Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1013
James Thurber 1894–-1961
(Full name James Grover Thurber) American humorist, playwright, essayist, and short story writer.
See also James Thurber Contemporary Literary Criticism (Volume 5), and Volumes 11, 125.
One of the most popular and respected humorists of the twentieth century, Thurber was often called the Mark Twain...
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- Critical Essays
James Thurber 1894–-1961
(Full name James Grover Thurber) American humorist, playwright, essayist, and short story writer.
See also James Thurber Contemporary Literary Criticism (Volume 5), and Volumes 11, 125.
One of the most popular and respected humorists of the twentieth century, Thurber was often called the Mark Twain of his era. Among his admirers were Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Along with E. B. White, Robert Benchley, and other writers under the tutelage of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Thurber set the standard for sophisticated humor and prose style for a generation of American readers and writers. His stories, essays, and drawings combine the mundane and the absurd to create characters and situations at once strange and familiar that continue to fascinate and amuse his audience.
Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894. When he was seven, Thurber was blinded in his left eye by an arrow while playing with his brother William. This accident led to lifelong trouble with his eyesight and resulted in total blindness for the ten years prior to his death. Thurber attended Ohio State University and worked in undergraduate journalism while a student there, eventually becoming editor of the Sun-Dial, the campus newspaper. He left the university in 1918 without a degree, in part due to his vision problem. Thurber worked as a code clerk in the State Department for the next two years, serving in both Washington and Paris. Following this, he returned to Columbus and became a reporter on the Dispatch. Thurber went on to work with the Chicago Tribune in France and the Evening Post in New York. In 1927, he joined the New Yorker and stayed there for eight years, eventually becoming a freelance writer. In 1922 Thurber married Althea Adams; they divorced in 1935. He married Helen Wismer a month later, a marriage which lasted until his death. Between the late 1920s and early 1940s, Thurber's writing achieved international fame for its eccentric humor. When the author suffered a succession of illnesses and lost his sight permanently, his writing took on a more serious tone, even one of despair. Thurber once said that his blindness was a punishment upon him for writing “meanly and mockingly of mankind.” However, he did continue to write, first with the help of magnifying glasses, then by using crayon on yellow paper. After his blindness became total, he dictated his pieces to secretaries. He died in 1961.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Of Thurber's numerous short stories, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1942) has become one of the best known. In the gender battles of Thurber's world, Walter Mitty stands as the archetypal non-hero. Bossed about by his wife—the prototypal Thurber woman—as though he were an irresponsible child, Mitty continually attempts escape through fantasies that feature him as the epitome of success, control, and power. Each fantasy is ultimately thwarted at its high point by Mitty's wife, with Mitty reduced once again to the “little man” so prominent in both Thurber's stories and cartoons. “The Catbird Seat” (1967), a short story with traditional structure, is another of the author's most widely known pieces. It features Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, the obnoxiously boisterous and demanding female, in confrontation with the timid “little man” Erwin Martin. As head file clerk, Martin's entire department is at risk of being closed down because of Mrs. Barrows. Martin considers simply murdering his opponent but later happens to come upon a scheme that will not only rout her but will leave him in the proverbial catbird seat. Another of Thurber's stories to deal specifically with the gender battle, “The Unicorn in the Garden” (1982) features a man whose wife has tried to institutionalize him but who triumphs instead by having her put away. Such stories have led to accusations of misogyny against Thurber. He, however, declared himself a feminist and said of his own writing, “If I have sometimes seemed to make fun of Woman, I assure you it has only been for the purpose of egging her on.”
As a satirist, Thurber's desire to communicate with brevity and clarity made the fable form irresistible to him, and some critics feel that the fable would be dead as a literary genre had Thurber not revitalized it. Thurber's fables are unique in that unlike the traditional fable, which focuses on only one event, the Thurber fable is often built entirely around a pun. Like the traditional fable form they contain animal characters, which not only think and speak, but also have human feelings and, in some cases, conditions such as a guilt complexes or educational difficulties. Among his best known fables are “The Birds and the Foxes,” “The Very Proper Gander,” “The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble,” and “The Unicorn in the Garden.” Accordingly, each tale ends with a moral, usually ironic. Thurber's fables were published in The New Yorker, and are collected in two volumes, Fables For Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). Thurber also wrote several children's pieces, including “The White Deer” (1945), a story about a princess who inhabits the body of a white deer.
Commentators vary in their views on Thurber. Louis Hasley called him “beyond question the foremost humorist of the twentieth century.” Many critics see a progression of dark pessimism during the final twenty years of Thurber's life, from the good-natured irony of the 1940 Fables for Our Time to the bitter political and social commentary of the 1956 Further Fables for Our Times. Overall, however, Thurber's wit and eccentric humor are celebrated and honored and his writing continues to be read with appreciation. And yet, behind this humor, there is a seriousness of which T. S. Eliot, who cited Thurber as an eminent humorist, said: “Unlike so much of humor, it is not merely a criticism of manners—that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment—but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to.”
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Is Sex Necessary? Or Why You Feel the Way You Do [with E. B. White] 1929
The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities 1931
The Seal in the Bedroom, and Other Predicaments 1932
My Life and Hard Times 1933
The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze: A Collection of Short Pieces 1935
Let Your Mind Alone! And Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces 1937
Cream of Thurber 1939
The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures 1939
Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated 1940
My World—and Welcome to It [includes “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”] 1942
Many Moons (children's fiction) 1943
Thurber's Men, Women, and Dogs 1943
The Great Quillow (children's fiction) 1944
The Thurber Carnival 1945
The White Deer (children's fiction) 1945
The Beast in Me and Other Animals: A Collection of Pieces and Drawings about Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures 1948
The Thirteen Clocks (children's fiction) 1950
The Thurber Album: A New Collection of Pieces about People 1952
Thurber Country: A New Collection of Pieces about Males and Females, Mainly of Our Own Species 1953
A Thurber Garland 1955
Thurber's Dogs: A Collection of the Master's Dogs 1955
Further Fables for Our Time 1956
Alarms and Diversions 1957
The Wonderful O (children's fiction) 1957
The Years with Ross 1959
Lanterns and Lances 1961
Credos and Curios 1962
The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O (children's fiction) 1962
Vintage Thurber: A Collection of the Best Writings and Drawings 2 Vols. 1963
Snapshot of a Dog 1966
Thurber & Company 1966
The Catbird Seat 1967
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 1967
The Little Girl and the Wolf; and, The Unicorn in the Garden 1982
The Night the Ghost Got In 1983
In a Word 1989
Collecting Himself: James Thurber On Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself 1990
People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber: Being a Hundred Or So … [edited by Michael J. Rosen] 1994
Writings and Drawings 1996
The Male Animal [with Elliott Nugent] (drama) 1940
Many Moons (drama) 1947
A Thurber Carnival (drama) 1960
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SOURCE: “Men and Animals: James Thurber and the Conversion of a Literary Genre,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 307–13.
[In the following essay, Triesch examines the ways in which Thurber changed the traditional form of the fable.]
Speaking of the Human Habit of Ascribing Human Weaknesses to animals, James Thurber says that “the trouble with Man is Man. It is an immemorial convention of the writers of fables to invest the lower animals with the darker traits of human beings, so that by age-old habit, Man has come to blame his faults and flaws on the other creatures in his least possible of all worlds.”1 The implication, of course, is that man, not “the lower animals,” is to blame for the faults; and the fabulist merely uses the animals to objectify human weaknesses. In contemporary literature Thurber himself is the only established writer of fables,2 and in this essay I shall investigate his use of the “immemorial convention” as well as his deviation from it.
There is no adequate definition of the fable as a literary genre, as the few critics who deal with it agree unanimously.3 The fable developed mainly in the Indo-Asiatic and Greco-European cultures, and fables from these two cultures have characteristics distinguishing them from one another. There are significant features, however, that all fables have in common, the most basic common denominator being the projection of human characteristics and abilities into animals. There are no prescriptions limiting this anthropomorphization of animals, but the tradition of the fable requires that the animals, though humanized, still act in accordance with their habits as animals. Rarely does the tradition admit humanized objects from the inanimate world, objects such as plants, rocks, or man-made structures.4
Other forms of literature having in the last fifty years eclipsed the fable, only in the spoken language do we hear echoes of the once flourishing genre. If we speak of the “lion's share” or cry out “fabulous!” we are hardly aware that such expressions are legacies from the fable. Indeed, today the fable would be virtually dead as a literary form had not Thurber utilized it. All of his fables appeared originally in The New Yorker, and later he collected them in Fables for Our Time (1943) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956).
Thurber's fables differ markedly from the traditional pattern. He does not restrict himself to the typical fable animals, and even the animals which he has taken from La Fontaine or the ancients have changed considerably. The Raven, the Fox, or the Lion in Thurber is no longer merely a generalized member of its species, but becomes a highly individualized character. The Crow, for instance, is the “particular crow” (ii, 41); the dog is a “watchdog,” a “bloodhound,” a “German shepherd,” or a “Scotty”.5 These fable creatures, whose very newness in the genre makes them appear as characters, are individualized even to the point of having names: the ostrich Oliver, the horse Charles, and the duck Eva.
Thurber also takes liberties with the traditional meaning of the fable figures. In his work the lion no longer gets his lion's share, and the fox does not always, as he formerly did, have at hand his scheming wisdom. But this new chorus of animals is not so incoherent as it might appear at first sight. Thurber chooses his animals not for their traditional associations but for their suggestiveness of modern human types. In some instances he selects animals because their habits typify specific human virtues or vices. Thus the diligent beaver becomes a symbol of the hard working man who never in his life heard the word leisure, and the sheep crazy about publication becomes a caricature of the cynical newspaper reporter who is not much concerned with the truth and works by the motto “Don't get it right, just get it written” (i, 39). At other times he chooses animals because their external appearance suggests specific human types. There is “Bragdowdy,” and the city mouse which cannot find its way through Sunday traffic in the country, as well as the moth which longs with all its heart for a distant shining star.
It is an amazing set of creatures and situations that Thurber presents. His animals have read widely, including earlier fables. In an “ancient book” his tortoise has learned “about a tortoise who had beaten a hare in a race,” and his crow laughs knowingly at the fox's attempt to make her drop the cheese. His situations show a mixture of the fable, the proverb, and the fairy tale. What he does with this familiar material is best illustrated by his version of the Little Red Ridinghood story. The wolf's fate is considerably modernized. Instead of devouring her, the wolf is shot by Red Ridinghood, who has brought along a gun in her basket.
While playing with features typical to the fable, Thurber also likes to play with language. Some of his titles reveal his fondness for alliteration: “The Lion and the Lizard,” “The Grizzly and the Gadgets,” “The Weaver and the Worm.” Sometimes the entire action of a fable is built around a pun, as in the instance of the very proper gander, as he is called, who is suspected of leading riots, throwing bombs, and being an atheist. Or there is the case of the mongoose who is called a mongoosesexual by his sisters. (ii, 85)
All of Thurber's innovations in the fable, though made for various reasons, have one aim in common. He is trying to create new ways of holding the reader's attention. The traditional fable, focusing simply on one astonishing event, is incapable of fascinating the modern reader as it fascinated the reader of old. Consequently, Thurber has to employ new means of fascination.
The break with the tradition is even more evident in the actions Thurber ascribes to his animals. The classic fabulists limited the human abilities of their animals to speaking and thinking. They would scarcely recognize as a fable the Thurber story which concludes, “His mate, who was very nervous anyway, grabbed a pistol from a bureau drawer and shot him dead, thinking he was a lion” (i, 15). Thurber's animals do not only think and speak, but they are also capable of feeling like man; they laugh, they cry, they believe in God (i, 35). On numerous occasions we hear of clinical diagnoses; special terms from psychology and psychiatry occur often. Sometimes the whole action pivots ironically on a “guilt complex” (ii, 62), or an “inflamed ego” (ii, 72), or on a consultation with a “bird psychologist” for educational difficulties (ii, 138). In these cases Thurber has anthropomorphized the animal to a degree that is only possible in the twentieth century.
Such traditional fable actions as fights, assemblies, or visits do not occur in Thurber. Still, the animals in his stories are social beings. The bear comes to a bar (i, 33); the goldfinch flies to a club; the young wolf attends college (ii, 25). In short, the animals participate in social institutions, and they have their conflicts within this framework (the wolf is “tossed out of college for cutting classes”). Moreover, these social institutions determine their lives. The animals are protected by law and the police (ii, 94; ii, 86) and guided and manipulated by a well-developed system of commerce and advertising, market research and insurance companies (ii, 92; ii, 113). They do not live in a timeless Utopia, but in the United States of America of this century with psychology, business, and women determining the surface appearance of life.
The comedy in the actions of these animals reaches a climax when they appear as participants of a highly differentiated civilization. Thus they dress according to the occasion, and shirt studs cannot be found (i, 21); they live in furnished apartments, participate in sports, smoke, drive cars, watch TV. The animals are open to all human virtues and vices, as for example the bear who tends to become a drunkard, then is converted and becomes a teacher of temperance. In addition, the animals support research and teaching; they have academic titles and their own press.
Thurber does not humanize his animals so far, however, that they become mere representatives for human beings. The second requirement of the fable is that the animals remain animals. In a sometimes concealed manner, these creatures go on living in a way faithful to their animal nature. They devour each other (i, 9), they live in caves (i, 21), the seal swims, the bear in the bar does not order whisky but mead, which is made from honey (i, 31). In the most unsuspected moment, the humanized animal is faithful to its beastly nature. Here Thurber is evidently in accordance with the tradition. Neither humanized animals, nor beastly humans act in his stories—they are still fable creatures in their combination of two natures. But the human nature and the nature of the animal are combined in a new way to create a new fascination. The effect thus achieved consists of grotesque mixtures of wit and humor that furnish the prerequisite for comedy, satire, parody, or, sometimes, for dead earnestness.
The dissolution of the traditional formula is especially evident in Thurber's targets. It is obvious to every reader how closely bound to contemporary events his fables are. In Lanterns and Lances, Thurber says, “Much of what follows therefore is my attempt, in my little corner of the struggle, to throw a few lantern beams here and there. But I also cast a few lances at the people and ideas that have disturbed me and I make no apology for their seriousness.”6 These words, though written with regard to the essays in the one book, might be applied to Thurber's fables generally. It is the exclusively contemporary usages and conventions that Thurber attacks in his fables. Churches, clubs, traffic, press, automotion, greed, hunger for power are but a few items from the list.
One of Thurber's most characteristic targets is women. The Unicorn fable is extremely hostile to women, as are some other ones. Again and again, Thurber throws lances at American women, who in his view are greedy for power, irrational about every innovation, and ignorant of the subtleties of the male world. It is less the individual woman Thurber cannot stand than it is the image of the woman created by social institutions.
Having thus far left behind the tradition of the genre, Thurber went one step further and changed the language of the fable. In the moral and in the humanization of animals on the one hand, and in the language of his works on the other, Thurber achieves a high degree of contemporaneousness. His humor is partly founded in the grotesque mixture of human and beastly traits, and partly in the style of the fables, their concealed literary allusions and especially so in the frivolous game with the fable tradition itself. The latter is mainly conceivable in the moral which concludes the fable, in most instances being a mockery or a conversion of a moral that is long-established either in literature or proverb. Thurber plays with the words, shakes them, and forms a new kind of moral or, even better, exemplifies its nonsensicality.
The fables were written for the reader of The New Yorker, putatively the sophisticated American. Many of Thurber's titles are slang idioms, slogans, or newspaper headlines that, for the foreign reader, have their comic effect only in their inapplicability to the fable. To the sophisticated reader these titles must be suspect at once: “The Truth About Toads” (ii, 4), “The Bat Who Got The Hell Out” (ii, 18), “The Wolf Who Went Places” (ii, 25), “What Happened To Charles” (ii, 115), “The Turtle Who Conquered Time.” (ii, 139)
The fables are overflowing with contemporary detail. One sentence in the tale of the chipmunks, to give only one example, reads, “One enchanted evening, across a crowded room, he met a stranger, an eight o'clock sleepy-time gal” (ii, 128). This is evidently derived from the song “Some Enchanted Evening,” one of the hit tunes of the Broadway musical South Pacific.
It is the distinct moral which properly qualifies a story as fable. Perry has called proverbs “fables in miniature.”7 Thurber also seems to perceive a close relationship between fable and proverb. A good many of his moral tags are proverbs. Thurber never renounces a distinct moral, printed in different types, at the end of the fable, though the fable tradition does not require such a procedure. But again, Thurber uses this device for his personal intentions. He converts his proverb-moral in every case, estranges it from its proverbial meaning and thus turns “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise” into “Early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy and wealthy and dead” (i, 22). Thurber relies on the reader's familiarity with the proverb for the revelation of a mocking new version of truth. “A word to the wise is not sufficient if it does not make any sense,” he derives from “A word to the wise is sufficient.” (ii, 129)
With his moral, the fable teller addresses his reader. It is exactly here that Thurber calculates on the reader's knowledge of contemporary detail and literature. In a free manner, Thurber works well-known literary phrases into his fables, mostly changed, or put into another frame of meaning: “It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all” (i, 55) is taken from the proverb: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Horace's phrase “Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone”8 appears in Thurber (ii, 39) as “Laugh and the world laughs with you, love and you love alone.” The sophisticated will also find literary titles in Thurber's work. Thus “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and the angels are all in heaven, but few of the fools are dead” (ii, 14) reminds one of Alexander Pope.9 “By decent minds is he abhorred who'd make a Babbitt of the Lord” (ii, 22) brings to mind Sinclair Lewis' novel. Among others, there are allusions to Keats (to the “Ode on Beauty” in (ii, 34) and to Shakespeare (to Macbeth in ii, 140). When reading the lines spoken by the dove (ii, 773 “There's nothing in the world, I think, but horned owls in hollow oaks … and violets by mossy stones” and the fountain's answer, “Violence by mossy stones is what I crave!”, the sophisticated will not only appreciate the pun on violets, but will also be reminded of Wordsworth's poem “She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways” and its lines
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!10
A basic knowledge of the Scriptures as well as of TV programs is also essential for the understanding of Thurber's morals. From the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer he takes the lines “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” and converts them to “Ashes to ashes, and clay to clay, if the enemy doesn't get you your own folks may” (ii, 86). The familiar TV program “Father Knows Best” becomes “Mother doesn't always know best.” (ii, 114)
Concluding from this tremendous variety of method and intention, one can observe that Thurber uses both old and new techniques, that he plays and experiments with the most diverse features of the fable, all to make his point. He does not reveal great and general teachings of ethics, but in every fable he points at a grain of sand in the daily machinery. He does not teach. He is content with presenting reality as he sees it. And still, the Thurber moral has a good deal in common with the classic fable moral, namely disillusionment. The purpose has remained essentially the same, the method and the technique have changed. The recognition of a truth is the highest compensation, the triumph of the fable. And this is precisely what Thurber aims at. He concludes his last fable in Further Fables for Our Time with this moral:
All men should strive to learn before they die
What they are running from, and to, and why.
