When you think of James Thurber’s drawings you probably think of one or two or three of his classics. But before any of his cartoons appeared in the magazine (his first cartoon appeared in the issue of January 31, 1931), he illustrated and wrote something he called Our Pet Department. It was, from the very first, intended to be a series; the first installment (shown above) appeared in the magazine’s fifth anniversary issue, February 22, 1930. What’s fascinating (to me) is that the piece contains two elements that would go on to be forever associated with Thurber’s art: a dog, and a seal.
It’s unclear when the two camps formed over whether Thurber’s art was or wasn’t art. Was it when the illustrations began appearing, or was it nearly a year later when the cartoons started turning up. Thurber’s simple line certainly wasn’t a shock. A trio of single line artists were already established at the magazine by the time Thurber’s first drawings appeared: Gardner Rea, Otto Soglow, and Gluyas Williams. But it appeared that no little effort went into their finished pieces.
Thurber’s drawings seemed as casual as the effort he claimed to have put into them; their initial appearances in the New Yorker seemed to have dropped like graphic boulders in a placid pond. Thurber’s New Yorker colleague Wolcott Gibbs wrote (this from the Book-of-the-Month Club News, February, 1945):
“…for a good many years [Thurber’s drawings] were regarded by the rest of the staff, with the exception of E.B. White, as a hell of a way to waste good copy paper, since his usual output at a sitting was twenty or more, not to mention those he drew on the walls.”
New Yorker history books tell us that White was instrumental in bringing Thurber’s art to the world’s attention. In 1962, a year after Thurber’s death, White told Thurber biographer, Harrison Kinney that “I think his art surpasses his writing” and “his drawing has a touch of genius.”