James Thurber Essay - Critical Essays

James Thurber American Literature Analysis

No other humorist has focused on relations between the sexes as persistently as Thurber. His first book, Is Sex Necessary?, written in collaboration with his New Yorker associate E. B. White, is primarily a lighthearted satire on the psychosexual literature of the time but incidentally reflects the sexual insecurity of its young coauthors. Thus the book mocked not only a social preoccupation with Freudian psychology but also Thurber’s and White’s own fears and anxieties, which, in Thurber’s case, also shadow much of his later work.

Thurber continued to probe the conflicts of men and women in his writings and drawings long after Is Sex Necessary? His cartoons characteristically depict women who prove either physically or psychologically overpowering to small, ineffectual men, the most extreme example being one that bears the caption “Home,” showing a tiny man approaching the front steps of his house, which at the rear resolves into a huge, ominous outline of his wife. Neither of Thurber’s wives were the monsters that flowed so readily from his pen, and his second wife, Helen, seems to have proved just about the ideal mate for him. He may be said to have depicted in an intensified way the common male inability to comprehend, accept, and enjoy an abiding relationship with the other sex.

The male characters of Thurber’s stories tend to be mild, rather ineffectual beings, often henpecked husbands seeking victory in the eternal battle of the sexes but lacking the personal resources needed to prevail. The protagonists of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat” are both previewed in a 1935 story, “Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife.” Mr. Preble’s scheme—to lure his oppressor into the cellar of their home and murder and bury her there—has no chance of success. The key to the humor of the situation is not so much his lack of nerve as his wife’s inability to take him seriously. She has gauged him so well that she can destroy his plan with a simple offhand comment.

In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” published four years later, Thurber’s hapless male character, rather than contrive an absurd retaliation against his oppressive spouse, responds by lapsing into a fantasy world in which he performs a variety of courageous and difficult feats, all with a coolly self-confident air. In “The Catbird Seat,” the female oppressor is a coworker of the meek Mr. Martin. Again, the man’s extreme solution, murder, cannot possibly come off, but he is able to turn his failure to advantage and win a rare victory.

In his work at least, Thurber was able to achieve a perspective on the ambivalent and generally unhealthy attitude toward women that clouded his social and personal life. In life he both romanticized and disdained them; in his fiction there is no romance, while the disdain is filtered through a fairly sympathetic male character. Thurber manages to enable readers to recognize in the struggles of his bickering couples amusing exaggerations of the conflicts normal to intersexual relationships.

If Thurber could transmute his sexual anxieties into art, he also could capitalize brilliantly on purely physical weaknesses such as those resulting from his childhood accident. In 1933 he shaped the difficulties caused by his poor vision and other deficiencies of his early years into a hilarious autobiography, My Life and Hard Times. The oft-reprinted chapter called “University Days” is also a devasting satire on the shortcomings of Ohio State University. In describing one of his specific problems—his inability to see through a microscope in botany class—he shifts the focus to his frustrated professor, who, scrupulously insistent that the young man carry out his assignment, tries “every adjustment of the microscope known to man.” When he has at last seemingly succeeded but finds that Thurber has drawn not what was under the microscope but his own eyeball, the reader sympathizes more with the stupefied professor than with his student.

In the same chapter Thurber cunningly demonstrates his ability to make literary capital of his own curiously ambivalent attitude toward the priorities of his alma mater. Ohio State was caught up at the time in a fierce football rivalry with the University of Michigan. In “University Days” this takes the form of a mass effort to boost a dim-witted star tackle named Bolenciecwcz through economics class. When the athlete is baffled by a request to “name one means of transportation,” his fellow students, and even the professor, prompt him shamelessly until he manages to come out with “train.” Bolenciecwcz is a disguised version of a historical Ohio State football hero whose exploits Thurber raved about for years afterward—while just as frequently deploring what he saw as the university’s lax academic standards. Thurber manages to re-create the same ambivalence in the reader, who roots for Bolenciecwcz even while appreciating the author’s delineation of the intellectual dishonesty that made this star player available to the team.

Thurber excelled at the presentation of characters who often failed but might achieve an unexpected success—who in fact succeed through failure, as he often did in his personal life. Thus, in the literary version of his collegiate self, he becomes expert at the mandatory military drill by...

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