An American Romance

by James Thurber

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Social Concerns / Themes / Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

Theoretically, humor serves a social function by exposing society's foibles to the members of that society so the existence of these faults can be recognized and corrected. In "The Case for Comedy," an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, Thurber declares that "The decline of humor and comedy in our time has a multiplicity of causes, a principal one being the ideological beating they have taken from both the intellectual left and the political right." As a result, he says, "only tragedy is [considered] serious and has importance." But, "the truth is that comedy is just as important, and often more serious in its approach to truth, and, what few writers seem to realize or to admit, usually more difficult to write."

"An American Romance" was the first story Thurber published in the New Yorker. The 426-word result of Thurber's forty-five minute exercise appeared in the New Yorker on March 5, 1927. Unless the reader is aware of the author's description of the piece as a "burlesque of Channel swimming," it is not likely that such a connection would be made. Significantly, the story contains several elements that were to become characteristics of the author's writing. Foremost of these is the main character, identified simply as "the little man." While Thurber's Little Man differs from his predecessors, as envisioned in the works of Robert Benchley and others, the hero of this story is clearly one of the genre. A meek, physically small man, he is badly dressed and has just had a "distressing scene" with his wife. He remains silent, going around in circles, while department store management and a policeman try to bully him and while a "specialist" tries to analyze him, to determine "if he had ever been in a cyclone and if he had ever had a severe shock while out walking."

The little man persists in revolving for a total of four hours, at the end of which he receives $45,000 from a "big chewing gum magnate from the West" and more than $100,000 worth of vaudeville and motion picture offers. His explanation for accomplishing the feat is a cliche: "I did it for the wife and children."

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