James Thurber, Lanterns and Lances (New York, 1960), p. 204.
With the possible exception of George Ade, though he cannot really be regarded as following the tradition of the fable.
Cf. B. E. Perry, “Fable,” Studium Generale, ii (1959), 18.
Cf. E. Winkler, “Das Kunstproblem der Tierdichtung, besonders der Tierfabel,” Hauptfragen der Romanistik (Heidelberg, 1922), pp. 280–306. Also: G. E. Lessing, “Abhandlungen über die Fabel,” Lessings Werke, G. Stenzel, ed. (Salzburg, n.d.), p. 841.
Roman numeral i refers to Fables for Our Time (New York, 1943); Roman numeral ii refers to Further Fables for Our Time (New York, 1956). The Arabic numbers are the respective page numbers.
Lanterns and Lances, p. xiv.
Perry, p. 25.
Horace, Ars Poetica, i, 101: “Ut ridentibus arrident, ita flentibus absunt humani voltust.” The same was phrased by Ella Wheeler Wilcox in her poem “Solitude,” first printed in the New York Sun, February 25, 1883.
Essay on Criticism, Pt. iii, i, 63.
The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, William Knight, ed. (London, 1892), ii, 80.
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SOURCE: “Christian Parody in Thurber's ‘You Could Look It Up’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 453–54.
[In the following essay, May suggests that Thurber's short story “You Could Look It Up” is an Americanized version of the story of Christ.]
A basic characteristic of James Thurber's short fiction is that many of his stories are ironic treatments of established literary conventions, fables, and tales. Thurber imposes his own brand of satire on the adventure story in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the perfect crime story in “The Catbird Seat,” and the American success story in “The Greatest Man in the World.” Fables for Our Time represents a sustained effort in the ironic, modernized retelling of ancient stories and tales. Several critics have noted Thurber's technique of transferring the basic plot line of such legends and conventions to a modern milieu and then cluing the reader to what he is doing by scattering puns and allusions to the original story throughout his retelling.
Usually the story behind the story is quite obvious and easily pointed out. However, no one has ever noted this basic Thurber device in his Lardner-like idiomatic baseball story, “You Could Look It Up,” where the legend beneath the legend is more subtly embedded. Anthologized in, among several other collections, Warren and Erskin's best-selling Short Story Masterpieces, the story has surely been read by enough students and teachers for someone to have spotted the game Thurber is playing here; yet, as far as I can tell, his joke has remained private.
Thurber once said that history and legend are so close in his world that he often walks with one foot in each. Consequently, the reader who tries to follow the repeated suggestions of Doc, the narrator of “You Could Look It Up,” and look up the story behind the story might, after failing to find it in history, try legend. An analysis of the plot and central characters of the story as well as the many puns and allusions throughout suggests that Thurber wants us to “look it up” in the New Testament. The story is an Americanized retelling of the scapegoat Christ story. In a country where baseball is the national sport, followed religiously every weekend, the record books of the game might easily parallel the Bible for those true believers who can quote scores and name players the way some preachers can quote scripture.
The plot of the story is quite simple. The manager of a baseball team in a slump signs a midget that no one can pitch to. However, the midget loses an important game by bunting (which, given his size, is the only kind of hit he can get) into an unintentional sacrifice play; his sacrifice and subsequent disappearance bring new spirit into the team. At first glance, this might seem a poor parallel to the coming of Christ whose sacrifice infuses a new spirit into mankind. However, the many puns and allusions throughout the story suggest that this is indeed Thurber's intention. The midget, Pearl du Monville, pops up “outa nowheres,” a mysterious freak that the manager Squawks Magrew must touch to find out if he is real. Of no determinate sex (“Most people name of Pearl is girls,” says Doc, “but this Pearl du Monville was a man, if you could call a fella a man who was only thirty-four, thirty-five inches high.”) and of no determinate age (“He might ‘a’ been fifteen or he might ‘a’ been a hundred, you couldn't tell.”); Pearl's name suggests who he is.
Pearl is the Pearl of Great Price, a metaphor that many Biblical commentators see as a prefigurative reference to Christ. Furthermore, Pearl is du Monville, that is, of the City of Man. Magrew introduces him as a “monseer,” i.e., “man seer,” of the “old, old school.” Doc's favorite malapropism, repeated several times throughout the story, is “Bethlehem broke loose”; the phrase takes on added significance at the climax of the story when Pearl makes his sacrifice play: “Bethlehem broke loose on that ball field and in them stands. They ain't never been nothin' like it since creation was begun.” This broadly comic scene symbolically enjambs both the birth and the death/ascension of Christ, as Pearl toddles toward first base “yelping like a stuck sheep” and Magrew sends him flying high into the air toward center field where the center fielder pulls him down “like he was liftin' a sleeping baby from a cradle.”
Just as Christ “fails” in a literal sense while on earth, yet “succeeds” when he sacrifices self and ascends, so does Pearl lose the game, yet, after vanishing “into the thin of the air,” truly “win” for the ball club by infusing a “new spirit” into them, thus ending their slump. Thurber's ironic game in this story then is not only to satirize the “golden days of the national pastime,” but also to retell within a modern American myth and idiom, the story of the golden days of the Christian religion.
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SOURCE: “Stumbling Dogtracks on the Sands of Time: Thurber's Less-than-Charming Animals, and Animal Portraits in Earlier American Humor,” in Markham Review, Vol. 10, Spring, 1981, pp. 41–7.
[In the following essay, Arnold discusses Thurber's use of animals in his short fiction.]
Those critics who have had the temerity to discuss Thurber's animals have often taken the direction chosen by Robert E. Morsberger, in the first book-length study of Thurber. Considering Thurber's animals apart from Fables for Our Time, wherein the humorist uses his own allegorical creatures to turn Aesop's moral lessons on their ears, Morsberger stresses that most of the creatures appear “wholly for their unaffected charm.” Quoting Whitman's verse, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,” Morsberger opines that Thurber's menagerie appear's primarily to give the author, and his reader, “a diverting though temporary refuge from the confinement of synthetic wall-to-wall living.”1
Thurber's New Yorker colleague and reverent admirer Dorothy Parker shares this attitude. She delights in the unique Thurberian innocence she finds reflected in his creatures, not excluding even “that strange, square beast” placidly regarding the woman who demands, “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?” as the hippo (?) stands amid the shoe, pipe, and hat that evidently constitute the great zoologist's earthly remains after serving as a snack for the odd quadruped.2
The famed Thurber cartoon canines, the somewhat bloodhoundlike “Thurberhounds,” with their dogly charm, composure, unaffectedness, and sympathy for the human males enduring the losing battles in the marital war of nerves in which they are invariably engaged, certainly merit the sincere tribute Parker presents them.
My heart used to grow soft at the sight of his dogs; now it turns completely liquid. I give you … that darling who looks cautiously out his door, curves his paw to the snowstorm, and turns his poor bewildered head up to the spewing heavens. There is no where else existent an innocence like to that of Thurber animals.3
The Thurberhound's innocence and joy in simple pleasures are emblematic of the more reasonable relations operating in the natural world apart from the domineering, imperious females, treacherous automobiles, intimidating policemen, and awkward cocktail parties that are the earthly hell through which Mitty Man moves. In the apocalyptic “The Last Flower,” after man has seemingly destroyed all life on earth, one of the first signs that creation will regenerate, and love return, is the return of a cheerful band of Thurberhounds to the last man and woman.4
The Thurberhound's captivation of countless hearts through his whimsy, his fellowship with the Mitty Man, his appeal to gentle feelings, has so dominated critical comment on Thurber's animals that the hound's long shadow has largely eclipsed his other creatures.
This is unfortunate, since the sentimental attitude so many critics have reflected tends to sell short Thurber's range and achievement as animal portraiturist and to oversimplify his attitude toward the creatures. This approach reduces the variety of his animal depictions to a single repeated appealing pictorial dog image. This emphasis not only tends to truncate the scope of Thurber's menagerie; it also gives too limited a range of dog personality types. Examining the actual reach of Thurber's imagination when it came to picturing creatures in his fiction, we recognize that his animals are nearly as varied in traits and relationships to those around them as are his people.
Studying some of the less-discussed Thurber animals apart from the cartoon Thurberhounds, we may see that the image of Thurber's animals in general as innocent and appealingly ingenuous is one that may well bear more scrutiny. Those creatures which charmed Parker were Thurber's animals from his drawings. When we consider the animals met in certain of the stories, we find a bestiary much less innocuous, and far more ingenious in provoking mayhem. Noting how it is his animals that often serve to provide the chaos in Thurber's world, and remarking how many of his beasts possess the same sort of idiosyncratic, anarchic, comic quirkiness that characterizes Thurber's balmy relatives in Columbus, Ohio, and other strange and funny humans in his writing, we recognize that the creatures are as often as humans vital sources for creating both the comedy based on animals victimizing Thurber, and the chaotic mayhem afflicting the world at large caused by their conduct. This brouhaha, when calmly recounted by the now-removed narrator, makes for many of Thurber's finest comic effects.
Thurber is far from the first comic writer in American Humor to look upon the creatures as he does. His sense that, when an animal enters the scene, things will get funny, is an attitude shared by some of his most illustrious predecessors in the area. The continuity that Thurber reflects here offers useful insights into the nature of the American comic imagination. Twain's Tom Sawyer might as well be young Jamie Thurber, when, as Tom is suffering an agony of tedium during Sunday service, his spirits soar as “a vagrant poodle-dog” enters the church.5 Once the dog is painfully united with the pinch-bug Tom produces from a pocket, the boy's fondest hopes are realized. Sut Lovingood, observing with delight the fire dancing in the eyes of the Widow McCloud's mare as he arranges a stunt to sabotage her shyster lawyer rider, demonstrates George Washington Harris's same pleasure in animals' comic potential.6
Harris and Twain both show animals as victims and victimizers; creatures can be quite nasty on occasion. The same is true of one strain of Thurber animals. When we remove the blinders of excessive affection for the Thurberhounds, we note that Thurber presents among his beasts quite a few whose styles and personalities run from the slightly to the thoroughly objectionable. But they become comic in the context of the unique ambience of Thurber's household. Their oddities, which would most likely get them shot or land them in the pound, were they denizens of any more conventional household, are calmly taken for granted, even valued, chez Thurber. In all these appearances by animals, the narrator's calm tolerance of chaos, regardless of how bizarre the activity he is witnessing, gives us the same experience of unquestioning acceptance of the absurd which the narrator evinces; this maintaining a tone of calm in mid-maelstrom is basic to Thurber's comic genius, as it was to Twain's and to Harris's, and the animals are regular contributors to the turbulence of the whirlpool.
We do not dispute those who have stressed that Thurber is deeply committed to projecting an admiring picture of the animal world, to creating his animal Walden, in the majority of his sketches. We focus, rather, on the directions of animal characterization that show the animal as an irritant, a bully, a bore, an unwanted intruder, a trickster or victim of a trick.
We will seek also to show that Thurber's less-admirable creatures, for all their creator's protestations to the contrary, have many parallels in the history of animals in American comic literature. Whether Thurber's debts to his forebears were direct or unconscious—he claimed to have read very little Twain—we must note that he was far from being a pioneer in using animals as he did. Studying how Thurber carries forward, modernizes, and amplifies the great tradition in this area can tell us much about Thurber and the spirit of American Humor.
It is important to note immediately that Thurber is a highly selective admirer of animals. He is quick to criticize creatures he finds boring, sneaky, even hypochondriacal. In “There's an Owl in My Room” Thurber wonders what sort of ignorance of her subject could have led Gertrude Stein to write, “Pigeons on the grass, alas!”7 With a calculated indifference to the aesthetics of Imagist poetic dicta, he assaults Stein for a complete disregard for the fact that pigeons are, like it or not, dull, dull, dull. The one thing that Thurber, master student of animal personalities, cannot tolerate at all is the complete lack of personality in the pigeon. The bird is, to Thurber, unworthy of notice in any form, let alone being credited with the power to evoke an “alas.” The omnipresent bird cannot draw even an “ugh” from Thurber. “When it comes to emotion, a fish, compared to a pigeon, is practically beside himself.”
Other animals, for instance an owl in the bedroom, would fully merit the cry of despair. Hens, owls, eagles, do disturb Thurber, but not pigeons. It is because of their predictable banality that streamer-bedecked pigeons are set loose at “band concerts, library conventions, christenings of new dirigibles.” Owls are not, to Thurber, the humorless sort, such as the Twain owl which does not crack a smile when shown the scene of the prime fool bluejay's discomfiture. Thurber speculates with relish on the chaos that would erupt if a bunch of dedicated owls were loosed on some of the scenes where pigeons now feature. “There would be rioting and catcalls and whistling and fainting spells and throwing of chairs and the Lord only knows what else.” With a backhanded smack at both Stein and pigeon, satirizing the “a rose is a rose is a rose” example, Thurber maintains, “No other thing can be less what it is not than a pigeon can, and Miss Stein, of all people, should understand that.” He can notice the pigeons on a roof only by sustained conscious effort, but is acutely aware of “a great sulky red iron pipe that is creeping up the side of the building,” terrifying “a slightly tipsy chimney that is shouting its head off.” Even if a pigeon entered his room in evening clothes, Thurber would be unmoved. If an owl were so introduced, “dressed only in the feathers it was born with,” Thurber believes he would pull the covers over his head and scream.
Tedium in pigeons is bad enough, but dullness in dogs galls Thurber. In “The Departure of Emma Inch,” the ancient Boston Bull Terrier, Feely, which the strange cook insists on bringing when she accompanies the Thurbers to Martha's Vineyard, is treated with minimum receptivity.8 The asthmatic old dog, quite immobile unless transported by doting owner, seems an extended satire of the whitherthou-goest tradition of the devoted canine companion in lugubrious dog tales a la Albert Payson Terhune.
Thurber's fears that the dog might be underfoot leave him quickly, for “Feely would lie grousing anywhere Emma put him.” Thurber is “embarrassed, but not touched” when Emma tearfully announces that Feely is “all she had in the world.” All that demonstrates Feely's reciprocating the feelings are his irregular snufflings and wheezings, which make him sound “as if he had been swimming a long way.” The odd respiration is varied, when tension unnerves Feely, by his “singing,” which is “a kind of high, agonized yelp” that Thurber cannot see in the lyrical context.
Emma and Feely make every step of the trip “as difficult as getting a combative drunken man out of the bar in which he fancies he has been insulted,” and Thurber grows more hostile. Woman and dog fear taxicabs (the drivers take cocaine), hotels (they burn down), and steamers (they sink). The boat's whistle spooks Emma; only a mad dash by Thurber permits him to grab the pair back from a plunge off the open gangway as they depart the dock. Thurber is wistful after saving them, wondering if everyone might not have been better off had he let them go overboard.
On the last leg of the journey, Feely gets sick—or at any rate this is Emma's judgment, since the dog's gaspings sound to Thurber about as they have throughout the journey—and she decides he must be taken back to New York. How does she plan to travel, fearing all public conveyances? “We'll walk. … We like to walk, Feely and me.”
Throughout the story, Feely never becomes more than a burden and a source of wheezing, gurgling obbligato to accompany Emma's latest complaint against modern travel, a sort of asthmatic luggage.
Feely is far from being the first dog in American Humor towards whom a narrator feels the urge to kill. Sut regularly evinces passionate aversions to certain dogs. While Thurber sublimates thoughts of the irritable animal, however, Sut more often strangulates offending canines. Seeing the dog as “good fur nuthin but tu swaller up what orter lined the bowels of us brats,” preadolescent Sut blows up a family pet with a piece of meat spiked with fused powder.9 Thurber's only recourse in his exasperation is to have another strong highball.
While Feely could hardly be said to be an involved character, and the owner-pet love match is fairly simple, other Thurber animals are portrayed with more complexity of character, and evince more problematic relationships to humans. Jeannie, the Scotch Terrier of “Look Homeward, Jeannie,” represents a closer-to-home example of Thurber's skills at animal characterization. Her portrait also shows his unflattering outlook on the unfortunate literature dedicated to warming simple human hearts through accounts of long-distance pet homing treks.10 The story also demonstrates the quality that sets every truly gifted depictor of animals apart from sentimental writers treating the creatures, a basic respect for the animal's autonomy and singularity of character, however exasperating that character. Jeannie's presentation demonstrates all the craft that a human characterization demands.
Jeannie is notable for her enterprise and success as a shake-down artist, sponging free meals from the summer people across the lake from Thurber's vacation cabin, banquets far superior to the nutritious, but perhaps uninspired cuisine available at home.
Hardly a paragon of dogdom in intelligence, physique, or fortitude, Jeannie is no Lassie. “Her jaw was skimpy, her haunches frail. … She thought dimly. Even in repose she had the strained, uncomfortable appearance of a woman on a bicycle.” The dog finds the hardest possible way to do everything: “… digging with one paw at a time, shoving out screen doors sideways. … She developed a persistent troubled frown which gave her the expression of someone who is trying to repair a watch with his gloves on.”
That the cloistered city dog can overcome her fears of the country—rain, snow, even wind terrify her—and circle the lake, results not from heroic undauntability, but from her keen awareness of the fine edibles to be scored from the summer people. She wins their hearts, and their goodies, with her one piece of theater, sitting up, with difficulty, and begging. Thurber discovers her con-game by following her one morning.
With a good sense of cost-efficiency, Jeannie determines that the daily trip to and from her favorite caterers is wasted effort, and she starts moving in with them. At first, Thurber goes and brings her home each time the postman informs him of Jeannie's latest stop-over on her Duncan Hines tour. When he shows up to recover her from a school teacher's cottage, Jeannie charges barking down the steps, “Not to greet the master, but to challenge a trespasser. When she got close enough to recognize me, her belligerence sagged.” Driving home, “We both stared straight ahead.”
After this, Thurber just thanks the mailman for the latest Jeannie news. “When Jeannie died, at the age of nine,” he concludes, “I got a very nice letter from the people she was living with at the time.”
With her smooth hustle, Jeannie may be seen as the modern suburban inheritor of the tradition of animal duping human that underlies such Twain sketches as the Jumping Frog story.11 She is quite as slick at upping the ante as Andrew Jackson, Smiley's brilliant bull-pup, or the frog, Dan'l Webster. But the Thurber narrator is, significantly, now the dupe of the sly animal. Pet and owner no longer trick another human cooperatively; the creature plays the bunko game on Thurber and the summer people alike.
While they are dissimilar in the extent and type of damage they cause the human, Jeannie and the Genuine Mexican Plug, of Twain's Roughing It, are alike in playing the human for a classic sucker.12 Just as Thurber acquired Jeannie with the mystique of the Faithful Dog in mind, Twain purchased the Genuine in the greenhorn's belief that he was gaining the ultimate fiery frontier steed, not an unridable bucking machine. It appears that American humorists of all periods have been intrigued with picturing animals which are other than what they seem.
