James Thurber American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2213

No other humorist has focused on relations between the sexes as persistently as Thurber. His first book, Is Sex Necessary?, written in collaboration with his New Yorker associate E. B. White, is primarily a lighthearted satire on the psychosexual literature of the time but incidentally reflects the sexual insecurity...

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No other humorist has focused on relations between the sexes as persistently as Thurber. His first book, Is Sex Necessary?, written in collaboration with his New Yorker associate E. B. White, is primarily a lighthearted satire on the psychosexual literature of the time but incidentally reflects the sexual insecurity of its young coauthors. Thus the book mocked not only a social preoccupation with Freudian psychology but also Thurber’s and White’s own fears and anxieties, which, in Thurber’s case, also shadow much of his later work.

Thurber continued to probe the conflicts of men and women in his writings and drawings long after Is Sex Necessary? His cartoons characteristically depict women who prove either physically or psychologically overpowering to small, ineffectual men, the most extreme example being one that bears the caption “Home,” showing a tiny man approaching the front steps of his house, which at the rear resolves into a huge, ominous outline of his wife. Neither of Thurber’s wives were the monsters that flowed so readily from his pen, and his second wife, Helen, seems to have proved just about the ideal mate for him. He may be said to have depicted in an intensified way the common male inability to comprehend, accept, and enjoy an abiding relationship with the other sex.

The male characters of Thurber’s stories tend to be mild, rather ineffectual beings, often henpecked husbands seeking victory in the eternal battle of the sexes but lacking the personal resources needed to prevail. The protagonists of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat” are both previewed in a 1935 story, “Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife.” Mr. Preble’s scheme—to lure his oppressor into the cellar of their home and murder and bury her there—has no chance of success. The key to the humor of the situation is not so much his lack of nerve as his wife’s inability to take him seriously. She has gauged him so well that she can destroy his plan with a simple offhand comment.

In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” published four years later, Thurber’s hapless male character, rather than contrive an absurd retaliation against his oppressive spouse, responds by lapsing into a fantasy world in which he performs a variety of courageous and difficult feats, all with a coolly self-confident air. In “The Catbird Seat,” the female oppressor is a coworker of the meek Mr. Martin. Again, the man’s extreme solution, murder, cannot possibly come off, but he is able to turn his failure to advantage and win a rare victory.

In his work at least, Thurber was able to achieve a perspective on the ambivalent and generally unhealthy attitude toward women that clouded his social and personal life. In life he both romanticized and disdained them; in his fiction there is no romance, while the disdain is filtered through a fairly sympathetic male character. Thurber manages to enable readers to recognize in the struggles of his bickering couples amusing exaggerations of the conflicts normal to intersexual relationships.

If Thurber could transmute his sexual anxieties into art, he also could capitalize brilliantly on purely physical weaknesses such as those resulting from his childhood accident. In 1933 he shaped the difficulties caused by his poor vision and other deficiencies of his early years into a hilarious autobiography, My Life and Hard Times. The oft-reprinted chapter called “University Days” is also a devasting satire on the shortcomings of Ohio State University. In describing one of his specific problems—his inability to see through a microscope in botany class—he shifts the focus to his frustrated professor, who, scrupulously insistent that the young man carry out his assignment, tries “every adjustment of the microscope known to man.” When he has at last seemingly succeeded but finds that Thurber has drawn not what was under the microscope but his own eyeball, the reader sympathizes more with the stupefied professor than with his student.

In the same chapter Thurber cunningly demonstrates his ability to make literary capital of his own curiously ambivalent attitude toward the priorities of his alma mater. Ohio State was caught up at the time in a fierce football rivalry with the University of Michigan. In “University Days” this takes the form of a mass effort to boost a dim-witted star tackle named Bolenciecwcz through economics class. When the athlete is baffled by a request to “name one means of transportation,” his fellow students, and even the professor, prompt him shamelessly until he manages to come out with “train.” Bolenciecwcz is a disguised version of a historical Ohio State football hero whose exploits Thurber raved about for years afterward—while just as frequently deploring what he saw as the university’s lax academic standards. Thurber manages to re-create the same ambivalence in the reader, who roots for Bolenciecwcz even while appreciating the author’s delineation of the intellectual dishonesty that made this star player available to the team.

Thurber excelled at the presentation of characters who often failed but might achieve an unexpected success—who in fact succeed through failure, as he often did in his personal life. Thus, in the literary version of his collegiate self, he becomes expert at the mandatory military drill by the mere process of failing and repeating the course so many times. The timid victim of “The Catbird Seat” converts his comically inept failure to murder his tormenter into the more socially acceptable scheme of getting her dismissed. In his fable “The Unicorn in the Garden,” a man who cannot convince his verbally abusive wife of the unicorn he has seen turns the fate she devises for him—institutionalization—against her.

