Thurber on Lear’s Influence on his Work

THURBER MUSES ON HIS INFLUENCES.

THURBER, JAMES. 1894-1961. Typed Letter Signed (“James Thurber”), to Angus Davidson who is preparing a biography on Edward Lear, 2 pp, 4to, n.p., July 7, 1937, toning to both leaves, both leaves laid down to larger board with stains from adhesives.

Thurber writes the author of Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet (1938), responding to a query about whether or not Lear’s comedy has influenced him. In part: “I am ashamed to admit that I was not brought up on his writings or drawings, an educational omission which I will never forgive my parents. I began to draw, much the same was as I do now, about 1917, when I was twenty-three years old … I did not see the drawings of Clarence Day until after my pictures began to appear in the New Yorker … I think the drawings of men who cannot really draw—that is, who are not great or natural draughtsmen—are bound to have a similarity, just as the drawings of children invariable have: a simplicity, a directness, a naivete which eludes the easy and practiced hand.”

Bonhams.

July 7
1937

Dear Mr. Davidson:

I hope you will excuse a delay in answering your letter which was really unavoidable. I sailed for France on May 14, was lost to the mails for weeks, and only received your letter a few days ago, shortly after arriving in London.

As for Edward Lear, I am ashamed to admit that I was not brought up on his writings or drawings, an educational omission which I will never forgive my parents. I began to draw, much the same way as I do now, about 1917, when I was twenty-three years old. Naturally, there has been a development, but in the main the line is the same and for it I did not have any influence at all of which I am conscious. I did not see the drawings of Clarence Day until after my pictures began to appear in the New Yorker. There is a charming story about that. It seems a friend of Day’s, coming upon some of my drawings, rushed them to his bedside – he was bedbound for fifteen years – and said, “Look at this plagiarizer!” Day looked and said, I am told, “No. He has something I haven’t got.” Certainly I should put it the other way around, but I mention it as an interesting sidelight on an unusual artist and a lovable person.

I think the drawings of men who cannot really draw – that is, who are not great or natural draughtsmen – are bound to have a similarity, just as the drawings of children invariably have – just as the writings of children always have: a simplicity, a directness, a naivete which eludes the easy and practised hand.

I have, of course, known Lear now for a long time, and just the other weekend spent a delightful afternoon going over practically all of his things with Edward ˇ[(David)] Garnett and his children. Lear, I have found, is as well known to ˇ[most] children in the Eastern part of the United States as Carroll, but I come from the Middle West, a benighted section, and was brought up on American comic strips.* Even so, many of the limericks I knew as a child – without the drawing, though. They had just been passed around from mouth to mouth.

I should think it would be a great pleasure to work on a life of Lear, and I am sure the book will be greatly valued.

I am glad that you find pleasure in my work (although it’s really fun) and I thank you for saying so.

Sincerely yours.
James Thurber

* I do not believe there was any influence on my drawings in these comic strips. I just began to draw, idly, almost without thinking, certainly without any plan at all, for fun. I had never had the vaguest idea of having the drawings published. Some were found on my desk at the New Yorker, by E.B. White, a friend and another New Yorker editor, in 1929, and they first appeared in a book we did together called “Is Sex Necessary?” It had an unusual success – drawings and all – to our infinite surprise, and the New Yorker began publishing them – new ones, whenever I did them. It is still a little hard for me to realize that they have gained any recognition at all, as I count myself a writer, who draws for relaxation, as one plays ping pong, lights a pipe, or plays cards. The show of my drawings in London was a great success and I am still – and always will be – somewhat amazed by that.

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