(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

James Thurber was one of the most popular humorists of the twentieth century. Many of his stories, essays, and drawings remain in print long after his death. This book, the second published volume of Thurber’s letters, is almost three times the size of Selected Letters of James Thurber (1981). The challenge of editing Thurber’s letters was “similar to trying to herd cats,” editor Harrison Kinney writes in the book’s introduction. While correcting mere typographical errors, he tried at the same time to preserve the “idiosyncratic mannerisms” that are essential to the character of Thurber’s writings.

Kinney, a lifelong Thurber fan, is a former reporter for The New Yorker, and one of Thurber’s biographers. He presents the letters chronologically, in five sections, as Thurber ambles into adulthood, wanders from place to place, has his greatest triumphs, and faces severe challenges.

In the first section, “The Emerging Years,” the first letter has the twenty-three-year-old Thurber telling his friend Elliott Nugent about his new job. Thurber had dropped out of Ohio State University, started working as a code clerk for the United States Department of State in the aftermath of World War I, and was looking forward to a posting in Paris. He was also rather mixed up in affairs of the heart. His letters declare his adoration for Eva Prout, a grade-school classmate who became a singer and actress, along with a fondness for Minette Fritts, who had been his classmate at Ohio State University. According to Thurber’s letters to each of the ladies and to Nugent, Fritts was quite attracted to him, but he was much more interested in Prout, who apparently was cordial but paid him little heed. Fritts eventually married another man and moved to Seattle. In 1922 Thurber married an Ohio State student, Althea Adams, whom he had met a year earlier. Although the marriage lasted thirteen years, it was rocky from the start.

“When I was younger,” he wrote to Fritts at age thirty-five, “a dedication to some woman seemed enough. It isn’t. Women find out sooner than we do, that a dedication to one person will not serve. . . . Our feet of clay stick out from under the covers and get cold, or else our shoulders do. I spend a great deal of time sorting over my past. . . . Some of my emotions are . . . disturbing.” He admitted that he harbored a “childish feeling” toward Fritts, that he had experienced similar feelings about Prout and also felt attracted to Ann Honeycutt, whom he met in 1927. None of this diminished his caring for his wife.

After leaving the foreign service, Thurber wrote some material for a college theater group, worked as a newspaper reporter, and tried unsuccessfully to make it as a freelance writer. He went back to France, tried to write a novel, then worked for the Chicago Tribune’s French editions. In 1926, broke, he returned to the United States.

The second section, “The Wandering Years,” starts later that year, after Thurber had landed a job with The New York Post. He made his first freelance sale in 1927, to The New Yorker magazine. Thanks to E. B. White, who was then a staff writer, Thurber joined the magazine’s staff and contributed numerous “casuals,” the personal comic essays for which he and The New Yorker became known, along with some drawings. His first duties there were mostly editing and administrative chores. When he told editor Harold Ross that he wanted to write more, Ross grudgingly agreed but said it would be considered part of his editorial duties and thus for no additional pay. For five months Thurber worked seven days a week, until he demanded a day off. His half-dozen casuals drew enough attention that Ross eventually, and still grudgingly, made him a writer. Somehow, Thurber and Ross remained friends and correspondents until Ross’s death in 1951.

Thurber’s marriage suffered several separations during this time, but he and his wife moved to a country home in Connecticut and in 1931 had a daughter, Rosemary. By 1935, though, they had divorced, and Thurber promptly married magazine editor Helen Wismer and left the staff of The New Yorker. He continued to sell casuals and drawings to the magazine. He had never paid much heed to money, but after Helen began to...

(The entire section is 1763 words.)