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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...
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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 feminists of the hour might like to adopt as a battle cry. (pp. 39-40)
"The poet of The Waste Land," writes Edmund Wilson, "is living half the time in the real world of contemporary London and half the time in the haunted wilderness of medieval legend." Thurber too is half the time God knows where. "One's head may be stored with literature but the heroic prelude of the Elizabethans has ironic echoes in modern London streets and modern London drawing rooms." Reality in Thurber undergoes filterings and transmutations as curious and as abrupt…. Confronted by details, moments, of that dull environment with which he is long weary of coping, he contrives his own little substitutions, and his transformer is always at work altering, to suit his fancy, the currents of experience…. "The kingdom of the partly blind," he assures us, jesting of his affliction, "is a little like Oz, a little like Wonderland, a little like Poictesme." He never drives alone at night "out of fear that I might turn up at the portals of some mystical monastery and never return." He has but to do that, and the parallel with Eliot is complete. (pp. 41-2)
I referred, with rather loose whimsicality I suppose, to Thurber as jester in Axel's Castle, and his work may be a rivulet running "individual sensiblity" off into a kind of reductio ad absurdum—not that some of the serious exponents of Symbolism haven't already done so. But whatever the excesses of Symbolism may have been, it has not only made a notable contribution to modern literature but by its emphasis on subjective experience has helped us to a richer idea of what "reality" is. Just as poetry and profit are where you find them, reality is what you make it. The angle of refraction according to the perceiving psyche is always there, and the individual's extracting from the world around him constitutes an experience that is itself a reality; a point which modern artists have been trying to make for over a generation. (p. 42)
Peter De Vries, "James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock" (originally published in Without a Stitch in Time, by Peter De Vries; copyright 1943 by Peter De Vries), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 37-43.
[Thurber's] effort through most of a long career has been to write lucid, correct, and expensively simple English.
I would hesitate to say that his prose is the best now being written in this country. Other things being equal, the best prose would be that which was most effective in presenting the boldest subjects. Except in his fables, where he can touch them lightly, Thurber has always avoided bold subjects like war and revolution, love and death; he prefers to write about the domestic confusions of people whose sedentary lives are not too different from his own. It isn't a very complicated society that he presents, or one with a rich fabric of inherited values, or one in which men and women are destroyed by their splendid passions. His most ambitious hero is Walter Mitty, who has his visions of glory while buying puppy biscuits. His tragic lover (in "The Evening's at Seven") goes back to a table d'hôte dinner at his hotel and, in token of a shattered life, orders consommé instead of clam chowder.
Comedy is his chosen field, and his range of effects is deliberately limited, but within that range there is nobody who writes better than Thurber, that is, more clearly and flexibly, with a deeper feeling for the genius of the language and the value of words.
He tries never to intone or be solemn. (p. 140)
His loss of vision has had an effect on his style that will be noted by almost every reader of his new fables [Further Fables for Our Time]. All the sound effects have been intensified, as if one sense had developed at the cost of another, and the language is full of onomatopoeia and alliteration. "The caves of ocean bear no gems," one studious lemming reflects as all the others plunge into the water, "but only soggy glub and great gobs of mucky gump." Man tells the dinosaur, in one of the best fables, "You are one of God's moderately amusing early experiments … an excellent example of Jehovah's jejune juvenilia." There are puns too, like "Monstrosity is the behemother of extinction," and there are rhymes not only in the morals but scattered through the text, so that whole passages could be printed as verse.
But this preoccupation with words, with their sound, sense, and arrangement into patterns, has affected more than the style of the fables. It is also transforming the imagination of the author, who seems to be presenting us with a completely verbalized universe. The only conceivable end for the inhabitants of such a universe would be mass suicide resulting from complete verbal confusion; and that is exactly how Thurber pictures them as ending, in the fable about lemmings which also ends the collection.
It seems that a single excited lemming started the exodus by crying "Fire!" when he saw the rising sun. Hundreds followed him toward the ocean, then thousands, each shouting a different message of fear or exultation. "It's a pleasure jaunt!" squeaked an elderly female lemming. "A treasure hunt!" echoed a male who had been up all night; "Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear." His daughter heard only the last word and shouted, "It's a bear! Go it!" Others among the fleeing thousands shouted "Goats!" and "Ghosts!" until there were almost as many different alarms as there were fugitives. Then they all plunged into the seas, and that was the end of the lemmings.
Symbolically it was also the end of mankind as only Thurber could have imagined it: not with a bang, not with a whimper, but in a universal confusion of voices and meanings. (pp. 142-43)
Malcolm Cowley, "Lions and Lemmings, Toads and Tigers" (originally published in The Reporter, XV, December 13, 1956; copyright © 1956 by Malcolm Cowley), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 138-43.
James Thurber's fifteen-year journey from Fables for Our Time (1940) to Further Fables for Our Time has taken him, as it has taken all of us, through a world war, immediate postwar period of hope for peace that has begun to go a little sour in our mouths, the years of the McCarthy ascendancy when fear and distrust were served up with our breakfast coffee, into the present moment [note, though, that this essay was written in 1957] when social conformity has become such a force that even the anti-conformists appear to be conforming. Thurber's own steps through these times have been further darkened by the gradual loss of his sight. The new fables are quite plainly marked with the national and personal uneasiness that these years represent. They are harsher and more bitter than the early fables without succumbing to a facile or fashionable despair; they are richer, wiser, more serious, and, by comparison, the early fables now seem flip and a little smart-alecky. (p. 144)
The somber streaks that run with the laughter in the new fables are not completely new to Thurber, not a sudden reversal or discovery, not the unveiling of a new man. Thurber said in an interview…, "It's very hard to divorce humor from other things in life. Humor is the other side of tragedy. Humor is a serious thing." Humor has always been serious for Thurber. Back in 1929, E. B. White wrote a mock serious explanation of Thurber's drawing, which appeared at the end of their Is Sex Necessary? Although White's note kids the pretentiousness of critical over-elaboration, just as the book kids the terrible solemnity of all sex books, his remarks cannot escape being touched with truth. "When one studies the drawings," White writes, "it soon becomes apparent that a strong undercurrent of grief runs through them." (pp. 145-46)
Thurber's relationship to politics has never been an overt one, yet a political climate informs all his later work, either directly or by implication. (p. 146)
Until [Further Fables] appeared, however, Thurber's war and post-war work had been admittedly a kind of escape from a world that was becoming increasingly difficult to face. The escape took two paths, one into the fantasy of children's books, the other into memory. The escapes were as profitable to readers as they were to Thurber, who has come back strangely strong, for without them we would not have had The Thirteen Clocks and The Thurber Album. Thurber turned first to children's books in 1943 with Many Moons and then passed through The Great Quillow and The White Deer to The Thirteen Clocks, which is, by any standard, one of the best books that he has ever written. Still, it is significant that Thurber should feel the need to say in the Foreword to that book that it is the result of "escapism and self-indulgence" and to add, "Unless modern Man wanders down these byways occasionally, I do not see how he can hope to preserve his sanity." The Thurber Album, the collection of profiles of relatives and friends from an earlier and seemingly solider Ohio, was also a "kind of an escape," as he said. (p. 147)
[The] strength of Further Fables lies in more than a balance of word music against a harsh and sometimes angry view of the world, seen through darkness darkly. It lies in a kind of faith that pervades the whole work, even at its saddest. The opening fable, "The Sea and the Shore," finds some amorphous water creatures crawling toward the undergrowth on land, life in its beginnings; the last fable, "The Shore and the Sea," finds the lemmings, panicked by misunderstanding, in a headlong race to destruction. These two fables would seem to round out not only Thurber's book, but the story of man, to hint at hopelessness. The moral, "All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why," however, contains the possibility of finding out, or at least the desirability of finding out. The scholarly lemming in the fable, the one who does not run, "shook his head sorrowfully, tore up what he had written through the years about his species, and started his studies all over again." But he did start again. The moral of "The Turtle Who Conquered Time" asks sadly, "Oh, why should the shattermyth have to be a crumplehope and a dampenglee?" There is some quality in these fables, and Thurber knows it because he put it there, that insists that the shattermyth can be something quite different from a crumplehope. (p. 149)
Gerald Weales, "Thurber's Fifteen-Year Journey" (originally published under a different title in The Commonweal, IV, January 18, 1957; copyright © 1957 by The Commonweal), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 144-49.
For more than a generation James Thurber has been writing stories, an impressive number of them as well shaped as the most finely wrought pieces of Henry James, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, as sensitively worded as the most discriminatingly written prose of H. L. Mencken, Westbrook Pegler and J. D. Salinger, and as penetrating—especially during what we can call his "major phase"—as the most pointed insights of those two large poets of our century, E. A. Robinson and Robert Frost. (p. 87)
[Amongst] our living writers [this essay was written in 1958] he is virtually our only creator of serious comedy and one of the few humanists who can make an affirmation without either a chip or a Christ symbol on his shoulder. Indeed, in Thurber's prose the individual is best off when freed of all the paraphernalia of systems, whether mechanical, social, literary or just plain transcendental….
