James Thurber’s Influence on Modern Cartoons

["You and your horsie get away from me and stay away!" is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber") /Daniel Polletta/ideastream]
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"It’s not the ink—it’s the think that makes a cartoon,” wrote longtime cartoon editor for “The New Yorker” magazine, Robert Mankoff.

That’s fitting with James Thurber’s style and what he brought to cartooning in the 20th century, according to scholar Michael Rosen.

“Thurber introduced a non-artist, unstudied, spontaneous, he would call them ‘scrawls.’ He was the first to add short funny captions to funny drawings. Prior to that it was draftsmen and artists who would make a handsome photo on assignment to go along with a phrase or a bit of dialogue. Before Thurber, things didn’t look like this, and now so many people take up that same style or have the permission to do what they do,” Rosen said.

("Thurber and His Circle" is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber")

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

Born in 1894, Thurber came to prominence through his contributions to “The New Yorker” starting in the late 1920s and went on to become one of the most beloved American humorists.

Now he is being honored with a new book and art exhibition celebrating his work as a cartoonist.

[The Ohio State University Press]

Rosen’s new book, “A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber” (The Ohio State University Press) is the first to dig deeply into the cartoonist’s drawings from both an art history perspective as well as a sociological one. Coinciding with the book’s release is the first major retrospective of Thurber’s art, which is now on view at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Rosen is the founding literary director of Thurber House in the cartoonist’s hometown of Columbus, a post he held from 1982 until 2001. Rosen now runs the website, jamesthurber.org, which gathers and shares information about the writer. 

("Bang! Bang! Bang!" is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber")

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

Though Thurber didn’t consider himself a serious artist, he did resent when people referred to his work as ‘doodling’ or childlike.’

“There’s something so profound that goes to the words “doodling’ and ‘whimsical.’ Those are opposites in a way, in what apparently looks caviler or childlike is not, because it comes from that whole pot of distilled experience,” Rosen said.

("The White-Faced Rage (left) and the Blind Rage"  is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber")

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

Thurber had an answer for many of his critics.    

“When E.B. White first convinced ‘The New Yorker’ cartoon department to take his work seriously and they started publishing his cartoons in 1927, parents all over the country would send envelopes with their children’s art, saying ‘if you are publishing Thurber, you should publish my kid’s work. He was told because “The New Yorker” was this respectful place to answer each of the letters. Thurber wrote back ‘yes, your child can draw as well as I, it’s just that he or she hasn’t been through as much,’” Rosen said.

Sara Thurber Sauers, Thurber’s granddaughter, designed the cover and text for Rosen’s book. She said her grandfather was a major influence on her life, though as a child she really only knew Thurber “as the man in the chair” that she would see on summer vacations in Connecticut. It was only later that she really came to understood who he was.

“I learned about him through my mother (Rosemary), through reading and looking at the drawings over the years. Sometimes I would be in a class where he was anthologized in the textbook we had, which was kind of interesting because of my growing realization of the famous person he was,” Sauers said.

[Drawing by James Thurber © copyright 1933 Rosemary A. Thurber. Reprinted by permission of Rosemary A. Thurber and the Barbara Hogenson Agency, Inc.]

 

Thurber had a complex relationship with Columbus. He sometimes poked fun at the city and its residents, yet he had many fond memories of it, too.

“I think it is hard to get away from the place you grew up, especially when it has so many good stories. His mother, Mame, was quite a character, a force of the neighborhood that presented him with a lot of material that he couldn’t leave behind and didn’t want to leave behind, those ghosts of Columbus,” Sauers said.

("One woman climbed up into the 'These Are My Jewels' statue"  is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber")

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

Rosen felt Columbus provided Thurber with a ballast of sorts during his life.

“Given the very troubled times in which Thurber’s adulthood was spent, two wars, Prohibition, the nervousness of new conflicts, the Depression, Columbus remained a pastoral place, something he could return to in his imagination, particularly as his sight diminished, if not wholesome, at least less complicated life. Thurber’s children’s books, the book “The Thurber Album,” portraits of influential people in his life, these were where he turned during those more difficult decades toward the end of his life,” Rosen said.  

("Place Kick"  is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber")

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

In the book “A Mile and a Half of Lines,” a number of contemporary humorists and cartoonists, including Michael Maslin and Liza Donnelly, share thoughts about Thurber’s influence on their work.

“Thurber died in 1961 at the age of 67. Though a couple of other books were published posthumously, people of our generation, in their fifties or sixties or older grew up with Thurber. Michael and Liza, Danny Shanahan, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Roz Chast and many of the other cartoonists from “The New Yorker” point to Thurber in a way that says, ‘I would have never have embarked on this had I been the sort of artist who had to create representation and be evaluated how skillfully I did rider on the horse,’” Rosen said.

("All Right, Have It Your Way-You Heard A Seal Bark"  is on view as part of the Columbus Museum of Art exhibit-"A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber")

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

As he assembled “A Mile and a Half of Lines,” Rosen and members of the Thurber family and his agency would look at Thurber’s work, which Rosen said still prompted the same reaction it did for readers who saw in “The New Yorker” many decades earlier.

“I would cue up a drawing and ask ‘any idea what this one means?’ Or, ‘can you help me decipher this handwritten caption?’ Thurber loved the idea of suspending us between one thing and another and not resolving it. I don’t think we want to take out the dissection pins to show where the symbolism lies, but indeed, just sustain the pleasure of engaging with the work,” Rosen said.

Thurber Dogs Shirt and plate

[two of ideastream's Dan Polletta's prize possesions-and no...you can't have them/Dan Polletta ideastream]

“A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber” is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through March 15, 2020.

 

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