Some time ago, we saluted Grantland Rice, the sports writer who, among other things, gave us the cliché, “It’s not whether you win or lose: it’s how you play the game”, a phrase based on a complete misunderstanding of the end of his poem “Only the Brave”. It is not given to every writer to add a cliché to the language, however, so perhaps the honor makes up for the fact that nobody much reads the poem he wrote.
I thought we might pause now to note another genius, whose work I started reading when I was, oh, about two years old, though I don’t suppose I caught all the subtler points of his work.
See, he was a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and those big books full of pictures would often suffice to keep a book-minded toddler quiet for a few minutes as he struggled to turn the pages. I continued to leaf through those pages many years after my parents gave up trying to keep me quiet. (They had cartoon collections from Esquire and Playboy, too, but those were removed from my reach about the time I was six, and started to ask for explanations of some of the jokes.)
We were always a great family for Charles Addams (though not precisely an Addams Family) but there were artists besides him in the New Yorker collection. There was Carl Rose, who went on to illustrate some children’s books in our collection, and ALMOST added a cliché to the language with his cartoon captioned by E.B.White of the darling child and her mother: “It’s broccoli, dear.” “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.” I Say It’s Spinach did enjoy enough popularity that Irving Berlin wrote it into a song, but it won’t get you far on social media now.
There was Syd Hoff, who illustrated about half the books, it seems, on my reading list when I was six or seven, and William Steig, whose children’s books I never ran into until I was in college. (Missed Shrek entirely until after the movie came out.)
But the particular cliché I was thinking about came from the pen of a cartoonist who kept The New Yorker in hot water with cartoons like, “Wake up, you mutt! We’re getting married today!” and “We want to report a stolen car.” (A sheepish and rumpled couple carrying the detachable rumble seat speak to the police.) His actual name was Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr. but he produced his cartoons as Peter Arno.
You will generally find a few books of Peter Arno cartoons in our Humor section, though you will not often find his novel, “Whoops, Dearie”, which involved a racy pair of older women in Victorian garb. His cartoons about them involved one of the ladies (known as the Whoops Sisters) saying “Whoops!” This was popular, but one word hardly suffices to create a cliché.
No, that moment came when he had been producing art for The New Yorker for over fifteen years. There was war in Europe, and much to do about secret weapons and new, faster warplanes. He drew a cartoon involving what was already a movie cliché: the brave test pilot in trouble: the plane has crashed, a parachute drifts in the wind, an ambulance races to the scene, the horrified officers who have been looking on rush forward…and moving AWAY from the scene, rubbing his hands together and grinning a cheerful grin, is the designer of the plane, plans under his arm, announcing, “Well, back to the old drawing board!”
No doubt somebody has already studied clichés fostered by The New Yorker, but this must rank among one of the most stalwart. AND you can buy it at the Book Fair, come July. Ask about the Grantland Rice while you’re at it and start your own collection of birthplaces of American lingo.