Thurber's protagonists, usually but not always men,… are engaged in self-preservation—struggling to keep inviolate the realms of chance, individuality, reflection and purpose, which give the will substance to work with and freedom occasion for exercise. The self, as Thurber shows, is in danger of extinction when persons are driven inward until society becomes impossible, or forced outward until there is no residue to socialize. The most interesting aspect of Thurber's artistic development is in terms of his search for a place where the individual can finally reside—or preside.
Since almost the beginning of his career as a story writer Thurber has insisted that the menace to the individual lurks in the world of man-made systems, whether mechanical or mental, and that the promise waits in the uncircumscribed realms of instinct and the imagination. (p. 88)
If anyone doubts the character of Thurber's affirmation, My Life and Hard Times (1933) should dissipate the doubt at once. Although Thurber writes mainly about the decade preceding the First World War, one is scarcely aware that the past may have been sought by the writer as escape. The positive value of being at odds with the facts of a commonplace world is what dominates the book. (p. 90)
[An] older generation's oddities, however delightful, cannot adequately enable a responsible person to come to terms with himself in the present. (p. 91)
The older generation had a vigorous humanity that encompassed their oddities, but the Bidwells and Winships [in "The Private Life of Mr. Bidwell" and "The Breaking Up of the Winships," respectively], and others who might be listed, unhappily illustrate all that the phrase "the modern temper" has come to signify. Here is dehumanization in action. Persons have no resources beyond their rituals and their nerves, or their reflexes. Society becomes the graveyard of individuality, and it is the man with ordinary feeling and simple compassion who would appear eccentric in his ability to forsake detachment in the face of another's pain. The old centers do not hold. Men and women are being flung apart, atomized. The very thing that would hold them together—conformity—is the one thing that takes no account of them as persons. In short, what makes old-fashioned eccentricity alone no answer is that in Thurber's time its corollary may well be loneliness: it may be loneliness when society itself is a mere form rather than a place for persons to exhibit what distinguishes one from another. If in My Life and Hard Times misunderstandings are funny, in the later stories they border on the tragic. And the worst aspect of it is that men and women, scarcely unconventional, fail to examine their habits and complacently spin along the disturbed orbit to disaster. The automatic response has superseded the purposeful commitment. Abstraction takes the place of experience, and class names obliterate the self. Persons have become indistinguishable from the little quanta that spot film plates. Appropriately, Thurber declares their isolation a sad rather than glad plight. Indeed, even if they were reflective people they would be defeated, for they would retire from a tawdry world into a hotel room, or seek a box to hide in.
Thurber, though, is clearly no misanthrope. One always feels that something worth recovering has been defeated; hence that recovery of this something is still a good. Man is not necessarily all destruction, but he is so unless—. This unless—is what distinguishes Thurber's preoccupation from 1939 onward. (pp. 93-4)
[Human] needs clearly require a sense of what Thoreau called "the infinite state of our relations." The human being is lost when he loses his sense of his limitation, his mortality; when he equates the private with the absolute. Emerson could preach self-reliance because he had the oversoul in the offing; but Thurber's society has ignored the relationship and thereby denied both the self and the context for its being. Our only morality is embodied in our clichés. Heed their purveyors and be saved. The Last Flower, a Parable in Pictures (1939) and Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) remind us how suicidal unself-critical man can be. The acceptance of empty forms is not only frustrating; it is utterly catastrophic. The Last Flower exhibits the disastrous course of human habits, the way men and women forget that their source and inspiration lie in what we may term nature—and the way that this forgetting allows mankind to become pretentious, arrogant and, finally, fatally warlike. The last, the best, the only hope is of earth itself: it is lodged in the natural cycle, the regenerative power of nature whose lone flower will seek invincibly to bloom again. The Fables makes this point in another way. (pp. 94-5)
The sense of relation that humanity needs is, thus, a sense of a saving connection with a primary spirit, something elemental that civilization disclaims at its peril. To disclaim this something is ultimately to deny the whole self. It is nothing less than this truth that Thurber and Elliott Nugent show Professor Tommy Turner in The Male Animal (1940)…. But the lesson is not simply to affirm the nakedly primitive. (Compare William Inge's Picnic and some of Tennessee Williams' plays.) Turner is, after all, always the embodiment of thought and imagination, the man capable of asserting the freedom to think as one will; the memorable drinking scene even underscores this, for were he to come to his illumination in a moment of sober reflection the words of the lesson would be left with only their face value, but instead, the hilarity of the occasion is part of the argument…. It is analysis without feeling, without passionate commitment, that is condemned…. What the play finally argues, then, is that the good life lies in recovering a certain principle of action, in establishing a source for responses that can make those responses trustworthy. Over-refinement and intellectualism can reduce persons to a level on which their problems are capable of solution by tranquilizers. The fact is, Thurber states elsewhere, "that the bare foot of Man has been too long away from the living earth, that … [Man] has been too busy with the construction of engines, which are, of all the things on earth, the farthest removed from the shape and intention of nature." (pp. 95-6)
By subtly and wittily introducing a modern point of view, Thurber makes clear that the fairy tale is itself something of an act of faith in the innocence and purity that fairy tales usually celebrate. At the same time, the fact of that intrusion also declares that it is a large awareness rather than an immature belief that is at work…. [That] awareness is the property of a mature and humble mind that encompasses the ability to believe quite as much as it does the ability to act. (pp. 96-7)
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" may be said to usher in the major period. As ever, Thurber is trying to find a realm where the individual can maintain his self; and as ever, too, there seems to be no answer without qualifications—an appropriate enough way of assaulting rigid forms. Yet there is ultimately what has already been suggested, a humanistic affirmation. Of course, at no time does Thurber forsake one kind of writing and immerse himself exclusively in another. Although there may be no My Life and Hard Times, there are still instances of great humor, more fairy tales and fables. But most of them are marked by the increasing complexity and depth that are best embodied in such important and challenging masterpieces as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939), "The Whip-Poor-Will" (1941), "The Catbird Seat" (1942), "The Cane in the Corridor" (1943), "A Friend of the Earth" (1949), "Teacher's Pet" (1949) and The Thirteen Clocks (1950). (p. 97)
[The] very use of language is related to the argument in behalf of individuality and the sense of relation. Insofar as perceptions are verbalized, words must be precise, sharp, telling. Whether employing an arresting metaphor or playfully juxtaposing the trite and the fresh, or simply inveighing against jargon, "polysyllabic monstrosititis," Thurber is warring for meaning—and for the only mind for whom that objective can make sense. It is fitting that … The Wonderful O, should argue the value not only of love and hope and valor, but also of freedom; and it is equally fitting that he identifies the threat to freedom with an assault on language, on communication. (p. 99)
The concluding fable [of Further Fables for Our Time] tells of a scholarly lemming who refuses to join his fellow lemmings in their excited exodus to the sea…. [His] studies long ago have told him that there is no devil in the forest or gems in the sea. He simply shakes his head sorrowfully, tears up all he has written about the species, and starts his studies all over again. "All men," the moral reads, "should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why." To attribute to man the ability both so to learn and then to act in consequence is almost to pay him the tribute that painters represent with the halo—almost but not quite—and yet better—because ordinary men are more complex than the saints. (pp. 99-100)
Robert H. Elias, "James Thurber: The Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual" (originally published in The American Scholar, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1958; copyright © 1958 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 87-100.
[Thurber] was both a practitioner of humor and a defender of it. The day he died, I came on a letter from him, dictated to a secretary and signed in pencil with his sightless and enormous "Jim." "Every time is a time for humor," he wrote. "I write humor the way a surgeon operates, because it is a livelihood, because I have a great urge to do it, because many interesting challenges are set up, and because I have the hope it may do some good." Once, I remember, he heard someone say that humor is a shield, not a sword, and it made him mad. He wasn't going to have anyone beating his sword into a shield. That "surgeon," incidentally, is pure Mitty. During his happiest years, Thurber did not write the way a mouse waltzes.
Although he is best known for "Walter Mitty" and "The Male Animal," the book of his I like best is "The Last Flower." In it you will find his faith in the renewal of life, his feeling for the beauty and fragility of life on earth. Like all good writers, he fashioned his own best obituary notice. Nobody else can add to the record, much as he might like to. And of all the flowers, real and figurative, that will find their way to Thurber's last resting place, the one that will remain fresh and wiltproof is the little flower he himself drew, on the last page of that lovely book. (pp. 171-72)
E. B. White, "James Thurber" (originally published in The New Yorker, XXXVII, November 11, 1961; copyright © 1961 The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 171-72.
[Toward] the end Thurber's humor was overwhelmed by puns and dismay.