As to cats, in contrast to Twain, Thurber freely owns a lack of empathy. Birds, too, have for him a darker side than seen in the more charming and celebratory accounts of the feathered kind offered by earlier humorists. Both species are portrayed negatively in “My Sengalese Birds and Siamese Cats.”
Famed songsters, the Sengalese love birds are a Paris purchase of Mrs. Thurber's, an acquisition unfathomable to both her husband and the short, irascible Frenchman with whom they must share a sleeping compartment on the train to Nice. The birds' unromantic conduct—neither has sung a note as they nestle shoulder to shoulder—creates a singular night for Thurber, as he meditates that, “… some of the most memorable adventures of any man's life are those that have to be endured in a mood of quiet desperation.”13
Belying their pose of connubial bliss, the birds hate each other's guts. They flut-flut about the cage all night, forbidding sleep and evoking anathemas from the Frenchman, including threats to strangle the birds, or perhaps their owner. (The direct object of the Frenchman's sentence is unclear.)
In Nice, the birds remain mute for two weeks, then, one morning, the male wakes his owners with vibrant song. The female lies dead on the cage floor. Thurber gives away the male, explaining to the dubious pet vendor that yes, he sings, “at funerals.” So much for bird romance. So much, Thurber implies, for humans who project roles on creatures.
The Siamese cats his wife acquires, Thurber the dog man meets with unconcealed hostility. He finds them handsome, and as threatening, “as Florentine daggers.” His distaste for the furry orientals is reciprocated by the cats. “I was all for taking the cats back. … and, after taking a good look at me, they were all for going.” To their dubious owner, the cats possess all the stealth and murderousness of Bombay thugs. He senses an assassination attempt when he finds a vase set mysteriously on the stairs. But Thurber recognizes that help cannot be had. “You can't say …‘My wife's Siamese cats are trying to kill me.”’
As all three parties in the war of nerves get a bit inured, Thurber decides the cats have exchanged murder plans for a program of harassment calculated to humiliate their owner “beyond rehabilitation.”
When Thurber is halfway up the stairs to his top-floor apartment, attempting to transport a double armload of cats, a checkerboard, checkers, a stack of books, a mailing tube, and an alarm clock, one cat “reached up a long, graceful front leg, deftly inserted her claws into the brim of my felt hat, and slowly began to draw it over my eyes.” At this point the alarm clock begins to ring; Jeannie's six puppies inside the apartment begin to yap frenziedly. Bystanders, intrigued, stop to watch, but offer no aid. Thurber's wife flees into the building after a quick, terrified glance over her shoulder. The cats shriek, “and there is nothing this side of hell to match the screaming of Siamese cats.” At last one bystander is moved to assist Thurber in removing hat and cat, and gathering the now widely-dispersed impedimenta. “I think I remember a cop shouting, ‘Break it up, now! Break it up!”’ The good Samaritan disappears, pinching The Modern Temper, by Joseph Wood Krutch, from the literary selections on the steps.
Inside, things are not much better. Thurber had mistakenly assumed Jeannie would control her family, but she has lost interest in discipline, and the spirited juveniles have dissected the phonograph, rummaged the records as though desperate to find “Moonlight Bay,” and chewed a leg off the ping-pong table.
As mentioned earlier, Thurber claimed very limited acquaintance with the Southwest Humorists. Yet the parallels between the misadventures of one of Sut Lovingood's victims, Lawyer Stillyards, of “The Widow McCloud's Mare,” and Thurber as target of cats and clock, are so close that we must speculate either an unacknowledged knowledge of Harris's story, or the possibility that great American funny men sometimes share the same archetypal plots.14 Sut exacts revenge on the shyster advocate by tying him to the plunder Stillyards has just collected for various lost lawsuits—the mare he rides, a hound, and a grandfather clock—supposedly to help the jurist get to town. As the clock begins to chime with the jouncing of the horse's trot, the mare panics and gallops off. She canters about the countryside, with the dog being flung from side to side of her in sweeping arcs, and the lawyer bellowing commands to halt.
The outcomes of the two tales are quite different, as befits the two works' disparate periods in American Humor. To borrow a figure used to characterize the conclusions of Robert Benchley's sketches, Sut's victim is annihilated, Thurber is humiliated.15 Stillyards ends up unconscious in a thicket; both animals are slain. Thurber is last seen once more quivering with quiet desperation, still the cats' patsy.
The possible connection between Thurber's animals and the creations of the Southwest Humorists is most marked in the autobiographical sketches of The Thurber Album and My Life and Hard Times. As Charles S. Holmes has noted, My Life may be seen as the quintessence of Thurber's “celebration of … the Principle of Confusion … nearly every episode shows the disruption of the orderly pattern of everyday life by the idiosyncratic, the irrational, the unpredictable.”16 The creatures who often motivate or enhance this madness are certainly not invariably filled with charm or innocence.
Something of the ancestral background for Thurber's animal tales can be discerned from the Album. Aunt Margery Albright possessed a succession of dogs culminating in Cap, a brindle mongrel who looked “like a worn carpetbag.”17 She adopted a pet mouse after its mother perished in her super-lethal rat trap. Aunt Mary York cherished an orphan blacksnake, her “lovely monster,” which kept visitors on their toes.18
Aunt Mary's passionate aversion to dogs motivates the greatest practical joke of Thurber's mother. Reminiscent of Sut's designs for the bagful of lizards to be released up Parson John Bullen's pant leg, or the frogs, snakes, and cat he hides in the serving plates at the Misses Jarrold's fancy dinner party, Mame Thurber plans a unique surprise for Aunt Mary.19 Assisted by the delighted six-year-old Jamie, Mame gathers sixteen neighborhood dogs, which the pair hide in the cellar with the two family canines.
Cowed by the darkness, the army of dogs keeps quiet until Mame sweetly persuades Aunt Mary to place a plate of food on the cellar steps and call the family pets.
Aunt Mary got the door halfway open and the bodies of three of the largest dogs pushed it the rest of the way. There was a snarling, barking, yelping swirl of yellow and white, black and tan, gray and brindle as the dogs tumbled into the kitchen. …“Great God Almighty! she screamed, “It's a dog factory!”
An animal features among Cousin Briggs Beall's tribulations during “The Night the Bed Fell.”20 In the confusion following the collapse of Thurber's cot in the attic and Briggs's dousing himself with the camphor he keeps at his bedside as a protection against forgetting to breathe, he is jumped by the bull terrier, Rex. Always concerned with animal motives, Thurber comments that Rex was always sure that Briggs “was the culprit in whatever was going on.”
Rex's conduct, and Cousin Briggs's, reflects the Thurber respect for autonomy—a person's or dog's acting with calm assurance of the rightness of his actions, however unusual. Mame's mother lived in constant fear that electricity was seeping out of empty wall sockets. Sure that some night a burglar was going to blow chloroform under her door while she slept, Aunt Sarah Shoaf used to pile all her valuables outside her room, with a note begging the anticipated prowler to take them, but to spare her the anesthetic. That animals should be tolerated, or even honored for unique conduct seems quite credible in the Thurber home.
The animal epitomizing this autonomy in My Life is the Airedale Muggs, “The Dog that Bit People.”21 Muggs is committed to fanging everyone in the house and most visitors. The family's keeping the dog—Thurber admits it rather baffled him—shows something like the attitude toward pets shown by Twain's Jim Smiley, who “had ratterriers, and chicken cocks, and tomcats and all them kind of things, till you couldn't rest.”22 But Smiley's critters are gaming devices, kept to generate matches on which the incurable gambler may wager. No ulterior sporting motive guides the Thurbers in keeping Muggs, but rather their conviction that the dog is pursuing the Light as he is given to see the Light, and should be respected in his efforts. In a household willing to keep Grandfather, a Civil War veteran who wings a cop with his own gun in the house one night, believing that General Meade's men are deserting before Stonewall Jackson's forces, keeping the dog seems only right.
Disciplining Muggs is futile, learns teenage Thurber, who rashly smacks the dog after receiving a bite, “more or less in passing.” Thurber delays Muggs's vengeance by holding the snarling dog off the floor by his stumpy tail and flinging him out the front door. But Muggs flanks Thurber by dashing about the house and up the backstairs, cornering him on the mantelpiece. Thurber is spared only when the mantelpiece collapses, causing Muggs to flee the house.
He seems to have disappeared, and reveals himself only when Mrs. Detweiler comes by that evening to complain that Muggs bit her earlier that day. The missing dog now appears from under the davenport and bites Mrs. Detweiler again.
All the neighbors have called the police about Muggs, resenting the abuse they have received. But Mame, paying that fine Thurber honor to nuts of all species, defends him. She explains to officers that the victims, not Muggs, are at fault. “When he starts for them, they scream,” she elucidates, “and that excites him.”
In later life, Muggs takes to living outdoors, rendering access to the house perilous. Since servicemen will not approach the place with Muggs at liberty, the family devises a machine to imitate thunder, the one influence that will bring Muggs in. Aptly symbolizing the way the whole estate operated, the process was, even to Thurber, “the most roundabout system for running a household ever devised. It took a lot out of Mother.”
The epitaph Thurber devises for Muggs's grave, when the Airedale leaves this life for a dog heaven where we assume he will bite people without interference for all eternity, is “Cave Canem,” beware of the dog. Mame is pleased with the memorial's “simple classic dignity.”
Muggs, then, is the roughest lot that Thurber encounters in his widely varied comic experiences with dogs. But the animal's quirks, the author's and his family's tolerance for animal oddities, and Thurber's deft touch for representing this curious behavior are quite representative of the attitude that is at the heart of Thurber's comic genius. Recognizing that Thurber regularly exploits objectionable animals for some of his most memorable humorous effects, and noting that these animals linger in the reader's memory of comic pleasure quite as prominently as the touching Thurberhounds, emphasizes that Thurber's menagerie is far wider than hounds alone. Thurber's skillful delineation of animal conduct, and his always giving the creatures the full scope of characterization that his humans receive, places him in the great tradition of American comic writers who see animals as some of their finest actors.
By showing himself, in one mode, as regularly victimized by the creatures, Thurber incorporates the animals into one more evidence of archetypal Mitty Man as the world's biggest sucker, fall guy for the universe. The creatures, in this role, show the tables completely turned from the relationship appearing in George Washington Harris's tales, where the human is fully in charge, and stress once more the transformation of the comic writer-protagonist in modern American Humor from trickster to victim of the gag. Yet the cheerfully anarchic spirit of the stories featuring animals in My Life and Hard Times, the narrator's uncritical acceptance of the absurd in the interaction of man and beast, evinces the connection between Harris's, Twain's and Thurber's animal comedy. The writers are united in their common celebration of vitality, their mutual unrestrained delight in the chaotic, the ludicrous, as it appears in animal-human interactions. Their outlook has marked American Humor throughout its history; this hand-in-paw connection is often central to our greatest humorists' most masterful comic creations.
Thurber's updating of this attitude, this comic buoyancy that marks depiction of so many of the critters of the Southwest Humorists, indicates a continuity in American Humor, in the way our comic writers view the animal and human kingdoms, that tells us much about what makes Americans laugh.
Robert E. Morsberger, James Thurber (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964), pp. 88,89. I should like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for the opportunity to pursue the research that made this study possible, and to express my gratitude to Hamlin Hill, director of the N.E.H. Seminar-in-Residence during which it was composed, for his counsel and encouragement.
Dorothy Parker, “Preface,” James Thurber, Men, Women, and Dogs, A Book of Drawings (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1943), p. xvii.
Parker, p. xviv.
James Thurber, The Last Flower, A Parable in Pictures (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946).
Samuel L. Clemens, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Hartford, Conn.: The American Publishing Co., 1876), p. 112.
George Washington Harris, “The Widow McCloud's Mare,” Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1867), p. 40.
James Thurber, “There's an Owl in My Room,” The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935), p. 17.
Thurber, “The Departure of Emma Inch,” The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, pp. 7–14.
George Washington Harris, “Sut Lovingood at Bull's Gap,” New York Atlas, XXI (Nov. 28, 1858), 6. Reprinted in Hard Times and High Times, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Nashville: Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 144–155.
James Thurber, “Look Homeward, Jeannie,” The Beast in Me and Other Animals, pp. 88–94.
Samuel L. Clemens, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” The Saturday Press, November 18, 1865. Reprinted in Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain, ed. Walter Blair (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962), p. 13.
Samuel L. Clemens, Roughing It (Hartford, Conn.: The American Publishing Co., 1877), p. 121.
James Thurber, “My Sengalese Birds and Siamese Cats,” Holiday, May, 1953. Reprinted in Lanterns and Lances (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955), pp. 183–187.
Harris, “The Widow McCloud's Mare,” Yarns, pp. 37–48.
J. Bryant, III, “Funny Man: A Study in Professional Frustration,” Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 23-Oct. 7, 1939. Quoted in Walter Blair, Horse Sense in American Humor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 281.
Charles S. Holmes, “‘Reality Twisted to the Right’: My Life and Hard Times,” Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Charles S. Holmes (Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), p. 66.
James Thurber, “Daguerrotype of a Lady,” The Thurber Album (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), p. 90.
Thurber, “Time Exposure,” Thurber Album, p. 16.
Harris, “Parson John Bullen's Lizards,” Yarns, pp. 48–60. “Sut Lovingood's Big Dinner Story,” Nashville Union and American, XXII (Aug. 10, 1866), 4. Reprinted in Harris, High Times and Hard Times, ed. Inge, pp. 164–174. Thurber, “Daguerrotype of a Lady,” Album, pp. 93–95.
Thurber, “The Night the Bed Fell.” My Life and Hard Times (New York: Harper and Row, 1931), p. 199.
Thurber, “The Dog that Bit People,” My Life, p. 214.
Clemens, “The Notorious Jumping Frog,” p. 16.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437
SOURCE: “Coitus Interruptis: Sexual Symbolism in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, Winter, 1986, pp. 110–13.
[In this essay, Blythe and Sweet analyze the sexual symbolism in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”]
Several critics have focused on the relationship between Walter Mitty's daydreams and his marital situation. Leon Satterfield, noting the parallel between Mrs. Mitty and the D.A., concludes that this third fantasy “points up Mitty's latent hostility toward his wife.”1 Carl Linder finds Walter Mitty's wife's role more symbolic, representing the “external and confining pressures” upon him.2 Ann Mann argues that, for an inveterate fantasizer like Walter Mitty, Mrs. Mitty is the “ideal wife,” for she fulfills “the paradoxical enabler-scapegoat role” in their marriage.3 While all these interpretations concur that the wife dominates the Mitty marriage, none has dealt with the symbolism of Walter Mitty's daydreams. A close inspection of the five fantasies strongly suggests Mitty suffers from a marked sense of sexual inferiority for which he needs to compensate, that each of his heroic postures is rendered in terms of exaggerated phallic potency, and that the fantasies taken together represent a continuous attempt at orgasm.
Obviously in the frame situation Walter Mitty is henpecked. Whether chastising her husband for driving too fast, reminding him he is no longer young, badgering him into wearing his gloves and overshoes, making him drive to a garage to have the car's chains removed, ordering him to wait for her at the drugstore, or accusing him of hiding from her in the hotel, Mrs. Mitty totally dominates her husband. Like the inclement weather in the frame's background, their marriage is a stormy one, and in real life Mitty always remains submissive to his wife's will.
The phallic nature of his fantasies suggests that his feelings of inferiority have deep roots in the sexual. Furthermore, in most of his daydreams the phallic symbol is exaggerated in size to compensate for his real-life inadequacy. In the first daydream, for instance, Mitty imagines himself The Commander of a “huge hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane”4 as it breaks through a storm at sea (even Thurber's alliteration underscores strength). The descriptions and actions of this increased phallus stress a rise in power. Surrounded by impotent subordinates, Mitty pictures himself pulling down a cap “rakishly” and yelling “Throw on the power lights. Rev her up to 8,500! We're going through!” This command is followed by Mitty's telling description that the “pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa, pocketa, pocketa, pocketa, pocketa.” With a subtle manipulation he achieves “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The phallic plane breaking through the storm, then, is obviously described in terms of male penetration of the female building toward orgasm.
Before the climactic moment, however, Mrs. Mitty interrupts the daydream to remind him, “You're driving too fast!” Momentarily returning to the real world, he gathers the material for fantasy #2, a daydream that continues the sexual subtext. In it, on being greeted by “the pretty nurse,” he removes his gloves (his wife had demanded he wear) and his inhibitions as a door opens at the end of “a long, cool corridor.” The orgasmic nature of previously interrupted fantasy #1 is picked up by an obvious link: “a huge, complicated machine … began to pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Again he manipulates the machine, an objective correlative for intercourse, which like fantasy #1 has malfunctioned. Just as Mitty has “repaired” fantasy #1 by starting fantasy #2, so he fixes the failing machine in purely phallic terms by pulling “a faulty piston out of the machine” and inserting a fountain pen in its place. Likewise, in this fantasy his subordinates are incompetent, and he assumes control; this act parallels the fact that every time he switches from real life to fantasy, he takes control.
Fantasy #2 terminates with the crude voice of the parking lot attendant telling him to “Back it up, Mac!” Mitty jams on the car brakes and withdraws the machine he commands “cautiously.” The attendant then takes Mitty's key, vaults into the car, backs it up with “insolent skill” and puts it where it belongs. “They're so damned cocky,” he thinks, subconsciously suggesting his real life sexual inadequacy especially in the face of younger men who must even put chains on his car.
His subconscious solution is fantasy #3 in which the vague machine becomes an obvious phallic symbol. Suddenly the District Attorney thrusts at his heroic persona “a heavy automatic,” which Mitty identifies as “my Webley-Vickers 50.80.” As James Ellis has pointed out, there is no such gun, but if there were, the pistol “would have a barrel whose diameter would measure something more than four feet.”5 The D.A. who challenges Mitty's ability to fire his weapon, unlike what Satterfield believes, is an extension of all the real-life young men whom Mitty's wife constantly throws in his face. In the interlude between the first two fantasies she has said, “You're not a young man any longer,” and in the second interlude Mitty recalled Mrs. Mitty's forcing him to go to the garage to have some “young, grinning garageman” put the chains on his tires. Perhaps this is why in the first fantasy he is proud to triumph over obviously younger, and incompetent, subordinates who refer to him as the “Old Man.” In this third fantasy Mitty once again asserts his overwhelming sexual prowess, stifling the familiar impotent subordinates (“the bickering attorneys”) by boasting he can fire his weapon with either hand. As in the previous fantasy, a young woman serves to confirm his manhood, for “a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty's arms.”
But once again, before Mitty can achieve climax, the real world intrudes as a passing woman laughs at him. Mitty counters with fantasy #4. Several details indicate this daydream is a continuation of his previous attempts at orgasm. First, as in fantasy #1, he is flying, a traditional symbol for the sex act. Second, the huge Webley-Vickers automatic appears strapped to Captain Mitty. Third, the sexual sound of “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” recurs, this time directly associated with highly phallic flame-throwers. Once again Mitty is surrounded by subordinates he casts in the role of young impotents. He is told that the constant cannonading “has got the wind up in young Raleigh.” The name seems appropriate since Sir Walter Raleigh has been the traditional representative of the courtier, the gentleman eminently successful in love affairs. Whereas the youths are incompetent, Mitty announces, “I'll fly alone,” even though his subordinates have declared “It takes two men to handle that bomber.” His manhood implied, he leaves for his airplane whistling “Aupres de Ma Blonde,” the female reference once again confirming his prowess.
