Thurber the illustrator

James Thurber drew stuff, all the time. Some of this stuff was published as single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker (indeed, went a long way towards defining the New Yorker style in cartooning). Other stuff served as illustrations to his writing. In at least one case — The Last Flower, which I’ll look at below — the text and illustrations are fused, in the fashion of a graphic novel.

All of this you can appreciate in a single volume, Thurber: Writings & Drawings (1996), from the estimable Library of America (contents selected by Garrison Keillor), which has the complete My Life and Hard Times (1933), The Last Flower (1939), and The 13 Clocks (1950) — for an appreciation of this last book on this blog, see my 7/29/13 posting — and substantial selections from most of the rest of his output, from Is Sex Necessary? (White & Thurber, 1929) to The Years with Ross (1958).

(Thurber now has his own Page on this blog, under “New Yorker cartoons”, here.)

Three samples of Thurber the illustrator: in My Life and Hard Times, The Last Flower, and Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated.

My Life and Hard Times is inspired fictobiography, a memoir of his early life in Columbus OH, polished into wry tales, with illustrations by Thurber. From Wikipedia:

My Life and Hard Times is the 1933 autobiography of James Thurber. It is considered his greatest work … he relates in bewildered deadpan prose the eccentric goings on of his family and the town beyond (Columbus, Ohio).

Front cover, flap copy, and back-cover copy:


An ilustration from “The Day the Dam Broke”:


The Last Flower. From Wikipedia:

The Last Flower [subtitled A Parable in Pictures] is an anti-war short story written and illustrated by James Thurber’s own drawings; it deals with themes of war, peace, love, and resilience.

This short parable was originally published in November 1939, two months after World War II officially began. It was ahead of its time as an early graphic novel.

The Last Flower was written as Thurber began to realize the sorrow and chaos of war, as can be read via the dedication to his only child “in the wistful hope that her world will be better than mine.”

The Houghton Mifflin Chronology of US Literature (2004) gives other details for the inspiration for the book and the eventual moral; it states that the book was “inspired by the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland. Thurber presents a parable of the folly of war in which the only survivors of World War XII are a man, a woman, and a flower. From these three love emerges, leading to family, tribe, civilization, and inevitably, another war.”

While at the New York Algonquin Hotel, Thurber wrote and drew The Last Flower on their yellow paper. Both the writer and Helen, his wife, considered it to be the favorite of his twenty-six books. The book was an immediate success.

Front cover:


And the first two pages of the tale:


Fables … and Famous Poems.From Wikipedia:

Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated is a 1940 book by James Thurber. Thurber updates some old fables and creates some new ones of his own. Notably there is ‘The Bear Who Could Take It Or Leave It Alone’ about a bear who lapses into alcoholism before sobering up and going too far that way. (He used to say ‘See what the bears in the back room will have.’) Also an updated version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ which ends with the immortal lines, “even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. ” All the fables have one-line morals. The moral of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is “Young girls are not so easy to fool these days.” Another fable concerns a non-materialist chipmunk who likes to arrange nuts in pretty patterns rather than just piling up as many as he can. He is constantly nagged by his chipmunk wife for this.

All fables had previously appeared in The New Yorker.

The front cover:


“The Little Girl and the Wolf”:


ONE AFTERNOON a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be

A famous poem illustrated:



The Housman poem (#18 in A Shropshire Lad of 1896) has been set to music by many hands, notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams; you can listen to a performance of the Vaughan Williams setting by tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson here; or by tenor Peter Pears here. (There are still other recordings.)

3 Responses to “Thurber the illustrator”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Christopher Walker on Facebook:

    I see similarities to the cartoon style of Gluyas Williams, who illustrated all those books by Robert Benchley.

    Some similarity, yes. But Williams was in fact an exacting draftsman though using his skills mostly to satirical ends, while Thurber’s drawings were much more sketch-like, because of his visual problems.

    (“sketch-like” is an improvement on my earlier “sketchier”; see Mike Pope’s comment.)

  2. mikepope Says:

    As a linguistic aside, I was interested to note that my first interpretation of “sketchier” in your comment was NOT “in a more sketch-like manner.” Even tho this discussion is about drawing.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I see now that I should have used “more sketch-like”, to avoid tempting readers into this misinterpretation. I’m going to edit the text to improve it, but I’ll leave your comment, since the change isn’t merely the correction of a typo.

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