In conjunction with a soon-to-be-closing exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, Michael J. Rosen will discuss and read from his recently released collection of Thurber fables at CMA on Thursday
“The definition of a fable shouldn’t be cramped,” wrote author, illustrator and humorist James Thurber in 1956. “It can embrace any pointed and recognizable aspect of human behavior, turned out in a concentrated narrative, with birds and beasts, or people or chimney posts, or anything else, including parts of the human body, talking away at a great rate.”
Thurber released two collections of fables in his life: Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated in 1940 and Further Fables for Our Time in 1956. Last year, writer and illustrator Michael J. Rosen worked with the Thurber estate to compile both collections, plus a selection of previously unpublished fables, into a book, Collected Fables, boasting 85 of the pithy distillations.
The fables range from one to a few paragraphs, each accompanied by a single drawing and a moral at the end. In “The Little Girl and the Wolf,” Thurber riffs on the Little Red-Riding Hood story, though this time the girl immediately recognizes the wolf’s poorly executed disguise, pulls out an automatic rifle and shoots the wolf dead. The moral? “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”
“The traditional form of the parable ... says, ‘Let's forget everything else and just make this little peephole in which we can see something where all the elements are present, but there aren't so many that it’s confusing,'” said Rosen, who was the founding literary director at the Thurber House and has worked with the Thurber estate for 40 years. “The drama is much more compacted.”Get your news and entertainment compacted and delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
On Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., Rosen and others will discuss and read from Thurber’s fables at the Columbus Museum of Art, in conjunction with “A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber,” a fascinating, Rosen-curated exhibition of Thurber’s drawings that will close on March 15. (The exhibition title takes its inspiration from a Thurber quote: “If all the lines of what I’ve drawn were straightened out, they would reach a mile and a half.”)
Fables, Thurber wrote in a 1956 letter to William Faulkner, were a way for the writer to “protest against the American assault on its own culture,” and he was adamant that, despite the picture-book way in which fables are often represented and passed down, they’re not for kids. “Fables are really for adults,” said Rosen, who wrote in an introductory essay to Collected Fables that “a fable may be spare in its form, but not in its complexity of ideas, personalities, politics, and applicability.”
While Thurber’s titles for his collections could imply that his fables are anchored to the 1940s and ’50s (“...for Our Time”), the opposite is true. While the later collection veers more political since it accompanied the Cold War and McCarthyism, Rosen argues that Thurber’s fables don’t have an expiration date, and they’re particularly relevant today.
“The nature of the fable is to be timeless,” Rosen said. “The current political climate that we're in, with issues of trust, collective behavior, group violence, arrogance, deception, fake news — they're all documented [in the fables].”