Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1719
In an article concerning The Years with Ross, Gilbert Highet refers to it as “clean, first rate reporting” and also suggests that it can be thought of as another chapter in the free-and-easy autobiographical saga begun by Thurber with the publication of My Life and Hard Times (1933). What Thurber is principally reporting are the various conflicts he and others had with Ross during their association of twenty-five years at The New Yorker. Working in an office near Ross, Thurber was never very far from even those conflicts that did not directly concern him.
Temperamentally and aesthetically, the two were at odds. Thurber’s business as both writer and cartoonist was to make people laugh; Ross often acted as if at least a part of his business in life were to avoid laughing (a word Ross used frequently was “grim”). Thurber was fascinated by—and helped envision in the first half of the twentieth century—the battle of the sexes; Ross wanted as much as possible to pretend the battle did not exist, in the hope that it would consequently go away. Sex, for him, was an “incident.” Ross often feared that Thurber—and other cartoonists—were sneaking sexual double entendres into their work and that trouble would result. Thurber once did a drawing which came to be known in the offices of The New Yorker as “The Lady on the Bookcase.” In it there is indeed a lady on a bookcase; below her, in what appears to be a living room, there are two men and a woman. The man in the middle of the trio is addressing the other man (whose gaze is on the lady on the bookcase), saying to him, “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris.” What worried Ross about this drawing was the condition of the lady on the bookcase. Was she alive or dead? Was she stuffed? Thurber’s response to what was for Ross a serious and important question is typical of Thurber’s responses to serious and important questions from Ross. He reported that the woman had to be alive because his doctor had informed him that it was anatomically impossible for a dead woman to support herself on all fours and his taxidermist had indicated that it was impossible to stuff a woman. Unperturbed by Thurber’s rejoinder, Ross replied, “Then, goddam it, what’s she doing naked in the house of her former husband and his second wife?” Thurber said that the woman was simply there and disclaimed responsibility for the behavior of the people in his drawings.
Thurber was an artist; Ross was a man deeply distrustful of artists and fairly certain that all of them were either mad or on the brink of madness. Once, at lunch at the Algonquin with Ross, Thurber looked at his menu, acted as if he had never seen such a thing, got to his feet, trembled, and tried to turn pale. Just before he got the joke, Ross said, “It’s the goddam menu.” Upon realizing that Thurber was once again having him on, Ross said, “Don’t do that to me, Thurber. Too many people I know are really ready for the bughouse.”
From the outset of Thurber’s employment with The New Yorker, in 1927, he and Ross disagreed about sundry matters of policy and personnel concerning the magazine. Initially, Ross determined that Thurber was the “miracle man,” the managing editor for whom he had been searching and would continue to search, the fellow who would make the magazine run smoothly from a central desk. Two of the book’s early chapters (“Miracle Men” and “More Miracle Men”) deal with Thurber’s attempts to disabuse Ross of this notion and with the comedy inherent in Ross’s discoveries of numerous other briefly installed miracle men.
Having determined not to try for unity in the book on the basis of a chronological rendering of Ross’s life, Thurber decided to attempt what he called a “unity of effect,” to be achieved by treating various aspects of Ross’s life and career as entities in themselves and by relegating these entities to chapters. The burden of the book is to make Ross come alive on the pages of these chapters, and Thurber does this by telling tale after tale about Ross concerning his paranoia (life, he seemed to think, was principally out to get him), naivete, profanity, generosity, and, despite attempts on Ross’s part to suggest the contrary, sensitivity. In building up the sense of Ross’s character, Thurber quotes Ross frequently and, in fact, feels called upon in his foreword to discuss the problem of incorporating Ross’s profanity into his text. Thurber indicates that Ross’s “goddam” (which Thurber diplomatically spells without the n, just as he spells “Jesus” “Geezus”) had nothing to do with God. He argues that the absence of that locution from the text would render Ross unrecognizable by those who knew him and inauthentic for those who did not. Although he opts for orthographic softening of Ross’s favorite profanities, he insists on adhering to the strictest accuracy when he quotes Ross’s letters, notes, and opinion sheets.
