Monday, July 2, 2012

James Thurber's Cucarachas

As a New York City apartment dweller for about half my lifetime, I can think of few subjects less conducive to humor than cockroaches, those ubiquitous and unpleasant critters that negatively impact one's quality of life on every encounter. That said, it's hard to imagine a more amusing gag cartoon on the subject than this little gem by the great James Thurber which was sold at auction five years ago along with four other drawings by the artist.

Thurber's inspired caption was modified slightly for publication in The New Yorker, to its detriment, I believe. That interpolated "you know" of Thurber's conveys the prospective renter's hesitation in voicing her concern far better than the unaccompanied dash. Thankfully, the editors knew enough to keep the Spanish term for cockroaches, which in this context sounds almost euphemistic. Basically, you wouldn't have much of a gag left without that.

Note that the calendar date on the wall is just five days prior to the issue's official date of publication. Today The New Yorker is released one full week before its publication date, but the release may have occured closer to the publication date back in 1936.

James Thurber, "Are there any--you know--cucarachas?"
Original artwork for The New Yorker, September 5, 1936, page 24

James Thurber, "Are there any--cucarachas?"
The New Yorker, September 5, 1936, page 24

James Thurber, "Are there any--cucarachas?"
The New Yorker, September 5, 1936, page 24

Here is another of the five drawings included in this lot, again with the published caption altered slightly from Thurber's. Sotheby's doesn't provide a picture of the original artwork for this one. Thurber's original caption was "I've found Miss Gish for you, Mr. Blair -- no relation to the sisters, I forgot to say." Lillian and Dorothy Gish, of course, were very well known actresses of the silent screen and later, appearing in several films by D. W. Griffith among many others. The minor tweaking of the caption doesn't add anything so far as I can see. Mr. Blair is easily as good a name as Mr. Freeman, maybe better, and do we really need the name Freeman to tell us he is eligible? "I forgot to say" sounds just a little more conversational and fluid than "incidentally," and it relates to the fact that the hostess has already discussed Miss Gish with Mr. Blair. Still, "incidentally" works well enough. Overall, I'd give the slight edge to Thurber's original caption, but the question remains, why on earth would anyone try to improve James Thurber's captions in the first place? I can't see E. B. White, the writer who was often assigned such tasks, tinkering with a caption to so little effect. To me, it sounds more like the work of Harold Ross, the magazine's editor, who generally wanted things to be unambiguously clear.

James Thurber, "Well, I've found Miss Gish for you, Mr. Freeman. 
No relation to the sisters, incidentally."
The New Yorker, May 9, 1936, page 20

James Thurber, "Are there any--you know--cucarachas?"
Original artwork for The New Yorker, September 5, 1936, page 24


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