The Monday Tilley Watch, which usually appears in this place at this time, will be back next Monday as we’re in the second half of the last New Yorker‘s double issue week (the issue dated July 9 & 16, 2018). In its stead, this brief puzzlement:
A Hmmmm About Spinach
Above: Carl Rose, E.B. White, A Can of Spinach
In December of 2013 the Spill posted a piece about the evolution of the caption of one of the most famous New Yorker cartoons. The piece was updated and reposted in January of this year. Here’s a further update (following the short burst of asterisks **********) — this time there’s a curious twist:
E.B. White is remembered as author of one of the most popular cartoon captions of the magazine’s earlier days, but perhaps it might be more accurate to say he was co-author, having adapted the caption from the artist’s original submission. The published caption, as it appeared beneath Carl Rose’s drawing in the December 8, 1928 New Yorker:
“It’s broccoli, dear.”
“I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”
The original caption, below, as submitted by Rose himself provided the framework for White’s sterling re-working. Rose’s original caption:
“Mother, if I eat my spinach, may I have some chocolate pudding?”
“No, dear, there isn’t any chocolate pudding today.”
“Well, then, the hell with the spinach.”
This morning while rereading Carl Rose’s New York Times obit (June 22, 1971), I was somewhat startled to see the quote from Mr. White included in the paragraph below (I’ve bolded it). I’d read Mr. Rose’s obit before without this quote causing a scene here. This is why I re-read what I’ve read, and then re-re-read:
“With the December, 1928, publication of the cartoon, “spinach” took on a new, inedible meaning as a slang synonym for the distasteful. E.B. White, the man who supplied the caption, recalled in a telephone interview yesterday: “The spinach drawing came in with a caption that he (Rose) had put on it — some entirely different thing.”
Here’s the Hmmmm part: Was Mr. White’s caption an entirely different thing? I immediately went to Scott Elledge’s wonderful biography of Mr. White hoping for clarification and/or amplification. Curiously, Mr. Elledge glides quickly over the spinach drawing, saying only:
Soon nearly every issue of The New Yorker carried ten or twelve of his [White’s] newsbreaks, five or six of his paragraphs of “Notes and Comment,” and one or more cartoons whose captions he had written or rewritten (Mother to child at the dinner table: “It’s broccoli, dear.” Child to mother: “I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it.”).
From Elledge I went to The Letters of E.B White (the revised edition, published in 2006). In a letter dated April 12, 1980, White says (in part):
“The spinach cartoon was not a collaboration in the strict sense of the word…one day a Carl Rose cartoon turned up on my desk for a fix. I didn’t think much of Rose’s caption, so I wrote an entirely new one…”
And after checking several other possible sources (Kunkels’s Ross biography for one), I finally came across a letter from Harold Ross citing the “spinach” drawing (it can be found in Kunkel’s Letters From The Editor: The New Yorker’s Harold Ross). Here, in part is his letter to a Mr. Stark, dated June 5, 1931:
The dope on the “spinach” caption is this. Sometime, not very often but occasionally, we get a caption in the office here for a picture, rather than use the artist’s caption. This is because we insist on the artist putting the idea into the picture rather than into the wording…Carl Rose sent that drawing in and E.B. White saw it and wrote the caption we used in the picture…I didn’t think it was anything very hot. I went away to Florida and Mrs. Katharine Angell, who subsequently became Mrs. E.B. White, and who always insisted it was hilariously funny or something, printed it. It very shortly became a by-word much to my surprise.
I return to Carl Rose. In his one and only collection One Dozen Roses: An Album of Words and Pictures, published in 1946, Rose devotes considerable space to talking about his famous drawing:
Obviously, Rose felt it necessary to let it be known that he had a part in the caption itself. For without his original submitted captions that included the words subsequently used in the published caption: “spinach” and “the hell with” Mr. White would’ve been faced with a drawing of a mother and little child sitting at a table, and nothing more. Could White have come up with the published caption without seeing Rose’s captions?
It seems fair that Mr. Rose receive some credit for the published caption (much as Yoko Ono was finally granted co-credit for John Lennon’s song, Imagine). Ordinarily, gagwriters receive no credit for their work (the Spill has covered this in previous posts. Here’s one). But as Mr. White’s contribution to the drawing became public knowledge and his authorship of the published caption undeniable, Mr. Rose’s contribution to the published caption should be accepted as well.
I leave you with this quote from One Dozen Roses. Mr. Rose, obviously proud of his skill as both writer and artist, writes:
I did not originate every idea in this book. Of the 115 drawings in this collection, 92 are mine, mine!