Sunday, September 1, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 131: James Thurber, The Lady on the Bookcase (#17)

James Thurber, "The Lady on the Bookcase" (1945) from James Thurber: Writings and Drawings:

Thurber presents one of my favorite types of story: the heavily illustrated. Originally titled “Thurber As Seen By Thurber," this piece presents Thurber's categorization of his cartoons, according to where the idea came from. This being Thurber, the categories themselves are a mix of slightly fanciful and downright real, from the "Stream of Nervousness" cartoons (where a house marked "Home" is also a woman glaring down at a little man); to the accidental (or merely subconscious) cartoons (where a seal that is supposed to be on a rock, due to some poor drawing, ends up being on the headboard of a bed); to the "Contributed Idea" cartoons, where someone else actually came up with the idea and Thurber merely drew it in his style (because his style would work, as in the bloodless decapitation of sword duelists with the dialogue, "Touché.")

But this retrospective introspective piece is really just an excuse for a series of jokes: a man who complains to an editor that the New Yorker publishes a fourth-rate cartoonist is rebuffed--Thurber is, at worst, third-rate. His two-year-old daughter could recognize the picture of a hippo, whereas the New Yorker merely categorizes it as a "strange animal"--and the New Yorker is nine years old. And so on. The jokes are a mix of self-deprecating and world-deprecating, but all so gentle that it's hard to take any real feeling from them. This is low-stakes humor, the type that calls for chuckles but not much more.

It's also a devilishly good scheme to re-use his cartoons. Did he get paid twice for each cartoon?

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