His sexual flight, however, is once again grounded as Mrs. Mitty physically intrudes by striking him on the shoulder and barraging him with demeaning questions and comments. Once more Mitty is subjected to a real-world situation in which he is the subordinate rather than the commander, a role confirmed by the failure of his feeble rejoinder, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” His wife disdainfully replies, “I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home.” Her control of the phallic thermometer signals a role reversal.
At the corner drugstore, Mrs. Mitty issues her last order, and Mitty, alone, slips into his final daydream. Fantasy #5 constitutes for him, much like the mermaid daydream of J. Alfred Prufrock, an admission of defeat, both in his specific quest for sexual satisfaction and in his general defense mechanism of daydreaming. Everything suggests a decline in his potency and control of the situation. Mitty, who began as The Commander and was demoted in fantasy #4 to Captain, now has been stripped of his rank and placed before a firing squad. The phallic weapon-machines that he once controlled have been trained on him, and his once-huge phallus has been replaced by a thin, solitary, soundless cigarette (he has accepted the defeat suggested by his wife's thermometer). At the end he stands “erect and motionless” as a full phallus unable to fire; there will be no orgasm for Walter Mitty. Whereas in his initial fantasy he breaks through a barrier, here “He stood up against the wall.”
Thus, Thurber's final description of Mitty in the midst of a mid-life crisis as “the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” has the hollow ring of irony.
“Thurber's ‘The Secret of Walter Mitty,’” The Explicator, 27 (1969), Item 57.
“Thurber's Walter Mitty—The Underground American Hero,” Georgia Review, 28 (1974), 288.
“Taking Care of Walter Mitty,” Studies in Short Fiction, 19 (1982), 352.
In The Thurber Carnival (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. 48. All subsequent references to the story are to this text.
“The Allusions in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’” English Journal, 54 (1965), 312.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1552
SOURCE: “Walter Mitty and Lord Jim,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1987, pp. 74–7.
[In the following essay, Secor determines how the character of Walter Mitty reflects the image of Joseph Conrad's creation, Lord Jim.]
James Thurber first encountered Joseph Conrad in a college course taught by a favorite teacher, Joseph Taylor, and he soon learned to share his professor's enthusiasm for the English novelist.1 Throughout his life, Thurber seemed to be almost haunted by the image of Conrad, who represented for him a romantic ideal against which he measured both himself and his characters. Of all Conrad's creations, Lord Jim was most firmly imbedded in Thurber's romantic imagination. He came to mind easily, for example, when Thurber described Captain Darke for The New Yorker. Meeting the captain in the Florida Keys—a tall, dark, melancholy man with his white shirt open at his throat—Thurber was instantly reminded of “that other solitary wanderer among forgotten islands, the doomed Lord Jim.”2 In his conclusion to My Life and Hard Times, Thurber claimed that he had often thought of spending the rest of his days “wandering aimlessly around the South Seas, like a character out of Conrad, silent and inscrutable.” Like his own Walter Mitty, Thurber is awakened from his dream by the mundane cares of ordinary life, as he realizes that he would be prevented from pursuing such an end by “the necessity for frequent visits to my oculist and dentist.” Besides, he muses, nobody from Columbus, Ohio, “has ever made a first rate wanderer in the Conradean tradition,” and even for Lord Jim there was no running away.3 Nonetheless, the attraction of Conrad and his Jim was always there for Thurber and his characters, and with that in mind E. B. White presented a comic image of Thurber as if he were a Conrad character in his introduction to a volume of the humorist's New Yorker criticism. As Charles Holmes has commented, Thurber was indeed a kind of Conrad character, “a romantic dreamer and victim of neurotic apprehensions.”4
Conrad's Jim is also evoked in Thurber's fiction. At the end of the early story, “Menaces in May,” the protagonist thinks of himself as a “damn coward” and summons courage by recalling how bravely Lord Jim died: “Well, Lord Jim had a reason to die. People cried about Lord Jim, he supposed. What the devil, it was a perfect death, his own inevitable end.”5 This allusion to the end of Conrad's novel supports Robert Morsberger's belief that Thurber had it in mind in the final daydream of Walter Mitty, where he faces a firing squad. Morsberger places in parallel columns the descriptions of Mitty's death fantasy and Jim's heroic death in order to show how closely the conclusion of Thurber's story parallels that of Conrad's novel.6 For Morsberger, Mitty is another Lord Jim, each man wishing to escape reality by imaging himself a hero. More recently, Ian Watt has called Mitty's daydreams a parody of Jim's way of thinking.7
A more direct allusion to Lord Jim in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” one that has not been previously noted, suggests that Thurber found in Conrad's novel not only the prototype for Mitty but the method for his story. The allusion occurs at the end of Mitty's fantasy of being on trial as an uncanny killer who boasts that he could have fired the fatal shots left-handed and with any make of gun. When the district attorney strikes savagely at the “lovely dark-haired girl” who throws herself in his arms, Mitty lets him have it on his chin, exclaiming “You miserable cur!”8 The cry is given importance as it takes him out of his daydream, reminding him of what it is he had forgotten to buy at the store. “Puppy biscuit,” he announces aloud, while a woman passing by laughs to her companion, “That man said ‘Puppy biscuit’ to himself.” The episode ends when our humiliated hero asks at the A & P for biscuits for small, young dogs, explaining that the brand he wants says “‘Puppies Bark for It”’ on the box. The allusion is to another trial scene, the “police court of an Eastern port” where Marlow first sees Jim defending himself for jumping ship when the Patna appeared to be sinking. As Marlow is leaving the courtroom, a yellow dog passes by, and a man next to him says, “Look at that wretched cur.”9 Jim spins around and challenges Marlow, who does not understand Jim's meaning. “I won't let any man call me names outside this court,” Jim asserts, while Marlow “assured him he was under some extraordinary delusion.” Marlow unravels the misunderstanding: Jim in his solipsism mistakes the comment for Marlow's and assumes it was meant as a judgment against him and his shame.
In their idealized conceptions of themselves and the frustration and shame they feel in the distance between their actual and their imagined behavior, Jim and Mitty are versions of the modern antihero, but Mitty is a reductive, comic version of Jim because he shares none of the stature of Conrad's protagonist. As Peter De Vries has commented in “James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock,” Thurber and his characters not only are not Prince Hamlet, they are also not “Lord Jim, nor any character whatever out of Conrad.”10 Mitty's trial is, after all, only a fantasy; his real world consists of taking his wife to the hair dresser and buying puppy biscuits for his dog. Jim on the other hand is on trial for a real crime on the high seas. The “miserable cur” of Mitty's daydream evokes in his waking life only the association with puppy biscuit and the laughter of women who overhear him, whereas the “wretched cur” comment that Jim overhears leads him to challenge Marlow, albeit mistakenly, for presuming to mock him. Most significantly, the interest in Jim which the encounter awakens in Marlow is dependent on Jim being interesting to others in a way that Mitty is only to himself. Only in his daydream of facing the firing squad is Mitty romantically “inscrutable to the last.” If, as Marlow says, Jim is “misleading,”11 so too is Mitty, but he is inscrutable only insofar as his daydreams offer him a hiding place from his wife. “Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?” Mrs. Mitty berates him in the hotel lobby, to which Mitty summons the courage to respond, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” Whereas Marlow struggled to discover what Jim was thinking, Mrs. Mitty answers her husband's uncharacteristic outburst with, “I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home.”12
The allusion to Lord Jim does more than give further evidence that it was a major source of Thurber's parody. In echoing the “wretched cur” comment from Conrad's novel, Thurber may be acknowledging the source of his method as well. So much more real to him is Jim's inner life than the ordinary world around him, that the very phrases of the ordinary world are made to serve his solipsistic sense of himself and his importance. So too for Mitty the most casual episodes of his ordinary life transport him into his dream world. Soon after his wife berates him for forgetting his gloves, Mitty fantasizes himself as a famous surgeon removing his gloves before a difficult operation; when Mitty thinks of being interrogated by his wife for forgetting an item at the store, he slips into a daydream in which he is the master criminal being badgered by the district attorney; when he glimpses a magazine article about the airpower of Germany, he becomes the fearsome fighter pilot, Captain Mitty. Thus the Conrad novel which had such a strong impact on the impressionable young Thurber in Professor Taylor's class also supplied him with the necessary hint for the structure of his comic masterpiece.
James Thurber, “Man with a Pipe,” The New Yorker (Aug. 1951): 33. Rpt. in The Thurber Album: A Collection of Pieces About People (New York, 1952), p. 169. In this sketch of Joseph Taylor, Thurber notes his former English professor's changing opinion of Conrad, from a mere spinner of yarns to “Henry James in the waste places.”
“Casuals of the Keys.” The New Yorker (May 1932): 17. Rpt. in Vintage Thurber (London, 1963), II, p. 18.
Rpt. in The Thurber Carnival (New York, 1957), pp. 240–241.
The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber (New York, 1972), p. 121.
“Menaces in May,” (1928), rpt. in Credos and Curios (New York, Evanston, 1962), p. 15.
James Thurber (New York, 1964), p. 44–45.
Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979), p. 324.
James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber Carnival, p. 50.
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (New York and London, 1968), p. 43.
Without a Stitch in Time (Boston, 1972); rpt. in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1974), p. 38.
Marlow says, “I don't pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog—bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one's curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading.” (Lord Jim, p. 47)
“Walter Mitty”, p. 51.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11458
SOURCE: “The Further Range: Thurber's Other Stories,” in James Thurber, Continuum Pub., 1988, pp. 75–106.
[In the following essay, Long surveys both the best known stories of Thurber and some of the lesser known.]
Thurber's tales of the “little man” culminate in “Walter Mitty,” but this type of story does not disappear exactly with the end of the 1930s decade. Shortly after the onset of his blindness in 1941, Thurber published two other stories, “The Catbird Seat” (1942) and “The Lady on 142” (1943), that are of a similar nature and are among his best. “The Catbird Seat” is in some respects a more ample version of “The Unicorn in the Garden,” and like the earlier fable combines humor with fantasy. Erwin Martin, the story's hero, is the epitome of the little man, a timid clerk who has worked for the same company for years and has become head of its filing department. One day, however, a Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is hired by the president of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler, as an efficiency expert. An aggressive, dominant woman, she fills Mr. Martin with apprehension and fear. Eventually, when she plans radical changes in his department, he realizes that he must act to save himself. Drinking his habitual glass of milk before retiring, he plots to murder her.
In the original draft, Martin had gone to Mrs. Barrows's apartment and carried out the killing, but Thurber was dissatisfied with this version because Martin does not really seem capable of murder. In the published version, he goes to the apartment taking care not to be observed by others, but when the critical moment arrives cannot act and instead flaunts concocted vices before Mrs. Barrows—secret smoking of cigarettes, drinking, and use of cocaine, and abuses his employer Mr. Fitweiler as a “windbag.” Mrs. Barrows orders him out of her apartment and the next morning reports him to Fitweiler. Fitweiler, however, fully conscious that Martin's abstemious habits are legendary in the firm, concludes that Mrs. Barrows has lost her mind. After conferring with a psychiatrist on the telephone, he has her forcibly removed from the office and his employment. She is expelled screaming and imprecating, never to return, and Martin's fantasy of revenge upon the powerful Ulgine Barrows is realized.
Although possessing a veneer of realism, “The Catbird Seat” is essentially a fable or fairy tale, and in many ways is a retelling of “The Unicorn in the Garden.” Mr. Martin and Ulgine Barrows are not husband and wife like the couple in the fable, but they are similar to them as combatants in a male-female power struggle, Mrs. Barrows large and intimidating, Mr. Martin meek and enfeebled in his masculinity. Rather like the wife in “The Unicorn in the Garden,” Mrs. Barrows plots against the hero and looks forward to his removal from his special sanctuary where he finds security and peace, but is outwitted by him. Mrs. Barrows is not removed to an insane asylum, but is shut out of Mr. Martin's world forever and shorn of her power. Her expulsion from the office, like the wife's from the home in the fable, involves the collective action of men, notably including a psychiatrist, against her.
One feels, moreover, that her expulsion is warranted. Her officiousness has already cost a number of inoffensive people their jobs at A & F before she lays plans against Mr. Martin, and she has no compassion and no pity. A strictly mental and self-centered type, she is out of touch with the natural rhythms of life and everything about her is made to seem repellent. Even her name Ulgine is an approximate anagram of “ugly.” She has a loud, brassy voice and “brays” rather than talks. Her expressions, like “tearing up the pea patch” (for going on a rampage) and “sitting in the catbird seat” (for sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him) are taken from the sportscaster Red Barber when he covered the baseball games of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Her frequent use of these expressions suggests that she regards life in terms of struggle and competition, and there is poetic justice in her being ousted and losing authority over others. On a deeper level of emotive response, she is an ogre or witch, whom Martin slays in order to restore peace and amity to the world. The fairy-tale happy ending, however, is ironic in some ways. In the real world Ulgine Barrowses are not so easily disposed of, and Mr. Martins do not normally slay Goliaths. Moreover, Martin's triumph is more problematic than that of the husband in the fable whose unicorn and rose-garden affiliations were with ideality and spiritual truth. Mr. Martin at the end merely returns to his safe but sterile filing system that will shield him from self-recognition.
If “The Catbird Seat” revives the situation in “The Unicorn in the Garden,” “The Lady on 142” is in some ways a retelling of “Walter Mitty.” It is narrated in the first person by a man who is nameless and is accompanied by his wife Sylvia as they take a trip by train from Cornwall, Connecticut to Gaylordsville, about twenty minutes away—a tiny excursion. His wife has her feet firmly on the ground while her husband, who searches ineffectually for Chiclets in his pockets yet enters into romantic adventure in his daydreams, does not. On the hot, sticky midsummer afternoon, as they wait for the train, he hears the station master on the phone saying that conductor Reagan has the lady “the office was asking about,” and tells his wife that he feels there is some deep mystery about her. It is wartime and he feels that she may be a spy, a notion at which Sylvia scoffs.
As he leans his head against the back of the seat and closes his eyes, he falls into a kind of reverie in which he and his wife, because they “know too much,” are snatched off the train by the lady and taken to the lair of her sinister associates. At the point at which they are about to be killed, he wakes to the reality of their arriving in a totally normal way at Gaylordsville. At the station, they are met by a female friend to whom Sylvia tells her husband's suspicion of the “lady on 142” as a German spy, and the women laugh at him. The dream sequence is introduced so quietly that the reader does not recognize at first that it is only a dream; only later, with their arrival at Gaylordsville, does it become apparent that the events described belong wholly to the narrator's romantic dreaming—dreaming that ends in anticlimax and humiliation, just as it does in “Walter Mitty.”
One of the special features and delights of “The Lady on 142” is Thurber's use of parody. Early in the story when the narrator speaks of spies, his wife tells him that “Alfred Hitchcock things” don't happen on the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad. But it is exactly Hitchcock that one is made to think of in the “dream” appearance of the lady with the pearl-handled derringer who spirits the narrator and his wife off the train to be met by a long black limousine with a heavyset foreigner at the wheel; in their sequestration in the remote house in the country where the group of spies gather; and in the suspense, huggermugger, and intrigue having the distinct styling of 1930s mystery films.
At the same time, Thurber parodies Dashiell Hammett's mystery novel The Maltese Falcon. The work is even alluded to quietly at the beginning when Sylvia tells her husband jestingly that the conductor on the train looks as if he knew “where the Maltese Falcon is hidden.” As in Hammett's novel, the characters in the dream sequence are all strongly typed. The heavyset foreigner with “cruel lips and small eyes” is a stereotype, as is the lady from the train as she paces up and down at the house smoking a cigarette in a long black holder. The group includes a tall man with heavily lidded eyes and a lean young gunman with a “drawn, sallow” complexion and cigarette hanging from his lower lip who looks at the others “incuriously.” The role played by the narrator in the dream sequence proves to be antiheroic. When he foolishly and self-destructively tells the tall man that he recognizes him as a tennis star who had lost to Tilden in Zagreb in 1927, he seals his own fate. The gunman hands his automatic to the tall man, who remarks, “I theenk I bomp off thees man myself,” and the narrator wakes from his reverie “moaning.” Yet he is not as radically estranged as Walter Mitty, and the story is a gentler, less disturbing version of a Mittyesque escape into fantasy.
“The Catbird Seat” and “The Lady on 142” are the last in Thurber's series of stories dealing with such men. Other stories do not fall into any single pattern and are of unpredictable types. “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery” (1932) opens upon the scene at night of a man on his hands and knees before the headlights of a car while he barks like a dog. A motorcycle cop pulls up “out of Never-Never Land” to ask for an explanation, and it comes out that the husband and wife have been arguing about whether a man's eyes can be seen in the dark like a cat's, and that the husband has attempted to prove they can by placing himself on all fours by the side of the highway before the headlights of their car. There is no great point to the story: in a fantastic way the “bewildered, sedentary” husband has merely managed to make a fool of himself before his wife and the policeman. The situation, with its lunar quality, is reminiscent of Thurber's cartoons depicting men who have been shorn of sense and dignity.
In a later, frequently anthologized story, “The Figgerin' of Aunt Wilma” (1950), Thurber deals with a woman who, like a gallery of others from his Columbus past, is an oddity and an eccentric. Set far back in the Columbus past to 1905, when John Hance had run a neighborhood grocery store, the tale draws on the tradition of local color. The look and atmosphere of the store, the customs and manners of the people who gather there, are meticulously and exactly rendered. But the local color element is introduced partly to give verisimilitude to what is essentially a tall tale. John Hance and Aunt Wilma Hudson, to whom thrift is a religion, are both notoriously close with money. When they come together to settle a grocery bill of ninety-eight cents, a male-female duel ensues that becomes a family legend. It is authenticated and witnessed by the narrator, then a boy of ten. The problem comes about when Hance discovers that he has no pennies in his till, and proposes that Aunt Wilma give him a dollar plus three pennies and that he give her a nickel. Aunt Wilma is immediately suspicious, and becomes increasingly flustered by the mathematics of the complex transaction.
Hance's frustration and Aunt Wilma's confusion escalate as the tale continues; and when the boy returns to the Hudson house with his Aunt Wilma he cannot resist telling his uncle of Mr. Hance's ordeal. His uncle, who is implied to have been mismatched with his wife, at first chuckles and then breaks into “full and open laughter,” part of a chorus of derision since male loungers in the store have smirked at Aunt Wilma too. His laughter convinces her that men cannot understand anything and are in league against her. One of the notable features of the story is the care with which all the characters, however incidental, have been drawn. But the most perfectly drawn is Aunt Wilma herself. She is similar in type to Aunt Ida in Thurber's reminiscent sketch “A Portrait of Aunt Ida,” since her enclosure in settled feminine biases and deep suspicion of life beyond the narrow scope of her experience prevent her from recognizing her own confusion. “The Figgerin' of Aunt Wilma” is particularly revealing when placed against “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery,” the comic vision of which is distinctly urban, while the humor of “Aunt Wilma” belongs to regional or small-town literature. The stories could have been written by two entirely different authors.
