James Thurber

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Thurber, James (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thurber, James 1894–1961

Thurber was an American humorist, short story writer, cartoonist, and essayist. With Harold Ross, Thurber contributed much to the style and tone of The New Yorker during its formative years. Thurber's great appeal was his ability to see universal human weaknesses in terms of a precarious balance of tragedy and comedy, bitterness and fantasy.

I am not sure what poetic sensitivity is, but I am practically certain Thurber has got it. Though artists work in different forms there is a contemporary tissue which connects them, and the things they have in common spiritually are greater than the differences among them technically. Thurber has more in common with modern poets than, for instance, he has with any other present-day humorist you might mention.

I do not know whether the critical landlords of Axel's Castle—our customary symbol for Symbolism—list him among the occupants or not, or whether they are aware he is on the premises. It is that house (to call a partial roll) through whose silences can be heard the interminable scratching of the pen of Proust, and the sad sound of his cough. Here Prufrock, lost in the fumes of introspection, lay damned in the late afternoon. From its window Yeats saw the centaur stamp in the black wood, and Joyce labored mightily in its towers. If fancy and the imagination and "subjective" as opposed to "objective" reality is the emphasis we are talking about, then Thurber can certainly be included. The filaments of individual sensibility are seldom more sharply wrought, or more constantly manifest, than in his work. The psychological nuance is rarely more intricately drawn, even in those tidy sketches in which he is reducing it to absurdity. His inner states and private convolutions are, if not as profound, as skillfully projected as any. He may be least of the family—indeed perhaps just a quizzical lodger cutting up in some remote corner of the premises—but this is the address all right.

It is hard to think of anyone who more closely resembles the Prufrock of Eliot than the middle-aged man on the flying trapeze. This preoccupied figure is Prufrock's comic counterpart, not in intensity of course, but in detail. There is, for instance, the same dominating sense of Predicament. The same painful and fastidious self-inventory, the same detailed anxiety; the same immersion in weary minutiae, the same self-disparagement, the same wariness of the evening's company. And the same fear, in summary, that someone—in Thurber's case a brash halfback or maybe even a woman—will "drop a question on his plate." (pp. 37-8)

Poetry is where you find it, and I find it in The Black Magic of Barney Haller, one of the best of those exquisite little sketches which see more drafts than many poems. You will remember it as the account of the caretaker whom storms follow home, whom Thurber suspects of trafficking with the devil and exorcises by incantations of Frost and Lewis Carroll. (p. 39)

The woman satirized in The Portrait of a Lady was trite, but she was alive and certainly operating conversationally, and the women lampooned in Thurber are alive and operating too, at their worst when they are a little too much like the preoccupied men (like the woman who came up and announced to the man shrinking in the chair: "I have a neurosis"), at their best possessing a certain virility lacking in the male. They perch confidently on the arms of sofas, drag their men to bridge parties, drive cars well, are in the embalming game. The male is on the wane, corroded with introspection, deflated by all his own inefficient efficiency, without "strength to force the moment to its crisis," his love lyric in desuetude. There is a sketch in which Thurber does not want to go some place—out some place, perhaps a bridge party or something like that—and he says he would rather stay home. "That's the place for a man to be anyhow—home." It is not a long step from there to: "A man's place is in the home," a generalization...

(The entire section is 15,807 words.)