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October 1959

The Porcupines in the Artichokes
by James Thurber

I have writers the way other people have mice,” a disturbed hostess has written me. “What can I do to keep them from arguing, fighting, and throwing highball glasses after dinner? One doesn’t dare mention names, such as Herman Melville and Harold Loeb, or the fight is on. What would you suggest?”

Well, now, it isn’t easy to entertain writers and have any fun. You might begin by saying, over the first cocktail, “I don’t want any writers to be mentioned this evening.” Do not make the mistake of adding, “From Washington Irving to Jack Kerouac,” because that would instantly precipitate an argument about Washington Irving and Jack Kerouac. You might begin by saying, “The porcupines are getting our artichokes.” This could, of course, lead to literary wrangling and jangling, but everything is a calculated risk when writers are present, even “My grandfather almost married a Pawnee woman,” or “I wonder if you gentlemen would help me put the handle back on my icebox.” A writer, of course, can turn anything at all into a literary discussion, and it might be better not to say anything about anything …

My wife, during a party in August, when writers are at their worst, brought out the pencils and paper and said, “I want you all to write down the names of as many animals and birds as you can think of with a double ‘o’ in their names.” This worked fine for about half an hour, during which the literary men wrote down: moose, goose, mongoose, raccoon, baboon …

The trouble started, as my wife should have known it would, when the papers were gathered up and the scoring began …

There are always two or three writers, in this kind of game, who deliberately louse things up by taking and holding an untenable position. One of these obstinate fellows had written down pool shark, and another had come up with booze hound …

All of a moment a whooping literary argument was on. It concerned the merits and demerits of Rupert Brooke, Stephen Crane, Tennyson’s “The Brook” and Tennyson himself, Hart Crane, and Bret Harte; also The Heart of the Matter, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and The Death of the Heart, thus involving Graham Greene, Carson McCullers …

That night three highball glasses, two friendships, and a woman’s heart were broken. There is really only one safe rule for a hostess to go by. Do not ask writers to your house, especially in the summer, and in three other seasons of the year—spring, autumn, and winter.

Vol. 204, No. 4, pp. 35–37

Due to copyright restrictions, the full text of this article is not available on the Atlantic site.