The puns are understandable. Blindness, in severing language from the seen world of designated things, gives words a tyrannical independence. Milton and Joyce wrung from verbal obsession a special magnificence, and Thurber's late pieces, at their best—for example, "The Tyranny of Trivia," collected in "Lanterns and Lances"—do lead the reader deep into the wonderland of the alphabet and the dictionary. But in such weak rambles as, in this collection, "The Lady from the Land" and "Carpe Noctem, If You Can," logomachic tricks are asked to pass for wit and implausible pun-swapping for human conversation. (p. 150)
Television, psychoanalysis, the Bomb, the deterioration of grammar, the morbidity of contemporary literature—these were just a few of Thurber's terminal pet peeves. The writer who had produced "Fables for Our Time" and "The Last Flower" out of the thirties had become, by the end of the fifties, one more indignant senior citizen penning complaints about the universal decay of virtue. (pp. 150-51)
Of the humorists of this century, he and Don Marquis were the most complex, the most pessimistic and the most ambitious. Thurber, in comparison to Marquis and Benchley, was not especially sensitive to the surface currents of American life, and as a journalist, uncomfortable, and, as a writer of straight fiction, unconvincing.
His great subject, springing from his physical disability, was what might be called the enchantment of misapprehension. His masterpieces, I think, are "My Life and Hard Times" and "The White Deer"—two dissimilar books alike in their beautiful evocation of a fluid chaos where communication is limited to wild, flitting gestures and where humans revolve and collide like glowing planets, lit solely from within, against a cosmic backdrop of gathering dark. Thurber's genius was to make of our despair a humorous fable. It is not surprising that such a gallant feat of equilibrium was not maintained to the end of his life. (pp. 151-152)
John Updike, "Indignations of a Senior Citizen" (originally published in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1962; copyright © 1962 by The New York Times), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 150-52.
In a basic Thurber situation the man and the dog, clutching each other lovingly, are dancing to the radiogram. The savage wife-figure, glaring at them with her arms crossed, says: "Will you be good enough to dance outside?" The assumption is that men are smaller, more helpless and touching, than their galumphing mates; but they also have more wisdom. They alone can see the frightful black beast swooping down on them from the air. In the end they may turn and strangle their womenfolk at restaurant tables (and earn the gentle rebuke from the head waiter: "There's a place for that, sir"); or receive the symbolic baseball-bat of surrender from the Women's General.
The Thurber little man, short-sighted, put-upon creature, bruised and frightened by life, is appealing. The trouble is that he goes not at all with cocktails at the Algonquin; and perhaps the unease with which I early greeted Thurber's work stems from a suspicion that the "little man" may not have seemed entirely true to the author…. Not only was the put-upon little man quite different from the tough, happy and sophisticated artist…, but his sufferings were a standing joke kept up for the readers of the New Yorker—just as the fiction of the unpleasantness of mothers-in-law is preserved for the audiences at holiday camps in Shoeburyness. So the Battle of the Sexes comes to appear part of the Great American dream, something longed for, in those glossy New Yorker pages, but no more substantial than that watch from Cartier's or the nest egg in the Chase National Bank. Perhaps that is why, read in this great bulk [that is, in the collection Vintage Thurber], the humour of Thurber comes to wear so thin. The creators of "Little Men" are ever in a spot. From the heights of Switzerland and his genius Chaplin now speaks of the "Little Fellow" he once was with wistful alienation. In the same way the small, bumbling Thurber innocent came less and less to represent anything his author felt, and resort was had to the whimsy of the fairy-tales, the animals and the Last Flower. And that's why the best pieces are still about Thurber's youth. Better far the nights spent in hilarious insomnia with his parents and his cousin Briggs Beall than those latter-day carouses in the distinguished company of Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis. (pp. 154-55)
John Mortimer, "Insomniac's Companion" (originally published in The New Statesman, LXVII, January 10, 1964; copyright © 1964 by The New Statesman), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 153-55.
In his nonfictional essays Thurber sometimes wears the mask of the same figure who cowers in his fiction, with the minor difference that the Little Man of the essays often writes for a living. As a writer, he may easily be portrayed as a wise fool and sad clown…. Saddened by his own ineptitude and by his encounters with women, psychiatrists, business, bureaucracy, gadgets, and automobiles this persona was further depressed by the disasters of the nineteen-thirties at home and abroad. (p. 287)
[An] orthodox Freudian would see Thurber's Little Man as tormented by the conflict between the unconscious "beast" of sex and the repression of it by the superego, which is shaped and dominated by this man's "civilized" environment. The repressed animal finds its outlet in anxieties, fixations, and obsessions. Basically, society is at fault for repressing rather than channeling the primary urge. (p. 288)
[Some] of Thurber's ideas about sex and personality are not necessarily in conflict with those of Freud. Thurber feels that the male animal is unduly repressed by his environment, an environment which includes another animal, his wife, who both abets and conceals her ruthlessness by means of more resolution, solicitude for her mate, and competence in the small matters of everyday living than he shows. Part of his environment is also a society going mad through a misapplication of technology; so-called neurosis is often merely "a natural caution in a world made up of gadgets that whir and whine and whiz and shriek and sometimes explode." Thurber differs from Freud in ignoring the Oedipus complex, whereas Freud regarded this as the major component of sex. He also differs in feeling that it is futile for man to expect to throw off his repressions or even to sublimate them satisfactorily. The civilized (or repressing and repressed) elements in the Little Man's character and environment often have the same cosmic finality as the natural traits. Thurber's people rarely succeed in changing any aspect of either their surroundings or themselves, and such "adjustment" as the male achieves usually comes only through complete withdrawal, as in the cases of Mitty, and of Grandfather in My Life and Hard Times….
Several of the fables carry a message also found in Is Sex Necessary? and Let Your Mind Alone: namely, the naturalistic theme that man, in trying to act as if he were above his place in nature's order, has muddled himself into disaster…. But since the animal kingdom can match the human race in showing an irrational urge to destroy itself—witness the lemmings—there is little consolation or wisdom to be found in the nonhuman world, except for the courage and tranquillity of certain dogs. (pp. 288-91)
A pessimistic naturalism has thus permeated Thurber's depiction of the Little Man, but in the late nineteen-thirties, as the economic depression persisted and war began to threaten, he began to say things about public affairs that call for classifying his literary double also with the heirs of the Progressive "New Citizen," that is, with the liberals of the thirties and forties and with the active opponents of McCarthyism in the frightened fifties. In the anger of The Last Flower itself one senses—… in Auden's words—"an affirming flame" of zeal and hope which is scarcely consistent with despair, and for over a quarter of a century Thurber was outspoken in his attacks on authoritarianism of both left and right. (pp. 291-92)
Thurber's humor in his last decade shows the same inconsistent mixture of despair and of militancy with its concomitant of hope. In Further Fables for Our Time (1956), one finds some of the older, skeptical pessimism about the human race—see "The Human Being and the Dinosaur"—but one also finds that at least ten out of the forty-seven fables in this book are disguised tracts in defense of free expression. In "The Peacelike Mongoose," an animal of that species is persecuted for his use of "reason and intelligence" by those who cry "Reason is six-sevenths of treason." Two more fables are likewise thrusts at McCarthyism: "The Trial of the Old Watchdog" and "Ivory, Apes, and People," but at least two of these Further Fables are satires of Soviet communism, which Thurber hated as much as he disliked professional Americanism. (pp. 294-95)
Thurber's liberalism resembles that of Day and Benchley in being sharply limited by his middle-class angle of vision. Most of his neurotic males and females are suburbanites with hired "help" and summer cottages; people who earn their living with their hands are among the threats to this white-collar cocktail crowd. Mr. Monroe shrinks before the furniture movers; Walter Mitty is buffaloed by the parking-lot attendant; Mr. Pendly by garage mechanics, and several of Thurber's protagonists by waiters, maids, or butlers…. Oftener than any humorist of note since Bangs, Thurber makes comedy out of "difficult" servants. The maid in The Male Animal is a nineteenth-century stereotype. If their employers are neurotic, Emma Inch, Barney Haller, and several Negro maids are "odd," cross-grained, stupid, or downright psychotic. The servants of the Thurber family in My Life and Hard Times usually seem even more unbalanced than their employers, and in a revealing piece called "A Friend of the Earth," Thurber's alter ego psychologically grapples with Zeph Leggins, a village roustabout, philosopher, and joker who can also be taken as a symbol of the author's rejection of crackerbarrel humor.
Only occasionally are the manual workers shown as mentally healthy, in contrast to the neurotic persons with more money and book-learning….
The point is not that Thurber makes a principle of relating neurosis to social class, but that nearly all manual workers in his writings are seen only from the viewpoint of their employers, and the author does not seem interested in any other viewpoint. When not butts of satire, they are mere foils for his educated, middle-class neurotics. (pp. 295-96)
[A] contradiction remains between the view of man as a helpless bit of animated earth and the view that he can and ought to achieve his freedom and improve his lot. This contradiction is reduced but not resolved by the fact that Thurber's pessimistic determinism appears chiefly in his writings about personal and domestic matters, whereas his belief in free will and freedom crops out mainly in his pieces dealing with social and political topics. Rarely, as in The Male Animal, does he try to fuse the two realms of subject matter and the two philosophies, and when he does try, the result is not convincing either as ideology or as art.
