Harrison Kinney’s critical biography of James Thurber is also a literary history of one of the most important chapters in twentieth century American literary history: the founding and early decades of The New Yorker magazine, when that journal and its writers were at the center of an exhilarating New York literary life. Thurber’s story and the history of the magazine are inextricably tied together in their best decades of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Thurber was to become the most important American humorist of the twentieth century—as Mark Twain had been for the nineteenth—and not only as a writer but as a cartoonist as well (he had nine one-man art shows in his lifetime). His “sure grasp of confusion,” as his New Yorkercolleague Wolcott Gibbs aptly described Thurber’s genius, allowed him to make comic sense of the increasingly complex world of mid-twentieth century America. Yet while the magazine he helped to make famous continued to grow after World War II, Thurber’s life went into serious decline in the years before his death in 1961.
Essentially, Thurber’s life falls into three main periods. The adult life of this most famous native of Columbus, Ohio, would be shaped significantly by his early midwestern years. A 1902 accident cost Thurber his left eye, and improper medical treatment would mean the almost total loss of vision in the last twenty years of his life. A shy middle son in a fairly unstable family, Thurber would turn the difficulties and disasters of his early life into his best books (for example, My Life and Hard Times and The Thurber Album ).
After being graduated from Ohio State University and spending postwar years in Europe, Thurber found himself in New York, in an early and unhappy marriage to his first wife, Althea. The propitious meeting of Thurber with Harold Ross meant destiny for them both. The New Yorkerhad been founded in 1925 and was still trying to find its editorial voice and style in 1927, when Thurber started writing, editing, and drawing for the magazine. As Kinney argues,
Thurber would hardly have achieved his success and fame had he not been hired by the New Yorker in its early years. The magazine’s uncharted editorial direction and the consequent receptiveness of its founder to new ideas quickly opened for Thurber the unique chance to exploit his genius.
The New Yorker was at the center of an explosive period in American fiction and humor, what has come to be known as the Second American Literary Renaissance. Like the lunchtime Algonquin Round Table—which hosted many of the magazine’s creative talents, including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, just around the corner from the magazine’s offices—writers and editors such as E. B. White and his wife, Katharine Angell, helped to shape the magazine into a sophisticated journal of poetry, fiction, and humor that would welcome the greatest creative talents in America for decades.
Together, White and Thurber explored an early spectrum of New Yorkerpossibilities, set standards for the rest of the book to follow, and helped liberate Ross from his dependencies on other publications. In the course of it, they helped complete the emancipation of American letters from the English, and from wearying nineteenth-century literary traditions everywhere. They raised humor from cracker-barrel philosophy to an art, wrote satire without smugness, and implied civilized tastes without arrogance. They also helped make the New Yorker likable and respected.
The magazine, Kinney shows, happened along at exactly the right moment in the 1920’s and tapped into “a postwar irreverence” toward conventional American tastes and attitudes. “This attitude flourished in a carefree period of bootleg gin and politically and sexually emancipated women.” Ironically, however, it was during the Great Depression that both Thurber and the magazine reached their zenith; in the mid-1930’s, Thurber was producing eighty to ninety cartoons and literary pieces a year for The New Yorker.
In 1935, however, Thurber left the magazine to begin his free-lance career. The New Yorker would always maintain an office for him, however, and his best work would continue to appear there. In the same year he married his second wife, Helen, who became an absolutely essential partner for his last quarter-century, for...