Thurber, James (Vol. 125)
James Thurber 1894–1961
(Full name James Grover Thurber) American dramatist, essayist, short story writer, cartoonist, illustrator, memoirist, and author of children's fiction.
The following entry presents an overview of Thurber's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 11, 25.
One of the most popular and respected humorists of the twentieth century, James Thurber was often called the Mark Twain of his era. Among his admirers were Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Along with E. B. White, Robert Benchley, and other writers under the tutelage of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Thurber set the standard for sophisticated humor and prose style for a generation of American readers and writers. His stories, essays, and drawings combine the mundane and the absurd to create characters and situations at once strange and familiar that continue to fascinate and amuse his audience.
Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894, the second son of Charles and Mary Fisher Thurber. His parents, a not very successful father and strong-willed mother provide the apparent models for the "Little Man" and the domineering woman characters that populate much of his writing. As a youth, Thurber suffered a severe eye injury while playing a game of William Tell with his older brother. This accidental blinding in one eye is believed to have contributed to the gradual loss of sight-in the other eye, and Thurber was completely blind by 1951. A good student and writer for his high school newspaper and literary and humor magazines at Ohio State University, Thurber nonetheless struggled in college, taking a year off in 1914–15 and leaving without a degree in 1918. Excluded from military service by his blindness, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the U. S. State Department in Washington and then at the U. S. Embassy in Paris. Upon his return to Columbus in 1920, Thurber became a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. In 1922, he married Althea Adams. His only child, Rosemary, was born in 1931. During the mid-1920s. Thurber began writing humorous fiction in his spare time. In 1925, he took a position as a rewrite man for the Paris edition of The Chicago Tribune. Returning to New York in 1926, he worked for the New York Evening Post and continued his freelance writing. The following year he met E. B. White, who landed him a job on the fledgling New Yorker magazine. Thurber left the New Yorker in 1933, but continued to be a regular contributor to the magazine until his death in 1961.
Thurber and the New Yorker were perfectly suited to each other, and his "Talk of the Town" column soon made him a celebrity. He and White collaborated on Is Sex Necessary? in 1929. His short, humorous pieces from unusual perspectives provided the material for The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), and My Life and Hard Times (1933). These works gave him a solid and enthusiastic audience, and he left the New Yorker in 1933. After half a dozen collections of stories, essays, and drawings, and a successful play-The Male Animal (1940), written in collaboration with his college friend Elliot Nugent—Thurber turned to children's books, publishing Many Moons (1943), The Great Quillow (1944), The White Deer (1945), The Thirteen Clocks (1950), and The Wonderful O (1957) while also producing seven collections of stories, essays, drawings, and fables for his loyal adult audience. Thurber's most famous story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," appeared in My World—and Welcome to It (1942), along with another popular story, "The Catbird Seat." Thurber's own favorite, and that of his long-time friend White, was the decidedly serious reflection on the human penchant for war—The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (1939).
Since its earliest appearance, Thurber's work has been highly acclaimed. Critics have appreciated his precise, fluid style, his apt phrasing, and the understated caricatures in his drawings. Hemingway called him the best writer in America, and T. S. Eliot thought his works would endure as "documents of his age." Though his writing style and type of humor has become somewhat dated, his early essays, his "casual" pieces, and the drawings from his years at the New Yorker continue to delight and provoke readers and critics alike. In recent years, some observers have pointed out the misanthropy and bitterness of many of his characterizations and the personal unhappiness of his final years. However, Robert D. Arner calls Thurber's art an accurate documenting of the Depression era. To prove his point, Arner quotes author E. B. White: "it [Thurber's work] is not merely a criticism of manners … but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to."
Is Sex Necessary?; Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do [with E. B. White] (essays) 1929
The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities (essays) 1931
The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments (essays, drawings) 1932
My Life and Hard Times (memoir) 1933
The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (essays) 1935
Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces (essays) 1937
The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (fable, drawings) 1939
Fables for Our Times and Famous Poems Illustrated (fables, drawings) 1940
The Male Animal [with Elliot Nugent] (drama) 1940
My World-and Welcome to It (short stories, drawings) 1942
Men, Women and Dogs (short stories, drawings) 1943
Many Moons (fairy tale, drawings) 1943
The Great Quillow (fairy tale, drawings) 1944
The Thurber Carnival (essays, short stories, drawings) 1945
The White Deer (fairy tale, drawings) 1945
The Beast in Me and Other Animals (essays, drawings) 1948
The Thirteen Clocks (fairy tale, drawings) 1950
The Thurber Album (reminiscences, drawings) 1952
Thurber country (reminiscences, sketches, drawings) 1953
Thurber's Dogs (essays, short stories, drawings) 1955
Further Fables for Our Time (fables, drawings) 1956
The Wonderful O (fairy tale, drawings)...