In the work of Benchley one sees a family man and citizen who is seldom victorious and often defeated but who rarely gives up his theoretical hold on certain hard and fast values. In Thurber's writing, this figure is more often driven over the brink to psychosis and separated from any sense of values. The persona who fights the liberal fight for a freedom he refuses to consider dead in theory or in practice is separate and distinct from the beaten-down Little Man. Faced with the dilemma of naturalism—the belief that man is an animal whose character and fate are predetermined by his heredity and his environment—and the contradictory need for some form of belief in free will and morality if one is to live harmoniously among one's fellows or to write humor, Thurber solved the problem no better than did Mencken. Mencken blithely ignored the dilemma; Thurber divided his conception of man and embodied each conception in a separate image inconsistent with the other. (pp. 297-98)
Norris Yates, "James Thurber's Little Man and Liberal Citizen," in his The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (© 1964 by the Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa; reprinted by permission), Iowa State University Press, 1964, pp. 275-98.
What distinguished … [Fables for Our Time from Further Fables for Our Time] was a greater playfulness and the joy of variation he had been patient enough to practice. In the later work, his repetitions and overextensions are technical counterparts of a moral decline and bitterness.
In his extremism he pushes the antiproverbialist and antirhetorical qualities he always had to absolute limits. There is no communication at all possible in the comic misapprehensions of language that he dramatizes. And that leads him to the defeatism figured in the connivance and stupidity of "The Daws" and to the nihilism of his concluding fable, "The Shore and the Sea."
There are still comic attempts at literalism, comic metaphor, and confusionism, to be sure, along with the now obsessive punning. But his disabusement, barely and cannily saved from diatribe by these last comic gestures, is comprehensive and deep—and, at the last, not very funny. (p. 287)
Thurber's last stage represents a retreat from humor. And his irritabilities, his explicitness, his animus, his borderline perversities and grotesqueries, his final hopelessness, and his ingrownness are indices to the whole contemporary epoch, not only to his own career. (p. 288)
Thurber … moved from his attack on certain women, on American women, to an onslaught on women in general and into a war on reality. And in his tightened equation of fantasy with honorific male idiosyncrasy and confusionism, he capitulated not only to a final grandiose oversimplification but to frank neurosis. Comic social criticism is possible on grounds that are more sophisticated and less extreme than that.
But Thurber increasingly withdraws from outer subjects anyway and seeks his comedy in anagrammatical humor and word play…. Almost a generation before, in "Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage" (The Owl in the Attic, 1931), he had sustained exquisite comedy in the grammatical confusions of "who," "which," the correct use of "the subjunctive," etc. But in every case his demonstrations were actually rescued by his supplying the right and unaffected style to employ and a common-sensical tact. That implicit hopefulness disappears and, with it, his capacity for situational and sustained humor along with the verbal confusion. He is led to strained punning, insistent alliteration, or general intellectual gamesmanship in his last stage. "We battle for the word where the very Oedipus of reason crumbles beneath us." He becomes our comic Joyce, likewise degenerating into a fascination with ingrown verbal resources. It is his final refuge. (pp. 288-89)
The strains and grotesqueries of the later Thurber are also apparent in other contemporary authors, in a host of fellow cartoonists, especially those who treat the outré in full abandon, in the efflorescence of sick humor in this period, our own latter-day Baudelaireism, in comic enfeeblements and excesses on the air and on the screen, and in the uncertain position of Jewish humor in this period. If there are exceptions and resurgences, as there clearly are, they appear as yet insufficient to counter the evidence for the decline and even fall of American humor. Such judgment is impersonal and pragmatic. In the material before us corroborations are alternately subtle and notoriously flagrant. (p. 290)
Jesse Bier, in his The Rise and Fall of American Humor (copyright © 1968 by Jesse Bier; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1968.
[Thurber's] work should be called a pleasure dome of the American imagination…. It seems strange that a nation which is eager to praise its own genius has not praised Thurber more, but possibly our ignoring his work merely follows the familiar habit of slighting our genuine man of talent, like Poe [or] Melville, until a foreigner discovers him. I do not think we should wait for a foreigner to find Thurber for us. (pp. 7-8)
His work, to make discussion easier, falls into three natural periods. In a creative period that runs from 1929 to 1961 his work falls into three clusters, one for each decade. The first group, starting with his collaboration Is Sex Necessary? and ending around 1937, develops the comedy of the little man menaced by civilization. In addition to Is Sex Necessary? Thurber published his comic autobiography My Life and Hard Times and three other collections. These essays and sketches, originally written for the New Yorker, are witty excursions into the impossibility of life or heroism because of large women, automobiles, and the flummery of a complicated civilization. Peter De Vries says that in these books Thurber puts into action a comic Prufrock, an epithet which is both appropriate and accurate. The characters never quite dare, and when they do, they are squelched by dogs, psychologists, women, shower faucets and overcoats. These books contain the vintage Thurber; he springs to life full-grown in them without faltering juvenilia. (p. 8)
The Last Flower (1939), a cartoon sequence with a minimum of prose commentary, and Fables for Our Time (1940) inaugurate a second phase of his writing. He refurbishes old themes, probes more deeply into human experience, and tries new methods: in this period he collaborates on a play, discovers the fable from, and writes his children's books. In January, 1940, his play The Male Animal (written with Elliott Nugent) opened for a successful run in New York; for the first time the tart, astringent Thurber dialogue gets a larger framework. His three collections of essays may appear to continue the old habits, but the laughter in them is muted and the stories advance toward a terror that the earlier stories suggested but did not explore. But the most important work in this decade, I am convinced, is to be found in the fairy tales. These stories appear without warning—except as the fables themselves have announced a different direction—but in them he advances his insight and his art. His five tales are the only books that were written to appear without prior magazine publication. Thurber makes no particular claim for these five books (he mentions them only once and then slightingly when he talks about his work), but they seem to me to contain the quintessence of his vision. Although the stories seem to be written for children, they are more rich for an adult mind that catches and enjoys the outrageous tricks played in them upon experience and time. Like Alice in Wonderland, each book is larger than its words seem to indicate. The books of the 1930's show him as an amusing and effective critic of manners and behavior, but these tales show him an interested and acute critic with subjects echoing up and down our own and the general American experience. He works his way through the comic despair of the 1930's to an imaginative reconstruction of experience that explains and comments on that experience. To know Thurber is to know these books, and it is a measure of the unsatisfactory and slight criticism that he has received that no one (with the exception of Edmund Wilson in a review of The White Deer) has had the courage to explore their meaning.
Thurber never abandons his old methods, but he is always developing new ones. Thus he continues to write sketches, fables, and children's stories in the 1950's, but he also discovers a new way to communicate the vision he has learned in the books for children. In The Thurber Album (1952) he returns to the same autobiographical subjects he exploits in his third book, My Life and Hard Times, but he returns to them with the benefit of the insight dramatized in the children's stories. He considers once more the remembered time of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. He pits his remembrance of the past against the fact of mid-century and, in the contrast, the reader intuits, senses, a third possibility that neither accepts all of the past nor rejects all of the present. Thus we discover a golden vision beyond the remembered past and the sad present. The Years with Ross (1959) is similar; it looks back to a heroic time to contrast that past with a disturbing present and to envision a New Found Land. He now writes a comedy of fulfillment; his heroes and heroines are menaced by civilization, as are the heroes of the tales, but they find a way to surmount its obstinate mindlessness, carelessness, and disrespect for intelligence. They live against all odds. The characters act against a debilitated landscape; when they touch a thing, however, "the ugliness, God knows how, goes out of it." And he is convincing.
The writing of the 1930's creates a kind of Inferno, the writing of the 1940's a Purgatorio, and the writing of the 1950's a Paradiso. Of course, the inferno is frenetically gay; the purgatory contains a vision; and the paradise is tinged with so much regret that only the astute reader catches its vision. Further, it is audacious to suggest that a twentieth-century writer has Vision; to describe him that way is a nasty way of condemning him. Visions of paradise are not common, and when tried, they seldom satisfy. The fact remains that these last books do satisfy, and I am astonished that no one yet has shown why. Thurber continued to write his sketches, fables, and stories, and in the most effective of these pieces his anger and his vision (both always potential) are rigidly and thoroughly dressed in what has become a perfect artistic form. He waits now for readers able to see the value in these last examples of his art. (pp. 9-11)
Despite all [his] acid comments about critics and criticism, Thurber's comedy shows a strong underlying awareness of the desperate need for felt understanding. It is not that he is opposed to the intellect's search for understanding. The trouble, as he sees it, is that feeling and understanding may get separated. (p. 12)
Thurber's comedy, like any successful comedy, displays variations on the design—variations that surprise and delight the reader. Surprise and delight are the qualities that give comedy its life and interest; it is impossible to conceive of comedy without them. Comic writers create expectations and then, to our great delight, belie these expectations. In the endings of his stories, Thurber's characters surprise us by celebrating tiny, unnoticed private victories instead of the public marriage and triumphs of older comedy. This variation is significant, for it helps to distinguish the particular pleasure to be discovered in Thurber.
