James Thurber Thurber, James - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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

Manfred Triesch (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Charles E. May (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.”...

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St. George Tucker Arnold, Jr. (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert Secor (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert Emmet Long (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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George Cheatham (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Kaufman (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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