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SOURCE: "If There Is No Human Comedy, It Will Be Necessary to Create One," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 25, 1962, p. 3.
[The following positive review considers Thurber's Credos and Curios in relation to the author's whole body of work.]
Reviewing a book by James Thurber is something like describing the Taj Mahal; what can possibly be said that hasn't been said before? His twenty-fifth book is a collection of some of his last pieces and some not so recent, and it demonstrates, as though the point hadn't already been made, the wide range of Thurber's subjects and moods. There is none of the wild comedy of the early, or My Life and Hard Times, Thurber, nor any of the quick satire of the Fables for Our Time; this book shows the brooding, sometimes bitter Thurber, alternating with flashes of warmth and sentiment that are all the more welcome for being unexpected.
The things that troubled Thurber were well worth brooding about, such as bigotry, Babbittry, and the decline of humor, to say nothing of the future of mankind and the cult of burgeoning stupidity. These he attacked in a number of ways, sometimes in the short-story form, sometimes in parable, and sometimes in the form of a two-man monologue (or, if you prefer, a one-man dialogue) in which he and a straight man discussed a subject from as many angles as possible, in the end leaving it torn and...
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SOURCE: "Thurber's Last Collection," in The New Republic, Vol. December 22, 1962, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review the critic deems that Thurber's posthumously published essays and sketches in Credos and Curios are a representative summary of Thurber's career.]
My introduction to graduate studies consisted, in part, of a mournful account, by a seminar director, of how the next of kin of practically all literary figures were permitted to lay ignorant hands on whatever papers were lying about and, even more unthinkably, were permitted to throw them into the trash barrel or the fireplace in the name of cleaning the place up for the realtor. The seminar director felt, very strongly, that law should protect all papers for the eventual arrival of the graduate student to count, collate, and publish what in his lifetime the subject himself had not published.
On the other hand, I know a lady in Milwaukee who has a long-standing agreement with her next-door neighbor: whichever of them dies first, the other is pledged to rush into the house, empty the bureaus and desks, and burn everything.
Both attitudes have been evoked by the posthumous publication of Thurber's last collection of short pieces with a foreword by Mrs. Thurber, which at first gives the impression of being a conventional memorial. The fact, however, seems to be that Credos and Curios was planned,...
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SOURCE: "Three of a School," in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 20, No. 6, December, 1962, pp. 170, 172.
[In the following brief review, the critic laments that Thurber's Credos and Curios is likely his last work.]
When a writer has entertained us so well for so many years as James Thurber did, it is difficult to pick up his latest book and believe it will be the last, as the posthumous Credos and Curios may very well be, unless, please God, there is more uncollected Thurber lying around. The loss is all the more painful when we notice that the most recent pieces here collected show that the incomparable humorist retained every bit of brilliance and verve to the very end.
Most of these pieces, I suppose, might be labeled "casuals," though in the literal sense of the word Thurber never wrote anything casual in his life. His style was a product of intense concentration, and few writers of our time could pack more into a single page or paragraph. Much of his comic effect depended upon the ability to bring his entire point of view—really a weird kind of common sense—to bear upon the apparently trivial points his terrier mind could root out of the human confusion around us.
In his last years he turned more and more frequently to pieces of personal reminiscence, like his wonderful memorial to Harold Ross, where the humor became more affectionate than biting. The...
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SOURCE: "Christian Parody in Thurber's 'You Could Look It Up,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 453-4.
[This essay views Thurber's baseball short story "You Could Look It Up" as an "ironic, modernized retelling" of a biblical tale.]
A basic characteristic of James Thurber's short fiction is that many of his stories are ironic treatments of established literary conventions, fables, and tales. Thurber imposes his own brand of satire on the adventure story in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the perfect crime story in "The Catbird Seat," and the American success story in "The Greatest Man in the World." Fables for Our Time represents a sustained effort in the ironic, modernized retelling of ancient stories and tales. Several critics have noted Thurber's technique of transferring the basic' plot line of such legends and conventions to a modern milieu and then cluing the reader to what he is doing by scattering puns and allusions to the original story throughout his retelling.
Usually the story behind the story is quite obvious and easily pointed out. However, no one has ever noted this basic Thurber device in his Lardner-like idiomatic baseball story, "You Could Look It Up," where the legend beneath the legend is more subtly embedded. Anthologized in, among several other collections, Warren and Erskin's best-selling Short Story Masterpieces, the...
