James Thurber Biography

James Thurber's name has become synonymous with American humor. Throughout his many publications and contributions to The New Yorker, Thurber crafted a uniquely quirky version of Americana. Perhaps his most famous story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (which became a film eight years after its publication) best captures his style. The story deals with an Average Joe whose wild fantasy life takes him on five very different, very humorous adventures. Thurber also had comedic success in the theater with his play The Male Animal and with a one-man show based on his own writings. Thurber even became the subject of a brief, but critically heralded, television series that debuted a few years after his death.

Facts and Trivia

  • As a youth, Thurber was shot in the eye by one of his brothers while playing William Tell. He lost the eye, and his remaining eyesight continued to decline for the rest of his life.
  • As a young man, Thurber worked as a reporter in his native Columbus, Ohio, where he was a movie, theater, and literature critic.
  • During his time at The New Yorker, Thurber worked alongside fellow writer E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web.
  • In addition to his writing, Thurber was an accomplished artist. He provided numerous illustrations and cover art during his tenure at The New Yorker.
  • Thurber’s drawing was obviously affected by his poor eyesight. Writer Dorothy Parker once assessed Thurber’s drawings as having the “semblance of unbaked cookies.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2046

Article abstract: Thurber pioneered an urbane and sophisticated style of humor that was markedly different from the bucolic, provincial, and often self-conscious American humor of the nineteenth century and that was far more appropriate to the complex, anxiety-ridden America being thrust into world leadership in the twentieth century.

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Early Life

James Grover Thurber was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. Throughout his life, he often wrote about his memories of his early Ohio years. At age seven, Thurber was shot in the left eye by an arrow while playing cowboys and Indians with his two brothers. Through a sympathetic reaction, his right eye eventually became affected, and he became totally blind forty years later. His impaired vision prevented him from enjoying normal childhood activities; instead, he developed a rich fantasy life and became addicted to reading and watching motion pictures.

Thurber attended Ohio State University but did not graduate. He displayed early talent for humor by writing for the university’s humor magazine and contributing skits to student theatrical productions. At college he was introduced to the highly polished fiction of Henry James, who became his most important literary influence. In a letter to his daughter in later years, Thurber wrote that other writers who “interested, inspired, or excited” him were Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Nathanael West, Clarence Day, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E. B. White. White, another great American essayist and humorist, later became Thurber’s friend, mentor, and collaborator on a successful book titled Is Sex Necessary? (1929).

During World War I, Thurber served as a code clerk with the State Department in Washington, D.C., and later in Paris, France. He returned to Columbus in 1920, where he became a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and a regional correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. During 1924 and 1925, he reported for the European editions of the Chicago Tribune and supplemented his income with freelance contributions to the New York Sunday World, Harper’s Magazine, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Kansas City Star. Later in 1925, he became a staff member of the New York Evening Post.

Thurber married Althea Adams in 1922. They had a daughter, Rosemary, who was to be Thurber’s only child. He and Althea led a vagabond life while he was struggling to survive as a reporter and freelance writer in Columbus, Paris, and New York. However, Thurber and Althea were temperamentally incompatible, and they were divorced in 1935. Thurber married Helen Wismer, who remained with him for the rest of his life and became indispensable as a companion and literary assistant as his vision deteriorated.

Life’s Work

By far the most important event in Thurber’s career came as a result of chance and timing. On February 19, 1925, the eccentric genius Harold W. Ross had started a sophisticated humor magazine called The New Yorker, which would ultimately discover and introduce many of America’s best writers. On the recommendation of E. B. White, Thurber was hired as managing editor. However, he soon proved his managerial incompetence and was allowed to work with White as a staff writer. These two gifted men wrote most of the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section and set the high literary standards for which the magazine became internationally famous. They also created the magazine’s sophisticated conversational style.

Thurber, who defined humor as “emotional chaos remembered in tranquility,” always considered himself first and foremost a writer. He had, however, developed the habit of doodling. The men, women, and animals he drew looked very much like a child’s drawings, but White saw that they often expressed the same quirky humor found in Thurber’s writing. White submitted some of the discarded drawings to The New Yorker’s art department. To Thurber’s great surprise, the magazine began publishing some of the drawings with appropriate captions added. The fact that they appeared to be so amateurish was a large part of their charm. White once warned Thurber, “If you ever got good you’d be mediocre.” In time Thurber became almost better known as an artist than as a writer. His cartoons and “spots” became one of The New Yorker’s distinguishing features.

Thurber’s drawings of dogs were his most popular creations. They usually looked something like bloodhounds and wore a brooding, troubled look, as if they were puzzled by the eccentric humans with whom they were forced to live. His dogs were as famous in his time as Snoopy, the happy-go-lucky beagle who originated in the Peanuts comic strip, was to become in later years. Thurber’s distinctive style of drawing enabled him to obtain lucrative advertising jobs as a sideline. This added income helped the Thurbers enjoy a comfortable town-and-country lifestyle in the expensive New York area. His art achieved widespread acclaim. He held many exhibitions and was compared to such renowned artists as Henri Matisse.

Many of Thurber’s books consist of stories, essays, cartoons, and drawings, most of which had originally appeared in The New Yorker. Among the best of these collections are The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze: A Collection of Short Pieces (1935), The Thurber Carnival (1945), The Beast in Me and Other Animals: A New Collection of Pieces and Drawings about Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures (1948), and The Thurber Album: A New Collection of Pieces about People (1952). Thurber also collaborated with Elliott Nugent on a successful play titled The Male Animal (1940) and personally starred in a show titled The Thurber Carnival (1960), a series of skits based on his New Yorker stories and humor pieces. The Male Animal was filmed by Warner Bros. in 1942, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Thurber’s most frequently anthologized, and perhaps most representative, short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was filmed by Samuel Goldwyn Productions in 1947, starring Danny Kaye.

