Thoughts on Thurber: The Owl In the Attic

Posted by on March 20th, 2010 at 8:03 AM

Rob reviews the 1931 collection of James Thurber’s essays and cartoons, THE OWL IN THE ATTIC (AND OTHER PERPLEXITIES) (Universal Library).

James Thurber was perhaps the most popular humorist of the first part of the 20th century in the USA.  The 1931 collection, THE OWL IN THE ATTIC, that I picked up at a library sale, shows him at his peak as a writer who draws (as opposed to an artist who writes).  The book is divided into three sections of essays.  There’s “Mr and Mrs Monroe”, a series of vignettes about a young married couple in New York City.  This is Thurber at his most familiar, dealing frankly with the battle of the sexes, depicted here more as a series of friendly skirmishes than as the more misanthropic wars he’d depict later in his career.  Oddly, none of the accompanying illustrations depicted the couple themselves.  There’s “Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Guide To Modern English Usage”, a series of fractured essays where Thurber twists the rules of grammar in highly inappropriate ways. This is Thurber torturing the English language to hilarious ends, but the accompanying illustrations don’t have all that much to do with the actual essays.

The section I’ll be focusing in on in this column is “The Pet Department”, a parody of pet advice columns that features Thurber at his best.  The drawings are funny, the text is (comparably) spare, and the two are intertwined in a way that I have only rarely seen from Thurber.  Thurber is merciless and on the absurd side when answering these “inquries”.  For example, the sketch above (supposedly enclosed by a “Mrs Eugenia Black”) represents a dog who has only two postures but a mysterious pedigree.  Thurber replies that this is most likely a cast-iron lawn dog, and suggests that all doubt could be removed with the aid of a hammer or acetylene torch.  Interestingly, the dog’s head is not unlike that of one of Jason’s anthropomorphic dogs.

This drawing was sent by “Mrs Oliphant Beatty”, who complains that her husband paid someone for a moose but that his antlers kept falling off.  Thurber chastises her, noting that this is a horse with antlers tied on.  He suggests disposing of the horse if they really want a moose or disposing of the antlers if they want a horse.  This is Thurber at his most absurd, presupposing the utter stupidity of a couple to set up his own punchline.  What’s amazing about it is how it works, especially given the way Thurber sets himself up as the voice of authority.

In this entry, “Joe Wright” wonders if this fish with ears was valuable.  Thurber indignantly replies that fish don’t have ears, that these may well be mammal’s ears (type unknown) or possibly even “hysterical ears”.  I love the fins turned upward acting as “ears” in this drawing, as well as the swirling eye.  In Thurber’s shaky line, you can see the future echoes of R.O. Blechman, Jules Feiffer and even Sam Henderson: cartoonists who pared their lines down to the simplest and sparest essentials.  By emphasizing just a couple of visual details, Thurber augmented his joke with a sight gag on page after page.  It’s a school of cartooning and humor that’s as much about humor as it is about telling jokes, one where the line is a servant solely to the idea instead of having any decorative element.

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