In addition to the basic element of surprise, comedy does five other things. (1) Comedy celebrates the victory of witty man over the obstacles of chance and fortune; it celebrates a vital surge of felt life. Hence our pleasure in the happy ending. Our word comedy comes from the Greek word comos, standing for the marriage hymn that accompanied the bawdy dance at the end of the Greek rite of spring. Thurber's handling of this conventional expectation is not only his most brilliant accomplishment, but also the key to the changing pattern in his comedy. (2) Comedy deliberately encourages us to think about aspects of life that we try to ignore or that society wants us to ignore. It loves to puncture sacred cows. We feel a tension or excitement when a comedian audaciously insults public officials or when he teases us by forays into sex or funerals. If, as Freud suggests, laughter is a release from the tension of society, then the comic writer will deliberately choose subjects to create this tension or excitement. Again Thurber's subjects not only vary from our expectation (in addition to sex, he chooses scientism and efficiency), but also reveal much about his developing power as an artist. (3) Comedy also arises when any law, habit, custom, or quirk is continued beyond what is ordinarily considered as normal or appropriate. We laugh at the repeated "pocketa-pocketa" of Mitty's automobile that is transformed into the "pocketa-pocketa" of an airplane motor because Mitty is stuck in a "humor," rigidly bound to a quirk of his own nature which makes him daydream instead of function according to normal suburban expectations. (4) Comedy occurs when we recognize that an apparent behavior or an apparent truth is not what it seems to be. Disguise is funny the moment we recognize the incongruity between the real man and the appearance of the mask. (5) Comedy praises admirable qualities in society by laughing with them and condemns violations of what is socially appropriate by laughing at them. Thus our laughter at an actor in a strange costume tells him and us to conform to the notions of appropriate dress. When we laugh at a man speaking a dialect, we force him and other dialect speakers to conform to our notion of appropriate language. By giving its successful characters the dress and language considered admirable, comedy enforces admirable social qualities. Thus comedy shapes and modifies its audience, though to what degree it succeeds is difficult to assess. Comic writers frequently speak of their desire to "correct" man's knowledge or behavior. Thurber, for example, says much about improving taste and intelligence. Finally, since the essence of comedy is unpredictability and surprise, each of these actions of comedy that I list must astound us if it is to be genuinely comic. Comedy must do all of these things and yet not seem to do them; it is a difficult and sophisticated art form. (pp. 15-16)
I have two convictions about James Thurber. The first is that his comic form provides him with a perspective to view the confusion of the twentieth century and make it meaningful. The second follows directly: that therefore his form needs serious study. (p. 21)
[Is Sex Necessary? and The Owl in the Attic] are astonishing performances for the beginning of a career. When they succeed, they illustrate the point that comedy at its best grapples with the human condition just as thoroughly as tragedy, satire, or romance…. Later books modulate and develop the ideas—freedom, imprisonment by gadgets and systems, female vitality, illusive meaning—beyond all expectations of our fathers, but it is in the early books that he finds the themes and discovers their validity for the comic view of experience. (pp. 40-1)
Every comedy, when stripped down to its basic essentials, involves only two characters: on one side a young hero (a New King) representing life and freedom and on the other an old man (the Old King) who threatens the hero. The old man represents authority, order, repression, and since he is frequently a liar or a pretender, he is known by the technical name of imposter. When he is overthrown, the hero is awarded a prize, a young lady, and the marriage that ends the comedy signifies the birth of a new society that the young hero has given us a glimpse of. Lesser characters in the drama exist only to heighten the distinction between the hero and the impostor or to bring the struggle to a successful victory for the young man….
Ancient man enacted the ritual of the Old King, associated with the sins and errors of his community during the winter, and a New King, representing the new hopes for life, fertility, and the community's desires for the coming summer. The most ancient comedies are clearly fertility rites, celebrating the god of fertility; they were performed in the spring of the year and they represent mankind's constant hope for rebirth and eternal life. (p. 61)
This pattern of the death of winter and the birth of summer helps us to see what is happening in Thurber's comedy, a comedy written for a civilization that thinks of spring as a season of daffodils and winter as a season when the theater is active and the streets are full of slush. Thurber's comedy is both very much like the ancient ritual and very different. Even his essays, which do not seem dramatic in the ordinary sense of the term, resemble the ancient form. Because his comedies repeat the ancient ritual, they truly impinge on our humanity and enable us to re-enact the basic struggles of civilization. Civilization is the game that we play to act out perennial and serious questions in a distant and removed world of art forms so that we can understand, see, and even appreciate the experience that most of us are too busy to taste and savor. I must compare Thurber's comedy—and … the play [The Male Animal] is the clearest example for comparison—with this primary human drama of rebirth in order to demonstrate the great seriousness of his comedy. The Male Animal concerns primitive and primary qualities of our character. The play is not just a story about an English professor who insists on reading a letter to undergraduates at a large midwestern university; the play says it concerns the need and right of expression against repressive, stupid, powerful forces which will, if they can, kill American society. By comparing the play to the ancient ritual, I am showing how complicated and interesting this well-constructed play is. By comparing the essays to this play, I am showing how much more Thurber accomplishes in the little room of his essays. (pp. 61-2)
The play that Thurber and Nugent wrote is a complicated examination of issues that man has been concerned with as far back as our records go…. Thurber wrote to show how life triumphs over forces which make it a mere formula. He makes what might be old and familiar seem bright and new. (pp. 62-3)
Comic endings range from one extreme in which the comic victory is full and triumphant to an opposite in which the victory is so slight that it may be barely noticeable. The most ironic or bitter comedy is that in which the hero is nearly smothered by his opposition; in the romantic comedy, the victory is so complete that the hero seems to be founding a newly born society with the new life and value that he represents. Comedy ranges from one extreme in which the comic hero's very presence is a kind of lament against society for not allowing this man to live more triumphantly to the other extreme where it is almost a religious vision (recall the Divine Comedy), in which the comic hero redeems the society. The victory may range from a token victory, the mere fact of survival, to the victory that changes and completely reanimates the world in which it takes place. Thurber comes closest to the triumphant comedy in The Male Animal and, much later, in his five fairy tales.
Thurber prefers the bitter. Granting his impostors, I suspect that only small victories are possible. Is there any comic victor in My Life and Hard Times? The mother seems to qualify sometimes; the narrator rarely qualifies since he is nearly inundated in most contests he engages in; Grandfather's saving common sense sometimes qualifies him to near triumphs. Let Your Mind Alone has endings ranging from the very bitter to a point that is still considerably less that the limited victory of The Male Animal. (p. 75)
While Thurber's basic struggle is the same as that in Greek comedy, his contestants wear different clothes and his endings celebrate a life in the mind. I have used the model [of ancient comedy], then, as a heuristic device. Thurber can stand without it, but with it we can see how the artist has played a new song. We still celebrate witty man's struggle with his universe, but we require a new victory. We do not arrange ceremonies to insure that crops will grow, rivers flow, and women bear children; we fertilize our crops, dam our rivers, and seek out gynecologists to study our reproductive organs. Our danger, a more terrifying danger, lies not so much in imponderable forces of weather or reproduction, but in those imponderable forces of our own nature that restrain us from the life that our soul needs. In Thurber the struggle has moved from the universe of natural forces into the universe of the mind. (pp. 79-80)
Thurber laughs, according to [Francis Hackett, in On Judging Books (1947), pp. 29-40], to cover the wound made when society threatens to ridicule Thurberean feeling. Thus, to understand Thurber's comedy we need to know the particular aspects of his personality that make him vulnerable to this potential ridicule. The argument is persuasive, since Thurber does create sensitive men like George Bidwell, Charlie Deshler, Mr. Pendly and Mr. Bruhl and invites us to laugh when these men are under attack. Thurber's friends report that anger and rage were basic to his character, and Mark Van Doren attests to that rage in his poem for Thurber, "Anger Is, Anger Was." To argue, however, that Thurber's comedy is merely the result of his Ohio sensitivity is to demean both Thurber and his comedy. The Sad Clown Theory of comedy reduces comedy to a social accident, a product of erring society's persecution of the poor clown. It is a theory which … falls short of accounting for the purpose and achievement of the comic artist….
We should care less about Thurber's own sensitivities than about his ability to make laughter possible for us by deliberately choosing subjects that will create nervous, unsettling and unbearable tensions. This is not to deny that Thurber's own sensitivity is great and is a very powerful ingredient in his comedy. (p. 82)
Thurber's comedy, especially that of the 1940's, consummately exploits fears, uncertainties, and inhibitions about the relationship between the mind and the world. (p. 83)
The Last Flower, a fable with drawings about the twelfth and thirteenth world wars, inaugurates the "high middle period" of Thurber's writing. The period deserves the name high because of his increased sense of the mind as a threat and because of his increased ability to dramatize that threat….
