The Years with Ross Critical Essays

James Thurber


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1719 words.)