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What is a Catbird Seat?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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The Catbird Seat is a short story by James Thurber. It describes the efforts of an office worker, Mr. Martin, to get rid of an odious female employee by the name of Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. She is steadily “reorganizing” Mr. Martin’s office, and Martin knows he is slated next for being reorganized and possibly fired.

Mr. Martin is rather effeminate, and quite fussy. He has a reputation for avoiding smoke and drink, so his personality immediately clashes with Mrs. Barrows, who has a “braying” laugh and is prone to using expressions, like “sitting in the catbird seat.” As Thurber explains, these expressions are taken from the very popular, real baseball broadcaster Red Barber. Barber was a native born Mississippian who used a number of metaphors to describe the state of players in a game. “Sitting in the catbird seat,” “tearin’ up the pea patch,” and “scraping the bottom of the pickle barrel” were among some of his classic expressions.

An interesting fact exists about Barber’s most famous expression “sitting in the catbird seat.” This means an enviable position, and specifically a batter at the plate with three balls and no strikes. According to Barber’s daughter, he never used the expression until after Thurber wrote his short story. After reading The Catbird Seat, Barber used the expression often and with great pride. A mention by Thurber was a gesture of high respect.

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For Mr. Martin, Mrs. Barrows’ frequent bellowings of Barber’s idiomatic expression is cause enough to wish to “rub her out.” While Martin first intends to kill Mrs. Barrows, he soon finds a way to turn her own use of idiom against her and triumph. He visits her at her home, and while they share drinks and smokes, he makes use of some of Barber's expressions, ultimately claiming joyously that he plans to kill their mutual boss.

Because of his reputation for exemplary behavior, prior to his bold statements to Mrs. Barrows, and due to Mrs. Barrows’ frequent use of Barber’s expressions, her accusation of Mr. Martin's plans to murder the boss are considered insane. Her description of both Martin's behavior and his language are completely disconnected from the mild-mannered Mr. Martin known at the office. Mrs. Barrows is hauled off to an asylum, and Martin finds himself in the catbird seat by the end of the story, having all the advantage and a sense of satisfaction that his position is now unassailable.

As a short story, The Catbird Seat is arguably one of Thurber’s funniest. Like much of Thurber’s work, it pulls from real events, like the mention of Barber, and the more frequent employment of women in greater positions of authority, in order to create a highly fantastic and comical end. Mrs. Barrows is clearly a caricature of the “modern” woman, contrasted to the mild-mannered Mr. Martin.

The urbane and cultured Thurber also uses the story to take a quick potshot at the relative lack of education that results in idiomatic expressions. It’s thus somewhat ironic that Thurber is often most associated with one. The Catbird Seat, likely including Thurber’s own inventive idiom for his short story, is often one of his most easily recognized works.

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