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26 September 2012

I think you need a dose of James Thurber

James Thurber

What with Plebgate and Lib Dems and polarised American politics and trolls and other grave topics, I thought a dose of the great American humorist James Thurber might be just what some of you need.

It was Thurber who explained: “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself.”

This is from an interview in the Paris Review in 1955 and describes how he dealt with his literal-minded editor’s questions about this cartoon.

Once I did a drawing for The New Yorker of a naked woman on all fours up on top of a bookcase – a big bookcase. She’s up there near the ceiling, and in the room are her husband and two other women. The husband is saying to one of the women, obviously a guest, “This is the present Mrs. Harris. That’s my first wife up there.” Well, when I did the cartoon originally I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs, but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

That cartoon really threw The New Yorker editor, Harold Ross. He approached any humorous piece of writing, or more particularly a drawing, not only grimly but realistically. He called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.” After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours. “So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.” “Well then,” he said, “what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?” I told him he had me there.

If you liked that, try his “The Night the Bed Fell on My Father”, one of the most perfect humorous short stories ever. You will be the better for it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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