James Thurber was an American author whose work often appeared in the New Yorker. He was a humorist as well as a cartoonist, and I thought something by him is just what I need about now. I found his story, "The Catbird House" in 50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane.
A note about this new anthology of short stories (I picked it up at the bookstore yesterday--more later about my other finds), which is "a comprehensive selection from the world's finest short fiction". Out of 50 authors I thought they might include a few more than 9 women authors. I find that a rather poor showing, though I am sure the stories included are all excellent. The editor does remark in his note that opens the anthology that he compiled a list of 100 short stories and then sent the list to professors of English at colleges and universities all over the country. Thus this anthology represents the judgment of those in the know, so to speak. I, of course, defer to their greater judgment (since I am still a novice when it comes to the art of the short story), but I still think they might have added a few more women authors.
Although there is really no introduction to the anthology, the editor does ask "what makes a great short story?". Since I am still new to the short story form and am trying to learn, I'm always curious how each anthology editor answers this question:
"The sudden unforgettable revelation of character, the vision of a world through another's eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of of a moment in time."
"All this the short story, at its best, is uniquely capable of conveying, for in its very shortness lies its greatest strength."
"It can discover depths of meaning in the casual word or action; it can suggest in a page what could not be stated in a volume."
And so how did James Thurber fare? "The Catbird Seat" is a great story. It's genius lies in its subtle irony. It first appeared in The New Yorker in 1942. Mild mannered Erwin Martin is a loyal and dependent employee of the at F & S. He's head of the filing department, and the saying in the office goes, "Man is fallible but Martin isn't". Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, of the quacking voice and braying laugh and silly questions ("Well, are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?" or "Are you sitting in the catbird seat?") has profaned the hallowed halls of F & S for two years now. Mr. Martin is appalled and knows something must be done. It's quite simple, the woman has been baiting him with her gibberish. As annoying as she may be (and Mr. Martin is not so shallow as to judge one on such childish actions), her real crime is her willful and blatant attempts to disrupt the system at F & S.
To give you a taste of where we're headed, without giving anything away, the story begins:
"Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn't even glance at Mr. Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and went out. If any of the staff at F & S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke and never had. No one saw him."
"It was just a week to the day since Mr. Martin had decided to rub out Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. The term 'rub out' pleased him because it suggested nothing more than the correction of an error--in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler."
Mr. Fitweiler met Mrs. Barrows at a party where she rescued him from a tight situation. Recognizing her excellent abilities, he thought she would be just the woman to bring out the best in the firm and hired her straightaway as his special adviser.
I don't want to spoil the story by telling you how Mr. Martin's plan goes. Although not necessarily a laugh out loud (though it did elicit a chuckle or two out of me) story, it is quite humorous how Mr. Martin manages to handle Mrs. Barrows. This is definitely a story worth searching out.
I had no idea what the expression 'sitting in the catbird seat' meant. It means 'sitting pretty'. Being a Dodger's fan, Mrs. Barrows likely heard it on the radio as the games were being announced and described. In any case, Mr. Martin will be sitting pretty by the end of the story!