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SOURCE: "The Comic Anti-Hero in American Fiction: Its First Full Articulation," in Thalia, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 11-14.
[In this essay, Gehring identifies Thurber's work for the New Yorker in the 1920s as one of the first instances of a new twentieth-century literary figure, the comic antihero.]
The comic anti-hero, who tries to create order in a world where order is impossible, is the dominant type in American humor today. Terms associated with anti-hero frustrations have entered our vocabulary, from Joseph Heller's "catch-22," from the book by the same name, to Kurt Vonnegut's "and so it goes," from Slaughterhouse-Five.
America's favorite cinema clown—Woody Allen—is based on the anti-hero mold, just as America's favorite cartoon character is—Charlie Brown. In today's American literature, the important comedy artists also draw equally from this mold, from Philip Roth and John Barth to the aforementioned Vonnegut and Heller. In fact, a Nobel Prize in literature has recently been given to one of the most distinguished creators of anti-heroes, Saul Bellow.
Credit for the full blossoming of the anti-hero in American humor is usually given to the early New Yorker magazine (1925–30s): "The magazine which was more responsible than any other medium for the rise of a new type of humor …" More specifically, this meant four...
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SOURCE: "Laughter Improves Everything," in Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1981, pp. B1, B3.
[This review of Selected Letters of James Thurber warmly appreciates the substance of the volume but comments unfavorably on the selection criteria for which letters are included.]
James Thurber deftly took care of the whole business of collecting authors' letters when he reviewed an imagined volume of his own correspondence. "A certain Groping, to be sure, is discernible," he wrote, "but it doesn't appear to be toward anything." Used as a Foreword to this book of actual Thurber letters, his critique demonstrates in spades the vision of humor that glints through the following pages—a vision undiminished by the impaired eyesight that looms large in the letters but not without an edge of humorous perspective, too.
"Laughter need not be cut out of anything, since it improves everything." Thurber writes. "The power that created the poodle, the platypus, and people has an integrated sense of both comedy and tragedy." He goes on to give an example of taking humor seriously, as all good humorists must, even while fighting the impulse to take themselves too much so. "[Robert] Benchley once said, 'Only a humorist could take humor apart, and he has too much humor to do it.' Serious definition of a free-lance writer: One who gets paid per word or per piece. Benchley's humorous, hence...
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SOURCE: Review of Selected Letters of James Thurber, in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2655, February 5, 1982, p. 24.
[This brief review faults the editors of this volume of letters for their selection criteria, calling the compilation disappointing.]
Thurber was an inveterate letter writer from college days until his death in 1961. When his appalling eyesight became blindness in 1947, he simply resorted to dictation; even afterwards, friends still received occasional notes in his big scrawl. That the letters provide a valuable biographical source was amply recognised by Burton Bernstein, whose Thurber (1975) frequently resembles a collection of letters interspersed with commentary. This being so, devotees of—Twain perhaps excepted—America's greatest humorist will approach this selection with much anticipation, especially as they have waited 15 years since their last fix: the posthumous Thurber and Company. They are liable to be disappointed.
The editors cannot be blamed for the familiarity of these letters, nearly all of which were included, along with many others in Thurber, they can be blamed for their eccentric selection methods. The earliest letter dates from August 1935, by which time Thurber was 40, had published three books (a fourth appeared later that year), and had already left the New Yorker. All very curious until one recalls that...
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SOURCE: "Thurber's 'The Catbird Seat,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 140, No. 4, Summer, 1982, pp. 49-50.
[In this brief essay, Underwood offers a previously overloooked explanation for the events of Thurber's classic story.]
Critics of James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" invariably refer to his humorous tone, his control of language, and his effective characterization in this tight-plotting short story. But this is not all; one needs to dig deeper to unearth what devices Thurber uses to make this story the success it is. One device in particular has been overlooked by critics. A biologist would not have been so negligent: he would have looked at the catbird's seat and would have seen an instant correlation to the events and characters in Thurber's story.
Anyone who picks up a copy of Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963) will find on page 182 a description of the catbird. This bird is unobtuse, "skulks in undergrowth," and is hard to rile. However, upon being disturbed, it will come out from the underbrush, where it meshes with its environment because of its drab coloring, and will flare its tail feathers, showing a rusty tuft of seat (or "under tail-coverts") to the cause of its disturbance.
This description is significant to understanding Thurber's short story. Consider who is first "sitting in the catbird's seat" or...
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SOURCE: "'The Black, Memorable Year 1929': James Thurber and The Great Depression," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 3, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer/Fall, 1982, pp. 237-52.
