Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The cartoon critic.

One of the many terrific books by James Thurber is 'The Years With Ross', an account of his experiences of the early days of the New Yorker magazine, and in particular its eccentric, energetic, unpredictable founder and editor, Harold Ross.

Ross was deeply involved in every aspect of the magazine (except perhaps the financial), including scrutinising the submitted cartoons every Tuesday, pin-pointing weaknesses with a white knitting needle. Thurber says:

'I was on hand when he pointed his needle at a butler in a Thanksgiving cover depicting a Park Avenue family at table, and snarled 'That isn't a butler, it's a banker.' Suddenly, the figure was, to all of us, a banker in disguise, and Ross dictated a note asking the artist 'to make a real butler out of this fellow.'

On another occasion he stared at a picture of Model T driving down a dusty road for two minutes, before saying 'Take this down, Miss Terry. Better dust.'

It was Ross who decided, though not without misgivings, to publish not just Thurber's brilliant articles and short stories, but also his equally brilliant but untrained and elliptical cartoons, such as this one:

Of course, this sort of naif style looks perfectly normal to us, but in those days of the elegant draftsmanship of Peter Arno or Charles Addams it was rather shocking. According to Thurber, one angry artist:

'...yelled at Ross one day during the thirties, 'Why do you reject drawings of mine and print stuff by that fifth-rate artist Thurber?'
'Third-rate,' said Ross, coming promptly and bravely to the defence of my stature as an artist and his own reputation as an editor.

Elsewhere, Thurber quotes E.B.White, on finding Thurber trying his hand at the more usual elaborate cross-hatching style of cartooning: 'Don't do that. If you ever got good you'd be mediocre.'


Ross Bennett said...

Thank you for this story, John. Somehow this particular Ross has escaped me until now. I look forward to becoming acquainted.

Starting about ten years ago I've had the pleasure to enjoy people saying, "Your parents must have liked 'Friends' quite a lot."

I'm 44.

Also wanted you to know this. Lately, for reasons I can't quite identify and without any particular prompting, I find myself mumbling, "No. I am a chipmunk."

Piques said...

This is what I like about modern social media like blogs and twitter and such. I get exposed to stuff I never knew or spent time learning before. Here, you have exposed me to the New Yorker - something I was familiar with but disliked; James Thurber who originated the scrawl-type cartoons so associated with the New Yorker and its ilk; as well as the literary term "elliptical ". I had no idea words could be elliptical outside of fancy fonts.

So a-googling I a-went. Although I have read some on elliptical poetry - as apparently it mainly refers to - I still have no actual understanding of what it describes. I am aware of its existence but can not describe it or point it out in an anthology. I have researched this cartoon wondering if I am missing some bit of information that throws light as to its meaning. I have found no virtual light switch. The best I have gathered is that there are some people who find it amusing that Dr. Millmoss has been eaten by a hippo. They also seem to presume that it is a Jonah in the belly of the whale situation but more cramped for poor Dr. Millmoss. And finally, given the New Yorker another look over and decided that I still am not a fan.

Now this all may seem negative, but its not. The positive thing is not that I come to agree or learn something useful. The fun comes in being exposed to something worth investigating.

Life can become very mundane for those of us on the average path. And it is easy to forget the thrill of the hunt of irrelevant information. Through social media I find all sorts of stuff I had no idea I didn't know. And that's what I love about it all.

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