Thurber's short fiction is especially puzzling in its diversity, its lack of any consistent approach or predictable subject matter. “The Black Magic of Barney Haller” (1932) is so original that nothing else exactly like it exists in American fiction, or even elsewhere in Thurber. The story is narrated in the first person by a man who lives in the country and has a hired man, Barney Haller, whose thick Germanic accent distorts what he says so that it seems ominous. Moreover, whenever he appears he is followed by lightning that alarms the narrator and makes him feel that Barney Haller trafficks with the devil. When the story opens on a hot, sultry summer morning, Barney appears at the narrator's house with lightning playing about his shoulders and tells him that “bime by, I go hunt grotches in de voods.” What he means by this is that he will look for forked branches or crotches to use as supports for saplings. But the narrator, who has an excitable imagination, can only envision “grotches” horribly as ugly little creatures “covered with blood and honey and scrapings of church bells.” He goes with him to the woods, frightening himself by imagining Barney in the “voods” shedding his farmhand's garments and incanting diabolical phrases to conjure up “grotches.” At the edge of the woods lightning suddenly slashes across the sky, thunder booms menacingly, and the narrator turns and flees while Barney stands impassively, staring after him.
That evening at six o'clock, while alone in the house and napping in an upstairs room, the narrator is awakened by the sound of rapping at his door. It is dark for six o'clock, with heavy rumblings of thunder and flickerings of lightning in the sky. The narrator is now convinced that the hired man has come to “get” him, even imagining him at the other side of the door standing barefoot with a “wild animal's skin” slung over his shoulder. Opening the door, he finds Barney at the other side, with lightning at his back. When Barney remarks, “We go to the garrick and become warbs,” by which he means that it is time to clear the garret of wasps, the narrator is terrified. He has no intention of accompanying the eerie hired man to a garrick to become a “warb,” and acting on a wild impulse quotes lines from Lewis Carroll, apparently hoping to ward off Barney's black magic. “Did you know,” he says, “that even when it isn't brillig I can produce slithy toves? Did you happen to know that the mome rath never lived that could outgrabe me?” Barney backs slowly away from the porch, his eyes staring wide, and never returns to work for the narrator.
Part of the humor of the story involves the recognition that the hired man finds the narrator as strange as the narrator finds him. The narrator, a reader rather than a doer and a man of high-strung nerves, projects onto Barney all manner of fearsomeness. It is no coincidence that he reads Proust, and is disturbed from his dream of Proust's characters by the appearance of Barney at his door in the early evening. Proust's delicate nerves were so agitated by the slightest impressions, such as the taste of madeleines dipped in tea, as to set in motion a whole world of his imagining; and the narrator's nervous susceptibilities cause him to “imagine” things about Barney. Barney is in fact a simple man—stolid, slowly competent, and amiable. Almost nerveless, he walks about when there is thunder and lightning, unconscious of any danger. His indifference to thunder and lightning makes him incomprehensible to the narrator, who is as civilized as, to his mind, Barney is pagan. Barney Haller's name, which has the connotations of “barn” and “hell” (a word evoked quietly at the beginning) suggests a dual identity, half familiar and half weird. Ironically, Barney possesses no black magic, indicated in the story's title; it is the narrator who by the end becomes a sorcerer, fending off Barney's supposed threat to him by incanting fantastic phrases from his reading—the desperate gesture of a man without defenses. “The Black Magic of Barney Haller” is one of Thurber's superb stories, strikingly original and finely crafted.
But it is one of a kind. Nothing quite like it appears again. Instead one finds stories reflecting an almost bewildering virtuosity. “Am I Not Your Rosalind?” (1947) is a quintessential New Yorker story. Lucid and highly polished, it deals with familiar America as represented by two married couples, the Thornes and the Stantons. When the Stantons spend an evening at the Thornes, it comes out that their wives had each played Rosalind in As You Like It in senior-class high-school plays. They were born in the same year and had played the part at the same time. George Thorne insists that they recite some of Rosalind's lines into his tape recorder and they finally do so, overcoming their reluctance with additional cocktails. Each of the women praises the other's reading, modestly deprecating her own. Yet when the evening is over and the couples are alone, each scoffs at the other's reading and laughs with her husband over the hopelessness of her rival's physical appearance and various pretensions. As Thurber notes at the beginning, Rosalind had been one of the first “aggressive ladies in literature,” a forecast, it would seem, of inmost aggression in the wives. “Am I Not Your Rosalind?” is a suave story, coolly amused and acidulously ironic.
“The Man Who Hated Moonbaum” (1940), on the other hand, has an almost surrealistic quality. Thurber's only Hollywood story, it was written after he had visited Elliott Nugent in Hollywood to work on the first draft of The Male Animal, and been introduced to various producers and directors in the film industry. The story has only two characters, a Hollywood producer who is unnamed and always referred to as “the little man,” and a man named Tallman. Strangers to one another when they met over drinks at the Brown Derby, the producer had invited Tallman back to his home, a palatial estate of incredible pretentiousness. The story, which takes place at night and largely in darkness, opens upon the scene of their walking past a high, grilled gate for what seems a quarter of a mile to the producer's house. After fumbling in the dark, the producer flicks a switch (possibly concealed in a tree) that throws a rose-colored radiance over the façade of a building so imposing that it resembles “the Place de la Concorde side of the Crillon.” Entering through an enormous door, Tallman discovers a marble staircase that tumbles “like Niagara” into a grand canyon of a living room.
The producer pours brandy for himself and his guest while he talks compulsively about his conception for a movie based on medieval legend that involves a scene in which a spy, concealed behind the forty-foot tapestry hanging on his wall, is shot with an arrow. The scene has been bungled, he raves, by his assistant Moonbaum and Moonbaum's marksman. The more he talks, the more garish his movie seems. A motif of stifling heat is introduced, and the deep living room is evoked as a version of hell. Finally, Tallman leaves “the little man” talking to himself and finds his way out of the house into fresh air and the early light of day, able to see now “where he was going.” In his use of the baroque Hollywood house that seems as empty and unreal as a movie set, Thurber seems indebted to Nathanael West. But the tale—in its vignette-like form, capturing of the producer's crass speech, and evocation of inner tensions and underlying ugliness—is also reminiscent of the Hollywood stories of Thurber's friend John O'Hara.
Two other stories, “The Greatest Man in the World” (1931) and “You Could Look It Up” (1941), suggest the influence of Ring Lardner. The central figure in “The Greatest Man in the World,” like the prizefighter in Lardner's “Champion,” is self-centered and vacant. By a quirk of fate, he becomes America's greatest hero when, in 1937, a decade after Lindbergh, he flies nonstop around the world in a secondhand, single-motored Bresthaven Dragon-Fly III monoplane. Jack (“Pal”) Smurch is the product of a small Iowa town and a family looked upon askance and feared by local people. At the time of Smurch's flight, his father has been jailed for stealing spotlights and lap robes from tourists' automobiles, and his weak-minded younger brother had just escaped from a reformatory where he had been sent for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices.
Smurch's own earlier years there had been one of the town's uglier memories. He had knifed the principal of his school, and surprised in the act of stealing an altar cloth from a church had bashed the sacristan over the head with a pot of Easter lilies. For each of these offenses he had served a sentence in a reform school. Naturally, when reporters talk to townspeople and to Smurch's mother, a short-order cook in a shack restaurant who tells them that she hopes her son drowns, they realize that they cannot print the true facts of Smurch's life. Instead they describe him as a modest fellow, blond, and popular with girls. A cheap amusement park photo of him is touched up so that the “little vulgarian” looks handsome.
The first half of “The Greatest Man in the World” has the grotesque irreverence of Thurber's spoof “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomatox,” in which the greatest hero of the Union Army is depicted as a clownish rumpot. The second half becomes pure fantasy. A national crisis develops, and Smurch is sequestered in a nursing home for two weeks ostensibly for exhaustion but actually to keep him away from the press. Finally, when he is conducted to a conference room in New York to be coached on how to comport himself—with a “test” reporter from the New York Times, and with the president of the United States and other top officials present—Smurch makes it clear that he will flaunt his true self before the world. As he stands before a window exulting in the sound of his name as it floats up to him from a newsboy hawking papers nine floors below, the President nods grimly to the mayor's secretary, a powerfully built former football player, who seizes Smurch and throws him out the window.
His death, covered up as a tragic accident, is the occasion of a solemn funeral and national mourning. Two minutes of silence are observed throughout the land, supervised in Smurch's hometown by Secret Service men. In the story's splendid ending, a line that had been introduced earlier, in which Smurch's “twisted leer” in the amusement park photo is retouched into a pleasant smile, is brought forward with the effect of a coda. Smurch's mother, in the shack restaurant, bows her head reverently but turns her face away so that the Secret Service men cannot see the “twisted, strangely familiar leer on her lips.” “The Greatest Man in the World” combines many elements of Thurber's writing in the 1930s. It is a satire, a parody, a fantasy, and a “dark” fable.
“You Could Look It Up” is similar to “The Greatest Man in the World” in that it relates fantastic incidents as if they were factual. A baseball story with a first-person narrator reminiscent of the worldly-wise deadpan narrators in Ring Lardner's sports tales, it is related in the present but concerned with events occurring thirty years earlier that the narrator keeps reminding the reader are contained in newspaper files and can be looked up. The trainer at that time for a baseball club expected to win the pennant but fallen upon a slump, the narrator speaks in a hard-bitten vernacular so skillfully rendered that it clinches the authenticity of the tale. In a dejected state when the club loses to Columbus, the team's crusty manager, Squawks Magrew, meets a bizarre individual named Pearl du Monville. Du Monville is a midget with a “sneer on his little pushed-in pan” who swings a bamboo cane and smokes a big cigar. Drinking with him after the loss to Columbus, Magrew enjoys his razzing of the team and decides to adopt him as the team mascot.
To the consternation of the narrator and the members of the club, Magrew even signs du Monville as a player—a kind of goad to the team that du Monville could do no worse than they have been doing lately—and in the game against St. Louis sends du Monville in to bat for them. Certain that no pitcher can throw a ball low enough to strike him out, Magrew carefully instructs him to stand at the plate, take four balls, and walk to first base, enabling their man on third base to score a run. Du Monville does as he is told, but when a fourth pitch is thrown level to his chest he swats the ball and scrambles toward first base. He is out at first but, the bases loaded, the other players score runs and Magrew's team wins the game.
Du Monville's appearance on the diamond causes pandemonium in the stands, but the wildest scene occurs at the end when Magrew, enraged by the midget's defiance of his orders, seizes him, whirling him in the air like a discus thrower and hurling him across the field. Du Monville is never seen again but the team has been inspirited and goes on to take the pennant. “You Could Look It Up” is particularly effective in its use of the grotesque, and its smart-talking, cigar-chewing midget is one of the liveliest features of the story. The story may also involve an element of sly parody, however, since Squawks Magrew has a certain likeness to Thurber's editor at the New Yorker, Harold Ross. Drinking with the midget, he uses Ross's expressions, crying, “How I pity me,” and like Ross he is overworked, gruffly melancholic, and constantly goading those under him to reach new heights of excellence.
Yet other Thurber stories are not satirical at all and some, like “Menaces in May” (1928), his first story published in the New Yorker, reveal another side of his sensibility. Evidently autobiographical, “Menaces in May” concerns a man who is never named and who resembles Thurber himself during the time that he was getting started in New York and his first wife Althea Adams had not yet returned from France to join him. It begins moodily with the man in a hotel room at one o'clock in the morning with another man and woman whom he has just met by chance in the city and had known eighteen years before. He had, in fact, been in “puppy” love with the woman, who is now in vaudeville. As he looks at the two together, he remembers that in school he had been studious and shy, no way to have won Julia, and wonders what his life with her would have been like. The situation comes out of Thurber's own experience. Eva Prout, who had been his first boyhood love and whom he idealized for years, had dropped out of school to go into vaudeville and movies; and it is she, really, who is Julia.
The first part of the story is suffused with a sense of regret, of lost romance; but when the man leaves the couple and makes his way in the dim hours to his room in the Village another motif begins to emerge. On the subway an incident occurs between a roughneck sailor and his girl, and the man is tempted to intervene but does nothing. Other sights en route fill him with a sense of fear, and he feels condemned to a lonely isolation. When he reaches his room, he thinks of the imminent return of his wife Lydia. Had he come between the sailor and the girl, he might have been killed, and it had been the thought of Lydia returning to such a thing that had kept him from acting. His inability to act, and the “nameless terror” he feels, now become focused by the woman he married. The somewhat-vague romantic opening is followed by the sharper realism of his fear of Lydia in which Thurber discovers his true subject.
Another early story, “The Evening's at Seven” (1932), is also remarkably evocative. It opens with an unnamed man sitting alone in darkness. It is early evening and he is in his office lost in reflection. Before long he goes out into the street where it is raining, and darkness and rain are thereafter alluded to frequently with motiflike effect. What troubles the man is hinted at when a siren sounds somewhere and its frenzied scream makes him think of “anguish dying with the years.” For reasons he claims not to understand, he takes a cab to the apartment of a woman with whom he had once been in love. The scene between them is Fitzgeraldian in its evocation of lost romance. As they talk, he is conscious of the rain outside, of the “soft darkness” of the room, and of “other rooms and other darknesses.” Just as he is about to kiss her, however, her sister arrives and the moment is lost.
But it has been a romantic occasion and the man, when he arrives at his hotel for dinner at seven-thirty as always, obviously still feels the glow of his evening at “seven.” In the dining room of the hotel, the waitress tells him that she believes his wife, the existence of whom has been withheld until this moment, will be down soon. “And the waitress,” Thurber remarks in the last lines, “said clam chowder tonight, and consommé: you always take the clam chowder, ain't I right. No, he said, I'll take the consommé.” The strain of romance and nostalgia in the tale, and the dominance in it of sentiment, suggest a direction that Thurber's fiction might have taken but did not.
“One Is a Wanderer” (1935), another story of loss, has the form of a sensitive atmospheric sketch. Written while Thurber was living apart from his wife Althea and staying at the Algonquin Hotel, it is as autobiographical as “Menaces in May.” The protagonist, a writer named Kirk, lives apart from his wife in a New York hotel room where he leads a desultory existence, throwing his soiled shirts (as Thurber had done) on the floor of his closet and allowing them to pile up for months. On a dark, dank Sunday evening in February, he feels particularly at sea and is lost in the gloom of his thoughts. Not knowing what to do with himself on this Sunday evening, he walks the city's streets for five hours. When he at last returns to the hotel, he asks at the desk if there are any messages for him, but there is nothing. For a time he goes to his office, imagining that he can occupy himself by writing some letters, but he cannot concentrate and returns to the hotel through the slush and the “damp gloom.” Seated in a lobby chair still wearing his overcoat, he has several brandies, but no one comes into the lobby that he knows. He thinks of calling on the Graysons, with whom he and his wife Lydia had once shared a vacation, but it would be awkward to see them, since their friends are all couples. “Two is company,” he tells himself, “four is a party, three is a crowd. One is a wanderer.”
Finally he goes to his room to rest, and after midnight takes a cab to a bar on Fifty-third Street, staying until three o'clock in the morning. On the way back to his hotel in a taxi, he talks to the driver, a man named Willie who has driven him before, and Willie tells him that it is good he is going home because home is the best place there is, after all. Returning to his room, which is hardly a home, he smokes a cigarette and begins to sing “Bye Bye Blackbird,” the lyrics of which evoke an escape from woe that Kirk cannot achieve and that has everything to do with Lydia, who has apparently left him, finding him “unbearable.” Kirk's evening describes a movement in circles, from the hotel and back again, and then out and back to the room that is as desolate as Kirk's single life. The story has many finely muted effects, like the conversation Kirk holds with the bartender George that is reminiscent of such downbeat exchanges in Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but the final effect of the story is that of a cry of pain.
“The Other Room” (1962) published posthumously in Credos and Curios and one of the last stories Thurber wrote, is autobiographical only obliquely. It is set in the bar of the Hotel Continental in Paris and involves a set of Americans who are staying in the city. When a compatriot of theirs appears, a man named Bartlett whom they have never met and is a friend of friends, he confides to them his early experience of Paris—a story within the story. Bartlett had been in the American army during World War I and been wounded at Fère-en-Tardenois, one of the fiercest and bloodiest engagements of the war. While at the base hospital, stricken with homesickness and disoriented by the drugs he had been given, he had gone AWOL. In a hazy mental state, he had found himself in Paris, where a French girl took him to her small apartment. After going into the other room to undress she calls to him, and Bartlett is seized by panic. Young and inexperienced, from a sheltered background in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and in love with a virtuous local girl of seventeen named Martha, he flees from the apartment in a daze. MPs find him and bring him back to the base hospital, but later he goes into a “nose dive” and has experiences with prostitutes in Paris. Later still, after recovering from his breakdown, he returns to the US, marries the good Martha, and has ever since been a faithful, conventional husband.
Bartlett's experience was not exactly Thurber's, since he had never been in the army or wounded in France. But he had known Paris as an inexperienced young man from the Midwest at the same time as Bartlett; and he, too, had had his sexual initiation there and had suffered a nervous breakdown. The clash between a sheltered and provincial idealism and the reality of sex results in a never-quite-forgotten trauma for Bartlett, as it had apparently for Thurber. What is striking in Thurber, in many of the stories as well as in the drawings, is the traumatic nature of sexuality. A Midwestern puritan strain in Thurber constantly prevents him from confronting sexuality directly. There is hardly any direct responsiveness to the erotic in his stories, as there is, for example, in D. H. Lawrence, but rather a kind of backing away, a conversion of sexuality into grotesque parody or a deflection of it to a more cerebral concern with inner states of anxiety.
One finds a carefully achieved detachment in Thurber, even in his compassionate stories. “The Departure of Emma Inch” (1935), for example, has a tender texture yet Thurber preserves a distance between himself and the woman the story is about. The tale is narrated in the first person by a man who is apparently meant to be Thurber, since Emma Inch refers to him as “Mr. Thurman,” one of the garbled versions of his name that people use in his humor sketches. He and his wife are about to leave New York to spend the summer at Martha's Vineyard and are in need of a cook. The only one they are able to find, recommended by a friend, is a peculiar woman named Emma Inch. She is middle-aged and featureless, and appears with a suitcase and a seventeen-year-old bull terrier named Feely who is all she has in the world. The old dog whines and sniffles, and is pitiful. After engaging Emma Inch, the narrator's wife spends a restless night, feeling vaguely uneasy about the woman and her peculiar dog. The next day they leave with the cook for Martha's Vineyard.