[In this essay, Arner discusses the first ten years of Thurber's writing career and his humor's relation to the Depression era.]
The first ten years of James Thurber's career coincide almost exactly with the decade that historians have generally agreed to call the Great Depression, 1929–1939. Although Thurber had been working for and contributing to the New Yorker since March of 1927, his first book, a collaboration with E. B. White entitled Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do, did not appear until November 7, 1929, about two weeks after Black Thursday. Other collections of casuals and cartoons followed in quick succession: The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), My Life and Hard Times (1933), The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and Let Your Mind Alone! (1937). Thurber's final book of that despairing decade, The Last Flower (1939), appeared shortly after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and, in its haunting, poignant parable in pictures about the collapse of civilization before the brutal onslaught of war, it clearly reflects the success of Hitler's blitzkrieg and most of the other anxieties of the modern age as well....
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SOURCE: "James Thurber and the Hazards of Humor," in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 597-601.
[This rapid overview of many of Thurber's most famous works aims to dispute Thurber's critical reputation as the foremost American humorist of his time.]
While he was still alive, James Thurber was judged to be the best humorist since Mark Twain—if not something more. After calling him his "favourite humorist," T. S. Eliot weightily pronounced Thurber's writing and illustrations to be "a document of the age they belong to." Ernest Hemingway appeared on Thurber dustjackets, declaring that here was the "best writing coming out of America."
Nothing kills a soufflé like praising it in terms of a roast-beef dinner. The pleasures of Thurber are still there for the rereading, but one savors them moderately. The superlatives applied by Thurber's colleagues and contemporaries seem excessive to the point of embarrassment today, especially when applied to his essays. In retrospect the essays of New Yorker humorists—those famous "casuals"—come across as group representatives of a journalistic genre. Frank Sullivan, Russell Maloney, E. B. White, Thurber—there is something institutional and anonymous, something interchangeable, about the way these writers and others domesticated madness into mere whimsy and clothed it in the finest English-tweed prose native Americans could...
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SOURCE: "The Business of Being Funny," in New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, p. 36.
[This brief review finds most of the works included in Collecting Himself not worth a new anthology but nonetheless appreciates a few of Thurber's more insightful essays.]
I somehow assumed that James Thurber's literary bones had been picked clean long ago. After all, posthumous collections had been published in 1962 and 1966 (Thurber died in 1961), and even then there was not enough new material to fill the books—both included work from previous collections. How, then, can there be at this late date unanthologized Thurber worthy of yet another volume?
Well, there can't. The fact is that although Collecting Himself contains many drawings never before published—reason enough to buy it—only some of the writing deserved to be resurrected. Several parodies are dated and no longer amuse, and many of the "casuals" (The New Yorker's term for informal fiction and nonfiction articles) are too precious, too ephemeral. The book's editor, Michael J. Rosen, can certainly not be blamed for wanting to bring more of the humorist's work to light—he knows we Thurber addicts will take whatever we can get—but judging by this collection, there is not much choice Thurber left.
Whatever the book lacks in vintage material, however. It does give us Thurber working in a...
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SOURCE: "Laughter in the Dark," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 2, No. 80, December 15, 1989, p. 37.
[In contrast to unenthusiastic responses to Thurber's Collecting Himself, this review finds the collection a "luminous delight."]
Trying to explain the mechanics of humour can be a dispiriting business. Analyse a poem and one's appreciation might be enriched; analyse a joke and something quite different happens, delicate ironies and clever nuances evaporate before your eyes, punch lines wither and die. "Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind," was E B White's sage observation.
One fancies that a professional humourist would always guard the "secret" of his art, but White's friend and colleague James Thurber seemed genuinely interested in its disclosure, and arrived at a conclusion that touches us all on the raw: "Human dignity, the humourist believes, is not only silly but a little sad. So are dreams and conventions and illusions. The fine brave fragile stuff that people live by. They look so swell, and go to pieces so easily."
An eloquent diagnosis, perhaps, but it hardly explains why this new compendium of Thurber's essays, reviews, cartoons, articles and letters is such a joy. I have never come across anyone who has properly elucidated the essence of...
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SOURCE: "A Thimbleful of Thurber," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, p. 25.
[In this review, Joyce, a writer of children's books, welcomes the republication of three of Thurber's books for young people.]
I had forgotten that James Thurber had written any children's books. Or rather, I never knew it, or at least I never knew I knew it. I'd read his books as a child, but I took no notice of who'd written them. Like most kids, all I cared about was the story. Did the prince save the girl? Did the bad guy get what was coming to him? Did everything work out in the end, and most important, did I enjoy the whole rigamarole?