Particularly in his fables and other writings featuring animals, which Thurber loved to depict, he takes satirical advantage of his skills as writer and visual artist. One of the very few great practitioners of Aesop’s art, he appended morals that are both funny and profound. “The Seal Who Became Famous” captures, in its circus performer who forgets how to swim, an instantly recognizable type. A number of the fables, such as “The Very Proper Gander,” which satirizes the evils of super-patriotism, reflect his concern with the desperate remedies destructive of civil liberties to which society is liable in times of war both hot and cold. Like a handful of the greatest satirists, Thurber can also level his criticism at the whole human race, as in his “Interview with a Lemming,” where the lemming, in response to a scientist’s puzzlement as to why lemmings rush into the sea and drown, replies that he cannot “understand why you human beings don’t.” Here his satire becomes truly universal.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

First published: 1939 (collected in Writings and Drawings, 1996)

Type of work: Short story

A meek, submissive, middle-aged man daydreams of a heroic, resourceful alter ego.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber’s best-known story, is, like most of his fiction, short, requiring only five or six pages. As Mitty and his wife are on their way to do some errands, he indulges in a daydream in which he is a brave military commander piloting a hydroplane, but his wife interrupts by exclaiming that he is driving too fast. This pattern is repeated several times. When she urges him to make an appointment with his physician, he becomes an eminent surgeon at work, until a parking-lot attendant’s contemptuous commands call him back temporarily to reality. In reality, Mitty does not do anything very well.

Very little actually happens in Thurber’s story. Mrs. Mitty has an appointment at a hairdresser’s; Mitty himself buys a pair of overshoes. While trying to remember what his wife has asked him to buy, he becomes a cocky defendant in a murder case. He manages to buy some dog food and sinks into a chair in a convenient hotel lobby and imagines himself a bomber pilot under fierce attack. His returning wife wakes him with the admonition that she is going to take his temperature when they get home. At the end of the story, Mrs. Mitty goes into a drugstore, and he becomes a “proud and disdainful” man facing a firing squad.

Part of Thurber’s technique is to present Mitty as a man who fails even as a dreamer. His daydreams are cluttered with clichés. Whether he is a murder defendant or an Army officer, he bears the same “Webley-Vickers automatic.” In both of his military dreams he is an officer who can lead his men “through hell.” In reality, he is a man trying to deal with the fears and difficulties of a drab and disappointing life. As such, he is only an exaggerated version of a person whom everyone will recognize.

“You Could Look It Up”

First published: 1941 (collected in Writings and Drawings, 1996)

Type of work: Short story

A baseball manager employs a midget to revitalize his team.

“You Could Look It Up” is an unusual Thurber short story in point of view: that of an illiterate trainer employed by a major league baseball team. Thurber thereby adopts a technique already made famous by Ring Lardner, in which much of the humor derives from the way the speaker fractures the English language. Unlike the typical Lardner story, Thurber’s also has a strong plot. The narrator recounts a story thirty years old, which prepares the reader for an old-fashioned “yarn.” It also makes more plausible the lowbrow characteristics of the trainer and the team members by placing them in an era when the men of professional baseball were usually little educated.

Manager Squawks Magrew’s team has been leading the league all season but has fallen into a slump that has melted its lead almost entirely away. In a bar Magrew meets an eccentric, fifty-four-year-old midget named Pearl du Monville. Magrew comes to enjoy his company and introduces him into the dugout as a kind of mascot. As Magrew grows more and more displeased with the performance of his players, he decides to sign and outfit Pearl as a player. In the ninth inning of a crucial game, with two outs, the bases loaded, and the team needing one run to tie and two to win the game, he calls upon the midget as a pinch-hitter with instructions to wait for the inevitable base on balls that any batter with such a tiny strike zone might reasonably expect.

The midget, however, does the unthinkable. He swings at a pitch and grounds out, ending the game. Magrew is so agitated that he picks up the midget by the ankles, whirls him around, and hurls him into the outfield, where the opposing center fielder catches him. Pearl disappears into the crowd and is never seen again, but the incident somehow gives the team a new spirit, and they go on to win the pennant.

Stories seldom make specific things happen, but this one inspired Bill Veeck, the owner of the real-life St. Louis Browns, to emulate the fictional Magrew’s tactic in a 1951 American League game. The midget obeyed his manager and drew a walk, after which baseball outlawed the employment of midgets as players.

“The Catbird Seat”

First published: 1942 (collected in Writings and Drawings, 1996)

Type of work: Short story

An unassuming office worker finds a way to defeat an obnoxious efficiency expert.

“The Catbird Seat” combines Thurber’s interests in baseball and in the Walter Mitty character. The mild-mannered protagonist of this story, Mr. Martin, is afflicted in his workplace by a loud, aggressive woman named Ulgine Barrows. Although she has been hired to reduce company expenditures and thus constitutes a threat to his security, he hates most her habit of taunting him with colorful expressions drawn from the lexicon of Red Barber, the real-life play-by-play announcer of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Are you scraping the bottom of the pickle barrel?” “Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” Pleasant enough coming from Barber, these utterances, incessantly reiterated by his nemesis, convince Martin that he must kill her.

After going home from work one evening and drinking a glass of milk, Martin walks to the woman’s apartment and barges in. She, of course unafraid of him, notices his extreme nervousness and offers him a drink. While she is in the kitchen, he cannot find the weapon he had hoped to locate in her living room. He accepts the drink and a cigarette, neither of which he has ever indulged in before. Beginning to boast that he intends to murder their mutual employer, he boldly “confirms” her suspicion that he is on dope. He then leaves, uttering, “Not a word about this.” When promptly the next morning Barrows complains to their boss about her visitor’s behavior, Martin denies the allegations. Growing hysterical and finally violent, Barrows must be forcibly evicted from the premises, and Martin returns quietly to his work.

That Martin will fail in his attempt to kill his tormenter there is never any doubt, but he cannily turns his failure into a triumph. In Thurber’s version of the eternal war of the sexes, “The Catbird Seat” marks the signal example of a masculine victory—one that, given the bullying nature of his antagonist, the reader is inclined to celebrate.

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