En route, many odd things come out about Emma Inch. They learn, for example, that she has not spent the night before at the hotel room they had arranged for her but with her landlady on the West Side. She has never in her life stayed at hotels, which are foreign to her and frighten her. For another, they learn in the cab taking them to the pier that she has never before been inside a car. Although she is reluctant to take the boat, they manage to get her and her dog aboard, but at the last connection to Martha's Vineyard she tells them that she must go back because Feely, who “talks” to her in low grumblings and snufflings, is ill. Even though she is at the end of Massachusetts, she plans to walk back to the city, a prospect that appalls the narrator but seems to make her happy. Obviously she will be returning to a sanctuary of the familiar, where she and the dog will be “safe.” But it will be virtually no life at all. Her name “Inch” intimates her minimalness of identity and of place, but the dog's curious name “Feely” is also revealing, implying as it does an almost-total absence of intelligent thought or cognition. What is particularly disturbing about Emma Inch is her lack of relation to the world around her, so much so that her existence can hardly be imagined by the reader. By her departure, although she has been observed with a close realism, Emma Inch has a dreamlike quality.
Thurber's stories frequently employ a closed form. Even in the sketchy “One Is a Wanderer,” the man's return in the dim hours to his room indicates the blank wall he faces in his life, and is a perfectly appropriate and revealing ending. But in “The Departure of Emma Inch,” Thurber makes use of an open ending that coaxes the reader to imagine the unimaginable. A similar open-ended technique can be noticed in “The Wood Duck” (1936), a work of an extremely low-key realism in which very little actually happens. The narrator and his wife who live in the Connecticut countryside drive out to a roadside produce stand, and as they approach the building the narrator applies his brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a duck that has been walking about the driveway. It isn't a barnyard fowl, however, but a wild duck from the nearby woods that for some reason has loitered there for two weeks.
As the narrator asks a man who has pulled up in an old sedan about the duck, a car racing by strikes the wild duck, tossing it into the air. It lies on the concrete highway, stunned at first, and then struggles to its feet. At the same time the white setter in the truck of some hunters goes after the bird, pursuing it as it scrabbles lamely toward the woods. The hunters catch up with the dog and restrain him just as he is about to seize the duck, which flutters toward the woods, “going home.” Yet later, when the narrator and his wife revisit the stand that day, they find that it has returned. At the end of the tale, the narrator's wife remarks that she is glad the duck has come back, hating to think of it “alone there out in the woods.” Ironically, the wood duck is more truly endangered and out of its element in a man-made environment. But perhaps the key word is “alone.” At the beginning, as it is seen on the driveway, the duck is “immensely solitary,” and its solitude is emphasized by its belonging not quite one place nor yet another, making it a puzzling anomaly. With a power of suggestion, Thurber's open ending forces the reader to reflect on what placelessness means.
In “Teacher's Pet” (1949), the protagonist Kelby is not a solitary, being married and having a comfortable-enough suburban life. Yet all is not well with him. His wife drinks too much, and having just turned fifty he has begun to reflect on the painful sense of limitation and failure that comes to people in middle age. He is even seized by a moment of panic when he finds it difficult to breathe, and deeply repressed experiences break through into his consciousness. The painful memory of his childhood comes over him, for example, when he had been the smartest boy in school but a physical weakling, teased by other, stronger boys as a teacher's pet. The athletic Zeke Leonard had taunted him by calling him “Willber, dear,” like his teacher; and twisted his arm behind his back until he sobbed and a crowd of other boys laughed and jeered.
When the Kelbys attend a cocktail party at the house of their neighbors, the Stevensons, Kelby notices irritably that the Stevenson son takes after his athletically built father. History repeating itself, young Bob Stevenson has taunted and harassed another boy named Elbert, who is “terribly sensitive,” the brightest boy in his school but frail and unable to stand up to the other boys. One day after the party, in a sulky mood, Kelby comes upon the Stevenson boy mocking Elbert by calling him “Ella.” When he begins attacking Elbert physically, Kelby intervenes and drives him off. But when Elbert will not stop sniffling and whimpering, Kelby shouts to him to “shut up.” As Elbert breaks into weeping, Kelby loses all rational control, shaking and cuffing the boy and “sobbing” that he is a “goddam little coward.” In the story's ironic ending, Mr. Reynolds, who has witnessed the incident, tells Stevenson what had occurred, and Stevenson remarks musingly that you “never know about a man.” They, of course, miss the point for Kelby in attacking Elbert has struck out in helpless rage at a surrogate of himself. That his early trauma has not, after all, been overcome in adulthood is implied in the resentment he feels toward Stevenson, who makes little jibes intimating his lack of manliness; and in his wife's alcoholism, which gives an impression, although touched upon only lightly, that she has perhaps found him an inadequate husband.
Two other stories of the 1940s, “The Whip-Poor-Will” (1941) and “A Friend to Alexander” (1942), involve trauma that results in violence and come out of Thurber's personal experience. Both were written shortly after the series of eye operations that left him blind and in a state of nervous collapse. In “The Whip-Poor-Will,” no explanation is given for Kinstrey's anguished state of mind. Unable to sleep, he has somehow developed terrible fixations and begun to hallucinate. As he lies awake restlessly, he hears the call of a whippoorwill, the nocturnal bird whose singing by a house was regarded in old folk wisdom as a harbinger of death. His drowsing is troubled by dreams in which striking images and symbols appear and evoke his deep inner disturbance. At times the images have a surrealistic quality. Kinstrey is beset, for example, by trios of little bearded men who roll hoops at him. He tries to climb up onto a gigantic Ferris wheel whose swinging seats are rumpled beds. A round policeman with wheels for feet rolls toward him shouting, “will power … whip-poor-will!” At other times the call of the whippoorwill becomes the sound of the fatal bell on the night of the murder in Macbeth. Poe is brought in, too, in a dream in which Kinstrey is attacked by an umbrella that, when clutched, clutches back and becomes a raven crying “nevermore.” As Kinstrey wakes from one of these nightmares he leaps from his bed to the window, pounding on the windowpane and running the blind up and down, shouting and cursing. He becomes violent and incoherent.
Others in the house—his wife Madge, Margaret the cook, and Arthur the butler—all enter into Kinstrey's dreams. Madge appears as a little girl in pigtails and a playsuit who points a finger at him in a hospital room that is filled with “poor men in will chairs.” One of the sick men is Arthur, who grinningly holds a pair of spectacles before Kinstrey, but at a distance so that he cannot grasp them. He is powerless even to move his arms or legs. Appearing as the umpire at a tennis match, his wife cries “whip him now.” Kinstrey's feet are stuck in wet concrete, and the maid Margaret peers at him over the net, holding a skillet for a racquet. Arthur then pushes him down until the concrete covers his head, and his wife Madge laughs. Then in a sudden transition Kinstrey is in his pajamas in the kitchen removing a long, sharp bread knife from a drawer, muttering hoarsely, “Who do you do first?” In another transition, perplexed by what may have brought about such slaughter, the local police and state troopers are at the house grimly investigating the triple murder and suicide. At times Kinstrey's dreams seem perhaps too literary (do nightmare sufferers really dream of Macbeth?), but the intensity of his obsession is powerfully felt, and the story may be the more effective by leaving the cause of Kinstrey's despairing madness unspecified.
The unspecified crisis in Kinstrey's life is explained, however, by Thurber's experience of blindness and his terrifying anxiety that his creative life was imperiled. Martha's Vineyard, where Thurber recuperated from his operations, even provides the unnamed setting, the island where Kinstrey and his wife are summering. Thurber once told an interviewer that the story “came somewhere out of a grim fear in the back of my mind,”1 but this grim fear is not difficult to pin down. The long, sharp knife Kinstrey uses to dispatch the others and himself seemed to Helen Thurber “a symbol for all the cutting Jamie had gone through that year. He thought he was being castrated with all that cutting.”2 Kinstrey's paralysis in the hospital dream, his inability to act, is linked with Arthur's holding out the pair of spectacles while keeping them out of reach. He is deprived of the power of “will” that would restore him to what he was before being overtaken by his terrible dreams, and his frustration finally turns into indiscriminate rage. His rage, however, seems directed principally against his wife. At the beginning he hears a “blind man tapping,” while his wife screams, “Help! Police!” as if she knew she were the focus of his anger. Later in his dreams, she is his chief tormentor, and she laughs when he is buried alive in wet concrete. In this story, too, one has the impression of a male-female conflict at the deepest level of the hero's anguish.
Written only a year after “The Whip-Poor-Will,” “A Friend to Alexander” also deals with neurotic obsession and recurring bizarre dreams. Henry (known as Harry) Andrews, an architect, begins dreaming every night of Alexander Hamilton. In one dream he is a witness to Aaron Burr's assassination of Hamilton in their famous duel, and in another is sneered at by Burr as a man of no account. Burr even threatens to give him a “taste” of his riding crop. Disturbed when he tells her of his dreams, his wife arranges for them to take a vacation in the country at the home of their friends the Crowleys. On their first day in the country, Crowley takes Harry out with him to shoot at targets, but while shooting becomes alarmed when Harry measures off paces, turns, and fires in his direction. At dawn the next morning, Mrs. Andrews is awakened by the sound of shots being fired beyond the house, and discovers that her husband has been out practicing for a duel “with Burr.”
That day the couple leaves for the city, and Harry is examined by a doctor who finds him in perfect health. Yet on an evening soon after, Harry raves again about meeting Burr in a duel, and his wife feels a dark foreboding. The next morning he is found dead in his bed—of a heart attack. Strangely, the three fingers next to the index finger of his hand are stiffly closed on the palm as if gripping a pistol, and his index finger is curved slightly inward as though about to press the trigger. He has, as it were, been shot in the heart. On the surface at least, the story might have been written by Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce. But Thurber has provided a Freudian explanation for Harry's behavior that searches into his subconscious conflicts. In a dream early in the tale, Harry looks into Hamilton's face to discover the face of his brother, killed by a drunkard in a cemetery. The moment of recognition is passed over quickly and is not referred to again, but its presence seems intended to suggest the neurotic sources of Harry's obsession. His unbearable guilt over his failure to have protected his brother turns into a desire to die, as Hamilton and his brother had died.
“A Friend to Alexander” is one of Thurber's slighter tales, rather too fantastic to be quite credible, but it is interesting in what it suggests of Thurber's psychology after losing his sight. His sense of guilt was very strikingly evident during his convalescence at Martha's Vineyard when, in a fit of weeping, he told Mark Van Doren that his blindness was a punishment upon him for having written meanly and mockingly of mankind. The idea of self-betrayal and self-punishment are also implied in the inner story of the tale and in its puzzling character configurations. Why, for example, should Harry develop a fixation with Alexander Hamilton in particular? And in recognizing his brother in Hamilton does he not also perhaps recognize himself? Hamilton died young, at forty-seven, the very age of Thurber when he lost his vision. Moreover, Hamilton had been at the height of his powers and of his professional life when he was struck down; and so, with a solid body of work behind him in the 1930s and the recent success on the Broadway stage of The Male Animal, had Thurber.
The inner story of “A Friend to Alexander” can be read as a parable of self-condemnation in which Thurber, or a character projection of him, is not only victim but also destroyer. In his fixation with meeting Burr in a duel that seems likely to lead to his death, in reenacting Hamilton's fate, Harry punishes himself for the baser and more unworthy part of himself represented by the drunkard in the cemetery and the brutal and meanly self-assertive Burr. Having an “unworthy” side to his nature and being “guilty” of having mocked humanity in his work, Thurber was possessed by the notion, at least for a time, that he had been responsible for his blindness, that he was being very properly punished. In “A Friend to Alexander,” this idea is explored in a fictional situation in which a hero is obsessed by a sense of guilt associated with the destruction of a worthier self, and ultimately wills his own death. Thurber's fictional themes in the crisis of his blindness take diametrically opposing forms. In “The Whip-Poor-Will,” Kinstrey projects his despairing aggression outwardly upon others, while in “A Friend to Alexander” Harry Andrews directs it inwardly upon himself.
Written during a great distress, “The Whip-Poor-Will” and “A Friend to Alexander” may be untypical of Thurber's stories to the point of aberration, but the use of dreams they employ is not. Obsession, dreams, and a dream sense are pervasive in his work. A dream sense is constantly evoked in his drawings, his reminiscences of Columbus, his reportage, and it appears in various ways in many of the stories just discussed, giving them a point in common. In “The Lady on 142,” the hero dreams his capture by spies and as a dreamer is ultimately humiliated. “The Catbird Seat” has the quality of a dream fable, and so does “The Greatest Man in the World.” The midget Pearl du Monville turns “You Could Look It Up” into a bizarre dream, and the Hollywood house in “The Man Who Hated Moonbaum” has the nature of a waking dream. In “The Other Room,” Bartlett is haunted by the dreamlike experience of his discovery of sex and nervous breakdown in Paris. Emma Inch comes out of a dream and goes back into another. The high incidence of dream structures in Thurber's fiction suggests a repudiation of conventional realism for a more “magical” confrontation of his characters' inmost fears and anxieties.
Yet in other stories Thurber writes without recourse to dreams and almost as a naturalist. “The Luck of Jad Peters” (1934), narrated in the first person by a man looking back to the time when he was a boy in Columbus, deals with an older man, the boy's uncle, who is delineated sharply through his dominant trait of braggadocio. The story opens with the narrator's recollections of his aunt Emma Peters, who before her death at eighty-three liked to attend funerals and look at corpses. In her parlor was a souvenir table containing a rough fragment of a rock weighing perhaps twenty pounds and a heavy-framed full-length photograph of her husband Jad, showing him wearing a hat and overcoat and carrying a suitcase. Later, the narrator had learned the story behind the photograph, the first in his collection of souvenirs that, to his own mind, certified him as having been selected by nature as a man bound to be lucky. On the occasion of the photograph he had just left his hotel in New York to board a ship going to Newport. A few minutes after he had checked out, a telegram arrived at the hotel advising that it was imperative he return home, and a boy was dispatched with the telegram to the dock, where the message was received and the ship sailed without him. Eight hours out of the harbor, it sank with the loss of everyone on board.
As the years passed, Peters bored everyone in his community by referring to himself as “lucky Jad Peters” and by his stories of close, providential escapes. In his later years he drank, let his farm run down, and barely scratched out a living. His wife, who had been compelled to listen to his boastful stories repeatedly, barely managed to endure her life with him. Then one day, after talking with a friend on the street, Jad had walked away, only to change his mind suddenly and begin walking back to where his friend was standing. At that moment he was blown against a building and killed by a rock sent flying by dynamiting going on nearby in the riverbed. The humor of the story, told in a loose-sleeved vernacular style, relies in part on a recollection of the opening. The fragment of the fatal rock set before the grandiosely enlarged photograph of Jad Peters is an ironic comment upon him by his spouse whom he had bored and depressed.
But the story also has a certain autobiographical interest. In The Thurber Album (1952), published eighteen years after the story, Thurber revealed that his grandfather, William M. Fisher, a remarkably self-important man, had had a large photograph of himself displayed prominently in his living room, together with a telegram advising him urgently to return to Columbus, received just as he was about to board an excursion steamer for Catawba Island that sank with the loss of everyone on board. The genial portrait of William M. Fisher in The Thurber Album is undermined devastatingly by “The Luck of Jad Peters,” which if not a portrait of Fisher at least implies an antipathy toward him of some intensity. It exposes his self-centered nature and meanness of spirit that had oppressed his wife and members of the Thurber family.
“Doc Marlowe” (1935) is also set in Columbus in a bygone era and is narrated by a man looking back upon his youth. As a boy of eleven, the individual he had admired most was a Doc Marlowe, who sold a snake oil liniment and was a boarder at the rooming house of Mrs. Willoughby, a nurse in the narrator's family. On weekends, he visited at the house and came to know Marlowe, who fascinated him with his stories of having traveled with a medicine show in the wild West. Over the course of years he came to know him better and to learn the truth of his life. He learned that Marlowe, although capable of surprising altruism and generosity, was a charlatan who took advantage of people and cheated at cards. At the end when he is dying, Marlowe gives him a two-headed quarter with which he had won many coin tosses, a legacy that comments on the nature of life, in which the best and the worst, the admirable and the ignoble, are strangely intermingled.
Like “The Luck of Jad Peters,” the story comes out of Thurber's own experience. There had actually been a man like Doc Marlowe whom Thurber met at the primitive rooming house of his aunt Margery Albright. How closely he resembled Doc Marlowe in the tale is impossible to know, but as he has been imagined, in any case, Marlowe is a rather unsettling figure. Although representing the wild West to the mind of the boy, he had originated in Brooklyn and had never been in the far West in his life. He had been the proprietor of a concession at Coney Island, a saloonkeeper, and a circus man. In his fifties, as a barker and hawker of a liniment for all ailments, he had traveled with a tent-show troupe that included a Professor Jones who played the banjo, and a Mexican named Chickalilli who threw knives. He comes out of a tradition of cheap American chicanery that Henry James had evoked in “Professor Fargo,” and his presence in Columbus dispels many of the boy's earliest illusions of romance in life. The story deals with the necessary adjustment that must be made from the uninformed wonder of childhood to the troubling complexity of adult experience, but what lingers longest in one's mind is the dingy constriction of Marlowe's life, the atmosphere of physical and moral squalor that surrounds him. He makes Columbus seem stifling and ugly. At other points in his career, Thurber reveals an ambivalence toward his native city, which he celebrates as a carnival of eccentricity but at other times intimates as a seedy tragedy from which he can never recover.
Meanness of life or of outlook enters into a number of Thurber's stories, especially those of the later period. “Everything Is Wild” (1932), a kind of extended vignette in which a man reveals his own selfish and unfeeling nature, could have been written by the early John O'Hara. “The Cane in the Corridor” (1943), which came out of Thurber's anger over Wolcott Gibbs's failure to visit him in the hospital during his eye operations, is bitter and vindictive. “A Friend of the Earth” (1949) concerns a cracker-barrel philosopher so cynical that the reader is more repelled than amused by him; and “Shake Hands with Birdey Doggett” (1953), about a vicious practical joker, goes further than Ring Lardner in making human nature seem apalling.
“The Case of Dimity Ann” (1952), a more complicated and psychological story, is unsettlingly morbid. It concerns a writer-researcher named Ridgeway who stays up all night drinking sullenly. His second wife attempts to humor him, but the revived memory of an episode from his past has begun to disturb him profoundly. While married to his first wife Lydia (the name for Althea Adams that Thurber had used in “Menaces in May” and “One Is a Wanderer”), he had tied up her cat Dimity Ann a “hundred times” with the cord from his dressing gown. Clearly the cat is a surrogate for Lydia, who is implied to have been unfaithful and to have excited an anger in Ridgeway so deep that even many years later he can hardly deal with it. Yet the story, unlike the sensitive and moving earlier ones involving Lydia, precludes any identification with the protagonist. Sheathed in neurosis, Ridgeway remains outside one's sympathy or understanding.
