‘What would you do about that?’: Stevie Smith and James Thurber

In a review for the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post in 1958, John Betjeman wrote, ‘Stevie Smith is a delightful poet and writer; her sketchbook “Some Are More Human Than Others” (Gaberbocchus, 18s) owes much to Thurber.’

Betjeman wasn’t alone in comparing Smith’s doodle-art to James Thurber (1894-1961), who contributed stories and drawings to the New Yorker from 1930 to 1950. Like Smith, Thurber drew mobile, dynamic figures in pen and ink. His people are sketchy, distorted, holding themselves at insistent but unsettling angles.

Thurber drawing - 'Two best falls out of three - Okay, Mr Montague?'
Note: tilted backs and arms; unevenly thick legs; one sketchy, flopping lock of hair…

Thurber is known for his timid little men, and his vast monstrous pudgy women. See above. And for his dogs. ‘Thurber dogs’.

Thurber cartoon - 'Here's a study for you, Doctor - he faints'
Dorothy Parker on Thurber’s dogs (1943) – ‘My heart used to grow soft at the sight of his dogs; now it turns completely liquid…There is nowhere else existent an innocence like to that of Thurber animals.’

Frances Spalding, Smith’s biographer, is unconvinced that Smith and Thurber are really alike.

…the anarchy of her humour runs deep, making comparisons with James Thurber or Ogden Nash wholly unsatisfactory. Thurber’s humour, for Stevie, had merely ‘the blunt fun of the comic picture postcard, slightly upgraded.’

‘Where Thurber deals with social comedy and situations’, Spalding adds, ‘[Smith] pinpoints states of mind.’

I’m not sure that Smith’s image-text dyads ever get precise enough to ‘pinpoint’ anything, but I agree that the differences between Smith and Thurber are as obvious as the similarities. On one level, there’s style. Thurber’s drawings are rounder and lumpier than Smith’s, with fewer overlapping lines and more predictable viewing angles. Normally Thurber steers our gaze into a bedroom or sitting-room. Often with Smith, we have little idea what we’re looking at, or from where.

Image from Some Are More Human Than Others, 'My mother was a fox'
From Smith’s Some Are More Human Than Others. What do that woman and that cat have to do with each other? Look at the angle at which the woman is leaning – do she and the cat even exist in the same world?

But another difference lies in how Smith’s and Thurber’s drawings relate to their texts. We know Smith only matched her drawings to her poems when preparing a collection for publication. Equally, on at least one occasion she overproduced illustrations on request, and encouraged the editors to choose the one(s) they liked best. So it’s often observed that Smith’s drawings have only the most tangential relationship to the texts they illustrate. Sometimes they subvert or complicate their accompanying texts in interesting ways; sometimes they seem (accidentally?) fitting. Most often, perhaps, they seem only to bear the most minimal relation to one another. The pictures float: ungrounded non sequiturs.

In contrast, Thurber’s drawings match their texts. Thurber illustrations don’t give you the sense of impasse of a Smith drawing, which won’t illustrate its text in any satisfactory way. He was a cartoonist: he designed his captions to go with their drawings. Even when the caption was produced long after the drawing itself, as was also the case in Smith’s Some Are More Human Than Others, no effort is required to see how Thurber’s text relates (or at least probably relates) to picture.

So, on an obvious level, we always know who’s speaking in a Thurber illustration. In line with cartooning convention, it’s the person with their (wedge-shaped) mouth clearly open. It takes a split-second to decode a Thurberian social situation. For Smith, we have no idea. Who, for example, is the speaker of this caption?

Image from Some Are More Human Than Others, 'I could eat you'
From Smith’s Some Are More Human Than Others. A 1958 reviewer thought this creature was ‘a spread-eagled owl’. What?! Look at those legs and that tail. It’s a pug; you can see it illustrating Smith’s poem ‘O Pug!’ in Will May’s excellent edition.

A reviewer in 1958 happily paraphrased this image thus: ‘‘I could eat you,’ says a girl, hugging a spread-eagled owl to her bosom.’ Well, it might be the girl speaking. But equally, it could be the pop-eyed pug (NOT owl), fantasising about devouring his tormentor.

And what, above all, are we meant to make of Smith’s picture? What’s the joke? Is there a joke at all? With the ‘blunt…picture postcard’ Thurber, whatever else there may be (and there is, I’ll suggest, a lot more), there is pretty much always an identifiable, concrete joke. Take this Thurber cartoon, for instance, from The Beast in Me and Other Animals:

Thurber cartoon: 'That's my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs Harris'
Dorothy Parker thought the ‘first wife’ looked ‘limp and resigned and only a trifle bewildered’. I think she looks terrifying: poised to leap.

So there’s the familiar sitting-room. The social situation is instantly understood – a ‘Last Duchess’ moment. The painting or photograph of the former wife is swiftly passed over, and the new spouse introduced. Thurber’s very clear twist is to rewrite ‘up there’: to keep the ‘first wife’ physically present. She is stowed unwanted on top of the bookcase, out of the way but still glaring down. Only the anxious little guest seems to sense any awkwardness; the smartly dressed couple smile suavely.

But Dorothy Parker’s take on this cartoon, in her Preface to Men, Woman and Dogs, is hilarious and far more involved. She uses it to describe how she puzzles endlessly over Thurber:

…on top of the bookcase is a woman on all fours. So help me God, there is a woman on all fours on top of the bookcase. And the host is saying, ‘That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs Harris.’

Well, what would you do about that? I worked for a while on the theory that the first Mrs Harris, the one on top of the bookcase, was dead and stuffed, but my heart was never really in it. In the first place, she doesn’t look stuffed; she looks limp. She looks limp and resigned and only a trifle bewildered. She has the look of having been where she is for a long time. How do they feed her? Do they put a cover over her at night? And what made her husband dispose of her and take his present mate? The new spouse is no more sweetly shaped, no more elegantly clothed, no more carefully coiffed than the old one. They look equally terrible. Could it be that the first wife had a habit of crouching on top of bookcases, and one day he could stand it no longer and said, ‘Oh, all right, if that’s what you want to do,’ and flung out and got married again?…And the bookcase is full of books. What books, in heaven’s name, what books do such people read?

You understand what I mean when I say that eternity will not be long enough for my figuring?

Dorothy Parker goes on to say that she ‘give[s] up such things’ – ostensibly – but really ‘keep[s] on working at them through the white nights’. In the same way as Smith’s writing shuts itself up before it can be assimilated, Parker ends up having to pass Thurber’s images by, un-understood and not wholly satisfying.

So there is a similarity between Thurber and Smith here, and unsurprisingly I think it’s got a lot to do with aphoristic aesthetics.

But the difference with Thurber is that there is a joke on the surface. Smith’s is pure anarchy, pure confusion, from the second you encounter it.

 

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