The tension or the drama comes from three sources. First it comes from within the mind of the individual who deludes himself. This placement is familiar in Thurber. In "The Black Magic of Barney Haller" and "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" (both in The Middle-Aged Man), fears and ideas with their own nature drive the characters to distraction (and death). The idea is brilliantly exploited in My World and Welcome to It. A second category of threat comes from the public mind, the intellectual clichés and political habits never wholly lost to view and never clearly seen but surely keeping us from the spoor of bigger game. A third category is the threat from our efforts to discover meaning in our familiar truths, the little ways and habits of our own behavior. In this last category, Thurber gets very close to enunciating a code for the artist that his own work justifies. (p. 84)
Giving [Thurber's] graceful fables any ponderous meaning takes away from their ease, but they create a new awareness of transitory life and suggest values. In the dimension of the fables, almost anything seems possible, for they balance the impulse to statement with their detachment to allow a reader's perception of meaning beyond what paraphrase or summary can suggest. The fable form permits Thurber to speak about such basic ideas of his civilization as the use of intelligence and the concept of imagination…. He dares to use his style to make us understand ideas. (p. 116)
The fable form is the lever by which Thurber and his readers move the world. On the fulcrum of the comic plot, Thurber employs the artificial means which are his human powers: his sense of metaphor, symbol, and language. We sense the power that he applies and in the fable itself we see that power increased to its fullest potential. We "see through it" in that we know why the power has increased. Further, since the power is exerted on matters of significance—human vanity, behavior of massman, attempts to violate and even pervert human abilities, complexity, and beauty—the act attracts us. We "see through it" also, when we recognize that the man using the power is repeating a mode of behavior, that he is behaving inelastically when he tells fables, and we laugh with pleasure as we see him repeat his foolish habit. But at the same time that we realize his foolishness, we also appreciate his result: the foolishness isolates what is basic and essential to the human condition and gives it the harmony or repose of artistic form. (pp. 117-18)
The Romance provides Thurber with another form (like the fable) by means of which he can fulfill the writer's ancient duty of advising man on his true condition. Behind the guise of a fairy tale he can speak of a world of ideals and delight his reader in the process. He puts real toads, as Marianne Moore advises the writer to do, in an imaginary garden. (p. 122)
In the five books which I call Romances [Many Moons, The Great Quillow, The White Deer, The Thirteen Clocks, and The Wonderful O] Thurber sustained his most creative flight. Except in these books (and possibly in The Male Animal) Thurber always follows the injunction to the comic writer that he be short and swift. Even the shortest of these stories, Many Moons, is several times the length of his usual sketch, and The White Deer and The Wonderful O come near to the length of a short novel. I am not going to argue in favor of these books because of their length, but I can notice that his art has a deeper meaning here because we sense an interplay between a larger patter of surface perception—the quest-motif of romance—and the pressures of depth-perception which makes us see that he writes about a power that exists in our civilization, the power that gives us ivory, apes, and peacocks but cannot give us the moon or free us from plundering giants, idiot rulers, and robbers. In the larger space of these books, he has room to define those qualities of the Jester which can bring life back into our wasted land suffering its surfeit of ivory and peacocks. (pp. 135-36)
Thurber, then, has not just chosen an available form, but he has chosen the one form that communicates the reality of our experience. He writes about a world in which the dream of pleasure is the commonplace. He writes about a real world where time is stopped. Now more than ever before the imaginative intelligence is needed to give value and significance to our real gardens. What begins by arousing our laughter—the comic incongruity between an imagined world and fact—turns out to be more than a comic device. It is a means of commenting on and understanding our strange and bizarre experience. (p. 137)
Thurber's final comedy succeeds because his sense of form persists in his shift from a stereotyped comedy to a comedy of human action. The unsound and fuzzy impostors threatening in Thurber's final books are not constructions but facts of human experience just as the impostors in primitive comedy represent natural forces in the world which threaten to destroy humanity. His heroes are not artfully created men but rather existential heroes, men who have the power to form the chaotic world of experience into meaning. The comedy of Ross and the men and women like Jacob Fisher and Aunt Margery Albright is a comedy of seeing things as they really are, a comedy of finding in experience itself the ritual action of challenge, defeat, despair, and final victory. While the action often ends in death, the spirit of his heroes survives. His comedy therefore is a human comedy (rather than a divine comedy), and it gives his readers a very human revelation of a very human and transitory Paradiso. (p. 162)
I admire particularly Thurber's … artistic and humanistic growth in his fairy tales. In these stories the implicit comic idea—that Man must triumph over sterile and unprofitable men who reduce life to a stereotype—is given explicit dramatic statement. These stories move from a wasteland of strange, enticing, and unusual appearance to a reality. The reality is the order made by the creative mind of the poet who reanimates the world. The world is our world, torn and dying but capable of rebirth. The American imagination has typically used the strange and distant world to project its fears, frustrations, and hopes, and thus Thurber mines a vein familiar to Hawthorne, Twain, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Truth, beauty, and meaning exist, these stories say, not in the world nor in its social institutions, but in the mind of the Jester who discovers that the moon is just as large as the little girl who wants it imagines it to be. In truth, the moon is a golden disk caught in the branches of a tree. (pp. 184-85)
Richard C. Tobias, in his The Art of James Thurber (copyright © 1969 by Richard C. Tobias), Ohio University Press, 1969.
Though Thurber's satire would seem to resemble the eastern school of the mannerist absurd—the continuity of Stephen Leacock, Robert Benchley, and S. J. Perelman—there is a wild, Dionysian spirit hiding beneath the mask of Apollo, which like those clocks of Columbus is associated with Thurber's dreams of home. From his college days on, Thurber admired Henry James's mastery of style, but in his heart's core he was much closer to Mark Twain. (p. 16)
In his old age, racked by disease and incapacitated by blindness, Thurber became a sort of resident western curmudgeon, snarling at a changing world he could not comprehend. But during the thirties and forties, his essentially western voice spoke through parables of exquisite texture, giving form to the spirit of wildness which redeems his early mistakes and his later failures. (p. 18)
John Seelye, "From Columbus to New York" (originally published under a different title in Book World—The Washington Post, October 22, 1972; copyright © 1972 by The Washington Post), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 15-18.
The major themes of [Thurber's] earlier work cluster around the conflict between the individual (free, spontaneous, eccentric) and the system (ordered, repressive, conventional). His view of life is romantic, liberal, optimistic. His basic form is the narrative anecdote, revealing oddities of character and behavior. After his blindness, he begins to create his comedy out of extravagant word-play rather than out of action and character. The change is gradual, but it is clearly evident in The Beast in Me. Accompanying this change in artistic method is a growing pessimism and misanthropy, as personal frustrations and a despairing concern over the state of the world upset his precarious psychic balance.
The peak achievement of Thurber's early career is My Life and Hard Times. For many readers it is his one unquestioned masterpiece…. The book is the definitive image of Thurber's special comic world. Here the eccentric characters, chaotic situations, and the strange blend of the realistic and the fantastic which are the hallmarks of his work are present in their purest and most concentrated form. It mines one of his richest veins of subject matter—the days of his youth in Columbus—and out of these autobiographical materials he creates a mad comic world in which the normal order of things is constantly exploding into chaos and confusion. (p. 148)
Disorder and confusion are anathema to the world at large, but for Thurber they are sources of possible liberation. They are at the heart of a set of closely related values which, until his very last years, he habitually champions in opposition to the dominant ideals of contemporary society. In a world committed to logic, organization, conformity, and efficiency, Thurber stands for fantasy, spontaneity, idiosyncrasy, and confusion. Hence Thurber's fondness for situations involving eccentric behavior, elaborate practical jokes, breakdowns of communication, and the disruption of bureaucratic machinery…. The whole of My Life and Hard Times is a celebration of what might be called the Principle of Confusion, or the Fantasy Principle. Nearly every episode shows the disruption of the orderly pattern of everyday life by the idiosyncratic, the bizarre, the irrational. (p. 149)
Throughout My Life and Hard Times eccentricity of character is seen as a life-enhancing value. The mild insanities and picturesque obsessions of the people Thurber remembers from the days of his youth are not only diverting examples of the human comedy, they are also something important—they represent freedom, independence, the irrepressible stuff of life which refuses to be caught in formulas and conventions. (p. 154)
In My Life and Hard Times Thurber has arrived at full artistic maturity and nowhere is this more evident than in the style. Working on The New Yorker and emulating the easy informality of E. B. White, he developed a style that was natural, easy, and unself-conscious. It was colloquial without being slangy (although it could be that, too), and disciplined without being stiff. It was plain to the point of invisibility—a style which pretended not to be a style at all. It had no idiosyncrasies: sentence structure and word order were unobtrusively normal, and the language seldom called attention to itself…. Thurber's prose is a transparent medium, reporting action and character in the simplest possible way.
All this he had by 1929, when Is Sex Necessary? first identified him as a writer of consequence. The difference is that in My Life and Hard Times his style has become not only a versatile comic instrument but a highly personal mode of expression as well. In My Life and Hard Times Thurber has developed a vocabulary and a pattern of phrasing which reflect his own unique temperament and cast of mind. (p. 158)
Charles S. Holmes, "Columbus Remembered: 'My Life and Hard Times'," in his The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber (copyright © 1972 by Charles S. Holmes; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1972, pp. 145-60.