Several of Thurber's other stories that preclude reader identification with a central character are distinctive in deriving from or referring in some way to Henry James. “Something to Say” (1932), the earliest of them, is a grotesque version of James's story “The Coxon Fund,” about a writer of brilliant intellectual gifts and with a genius for talk who has actually written very little. When one of his admirers settles a trust fund upon him, freeing him from the necessity of making a living, he ceases to write altogether. Like James's Frank Saltram, Thurber's Elliot Vereker (whose name derives from that of the protagonist of another James story “The Figure in the Carpet”) is admired by a circle of friends for having the true creative temperament. A writer-nonconformist, he sits up all night talking and is notorious for his erratic behavior. His acquaintances are awed by him as one of the truly original minds of his generation, a man with “something to say,” despite the fact that his output consists of only twenty or thirty pages, “most of them bearing the round stain of liquor glasses.” In the end, when they get up a purse that will enable him to go to Europe, he squanders most of it in a drunken spree that ends with his squalid death on a rooftop, his head crushed by a blow from some heavy instrument, “probably a bottle.” Although usually considered a satire, “Something to Say” is too dark to be really humorous. It is both similar to “The Coxon Fund” and is not. “The Coxon Fund” is genuinely satirical, a detached and ironic exploration of the mystery of the creative temperament as it is revealed in the balked writer Saltram; but “Something to Say” is concerned exclusively with the condition of the balked writer as pure hell, with Vereker's incoherence and guilty self-punishment.
“A Final Note on Chanda Bell” (1949), suggested by James's story deals with a female writer, reminiscent in some ways of Gertrude Stein, whose enigmatic prose attracts a following of individuals from Greenwich Village. Her devotees include a schoolteacher who has resigned from the human race to become a bird and a Miss Menta, a nude Chilean transcendentalist. The narrator purports to be Thurber himself, in the role of a critic who has published an essay in a scholarly journal in which he claims to have found the underlying unity in the apparent meaninglessness of her writing. He quickly becomes part of Chanda Bell's circle, and at her apartment discovers that her conversation is as bewildering as her prose. She begins sentences in the middle, and like Joyce in Finnegan's Wake, which Thurber had been having his secretary read to him, is fond of surrogate words that are like “the words in dreams.” She uses “rupture” for rapture, “pressure” for pleasure, and mistakes her attorney Charles Vayne for a certain Strephon, “a Jung mad I cussed in the Sprig.”
The more the narrator comes to know Chanda Bell, the more it comes over him that he has been mistaken in his essay, that there is no underlying principle of order in her writing at all. Chanda Bell is herself his chief mocker. “You have found the figure, Thurber,” she taunts him, “but have you found the carpet?” Before her death, like James, she burns all her personal papers, leaving behind only a cryptic message for him in her desk drawer—three carefully drawn squares, one inside the other, that have the form of a plinth or base for a statue. At the end, with trepidation, Thurber awaits the exposure of his essay before the entire literary world.
Unlike “The Figure in the Carpet,” Thurber's story does not fulfill the expectations of satire. Its humor is strained and grotesque. “The Figure in the Carpet” involves not merely a critic's discovery of his self-deception after believing that he had possessed certainty but also a serious moral theme of the sin of egotism, of pride checked and punished, of cold logic shown to be insufficient as a measurement of life. Thurber's tale, on the other hand, reveals no moral sense whatever. A cynosure of the avantgarde, Chanda Bell proves to be spurious and incoherent, but no alternative standards have been implied within the story by which to measure her aberration. It is for this reason that the story is ineffective as satire, and that the reader does not know quite how to respond to it.
In “Something to Say,” Elliot Vereker is no genius at all, only a tormented would-be writer with a decided urge toward self-destruction. In “A Final Note on Chanda Bell,” Chanda Bell is probably crazy. The narrators who believe in them are at last disillusioned. The calling of art may be elevated and noble, but all that can be discovered by these narrators is ugliness and brutality (in Vereker's case) or mere deception (in Chanda Bell's). It is the narrators, finally, that “Something to Say” and “A Final Note on Chanda Bell” come to focus upon. Betrayed by their guides, they find themselves alone in incoherent worlds without a sustaining vision in which to believe.
In “The Interview,” Thurber's final story on a Jamesian theme, incoherence appears again and is once more linked with fraudulence. The tale begins with a young reporter's appearing at the home of the novelist George Lockhorn to find him drinking in the afternoon. Having become ugly with seven highballs, Lockhorn raves strangely, asking the reporter if he has noticed that he is a “maniac” and telling him that he is the “loneliest” man in the United States. His anger is directed partly at his previous wives and partly at himself, as a writer who offers “spiritual hope” when there is none. His latest novel with the very Jamesian title The Flaw in the Crystal, which prompts the reporter's visit, has received unfavorable reviews, very likely because it lacks conviction.
But Lockhorn's morose state does not seem due to the unfavorable reviews, as his wife, attempting to smooth over the situation, claims. His bitter inner disturbance and alienation are the truths of his life that in his novels he has attempted to evade. In the earlier stories on Jamesian themes, Thurber portrayed narrators who, seeking access to the sanctuary of art, are betrayed by their guides; but in “The Interview” the guide-betrayer is James himself. Through Lockhorn, Thurber intimates that even in James art is a compensation for a failure of fulfillment in love and personal relationships. From his college years onward, Thurber was fascinated by James, by his psychological fineness and moral elevation. An idealistic strain existed in Thurber himself, an idealism longed for and partly believed in but always proving elusive and out of reach, thwarted by an incoherence in himself and in life. His series of stories on Jamesian themes of artists and writers are a kind of confrontation between Thurber and the admired James, with Thurber rejecting James as a false guide who can provide no escape from ugliness, isolation, and suffering.
“Something to Say,” “A Final Note on Chanda Bell,” and “The Interview” are not among Thurber's most successful stories, and might even be considered aberrations. Yet they do comment on Thurber's stories as a whole. A series of early stories, such as “Menaces in May” and “One Is a Wanderer,” portray men having an autobiographical dimension who cannot handle personal-sexual relationships with women, and by the end, in their tremendous sense of isolation, become cries of pain. In the later Jamesian stories, art proves no redemption from inner suffering and incoherence, and the cry of a painful alienation can be heard in them again. In between these earlier and later stories are tales of a great many different kinds. Yet all have in common a sense of the distance between people, of life as a mystery that yields no answers and offers no security to the individual whose fate it is to be alone, to be among the estranged ones.
Quoted in Morsberger, 158.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
SOURCE: “The Secret Sin of Walter Mitty,” in Studies In Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 608–10.
[In this essay, Cheatham explores the function of sin, death, and judgment in the fantasies of Thurber's character Walter Mitty.]
Serious matters, we now know, bubble and boil beneath the cleverly humorous surface of James Thurber's “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” But how much gravity can we ladle from this once-supposed thin broth? Can we possibly infer sin, death, and judgment? Perhaps.
Anne Ferguson Mann moves any interpretation of “Walter Mitty” in a transcendental direction with her description of Mrs. Mitty as an Eve figure, an enabler-scapegoat who makes possible her husband's daydreaming. After citing Richard Tobias's identification of Walter Mitty with the “mind” and Mrs. Mitty with the “body,” Mann says:
What Walter Mitty would ultimately reject is his physical being, half of what it means to be human. Such an attempt is one way of trying to deny mortality. Unable to do this, Mitty looks for an explanation for the uncomfortable situation in which he finds himself. The explanation that satisfies him is an old one. Mrs. Mitty, another Eve, relegated to the realm of the physical, having less of a mind than her mate, is viewed as the ultimate cause of his predicament when she attempts to secure a more powerful role for herself. Both Eve and Mrs. Mitty can and do serve the paradoxical role of helpmate-scapegoat, and both are attempts by the male to account for the problem of mortality.
Although Mann goes on to gloss “the problem of mortality” rather mundanely as “all life's problems” (356), the former phrase's ultimate sense also seems pertinent to Thurber's story. For as Mann first suggests, then seems to withdraw, Mitty seeks something other, something more, than just the freedom to daydream. Rather Mitty seeks freedom through his daydreams. That is, in his daydreams Mitty seeks not just freedom “from the petty details of living” (356), as Mann infers, but freedom from mortality itself, from death. In a word, Mitty seeks transcendence. Enmeshed, however, in their eschatologically charged subtext of sin, death, and judgment, Mitty, paradoxically, becomes increasingly constrained by his fantasies.
Mitty's first fantasy, for example, reveals the transcendental nature of the freedom he seeks. In the huge hurtling Navy hydroplane, Mitty would, of course, escape the storm and all it represents, most obviously his nagging wife and their stormy relationship (Blythe and Sweet 111). Less obviously, however, he would escape all constraints, all human limitations: such as those of physics, meteorology, and probability, as the extravagant but incredible details of the fantasy evidence, and, ultimately, those of death and judgment—“The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!” (47). Mitty would break through the constraining barrier which delimits sublunary, merely human, reality—“We're going through!” (47)—to achieve not just a heroic life without his wife but some sort of ideal, transcendental existence.
Fantasies #2 and #4 further delineate Mitty's obvious desire to escape death, while #3 and #5 reveal his complementary fear of judgment. And all five fantasies, of course, are infernally weighted. Dr. Mitty in #2 would almost miraculously resurrect banker McMillan from the devil's apparent grip; and Captain Mitty in #4, where Thurber most fully articulates his hellish subtext, would fly forty kilometers through hell to stop the already hellish barrage, while the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the new flame-throwers” (51) retrojects the menace of hell-fire into the earlier fantasies.
Fantasy #3, meanwhile, portrays Mitty apparently on trial for his life, charged with murder. His guilt or innocence remains problematic, but significantly with his confession of possible guilt—“I could have killed …” (50)—pandemonium, the threatened hell of the death fantasies, manifests itself in the courtroom. And in fantasy #5 judgment has been rendered; Mitty is sentenced to death—“To hell with the handkerchief” (51).
Of course Mitty's daily existence as a henpecked wimp is an unpleasant one, a sort of figurative hell from which he attempts to escape through fantastically exaggerated daydreams. Taken together, however, the fantasies offer an eschatologically patterned subtext of true Hell. His apparent guilt for an undetermined but undeniable crime recalls the doctrine of original sin, thus lending a puritanical tinge to the death which momently threatens and eventually, apparently, overtakes the struggling Mitty. The mocking irony of the story's final line underscores his failing: “Then … he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (51). It's not his wife who dooms him but his own perverse isolation. Refusing the aid of other human beings, both in his life and in his dreams, insisting on saving himself, Mitty denies both others' humanity and, ultimately, his own. Recalling a Hawthornesque character imprisoned in the isolation of his own dark heart, Mitty remains paradoxically trapped in his vainly heroic fantasies, his self-obsessed attempts at transcendence ironically dooming him to death, judgment, and—by inference—Hell.
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Coitus Interruptis: Sexual Symbolism in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”’ Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 110–13.
Mann, Anne Ferguson. “Taking Care of Walter Mitty.” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 351–57.
Thurber, James. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The Thurber Carnival. New York: Modern Library, 1957, 47–51.
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SOURCE: “‘Things Close In’: Dissolution and Misanthropy in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 93–104.
[In the following essay, Kaufman notes that below the surface of Thurber's “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” lies an increasing preoccupation with fantasy life and rejection of reality.]
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is quite possibly the best known American short story. “Walter Mitty” as a character type has penetrated the popular imagination: we speak of a person inclined to day dreaming as a “Walter Mitty.” Mitty, by consensus, represents the American little man, comfortably suburban, but bored to death with a middle-class, middlebrow life. Clearly his life is severely conventional, and it is obvious that Thurber is suggesting that American middle-class life offers little in the way of opportunities for romance, heroism, “a life full of passion, poetry, and hate,” as a song written eight years before “Mitty,” “As Time Goes By,” puts it. The story has become folksy—Mitty is seen as endearing, the amiable little man, who dreams his dreams like all of us, and who triumphs in his dreams over the dull, gray world of suburban (and for that matter urban) America. The feature film made of the story in 1949 presents him thus; and two generations have seen him as a character rather like Dagwood Bumstead: the American middle-class everyman, presented to us with a wry but friendly smile.
But the story itself, and the story when set within the context of Thurber's life and career, can be read quite differently and, I think, in terms truer to Thurber's comic imagination. Mitty's rejection and withdrawal from the world are more radical than can be denoted by the idea of “daydreaming.” In fact, we witness the descent of Mitty into ever increasing preoccupation with his fantasy life and increasing rejection of the so-called real world. His withdrawal is symptomatic not of mild-mannered exasperation with a trivial world, but of anger and misanthropy.
Although the story is charming, critics have not done justice to what lies below its surface laughter: clearly Mitty is gradually withdrawing into his daydreams, into an interior reality progressively stronger and more satisfying. The so-called real world becomes increasingly distant and unavailable for Mitty: “things close in.” A note of unjustified critical optimism is found, for example, in the introduction to the story in a popular anthology of short stories: The editors suggest that Walter Mitty “is a changing character,” in the process of change. In his own way, he is coming to grips “with the real world.”1 This is misleading. Yes, Mitty is in the process of change, but it is to misanthropy, withdrawal, and final dissolution. Mitty's feelings of insignificance, his awareness of his own negligibility, his bitterness towards the world, lead him to covert aggression which must be expressed indirectly, or in a hidden manner.
Thurber himself made claims for the essential seriousness of his stories: “In anything funny you write that isn't close to serious you've missed something along the line.”2 The most powerful claim for the seriousness of Thurber's humor came from T. S. Eliot, who called Thurber his favorite humorist and said:
It is a form of humor which is also a way of saying something serious. There is a criticism of life at the bottom of it. It is serious and even somber. Unlike so much of humor, it is not merely a criticism of manners—that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment—but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to.3
This is well illustrated in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” where the daydreams are seen not merely as momentary escapes from a dull reality into exciting fantasy, but also as an index to Mitty's anger, desperation, and willingness to escape permanently into the more satisfying dream world of his imagination. In his interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele, Thurber remarked that in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” he had “tried to treat the remarkable as commonplace.”4 What is finally remarkable are not the little man's dreams of glory, but what they say about him, about his mental situation.
Bored and suffering from feelings of inadequacy, Mitty compensates and defends himself through fantasies. Within the fantasies there is an element of revenge: against his wife, who is replaced by the lovely dark-haired girl of the courtroom drama; against Dr. Renshaw, who in the operating room fantasy becomes distraught and haggard; against the many petty authority figures that surround and scrutinize Mitty, watchful for signs of deviant behavior. Seemingly his only defense against the scrutiny and tyranny of the world, the fantasies are entirely humorless from Mitty's perspective; Mitty does not use them as a mockery of the real world, but as a means of escape.
That the fantasies are risible in themselves is obvious: they derive from period Hollywood films and popular fiction and are manifestations of the mass American culture that has formed Mitty but not sustained him. Mitty's fantasies may reveal a longing for the heroic, but much of the delight of the story comes from our perception of how formulaic, superficial, and false to life they really are. Thurber has great fun with the conventional situations and dialogue of popular movies and fiction. The point is that the little man dreams the little man's fantasies—he is not creative enough, not sufficiently individual enough to create his own—and in that sense he is representative of the American middle-class everyman: someone more singular would have more singular fantasies. Given Thurber's constant privileging of the creative imagination in his fiction, the comedy must be directed at Mitty, a middle American devoid of creative imagination, who must take even his inner life from pop fiction and the moviemills of Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner. Thurber's satire is thus directed partly at the thinness of popular art as well as its product, Walter Mitty.
Thurber had ambivalent feelings about American popular art; he seems to have relished such entertainments, and at the same time to have been contemptuous of them.5 This may be sensed in Mitty's fantasies: hilariously familiar and predictable, they are the prime source of the story's laughter, and it seems clear that Thurber had some affection for the tinpot dramas of Hollywood. Clearly Mitty's fantasies are cardboard, predictable, synthetic; one need only compare them to the glorious fantasy of the man who sees a unicorn in the garden to see a contrast between a creative (although deluded) imagination, and the reliance of the dull little man, Mitty, on pasteboard fantasies. In Thurber's earlier “Unicorn in the Garden,” the fantasy is unique; and as the figure of the unicorn suggests, rich and strange. Here the little man is opposed by his dominant, hostile wife, but triumphs over her, first through his experience of the beauty and rarity of his vision, and second through his wit in denying his vision. Mitty's fantasies are comic-book stuff—the humor in them is not his, but that of his creator, Thurber, who parodies the formulaic and cliche-ridden format to perfection.
There are thus strong limits on our ability to sympathize with Mitty. The thinness, the prefabricated quality of the fantasies, are hardly seen as superior to the real world, but as childish and badly made.6 Moreover, he accepts passively the absurdity of the popular movies and fiction; lacking a critical sense, he passively lives out in his fantasies the nonsense of bad art. This latter is important, for Thurber suggests here the insidious and subversive quality of popular culture—all-pervasive, ever present, attacking us from many strong sources: movies, fiction, radio (and of course even more so today through television). Mitty is the product of this culture: passive, withdrawn, resentful, anxious. Defeated by life, damaged in self-esteem, he is a receptive target for the fantasies of the group mind.
Mitty, representative of a certain social condition, has a dreadful choice: the real world, Waterbury, known for the manufacture of clocks, and thus suggestive of the routinized, quotidian life, or the fantasy world supplied him by incompetent and venal “artists” through the agency of highly competent distributors like Goldwyn and Warner, advertising people, radio executives, and so on. In short, Mitty can choose the pointless and unsatisfying tick-tock of everyday life, or the sound and fury of popular culture. Mitty shuttles between the two worlds, drawn from one to the other largely through chance and opportunity: a newsboy's cry draws him into the world of courtroom drama; the fantasy is interrupted by a chance remark of a passerby. Mitty feels himself under scrutiny: his wife, Dr. Renshaw, the passerby, the traffic cop, the parking lot attendant, all watch him, ready to note his deviance, his incompetence, his withdrawal.
The degradation and humiliation that lead eventually to his dissolution, the dissolving of his already tenuous identity, are represented by the inglorious parcels he carries through the streets of Waterbury: overshoes and puppy biscuit. In his outward life he is almost inarticulate; Mitty doesn't say anything other than “I was thinking” or “puppy biscuit” or “oh gee.” And the silent little man—his thoughts are inward—doesn't act, except to plod forward on his degrading errands. His resentment of his wife's treatment of him, his own sense of negligibility and feelings of inadequacy, are covert, but there. About to be dismissed by Mrs. Mitty as she leaves the family car (reminding him to wear the hated gloves—“You're not a young man any longer”), Mitty “raced the engine a little.” He takes off the inglorious gloves as soon as he pulls away from her, only to put them back on hurriedly when snapped at by a traffic cop. Later, in the operating room drama they will again appear, transformed into symbols of his competence and authority, as the surgeon's rubber gloves. Near the end of the story, Mitty rebels once more; to Mrs. Mitty's barrage of irritating questions, Walter snaps: “I was thinking … Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” Mrs. Mitty is the foremost and most formidable of the many petty authority-figures Walter must put up with forever: the cop, the parking-lot attendant, the garage mechanic—and of course there are many more offstage. Mitty's plea for some recognition of his inward life, his being, is ignored by his wife as a matter of course. And even the revolving doors of the hotel “made a faintly derisive whistling sound” when Mitty meekly follows his wife from the hotel to the parking lot.
