To say that there are two worlds—the world of ordinary men and the world of James Thurber—is a cliché that would never have been tolerated by Thurber himself, for one of the charms of his style is a scrupulous avoidance of anything resembling the trite. Among his many phobias there must have existed the dread of turning a corner in a sentence and being waylaid with a cliché. His precision of language and careful attention to detail are the qualities that infuse his writing with interest and charm, as is his ability to impose a world of fantasy on a world of reality and to achieve an interrelationship of the external and the internal, the factual and the imaginative.
In his preface to My Life and Hard Times, Thurber apologizes for writing an autobiography before he had reached the age of forty and for not conforming to Ford Madox Ford’s dictum that one’s memoirs should paint a picture of one’s time. Thurber more or less admits that there is no time and that all he intends to tell is what happened to this one writer. Since what follows could have happened to no one but Thurber, he thus implicitly admits the existence of the Thurber world.
This world reaches beyond the boundaries of the real or the commonplace and extends into a region of fable, peopled by such figures as the cook Emma Inch and her asthmatic dog, Feely; Della, who made cretonnes for the soup and whose brother worked in an incinerator where they burn refuse; Barney Haller, the hired man, whom thunder followed like a dog; and Walter Mitty, that frustrated, comic Prufrock with his dreams of heroism and glory. Strange things happen in this world because Thurber sees it that way: An old woman with a parasol is seen to walk through a truck, a cat rolls across the street atop a striped barrel, and an admiral in full uniform rides a bicycle across the highway in the path of an oncoming car. That these things are never what they seem but fragments of the ordinary world suddenly revealed in a new light or a different perspective is the secret of Thurber’s humor. It is a form of humor little concerned with the conventional or the obvious. It arises quite naturally from a recognition of the inner, emotional chaos of a sensitive, individualistic man trapped in the affairs of the practical, demanding world, with no weapon of defense but his own resistances and inferiorities.
Hence that air of the fabulous that also invests Thurber’s drawings: the meek, rotund men with poses of resignation, whose faces reveal long-thwarted efforts to think and act in a positive manner; the aggressive, rather frightening women who never seem disturbed by doubts as to their superiority; the huge, sadly patient dogs. They belong in a world in which life has grown complicated for men and animals, from which one way of escape leads into a Cloud-Cuckoo Land where the illogical becomes the logical and the fantastic reveals the dilemma of people facing the psychological confusion and insecurity of their place in a world almost devoid of sense and meaning.
Nowhere does Thurber display to better advantage his genius for uncovering the incongruous in everyday human affairs, in the daydream escapes from personal confusion or catastrophe, than in the nine episodes that center on Thurber’s youth in...
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