The landscape of Thurber's mind was not quiet and orderly like Trollope's; it was a clutter of domestic objects bouncing and banging down hill towards chaos. It terrified Thurber. As E. B. White put it, "His mind [is] unbelievably restless and [makes] him uncomfortable at all hours. (p. 32)
[He refused to deliver his message] with mechanical, rational clarity, deliberately leaving it to hover in its truest form just beneath the verbal surface.
Thurber's best drawings work the same way. The famous lady on the bookcase, for example, began as an attempt to draw a woman crouching at the head of the stairs, the obvious beginning of a perfectly reasonable joke. But Thurber fudged the perspective and suddenly had a woman on all fours on a bookcase. Without hesitation he filled in the rest of the drawing—a man blandly introducing his wife to a visitor who peers up at the fiercely glowering lady on the bookcase—and wrote the caption, "That's my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris." (p. 34)
Arthur Mizener, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1973.
One tends to think of Thurber—a man who, after all, made his living writing for the very style-conscious New Yorker—as an adroit and inventive prose stylist, one who, through his verbal pyrotechnics, wrought humor out of the commonplace. Yet, in fact, Thurber's basic style is remarkably neutral, exhibiting a marked avoidance of verbal acrobatics. Thurber always regarded himself as a journalist, and much of his prose is written in the clear, flat, economical style of the reporter; it is a style which does its best not to call attention to itself through any deviations from the norm. Thurber was intensely concerned with the purity of the language, and he wrote many pieces decrying its abuse. Language, to Thurber, as Charles S. Holmes, in ["James Thurber and the Art of Fantasy"] states, is "a necessary principle of order, and an instrument of precision and beauty," a besieged force for clarity in an increasingly confusing world. (p. 75)
Yet Thurber, and here we see the other side of his professional and hence stylistic coin, was an inveterate dabbler with language, "fascinated," as Holmes says, "by its capacity to create an Alice-in-Wonderland world where ordinary rational communication is transcended." He was a connoisseur of chaos. To the journalist, then, Thurber improbably grafted the fantasist; and out of the collision of the two (out of the collision of two styles and, finally, of two world views) issued his humor. (pp. 75-6)
In his later work,… reflecting a more bitter attitude toward a growingly chaotic world, Thurber's prose is packed with puns, scrambled literary allusions, anagrams and other forms of wordplay, and sequences of words linked phonemically in a hectic conjunction in which meaning, ordered meaning, is lost; and characters, tricked by what was once an "instrument of precision," fall into the confusion of fantasy. Further, Thurber was a great parodist; to analyze the style of, say, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "The White Rabbit Caper," or The Thirteen Clocks would be to track down, not Thurber, but Thurber as writer of the adventure tale, the murder mystery, and the fairy tale…. My Life and Hard Times,… I believe, best represents the quintessential Thurber, the mimic speaking in his own voice, the journalist whose taste for fantasy is under tight rational control. (p. 76)
[It] is in his diction that Thurber's humor lies. The base style, which I have called "journalistic," involves the rather colorless features—or rather lack of features, lack of morphemic, phonemic, syntactic, or grammatical experimentation—… and a rather stilted, archaic vocabulary, heavy in Latinisms, which reflects Thurber's nostalgia for past, more ordered, patterns of life and forms of expression…. He will often use phrases, to introduce or further his narrative, drawn from the repertoire of the nineteenth-century storyteller, and reminiscent of, say, Henry James, who was Thurber's favorite author. (p. 78)
In contrast, but in conjunction with this ordered, formal, impersonal, slightly archaic diction, is a vast amount of idiom, often expressive of violent action and chaotic and idiosyncratic states of mind, but almost invariably, also, nostalgic, in that these usages belong mainly to the rural, familial past of Thurber's childhood….
In contrast both with the base style and with the events described (which, I should mention, are usually of the most ordinary, simple nature), Thurber uses a whole range of words and phrases found normally in contexts of danger and intrigue; this is the diction of the mystery novel or the romance. (p. 79)
All the apparatus of an impersonal, crisp journalistic style, fraught with diction expressive of events and people of significance, is brought to bear upon simple, ordinary men and the events of daily existence. The effect is that of the mock-heroic: inflated diction is satirized, the people and events described are satirized, and, finally, in spite of the satire involved, those people and events take on a kind of heroic, if nostalgic, dignity commensurate with the language in which they are treated. (p. 80)
Michael Burnett, "James Thurber's Style" (© 1973 by Michael Burnett), in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 75-82.
James Thurber has long been recognized as one of America's leading modern humorists. His stories, sketches, and cartoons are engaging, often leading to chuckles of wry reminiscence. But when he created "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Thurber wrought better than he knew, for he had touched upon one of the major themes in American literature—the conflict between individual and society. Mitty's forerunners are readily observable in native folklore and fiction. On one side Mitty is a descendant of Rip Van Winkle and Tom Sawyer. On the other side he dream-wishes qualities customarily exhibited by the legendary frontier hero. Yet, while Thurber's story derives from American culture tradition, it presents the quest for identity in an unmistakably modern context. In what may be the final scene in an unfolding tapestry of heroic situations, Mitty struggles to achieve a measure of self-respect, but finds himself restricted to the pathways of retreat and wish-fulfillment.
Mitty's closest literary forerunner is Rip Van Winkle, the "good-bad boy" of American fiction. Like Rip, Mitty has a wife who embodies the authority of a society in which the husband cannot function. Mitty's world is routine, trivial, and fraught with pigeon-holes; it persecutes the individual, strips his life of romance, and dictates what his actions (if not his thoughts) should be. The husband is often reduced to the status of a naughty child (as demonstrated by a prepubertal mentality); and he attempts to escape rather than confront a world symbolized by a wife who, more often than not, seems to be a mother-figure rather than a partner. Because of the threat which the wife-mother poses to the American male psyche, Rip must go hunting, Deerslayer cannot marry and dwell in the town, and Huck seeks the river rather than be sivilized. (p. 283)
Because his imagination depends upon what he has read rather than what he has done, Mitty lives a vicarious existence. And, conversely, Mitty's misuse of words and concocted over-dramatizations betoken his unwillingness to dwell in a dimension which cannot feed his imaginative faculties. Given his routine external life, how could it be otherwise?… A dual purpose is evident here, for while Thurber deliberately places these wrong-way signposts to reveal Mitty's ignorance of the heroic experience Mitty remains oblivious of his blunders as he succeeds in fashioning his own reality. Simultaneously it is a sad and amusing show.
Mitty's visions, however, are more than mere adolescent fantasies with their theatricality and simplistic crises; they are surprisingly true to what Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature defined as the fundamental American male psyche: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."… It must be noted that nearly all of Mitty's visions deal with violence, and even the one exception dramatizes a matter of life and death. This kind of situation allows the ultimate in symbolic action in which the questions of self can be answered and personal values defined. One can speculate whether Mitty's visions of crises and correspondingly heroic responses are so familiar because they are inherent in the national unconscious or because they recur with such frequency in the national literature. The speculative game is one of chicken and egg; the undeniable fact suggests serious and alarming possibilities concerning the American male mentality in a time when football and military force provide over-simplified moral and physical confrontations.