Thurber discovered another avenue of expression by creating books that have been variously described as fairy tales and romances for adults. He published Many Moons in 1943, The Great Quillow in 1944, The White Deer in 1945, The Thirteen Clocks in 1950, and The Wonderful O in 1957. They are ostensibly fantasy tales for children but can be read on an entirely different level by adults who see the fantasy characters as twentieth century men and women in thin disguise.

One of Thurber’s favorite topics was what is often called “the battle of the sexes.” He was one of the first to see that relations between the sexes were changing because of many complex factors. In his writing and cartoons, he depicted women who were chronically dissatisfied with their perplexed, anxiety-ridden husbands. In a famous set of drawings titled “The War Between Men and Women” (reprinted in The Thurber Carnival), Thurber depicts an actual war between the sexes reminiscent of the American Civil War. These works can now be interpreted as foreshadowing the women’s movement in the late twentieth century.

In old age, Thurber was completely blind. He gave up drawing and began dictating his stories and essays. His work became bitter and cynical, reflecting growing depression, alcoholism, and loneliness. “I can’t hide anymore behind the mask of comedy,” he confessed to his old friend Nugent. “People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible—and so is life!” He found it increasingly difficult to get his work accepted, even by The New Yorker. He suffered a stroke in October, 1961, and died of pneumonia on November 2 of the same year. He was buried in his native Columbus, Ohio. Such was his worldwide fame that most of his previously rejected pieces appeared posthumously in collections such as Credos and Curios (1962), Thurber & Company (1966), and Collecting Himself: James Thurber On Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself (1990). All these books contain flashes of the old Thurber humor as well as insights into the complex personality of one of America’s greatest and most influential literary geniuses.

Summary

James Thurber was more than a humorist; he was a great writer. His works can be studied as examples of the best modern prose. He is always succinct, interesting, and crystal clear. His career spanned some of the most turbulent times in American history, including World War I, the Roaring Twenties with Prohibition and rampant gangsterism, the Great Depression and the specter of international Communism, World War II with its unspeakable crimes against civilians, and the seemingly interminable Cold War, which threatened global annihilation. The same period saw a dramatic decline in religious faith, a world population explosion, growing racial unrest, urban sprawl, environmental pollution, alcoholism, drug abuse, dysfunctional families, social alienation, and other characteristically modern phenomena. Thurber shared the anxiety experienced by most Americans but had the genius to convert his personal distress—even his blindness—into humor. His memories of Columbus, to which he frequently returned in his writing, represented a nostalgic longing for a saner, safer America that was being obliterated by the juggernaut called “progress.”

Thurber helped Americans cope with radical change in their country and throughout the world. He taught people to laugh at their fears and perplexities. There has hardly been a humorist or comedian since his time who has not been influenced by Thurber’s “sure grasp of confusion.” His influence is conspicuous in such modern entertainers as Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, who make audiences laugh at the angst and paranoia peculiar to modern times. Thurber was the voice of sanity in an insane world. He broadened American humor to reflect the increasing complexity of life and corresponding disorientation of the individual. With his conscientious craftsmanship—worthy of his great model Henry James—Thurber set an example of excellence from which countless writers throughout the world have profited.

Bibliography

Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. Dodd, Mead, 1975. This is the authorized biography of Thurber, written with the full cooperation of Thurber’s widow Helen, who granted Bernstein access to all her husband’s letters and papers. Well researched and well written, the book often reveals unflattering truths about the subject. Interesting black and white photographs.

Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. This excellent, short (203 pages) biography is written in an informal, entertaining fashion. It is full of amusing anecdotes and liberally illustrated with many of Thurber’s best cartoons, including his famous “Seal in the Bedroom.”

Holmes, Charles S., ed. Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. This book contains brief, illuminating essays on various aspects of Thurber’s life and work by such famous authors as Dorothy Parker, W. H. Auden, Malcolm Cowley, John Updike, and Thurber’s good friend and mentor, E. B. White.

Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. This definitive biography, running to over 1200 pages, is based on exhaustive research. The book is written in a pleasant, informal style full of anecdotes and quotations and is generously illustrated with black and white photographs as well as many of Thurber’s cartoons and line drawings.

Morsberger, Robert E. James Thurber. New York: Twayne, 1964. One of the distinguished series of Twayne’s United States Authors Series, this small book presents a wealth of information about Thurber’s life, philosophy, career, and the many interesting people he met during his lifetime. Includes many pages of notes and references, a chronology, and a select bibliography.

Thurber, James. My Life and Hard Times. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933. This tremendously amusing, semifictional collection of autobiographical essays focuses on Thurber’s early life in Columbus and his eccentric relatives. Russell Baker, a prominent New York Times columnist, called it “possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever written.”

Thurber, James. The Thurber Carnival. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945. This is the best collection of Thurber’s memoirs, profiles, short stories, humor pieces, mood pieces, parodies, fables, and cartoons. It provides an overview of Thurber’s themes, interests, talents, and life experiences. Publication of this potpourri made Thurber famous and financially secure.

Thurber, James. The Years with Ross. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. Thurber discusses his long association with the eccentric Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker. Thurber’s opportunity to become a staff writer was the most important event in his career, and he helped the struggling new magazine develop its unique style. Ross allowed him freedom to discover his own themes and aptitudes.

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Critical Essays