Tag Archives: the new yorker

The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase

1 Sep

James Thurber was a rewriter.  All of his stories went through several drafts. He admits it openly in an interview with The Paris Review.

Drawing, though, was for relaxation. He tossed off the cartoons quickly.  Pure sprezzatura.  No sweat.  Or so he says.

Here’s one of my favorites:

“That’s My First Wife Up There, and This is the Present Mrs. Harris”

“I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs,”  Thurber says,

but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

The eye falters, the hand slips, and next thing you know: naked women perched on top of books! 

No boy from Columbus, Ohio could have intended to put a naked woman on top of a bookcase. 

But his muse (here, taking the form of faulty perspective) gets the job done.

Something similar happened to Alexander Pushkin when he was writing Eugene Onegin.  Pushkin’s heroine, Tatiana, always so obedient to the will of her creator, suddenly, independent of authorial design, up and marries some crusty, old, retired general from St. Petersburg. 

Tatiana Larina: Going rogue.

Romantically-minded Russian girls inexplicably succumbing to dull, respectable marriages and naked women hijacked from the staircase and stranded on top of bookcases.  It’s all the same thing.

Does anybody ever say what they set out to say?

The thought is born in the mouth.  That’s what the Russians say.  Mine are born as they run down my fingers and into the keyboard.


…Irresistible afterthought for those who love Thurber
(from the same Paris Review interview):

How did Harold Ross, editor at The New Yorker, respond to the naked, former Mrs. Harris?

He [Ross] called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.”

After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours.

“So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.”

“Well then,” he said, “what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?”

I told him he had me there.