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James Thurber, The lady on the bookcase

May 2, 2010
James Thurber, 1945

Thurber, 1945 (Courtesy: life.com, for personal non-commercial use)

If you like to think of yourself as a critic, read this. It is last week’s offering from the Library of America, and is an essay by James Thurber titled “The lady on the bookcase”; it was first published in The New York Times Magazine in 1945 under the title “Thurber as seen by Thurber”. I read it as a general spoof on the art of criticism; the Library of America says he “teases [his] colleagues and editors at The New Yorker.”

The scene is set in the first paragraph when he reports on a cartoonist complaining about being rejected:

“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 defence like the true friend and devoted employer he is. “You mean third-rate”, he said quietly, but there was a warning glint in his steely gray eyes that caused the discomfited cartoonist to beat a hasty retreat.

Just this beginning, before I read any more, reminded me of why I had enjoyed Thurber in my baby-boomer youth when many of us read a bit of Thurber. Thurber was a writer and cartoonist, and in this essay he combines the two to poke fun at criticism … and at how editors tend to show a journalistic rather than a critical interest in his work by wanting to know the stories behind his work rather than analysing it.

He writes that:

I have never wanted to write about my drawings and I still don’t want to, but it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to do it now, when everybody is busy with something else, and get it over quietly.

… and, to continue his satire, he talks about “shoving” some of his originals around the floor until they “fell, or [he says archly] perhaps I pushed them, into five separate categories”. He goes on to describe the categories, illustrating each with some of his cartoons:

  • the Unconscious or Stream of Nervousness category
  • the space between the Concept of the Purely Accidental and the Theory of the Haphazard Determination
  • the theory of the Deliberate Accident or Conditioned Mistake
  • the Contributed Idea category
  • the Intentional or Thought-Up category

If you haven’t worked it out by now, you can’t take much of what he says seriously – and that is his point. Don’t, he tells us, try to categorise or apply psychological theories to someone’s work, go for a run instead. Then again, I wouldn’t take this too seriously either, because Thurber is also being disingenuous: in the tradition of the satirist, he sets us up at every point, only to pull us down again. After all, like any creative artist, he wants us to look at and respond to his work.

Have a look at it … I’m sure you’ll enjoy the ten cartoons reproduced even if you don’t want to read the essay.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 8:56 pm

    His “point” reminds me of something I read somewhere recently, though I can’t remember where this was (blame the pain/drugs/nausea/growing old): “English teachers put more thought into novels that the novels’ authors ever did”. And I think you’re mean for telling me, via Thurber, to go for a run. You know I’ve only just managed to walk rather than crab-crawl today. 😛

    • May 3, 2010 9:51 pm

      Oh, you got my hidden message. You’re even cleverer than I thought!! (Did you look at the essay and the cartoons?)

      BTW I’m sure there’s some truth to that statement about English teachers.

      • May 3, 2010 9:57 pm

        But of course! I particularly liked the line about “The New Yorker being nine years old at the time” 😀

  2. May 3, 2010 10:27 pm

    Oh good. Yes, that was a great line. And, it looked like a hippopotamus to me. What was with them?

  3. May 4, 2010 12:59 am

    I’ve not read much Thurber but his cartoons have a style that are pretty recognizable. I didn’t read the essay, it sounds like fun though, but I did look at the cartoons and got a few chuckles 🙂

  4. May 4, 2010 6:49 am

    Wonderful cartoons. You can tell he didn’t think long or hard about them – otherwise he wouldn’t have captured the absurdity. I also liked his ‘stream of nervousness’ category.

  5. May 4, 2010 8:33 am

    Stefanie: Glad you liked the cartoons – I love their sense of the absurd. It’s been so long since I’ve seen (or even thought of, LOL) his work.

    Tony: I think you are right – the quickness is part of their appeal isn’t it? I love the categories too – so tongue in cheek.

  6. May 7, 2010 2:32 am

    I think I read everything I could find of Thurber’s once I’d got an adult library ticket! This was a very pleasant reminder of his genius. – so many modern cartoonists “stand on the shoulders of giants” like Thurber.

    • May 7, 2010 9:14 am

      It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me – and I’m not sure my kids’ generation know him the way we did. I like your comment about his influence – I was thinking as I wrote it that the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig draws on Thurber’s tradition.

  7. May 8, 2010 8:58 pm

    Oh, yes – Thurber fan here, too. I didn’t have to look at the cartoons: they’re engraved on my memory (much as are many of Ronald Searle’s drawings). The barking seal is one of my favourites, as is ‘You and Your Premonitions’; as for ‘ah, I see you have issue …’ (? not sure if I’ve misquoted this). Now laughing maniacally (is good thing blogs aren’t fully interactive!).

  8. May 9, 2010 12:23 am

    Leunig I don’t know, Sue – must remedy. JH perhaps not my scene; as a child was crazy about C Walter Hodges & Charles Keeping as illustrators as well as Searle. Searle because, well, there’s Molesworth; St Trinian’s; cats; the Burma railway … and he lives in Provence! Thanks for expanding my knowledge and enjoyment.

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