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Thurber Connection
written by Gazette Publisher Tom Thomson
January/February 2017

Enter the Cartooning Muse

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In good times and bad, the creative spirit in James Thurber burned bright. It didn’t seem to make any difference whether he and Althea were at each other’s throats, whether they were contemplating divorce, or living apart and dating whoever came along.

Before 1929 was over, this was becoming more and more apparent as he continued to churn out creative copy for The New Yorker. But a funny, unexpected thing was happening; a new beastie was being born. While he was ratcheting up his output of writing, another creative muse started kicking in more and more frequently.

Enter the cartooning muse. Oh, it had been around for a long time actually, since he was knee high to a duck. All the way back to when he was five or six years old. This was a muse that had accompanied him through thick and thin, unacknowledged, but faithfully sticking with him. It was called doodling back then. At school, or doing homework, or almost anytime he found himself with pencil and paper in hand. He would scribble.

It’s true that a few of his scribbles had seen the light of day when he contributed to the Sundial at Ohio State and, probably, a few more during the brief time he worked for the Columbus Dispatch. But nothing ever really came of them. And, the truth is that there was not much about those drawings that was distinguishing.

Enter E. B. White.

In 1929, at the New Yorker, Thurber was still sharing an office with this tremendously gifted writer. Neither one of them minded the cramped quarters and they had become fast friends. “Andy” White had long been aware of Thurber’s doodling habit. How could he not? The doodles were everywhere. On scraps of paper on Thurber’s desk, overflowing in the wastebasket, on memo pads, on the walls, in the hallway of the old building, in the elevator. Even in the telephone booth out in the hall. Especially in the telephone booth. Of course! That’s where even the most neophyte doodler feels compelled to do his thing.

Many of the drawings were of dogs, sad-eyed, droopy-eared hound dogs. But White was probably the first person to notice any artistic merit in Thurber’s constant and compulsive doodling. One day he spotted a crazy-looking seal that Thurber had scrawled on a piece of paper. The seal, with whiskers askew, seemed to be staring at a couple of far-away dots. Under the drawing Thurber had written the following caption: “Hm, explorers.”

White thought the drawing and its caption immensely amusing and submitted it for consideration to the weekly art meeting. He was a member of this little group, as was Harold Ross and several other editors. The members of the group, including the art director, didn’t know what to make of this strange bewildered-looking little animal. Rea Irvin, the art director handed the drawing back to White with a sigh – and a sketch of what a seal was supposed to look like.

Whomp! That was the sickening sound of rejection. But White was a persevering sort of person. He resubmitted the drawing with a note attached that said, “This is the way a Thurber seal’s whiskers go.”

The drawing was rejected again.

Not one to give up easily, in the following weeks, White submitted other Thurber drawings. Sometimes he would ink them in to make them a little bit bolder, but all to no avail. The drawings kept coming back! To add insult to injury, one day his hard-headed boss, Harold Ross said to Thurber, “How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?” Thurber evidently kept his thoughts to himself because there is no record of any response.

The truth probably was that at this stage in his career he wasn’t taking his drawing too seriously. For that matter, never in his lifetime did he truly consider himself an artist. His drawings were just a way to amuse himself – and maybe others if they were tuned into his wavelength.

More likely, a way to siphon off frustration over his faltering relationships with women. It’s all there in the drawings we have learned to cherish. So easy to perceive. Even for an amateur psychologist. The gimpy and frustrated sad-eyed men. The bossy looking carnivorous women. The sympathetic looking dogs and other animals.

Thank goodness E.B. White saw all this and recognized it as pure genius.

Thank goodness for friends!

Reprinted from the January 2005 issue.

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