James Thurber Biography

At a Glance

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.”


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

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