With Thurber's books the answer was a definite "yes" when I was a child, and that opinion still holds true now that I'm supposedly all grown up and pay attention to authors' names. With the reissue of three of Thurber's books for young people—Many Moons, The Wonderful O, and The Thirteen Clocks—we now have the fun of rediscovering some of this great man's best work.
The Wonderful O, first published in 1957 and reissued now in a fascimile edition, is an allegorical story of the tiny "Island of Ooroo." Poor "Ooroo" is invaded by treasure-seeking pirates whose leader has a bitter dislike for the letter "O" and so bans any and all use of the offending vowel for the duration of his occupation.
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SOURCE: "'Things Close In': Dissolution and Misanthropy in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,'" in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 105-10.
[In the following essay, Kaufman disputes the consensus that Walter Mitty is an everyman to be sympathized with. Instead, he proposes that the story is a critique of Mitty's inability to cope with his life.]
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is quite possibly the best known American short story. "Walter Mitty" as a character type has penetrated the popular imagination: we speak of a person inclined to day dreaming as a "Walter Mitty." Mitty, by consensus, represents the American little man, comfortably suburban, but bored to death with a middle-class, middlebrow life. Clearly his life is severely conventional, and it is obvious that Thurber is suggesting that American middle-class life offers little in the way of opportunities for romance, heroism, "a life full of passion, poetry, and hate," as a song written eight years before "Mitty," "As Time Goes By," puts it. The story has become folksy—Mitty is seen as endearing, the amiable little man, who dreams his dreams like all of us, and who triumphs in his dreams over the dull, gray world of suburban (and for that matter urban) America. The feature film made of the story in 1949 presents him thus; and two generations have seen him as a character rather like Dagwood Bumstead: the American...
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SOURCE: "From the Thurber Trove: Good Humor, Good Always," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 10, 1994, p. 6.
[The following review finds the previously uncollected works in People Have More Fun Than Anybody equal to any of Thurber's more celebrated and familiar writing and cartoons.]
It's possible that people of a certain age would find examples of writing and drawing that made them laugh out loud in their younger days just as amusing today. It's possible also that they would find the material disappointing and dated. Why did this stuff seem so funny 50 years ago?
The fact that the 100 or so essays and drawings in People Have More Fun Than Anybody were previously uncollected raises a more direct question about durability. Until now were these pieces of James Thurber's that the editor says he culled from "the crumbling pages of early New Yorkers and defunct magazines like PM unworthy of preservation between hard covers?
The evidence at hand strongly suggests no. Even the skeptical will find most of these samples to be vintage Thurber, illustrating the enduring relevance that T. S. Eliot detected in Thurber's work in 1951. In the preface Eliot is quoted from a Time cover story of that year.
[Thurber's work] is a form of humor which is also a way of saying something serious. There is a criticism of life...
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SOURCE: "The Cottage of Smugness," in The Threepenny Review, Vol. XV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 26-8.
[In the following mixed assessment, Seligman finds that some of Thurber's work retains a peculiar charm but that most of it is overwrought and dated, the product of a talent that never achieved its potential.]
In reviewing these skeptical reflections on the centenary of James Thurber, I find there is an aspect of his output that I've tended to slight, and so I had better acknowledge it up front: his charm. I can't deny Thurber's charm. His work is full of it; his silly drawings, especially, are rife with it. You have probably encountered the story, told in many places, of how in the late 1920s E. B. White retrieved some of his friend's doodlings from the floor of the office they shared at The New Yorker, inked in the penciled squiggles, and submitted the results to Harold Ross, the magazine's founding editor. Ross was skeptical; so was Thurber. But Thurber's drawings, like his stories and essays, have taken their place in the pantheon of American humor. They are disarmingly unforced and, technically, disarmingly primitive. "If you ever got good you'd be mediocre," White told him astutely. The fact that he never got good is probably the reason that his artwork now seems so much more idiosyncratic and so much less dated than most of his prose: the naïveté that Matisse achieved by overcoming his...
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Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1975: 517-20.
List of primary and secondary critical sources for the definitive Thurber biography.
Bowden, Edwin T. James Thurber: A Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969.
A comprehensive bibliographic source of Thurber's works and criticism.
Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1975.
A definitive work on Thurber's life, unflattering but disinterested.
Grauer, Neil. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
A sympathetic view of Thurber's life.
Appelbaum, Judith. "Paperback Talk." New York Times Book Review (12 December 1982): 34.
Positive notice of the publication of Selected Letters.
Baldwin, Alice. "James Thurber's Compounds." Language and Style III, No. 2 (Summer 1970): 185-96.
A discussion of Thurber's innovative and...
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