Thurber’s approach to his subject is generally candid. In no sense is Ross glorified or, for that matter, simplified. Ross comes across as simultaneously credible and incredible, so fascinatingly mixed and rendered are the elements of his character. In 1931, Thurber introduced Ross to Paul Nash, an English painter. After a couple of hours in the company of the editor of The New Yorker, Nash said to Thurber, “He is like your skyscrapers. They are unbelievable, but there they are.” The paradox of trying to make credible the incredible was brought home to Thurber by Wolcott Gibbs, who, upon hearing that Thurber was going to attempt to write about Ross, said, “If you get him down on paper, nobody will believe it.”
Candid though the portrait of Ross is, it is laced with an affection for Ross. In 1938, Ross and Thurber were together in Paris and found themselves trying to talk to the concierge of a building occupied by Ross when he edited The Stars and Stripes in 1918. Thurber had some French, but Ross, despite his sojourn in Paris, appears to have had none. Ross attempted to talk to the concierge, who protested, in French, that he did not understand. Informed by Thurber that the man spoke no English, Ross sputtered, “Goddam it, I’m talking slowly and clearly enough!” To modern readers, this remark smacks of an immense obtuseness, ugly Americanism par excellence, and one can easily imagine feeling a genuine disdain for its author. That one does not do so in the context of the book is a tribute to Thurber’s skill in managing to present Ross both honestly and sympathetically.
In the book’s fifteenth chapter, “Dishonest Abe and the Grand Marshal,” Thurber discusses the strangely hostile friendship of Ross and Alexander Woollcott, and by chapter’s end one is very clearly inclined to vote for Ross as the more sympathetic figure in the tableau. Once again, however, one can imagine another perspective from which a different vote might be cast. Indeed, Thurber invites readers to just such an imagining, indicating that Woollcott had his partisans in the battle, and making it clear that he himself never really succumbed to Woollcott’s considerable charm.
The differences between Ross and Thurber extended to matters of style, and in revealing Ross’s editorial modus operandi, Thurber repeatedly illustrates this tension. The urbanity and sophistication with which one has come to associate The New Yorker (and which Thurber’s own style, as both writer and cartoonist, did much to define) was oddly missing from Ross’s own work. Indeed, in writing about what he takes to have been Ross’s unsuccessful contributions to the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” column, Thurber makes an interesting pronouncement concerning the editor of the The New Yorker: “He simply was not a New Yorker writer, never got better at it, and in the thirties gave it up, although he persisted in sticking into my copy now and then such pet expressions of his as ‘and such’ and ‘otherwise.’”
Thurber is a highly allusive writer, and he weaves his allusions subtly into his text. Ross appears to have been suspicious of allusions. For one thing, he often missed them. A scrupulously close reader of copy, he once responded in a query sheet to S.J. Perelman’s reference in an article to “the woman taken in adultery” by writing, “What woman? Hasn’t been previously mentioned.” Just as Thurber’s cartoons made Ross nervous, redolent as they were likely to be of unacceptable double meanings, so did Thurber’s prose unnerve him: Things were likely to be hidden there also.
Another trademark of Thurber’s style is his playful way with figures of speech. He once did a series of drawings based on a child’s taking literally the metaphorical daily bread of grown-ups, with consequences comical for the viewer and frightening for the child. His writing is constantly alive with the possibilities of language, and he did not hesitate to play when he wrote. In the opening section of the book’s fifth chapter, “The Talk of the Town,” Thurber imagines what Ross would say if he were alive and reading the chapter as Thurber was composing it. One hears, loud and clear, the voice of Ross speaking from the editorial office of parentheses, cautioning Thurber primarily against the mixing of metaphors. There results a vivid sense of what Ross was looking for in writing, how he went about trying to get it from his writers, and how he was often thwarted by Thurber—although one finally suspects that he wanted to be thwarted by Thurber and secretly applauded the stylistic panache of which he himself was not capable. Thurber cites a sentence that has survived from an early prospectus of the magazine: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” It is almost certain that Ross recognized that the realization of such an aim depended largely upon the very stylistic machinations of Thurber and other writers about which he so often groused.
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