Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lady on the Bookcase

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings and Drawings

“I don’t think any drawing ever took me more than three minutes,” James Thurber once said of his work. Yet his style is instantly recognizable, his humor timeless and sometimes unsettling, his tableaus abounding with dogs, seals, birds, and (perhaps his favorite species) husbands and wives. His comic writings—stories, portraits, sketches, parodies, memoirs—spare no one, least of all himself.

In 1945 he wrote “Thurber As Seen By Thurber,” a whimsical assessment of his own cartoons, and published it in
The New York Times Magazine. Facetiously dividing his body of work into five “separate and indistinct” categories, the article presents ten sample drawings (all reproduced in the attached PDF), discusses their creation and content, and uses the opportunity to tease Thurber's colleagues and editors at The New Yorker. Three years later, “verging on his middle fifties, when he should be engaged on some work dignified by length and of a solemnity suitable to our darkening age,” he included the piece in a book-length collection, The Beast in Me and Other Animals, and renamed it “The Lady on the Bookcase.” In the book’s foreword, he remarks that the “imaginary” animals in his stories and drawings “emerged from the shameless breeding ground of the idle mind and they are obviously not going anywhere in particular.”

One day twelve years ago an outraged cartoonist, four of whose drawings had been rejected in a clump by The New Yorker, stormed into the office of Harold Ross, editor of the magazine. “Why is it,” demanded the cartoonist, “that you reject my work and publish drawings by a fifth-rate artist like Thurber?” Ross came quickly to my defense like the true friend and devoted employer he is. “You mean third-rate,” he said quietly, but there was a warning glint in his steady gray eyes that caused the discomfited cartoonist to beat a hasty retreat.

With the exception of Ross, the interest of editors in what I draw has been rather more journalistic than critical. They want to know if it’s true that I draw by moonlight, or under water. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!


andrea stillman said...

What a wonderful story! It's so good to laugh out loud on a Monday morning. I'm sharing this with my children who, alas, may not even know who Thurber is. Andrea Stillman

Anonymous said...

A few weeks ago in a comment on the baseball story, I learned here that a story has plot and character development. Will you folks never learn?

(I love Thurber, we could use him now.)

matters that matter said...

Thurber, always my favorite. My dad used to read this to me. I will always remember the way he laughed. Thanks for sharing this.