This quality of self-reliance, so directly traceable to the American past, is manifested by Mitty's dream-self to a considerable degree. In both the frontier literature and that of the New England Romantic tradition, the hero always defined himself through actions which dramatically delineated his inner self and established his identity…. A youthful culture naturally produced heroes with youthful qualities, most notably an unshaken self-confidence which framed their belief that they could always adapt to the world, no matter what the world might prove to be. This kind of unqualified optimism in one's ability (one side of the Romantic coin) reveals itself most clearly in Cooper's Natty Bumppo, Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's exploits in Walden. It is this swaggering self-assertion and a conviction regarding the control of one's destiny which characterize at once the American hero and Mitty's alter ego. (One need only recall how Mitty substitutes the fountain pen for the faulty piston in the failing anaesthetizer, how he strikes the villainous District Attorney from a sitting position with his one good arm in the chivalrous defense of a Byronic heroine, and how he prepares to fly, alone and weary, on a vital mission against the "Archies.") Like Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, and Natty Bumppo, the dream-Mitty can out-shoot, out-fight, and out-do any and all opposition. But the man who can surmount catastrophes, man-made or natural, exists today only in the mind of a bewildered and hen-pecked protagonist. Whether the potential for heroic action was greater in the past, or whether there were indeed giants in those days, Mitty, like Miniver Cheevy, can only think about it. "The greatest pistol shot in the world" is reduced to ordering puppy-biscuit, to fetching and carrying for his wife, and he has difficulty even recalling the name of the product. (pp. 284-86)
The current world of industrialism and specialization severely restricts any potential for heroic action. With the frontier gone, and physical and psychological space limited, the typical male is reduced to fantasy-visions as outlets for that action which is now denied him. If it is depressing that Mitty cannot rise to traditionally heroic statue in today's world, it is also realistic. Today, Thurber seems to say, the combat is so unequal that the path to heroic action lies through the inner mind. The would-be hero must resort to the world of dream in order to inflate himself to that state where he can psychologically compete and win. Lacking the resources of the natural hero, the modern man acquires them by wish-fulfillment. Unfortunately, the victory, if and when it is attained, must occur in that same world of make-believe. (p. 286)
[Mitty's comment, "Things close in," circumscribes] much of the contemporary American male's feelings toward adult responsibilities. Small wonder that he returns to boyhood methods of dealing with a world which confuses him—and small wonder that he conceives his wife as threat and stifler of his inner self…. In so many ways the American male resembles a child who has not yet awakened, or who prefers to pull the blanket over his drowsy head rather than confront and cope. Babbitt's coventional escapes—his lukewarm affair and fishing trip—are less disturbing than Paul Riesling's solution of shooting the wife. And just as serious is Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's method of running away physically from adult relationships after he has committed himself to fatherhood. Mitty's internal flights are harmless by comparison, but the motivating factors are identical. (pp. 287-88)
The heroic mold has generally been cast by a juvenile imagination in America. Certainly the folk heroes were inflated to larger-than-life proportions. And the Romantic imagination would naturally have seized upon the frontier as a natural landscape whereon heroic deeds of a corresponding size and nature could be performed. But in Thurber's modern man only a dim memory of a heroic past remains, nurtured on puerile fantasies propagated by films and pulp fiction. With the frontier gone, and space and privacy at a premium, there is only one place where Mitty can hope to fulfill himself—in a world of self-projection. And even here he cannot totally escape, for the real world apprizes him of its presence by shattering each delusion before it can be climaxed.
As a result of being perpetually interrupted at crucial moments in these fantasies, it seems only proper that Mitty's final role should be that of the condemned man about to be executed by a faceless firing squad for reasons not explicitly given. This vision is a marvelously telling projection of Mitty's place in the world as he feels it. How fitting it is that the story ends, as it began, with a day-dream and that, to the external world (his wife, among others), Walter Mitty wears that "faint, fleeting smile" and remains "inscrutable to the last." (pp. 288-89)
Carl M. Lindner, "Thurber's Walter Mitty—The Underground American Hero," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by the University of Georgia), Summer, 1974, pp. 283-89.
Generally speaking, British readers find something authentically American in Thurber's voice as well as in his subject matter. They like the vein of fantasy in his work, and they are more responsive than American readers to the dark side of his imagination, to the pessimism and the sense of disaster which give Thurber's world its special atmosphere. At the same time, they admire his "civilized" qualities—the craftsmanship and the classic economy of style. (p. 5)
The first American recognition of Thurber's importance as an interpreter of modern life was Peter De Vries's 1943 essay…, "James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock." De Vries's argues that Thurber's true affinity is with the Symbolist poets rather than with the humorists. Like them, he celebrates the subjective vision, and in his work there are the same quick shifts from outer to inner experience, the same transformations of reality into dream and fantasy that we find in T. S. Eliot…. For him, as for the Symbolists, the life of fantasy is superior to the life of reality. In De Vries's fine phrase, Thurber is the "jester in Axel's Castle," giving us a comic version of the areas of experience explored by the poets of the Symbolist tradition. His timid, neurotic protagonists are the direct descendants of Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock—and, as Edward Stone suggests, of Henry James's "poor sensitive gentlemen."
Thurber's great subject is the predicament of man in a baffling and alien world. Cut off from the simpler, stabler order of the past, which Thurber's nostalgic pieces constantly evoke, modern man leads a precarious existence. Trapped in a world of machines and gadgets which challenge his competence and threaten his sanity, a world of large organizations and mass-mindedness which threatens his individuality, and—most painfully—a world of aggressive women who threaten his masculine identity, he is forced to go underground, so to speak, and to fight back in small, secret ways. Unlike Prufrock, Thurber's protagonists do resist, finding in daydream and fantasy the means to reshape outer defeat into inner victory, as Walter Mitty does. Occasionally, the victory is unequivocal, like that of the husband in "The Unicorn in the Garden" and of Mr. Martin in "The Catbird Seat," but open triumph is not the usual destiny of the Thurber male. (pp. 5-6)
Thurber's Little Man has a good deal in common with the antiheroes of twentieth-century fiction. Thurber did not invent this character for American humor—Benchley did that, following the model of Stephen Leacock—but he enlarged it, gave it a new psychological dimension, and made it into a highly effective dramatic persona. (p. 6)
The Little Man is the most famous of Thurber's personae, but … it is not the only one. Throughout his career he wrote as a reporter, social historian, memoirist, and biographer, in addition to his work as a humorist; and, in these roles, he customarily speaks in the voice of the educated and enlightened observer of the human scene. As he became more and more concerned over what was happening to American life in the 1940s and 1950s, the identity of the Little Man no longer served his needs, and he adopted instead the traditional role of the social critic and satirist, speaking out as rational man and public-spirited citizen against the fanaticisms and vulgarities of the day. These two personae—one, the helpless Little Man, the other the aggressive reformer and man of liberal principles—embody two conflicting views of life; and … Thurber never harmonized or reconciled them. When he tried, in the character of Tommy Turner, in The Male Animal, the result was unconvincing. (p. 7)
[One] can identify two ways of looking at Thurber: one, the "dark," psychological view, emphasizing the neurotic and unsettling elements in his work; the other the "light," rational view, emphasizing its aesthetic and humanistic qualities. The humanistic view sees Thurber as the defender of the individual in an age of mass culture, the champion of imagination over the logic-and-formula-ridden mind, the enemy of political fanaticism, whether of the Right or Left. This is the Thurber of My Life and Hard Times, Let Your Mind Alone, The Male Animal, Fables for Our Time, The Last Flower (if read optimistically, as E. B. White does), The White Deer, and perhaps The Thurber Album. (p. 10)
The darker view focuses on Thurber as a man writing to exorcise a deep inner uncertainty, to come to terms with fears and resentments which threatened his psychic balance. Images of these neurotic forces are everywhere in his work—in the Preface to My Life and Hard Times, in the discords of The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, in the strange drawings, in Walter Mitty's escapism, in stories such as "The Whippoorwill," in Further Fables for Our Time, and in the compulsive wordplay of the late pieces. (pp. 10-11)
The effect of blindness on Thurber's style and subject matter was profound. First of all, it drove him inward and backward to the world of childhood fantasy. The fairy tales—Many Moons (1943), The Great Quillow (1944), The White Deer (1945), The Thirteen Clocks (1950)—are not only escapes from a painful present reality into a world of romance and make-believe; they are also affirmations of certain values which had come to have a special importance for him. All of them … tell the story of a blighted land, of the failure of the king's advisers—scientists and men of power—to remedy the situation, and of the lifting of the spell by the lowly regarded court jester, toymaker, poet, or minstrel, in short, by the man of creative imagination.
Blindness also intensified Thurber's lifelong preoccupation with language. Cut off from the visible world, he became obsessed with words as things in themselves. The grounds of his comedy shift from the play of character and situation to that of verbal encounter, repartee, and word gamesmanship. Beginning with The White Deer, he develops a style very different from the understated economy of his earlier prose. This new style is elaborate and decorative, full of puns, garbles, coinages, and literary allusions. (pp. 11-12)
The theme of all of Thurber's late work is decline—of form, style, good sense, "human stature, hope, humor." The spirit of the late pieces is satiric rather than humorous: "anger," he observed … has become "one of the necessary virtues." The center of his concern became the state of the language, which for him, as for Ezra Pound and George Orwell, was the index to the state of a culture…. Earlier in his life, Thurber celebrated disorder, illogic, and confusion, feeling that these were desirable counterbalances in a society overcommitted to science and efficiency. Later, as history changed the world he grew up in, and his own view of life changed, he looked for stability and continuity, and championed those qualities which hold a society together. (p. 13)
The world Thurber created is both intensely American and enduringly universal. Although he wrote no single masterpiece like Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote, his prose and his drawings, taken together, give us an image of life so original and so outrageously true that his place among the great comic writers seems already to be assured. (p. 14)
Charles S. Holmes, "Introduction" to Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes (copyright © 1974 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 1-14.
Thurber has often been compared to Mark Twain, whom he indignantly denied having read. This is unbelievable, but the springs of his manner were too delicate and his mind too inturned for the long masterpiece. One can see this in his brief parodies, in his love of impromptu, in his vision of Walter Mitty, and, above all, in those long letters that were written to start useful hares. He was profitably uninventive in the large sense and trapped by autobiography; although he boasted of his powers of total recall, his best things are the result of weeding this deadly faculty. (p. 106)
V. S. Pritchett, "Thurber," in The New Yorker (copyright 1975 by V. S. Pritchett; reprinted by permission of Harold Matson Co., Inc.), June 23, 1975, pp. 104-07.