This is the 29th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 29 continues the discussion of stories in the 1953 collection Thurber Country.
Thurber Country offers another “drunken writer” story, “The Case of Dimity Ann,” slightly less depressing and perhaps even more intriguing. The story depicts the aftermath of a typical Thurber evening, the host “Ridgeway” in an endless seethe over the departed guest “Bennett,” who remarkably enough escaped killing despite devoting the entire evening to “fascinating” anecdotes about his marvelous cats—surely Thurber’s own idea of the ninth, or perhaps the tenth, circle of Hell.
It is the final cat anecdote of the evening, about Alex, who could tell time and had a fancy for imported Chianti, that pushes Ridgeway over the edge, provoking him into relating a cat anecdote of his own—“I was just reminded of a cat my first wife had, which I used to tie up.”
It’s a little surprising, given Bennett’s devotion to felines, the evening didn’t end in fisticuffs, but as a cat man, perhaps he just wasn’t up to it. I don’t have to spell it out for you, do I?
For Alice, Ridgeway’s wife, with the guests gone, the evening is just beginning, because she didn’t know about the cat tying, and, for a second wife, any revelation, particularly a public one, about the first wife creates an issue that demands resolution.
Alice, like many though not all Thurber wives, is immensely aware of her husband’s moods,1 and she quickly senses that he is unresolved as well, though he seeks to disguise it through the aimless, passive-aggressive pugnacity that is also the cunning Thurber man’s stock in trade.
Ridgeway kicks off the “after party” by mixing his wife, and himself, of course, a nightcap and launching into the first of several parodies we’ll hear as the evening progresses: “I’ll never forget Percy, one of my tomcats. He was smarter than a human being. He could whistle between his teeth, often winked, as God is my judge, and once, if my memory serves, killed a meter reader.”
Alice isn’t fooled by this riff. “Knowing the significance of his various gaits, as well as the implications of his gestures and inflections late at night, Alice figured that if he had two more drinks he would be up till dawn.”
When a Thurber man is angry, as Ridgeway is, it is always his aim to force whoever is with him to stay up all night, or at least until everyone is so drunk that whatever is festering will make itself known, usually leaving a decent amount of blood on the floor. In real life, whatever was festering was usually Thurber’s compulsive ill temper, and all he wanted was to provoke people into provoking him into a fusillade of brutal insults. And if they didn’t provoke him he would provoke himself.
Alice, however, proves more than a match for Ridgeway, She watches as he “tugged at a lock of his hair with his left hand, and ran his lower lip over his upper one. This usually meant that he was about to attack her old beaux, particularly one with the aggravating name of Rupert Llewellyn.” But Alice doesn’t flinch at the prospect, because she needs to know something, and you have to give some to get some: “What was it you did to Lydia’s cat?”
Ridgeway of course is delighted by the question. Alice wants something from him, which gives him a hold over her. She’ll have to listen his self-indulgent parodies of Bennett’s feline obsession, not to mention enduring a whole collection of sneers at poor Rupert’s expense, all of which she already knows by heart. The fact that Ridgeway knows that she knows them all makes it all the more satisfying to him. What could be better than boring people and insulting them at the same time?
What follows is a remarkable tale of, um, cat and mouse, husband and wife reversing roles several times, Alice ultimately maintaining the upper hand by her infallible sense of knowing when he is lying and when he isn’t, and, not so incidentally, convincing her husband that she is right. “She watched the left corner of his mouth turn up, the way it did when he was about to tell a daring story in mixed company or an inconsequential lie to her in private.”
Alice applies a particular goad to her husband by diagnosing his behavior—his insistence that tying up your wife’s cat (and timing its escapes) is trivial and reveals nothing “deep-seated” is a defense mechanism that in fact confirms that which it attempts to deny. Ridgeway naturally wishes to reveal nothing “deep-seated” about himself at all and of course loathes being defined by anyone about anything, much less by his second wife about anything involving his first.
Ridgeway attempts to one-up his wife by parodying her claims that his behavior was obsessive, only to be one-upped himself:
“I hid in a closet until Lydia had left, and then I came creeping out on all fours, calling ‘Kitty, Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty—’”
“Scat!” she cried loudly, as much to her surprise as to his. Then she walked slowly out into the hall, and waited at the foot of the stairs for his last word. On nights like this, he always had the last word. She could see his right hand groping for his missing glass, and she could sense his mind and tongue searching for something final to say. She realized, after several long moments of silence, that he couldn’t find the last word, for the simple reason that she had said it herself. She ran up the stairs lightly and swiftly as a girl, restraining a new and unexpected impulse to clasp her hands above her head and wave them, in triumphant greeting to the invisible wives of all the writers of the world.
I confess that I don’t quite see “Scat!” as the sword to cut the Gordian knot of Ridgeway’s malignant cunning and glibness—he seems quite capable of whispering “kitty, kitty, kitty” in increasingly coy and exasperating tones until six in the morning—but even if Alice doesn’t shut him up Thurber does. It’s also “interesting” that “Ridgeway” is not given a first name but Alice is,2 a reversal of the pattern in the “Mr. and Mrs. Monroe” stories. Denying a character a first name—except in those “the man” and “the woman” stories—always strikes me as a highly conscious decision of an author, a sort of revenge or punishment of the character. Huckleberry Finn’s father has no name. Huck always refers to him as “pap,” and others refer to him as “your father” or “your pap,” except in the episode early in the book when Huck is disguised as a girl, and the woman whom he is seeking to fool, and whom he does not fool, makes a reference to “old Finn.” As for the cat-tying—yes, Thurber used to tie up Althea’s cat and time its escapes.