It would be possible to regard Walter Mitty as another example of a thousand henpecked hubbies, the very stuff of popular humor. But the order of the story's events goes beyond simply portraying the little man and his dominant wife. A strong suggestion in the story is that Mitty is slowly withdrawing from life, living more and more in his tinseltown fantasies. This is apparent at the abrupt conclusion of his first daydream, when he is drawn away from his huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy Hydroplane by Mrs. Mitty: “‘Not so fast. You're driving too fast.”’
“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.
It is clear even in this first fantasy that Mitty has withdrawn to the point where his return to reality is shocking, unfamiliar, and unsatisfactory; he returns to everyday life slowly and with regret, “the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.”7
As the story proceeds, we note a pattern of suggestion that he has become strikingly withdrawn; this is apparent to the casual observer as well as Mrs. Mitty: “‘You're tensed up again,’ said Mrs. Mitty: ‘It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”’ The garage attendant looks at him closely; the passerby in the street is amused by the abstracted Mitty, and notes, “that man said ‘puppy biscuit.”’ Near the conclusion Mrs. Mitty looks hard at her husband and says “I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home.” This suggestion of progressive withdrawal is seen in the fantasies and increasingly he becomes preoccupied with loss of control and death. Each successive fantasy places Mitty in greater peril and possessing less control. Yet death is always delayed; before the climax of each fantasy, the dream is intruded upon by the outside world and destroyed.8
In the first fantasy, Commander Mitty, the “Old Man,” guides the eight-engined SN202 at 8500 rpm through a hurricane of ice in full dress uniform. Here, despite the danger and threat of death, Mitty is entirely in control; “the old man ain't afraid of Hell,” the crew knows the Commander will bring them through. In the second, Dr. Mitty is asked to take over the difficult operation on the millionaire banker Wellington McMillan (“and close personal friend of Roosevelt”) who is suffering from “obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary.” Later, we learn the case worsens, “coreopsis has set in.” In both fantasies, Mitty's competence with machines, his grace under pressure, are associated with life—with saving the lives of his crew, then the life of the millionaire banker.9
In the third fantasy, Mitty is no longer entirely in control. On trial for murder, defendant Mitty is badgered by the DA. He remains cool, calmly acknowledging (and thus compromising his defense) that “this is my Webley-Vickers 50.80,” and calms the bickering attorneys by pointing out that he “could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand” (“With any known make of gun”). Mitty now is on the defensive, threatened with imprisonment and death—although we are to assume in accordance with the conventions of pop fiction that Gregory Fitzhurst had it coming and Mitty will be acquitted, vindicated, and rewarded with the “lovely dark-haired girl.”
In the fourth fantasy, RAF Captain Mitty must fly “forty kilometers through hell.” Here, however, the implication is that he may not survive. Captain Mitty's war-weary tragic whimsy is impeccable: forty kilometers through hell? “After all, what isn't”—a line to which Ronald Colman or Richard Burton could do justice. As the sound of the cannon, machine guns (“pocketa-pocketa-pocketa”), and the new flame-throwers grows louder, Mitty, who holds his brandy well and needs to now, turns to the door of the dugout: “He turned and waved to the sergeant. ‘Cheerio!”’ This cheerio may be his last; the situation seems hopeless. The last fantasy shows Mitty the Revolutionary passive, defenseless, on the point of death. Always the hero, he handles his imminent death with stiff upper lip—“To hell with the handkerchief”—but from the rifles of the firing squad there seems to be no escape. And here at the conclusion of the story there is no interruption and return to life—instead, there is the suggestion that Mitty will ultimately withdraw, irrevocably, into his interior world.
The fantasies portray, then, a progressive lack of control: from “the Old Man will get us through” and the hopeful request that Doctor Mitty will save the wealthy patient; to Mitty as defendant, questioned on the stand, warding off the sneering DA; to Captain Mitty going out to face death; and finally, the last fantasy, where the only control he has left is seen in the stiff upper lip. That the fantasies all have to do with loss of control and death seems to indicate his increasing withdrawal from the real world in favor of his fantasies, and his longing for death as the ultimate escape. “Things close in,” says Mitty “vaguely,” sunk in the big leather chair in the lobby, where he has hidden himself. Mitty is gradually withdrawing from an unsatisfactory life to the solace and fulfillment of his dreams.
Certainly we can sympathize with Walter Mitty; like his, our world is made up of traffic cops, garage mechanics, parking lot attendants, and the dulling quest for Kleenex, Squibb's toothpaste, razor blades, “bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative and referendum”—the very rhythm of the mundane life in the Clock City. But Mitty's fantasies, inadequate and shabby, suggest that Mitty himself is the primary target of Thurber's satire. Certainly the story implies a bourgeois America, where opportunities for heroic action are nonexistent, a world of overshoes and puppy biscuit. And Thurber's anger, later in his career to become obsessively misanthropic (with a special vein of misogyny), is clearly present here, as directed primarily toward the officiously mothering wife as well as the surrounding host of petty authority-figures.10
The final lines of the story are ironic. Rather than validate Mitty because we understand that by means of his dreams he conquers the unsatisfactory world, the final lines (“Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last”) diminish and ridicule him. Mitty is all too scrutable: not the amiable little man, conquering the bullying stupid world through his guilelessness, but very much the failure he and the world think him. Even so accomplished a critic as Tobias sees Mitty as one of those Thurber heroes who “can conceive of a larger order than a simple formula.”11 But Mitty's ability to conceive the heroic is negligible; his fantasies are on the order of those dreadful radio adventure shows like “Captain Midnight” that Thurber mocks in the story “Thix.”12 Many critics have seen Mitty's fantasies as a triumph of affirmation. Robert E. Morsberger suggests that through his fantasies Mitty triumphs over a “sense of inadequacy and a nagging wife,” and Charles S. Holmes suggests that in fantasy, Mitty finds “the means to reshape outer defeat into inner victory.” Robert H. Elias maintains that beginning with “Mitty” in 1939, Thurber enters a period of “a humanistic affirmation.”13 Mrs. Mitty stands as an enemy of the imagination, but, says Elias, in the fantasies Mitty achieves a victory, even if qualified, “that contributes to self preservation.” But Mitty's fantasies are hardly works of the creative imagination, rather those of an imagination derivative and sterile. Far from leading to self-preservation, Mitty's fantasies indicate his increasing withdrawal into the silence of his interior life. Thurber's implication is that Mitty and those like him are not the victims of “the world”—unsatisfactory as it may be—but of a fatal passivity, a lack of courage and imagination. Mitty's failure is the failure to accept the world, and live his life in it, even knowing his own unimportance in it. Thurber does not want us to sympathize with Mitty's neurosis, for such a condition is not in itself pitiable or inevitable in modern life. Mitty is an adult; he should use such resources as he has to live out his life.14
That Mitty is made into a comic character by the shabby quality of his fantasies, fantasies understood as the means of withdrawal and covert means of aggression, would seem confirmed by a glance at three analogous stories by Thurber: “The Lady on 142,” “The Catbird Seat,” and “The Curb in the Sky.” The first of these, another story set in wartime, again presents the little man's Hollywood fantasies. Here, while waiting for a local train in rural Connecticut, the protagonist and his wife overhear a chance telephone message from the stationmaster from the train, number 142, from New York. “Conductor Reagan on 142 has the lady the office was asking about.”15 On this slender basis, the little man projects a Hollywood fantasy of spies. He tells his wife he is convinced that the woman on 142 is a spy and that the FBI has hunted her down. His wife dismisses such bizarre stuff, suggesting the alternative that the woman has simply been taken sick on the train. She wittily deflates the little man's fantasy.
The fantasy of spies in Connecticut is made ludicrous, as are the fantasies of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” by its clichéd quality, and the comic appeal is to our recognition of these threadbare formulas of popular movies. The little man of “The Lady on 142” creates through his unoriginal imagination a sappy fantasy, peopled by figures who look too much like characters in a B movie. Although his fantasy is funny, it is not the product of a creative imagination and the conscious mockery of a threadbare entertainment, but a stale recreation of such second-rate stuff.
There is more to be said about this B Film fantasy. The little man falls asleep and his fantasy of espionage continues as a dream. The dream ends with the husband about to be executed—he knows too much—but as in “Mitty,” the dream is interrupted by the outside world before its climax; the little man returns to consciousness. There is a dogged and resentful quality in the little man; awake he holds on to his fantasy tenaciously—it is not private, as is Mitty's; instead he insists upon its reality to his wife and her friend. We are not to see this little man as insane, or progressively withdrawing; awake he is self-consciously projecting a fantasy situation to amuse himself in a boring situation and to once again irritate his wife. They know each other too well; each possesses a laugh known to annoy the other, and clearly they are long-time antagonists. To insist on the absurdity—spies on the clunky little local—is to annoy his spouse in that indirect but effective manner that Thurber's marriage partners use to perfection. The fantasy is a means of aggression.
“Mitty” is further clarified by a second interesting contrast: Thurber's famous story of “The Catbird Seat.” This story portrays the colorless life of the head of the Filing Department at F & S, a seemingly mild-mannered little man whose life is routinized to the point of absurdity. Unlike Mitty however, Martin is supremely happy with his situation: he does not dream of glory; he is entirely fulfilled within the offices of Fitweiler. This satisfaction with the ghastly routine of his life, his satisfaction in the dignity of his position, makes him a figure of fun, as suggested in Mr. Fitweiler's quite serious praise: “Man is fallible but Martin isn't.”16
He, like Mitty, is opposed by a large or large-seeming woman, Mrs. Barrows. She represents a threat to his place, identity and dignity. Everything Ulgine Barrows is threatens Mr. Martin's sense of his world: she is loud, vulgar, incompetent—a circus horse he calls her, and moreover, one with “a quacking voice and braying laugh.” But unlike Mitty, Martin is able, through an odd quirk of imagination, through a bizarre use of fantasy, to oust Mrs. Barrows and regain the serenity of his once threatened position. His fantasy, that he is a drinking, smoking druggie, he plays out to the destruction of his enemy.
This story also begins within the matrix of popular fiction: in this case, the detective story. The little man plots and will execute the perfect crime. This conventional scenario is discarded by Martin midway through its enactment, as he realizes that there is a much better way to destroy Mrs. Barrows. By creating and acting out a fiction, a wild-man persona, he can discredit Mrs. Barrows in the eyes of the Boss. Mr. Martin is aware that he has created a fantasy. Playing it out—“I'll be cooked to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off”—Martin acts to secure his position. That the fantasy is the machinations of a dim, unadventurous little man is part of the joke, but Martin is in a sense admirable; beneath the typical look of studious concentration lurks not Mitty, the passive little man, but the ruthless desperado.17 Here the fantasy is clearly a means of aggression, and is not used as an escape, but to secure Mr. Martin's sense of himself as confirmed in his real life. In both “The Secret Life of Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat,” the little man struggles to maintain a sense of self-value. Martin fights to keep the sense of himself inherent in his position at F & S, which he finds of supreme value; his anger turns outward towards the despicable Ulgine. Mitty attempts to create and sustain some sense of power and value in himself in his increasingly more profound withdrawal into fantasy; his anger turns inward and becomes sterile. Martin creates and acts; his unoriginal detective story compromises our estimation of his imagination, but his spontaneous ability to create a marvelous trick to oust his antagonist makes his triumph admirable.
A story less well known perhaps, but one of Thurber's best and one that is illuminating in its parallels to “Mitty,” is “The Curb in the Sky.”18 Here Charlie Deshler, dashing, widely traveled, and experienced, a great story teller—just the opposite of Mitty—is reduced to despair and finally incarceration in a mental hospital by his wife, a perky, vivacious woman with the annoying, indeed infuriating, habit of finishing people's sentences for them. Charlie's friends look on with resignation as he, characteristically impetuous, marries Dorothy; they know that the outcome will be Charlie's decline and fall. She begins to interrupts his favorite stories, correcting them, and finally taking over and telling the story herself. Charlie realizes what is happening to him, and after two years of this begins to defend himself by recounting to his guests one of his own dreams, knowing that his wife cannot correct and preempt these flights of a singular imagination. His fantasies are to save his sanity: “They became the only life he had that was his own” (p. 79).
He tells a bizarre dream of his flight to the moon in an airplane “made out of telephone wires and pieces of old leather.” He is stopped by “a man who looked like Santa Claus, only he was dressed in the uniform of a customs officer.” This figure tells Charlie that “‘you can't go to the moon, if you are the man who invented these wedding cookies.’ Then he showed me a cookie made in the shape of a man and woman being married—little images of a man and a woman and a minister, made of dough and fastened firmly to a round, crisp cookie base” (p. 79).
But Charlie's device is futile; the narrator tells us that “any psychiatrist will tell you that at the end of the way Charlie was going lies madness in the form of monomania. You can't live in a fantastic dream world, night in and night out and then day in and day out, and remain sane. The substance began to die slowly out of Charlie's life, and he began to live entirely in shadow” (p. 79). Worn and desperate, Charlie begins to tell obsessively this one story of the interrupted flight to the moon over and over, and after a month or two, “Charlie finally had to be sent to an asylum.” Apart from Dorothy, Charlie seems to improve, but when the narrator visits Charlie in the asylum, he finds Dorothy seated beside her husband's bed, “bright-eyed and eager.” “I was somehow surprised to see her there, having figured that Charlie had, at least, won sanctuary from his wife. He looked quite mad” (p. 80). Charlie tells his story, only to be—inevitably and fatally—interrupted and corrected by his wife. “‘So I pulled over to a curb—’ ‘No. You pulled over to a cloud,’ said Dorothy. ‘There aren't any curbs in the sky. There couldn't be. You pulled over to a cloud”’ (p. 80).
Charlie is finished. The once vital male is reduced to despair and madness. His hope to find room for his imagination and story-telling skills, to dominate and please, is futile. Seemingly concerned and helpful, but effectively domineering and egotistical, the wife triumphs. Fantasy involving hostility toward the wife, obsessive living within fantasy, fantasy leading to withdrawal and passivity, these are analogous to the story of Walter Mitty. The comparison suggests that finally Mitty's fantasies (far less imaginative and creative than Charlie's) will be similarly futile and will lead finally to a similar fate.
Although “The Lady on 142,” The Catbird Seat,” and “The Curb in the Sky” are delightful stories, “Mitty” appears to be the more profound: the secret inner life, a defensive and aggressive tactic at the same time, the suggestion of Mitty's universality, but also of his progressive dissolution and increasing awareness of death, carry the story beyond the others. The mockery of the impoverished imagination formed by an inadequate culture, and the failure of Mitty's will to act, cause Mitty to be more memorable than the protagonists of the other stories. Mitty is not simply the little man, representative of our desire to dream of glory in reaction to a dull world, but suggestive of a situation far more troublesome: one may see in Mitty misanthropy—his disgust with the banality of his everyday life is unbearable. Traditionally, the misanthrope figure withdraws: Timon of Athens to the wilderness; Gulliver to his stable; Alceste of Le Misanthrope to the “desert,” in three classic versions. Mitty is no less a misanthropist; his disgust and bitterness emerge again and again in lines of fantasy dialogue: “‘It's forty kilometers through hell, sir,’ said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. ‘After all,’ he said softly ‘what isn't?”’ But he is the misanthrope demystified and made middle-class; obviously the suburban man can neither imagine nor afford the drama of a retreat into the wilderness. Mitty's retreat is inward, to the remote, intimate airways of his mind.
Elliott L. Smith and Andrew W. Hart, eds., The Short Story: A Contemporary Looking Glass (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 48.
George Plimpton and Max Steele, “James Thurber,” in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Viking, 1958), p. 95.
Quoted in Burton Bernstein, Thurber: A Biography (New York: Arbor House, 1975), p. 361n.
Plimpton and Steele, p. 96.
Richard C. Tobias points out that “the comic writer … relies upon stereotypes and clichés of our everyday world. Thurber exploits types and ideas of second-rate movies. All of the imposters in the new pieces in The Thurber Carnival have walked off the stage of drawing room comedies, spy movies, detective stories, or folk dramas into Thurber's comic world.” See The Art of James Thurber (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1969), p. 91.
“The Unicorn in the Garden,” in Fables for Our Time (New York: Harper & Bros, 1940), pp. 65–66.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” in The Thurber Carnival (New York: Harper & Row, 1945), pp. 47–48.
Compare “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” The analogy of Mitty with Eliot's Prufrock was apparently first noticed by Peter De Vries, then editor of Poetry magazine.
Thurber deliberately plants “errors” within Mitty's fantasies: his reference in the courtroom fantasy to a non-existent pistol, the odd, nonsensical names of medical conditions in the hospital drama, and so on. These mistakes spoof the meretricious craft of Hollywood, of course, along with Mitty's uncritical absorption of such nonsense.
I quarrel with Stephen A. Black's suggestion that the more Mitty depends on the escape provided by his fantasies, “the less possibility there is of his confronting his real problems—problems with which he could perhaps learn to deal effectively.” See James Thurber: His Masquerades (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1970), pp. 42–43. Perhaps; but the good advice seems irrelevant. If Mitty's distant forebear, Hamlet, consulted a therapist, and ceased to moon about Elsinore, perhaps he wouldn't have got into the trouble he did.
Tobias, p. 101. For Thurber's terrible anger and misanthropy near the end of his life, see Bernstein, Chapter 19. It is curious and provocative that in his last, terrible year, Thurber formed the notion of having The New Yorker, with which he was at war, print as his obituary “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Did he find in his story, published years earlier, a forecast of his final anger and thus an appropriate final statement? Certainly it suggests that he found in Walter Mitty an echo of what he himself was, early and late in his life.
In The Beast in Me and Other Animals (New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1948), pp. 42–50.
Robert E. Morsberger, James Thurber (New York: Twayne, 1964), p. 44; Charles S. Holmes, “Introduction,” Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. 6; Robert H. Elias, “James Thurber: the Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual,” ASch, 27 (1958), 361.
Thurber's impatience with glamorizing neurosis and his belief that we must accept life on its own terms are discussed by Morsberger, pp. 59ff.
“The Lady on 142,” in The Thurber Carnival, p. 3.
“The Catbird Seat,” in The Thurber Carnival, p. 9.
In a letter to John Lardner, Thurber notes that a certain hero of his “was the toughest guy in the world and the gentlest, and so, I think, are most of us. And that is the figure in the carpet of everything I write, from ‘Walter Mitty’ through ‘The Catbird Seat’ to all the fairy tales” (quoted in Bernstein, p. 467). The characterization applies well to and illuminates Mr. Martin; its application to Mitty seems to me less certain.
In The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1935), pp. 75–80.
Additional coverage of Thurber's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929–1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73–76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 17, 39; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 11, 25, 125; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 11, 22, 102; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, Novelists; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 10; Something About the Author, Vol. 13; St. James Guide to Children's Writers; and St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers.