of "The Unicorn in the Garden" : www.youtube.com/watch
Books (all of Thurber's books can be found online):
There are a number of Thurber biographies. Two favorites, both still available wherever new & used books are sold online:
Thurber: A Biography ( Dodd, Mead, 1975) by Burton Berstein
Thurber: His Life and Hard Times ( Henry Holt & Co, 1995) by Harrison Kinney
A Thurber bibliography: James Thurber: A Bibliography by James T. Bowden ( Ohio State University Press, 1968)
Adam Van Doren's documentary film, released in 2000, Thurber, The Life and Hard Times is well worth searching for.
The Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio is a must -visit for Thurberphiles: www.thurberhouse.org/