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.”