First published in the November 14, 1942, issue of the New Yorker, ‘‘The Catbird Seat’’ also appeared in Thurber’s 1945 collection, The Thurber Carnival. Since that time, the story has been published in dozens of anthologies for high school and college students, and Thurber has been called America’s most important twentieth-century humorist.
The story chronicles a battle of wills between the fussy Erwin Martin, head of a filing department, and Ulgine Barrows, the firm’s efficiency expert who threatens to bring change into Martin’s well-ordered existence. With comic irony, Martin uses his reputation as a meek and pleasant man against the flashy Mrs. Barrows. The character of Martin is typical of what critics have called Thurber’s ‘‘Little Man,’’ a common working man who is baffled and beaten down by life in United States in the twentieth century.
The title ‘‘The Catbird Seat’’ derives from the speech patterns of Red Barber, the radio announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team in the 1940s. Thurber, a devoted baseball fan, was among those who enjoyed the colorful expressions Barber sprinkled throughout his commentary. As Joey Hart, Martin’s assistant explains, sitting ‘‘in the catbird seat’’ means being in an advantageous position. Although it is Mrs. Barrows who seems strong and bold and powerful, it is Martin who wins in the end.