James Thurber Thurber, James (Grover) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James (Grover) Thurber 1894–1961

American short story writer, cartoonist, essayist, and dramatist.

Thurber is often described as one of the outstanding humorists of this century. A distinctive stylist in both his prose and his cartoons, he satirized modern middle-class life, often focusing on the tragicomic nature of male/female relations. The "Thurber man" is one bewildered by the nature and pace of modern living. He finds women, fate, animals, and machines baffling in their complexity.

Thurber began working at the New Yorker in 1927 and was associated with the magazine for the rest of his life. Influential in establishing the New Yorker's distinctive style, he also had the opportunity to gain a wide audience for his writings published therein.

Blinded in one eye in a childhood accident, Thurber lost his vision completely in 1947. He nevertheless continued to publish prolifically. The recent publication of the Selected Letters of James Thurber provides some insight into his mind and art and into how both were affected by the deterioration of his vision. The letters, many of which are to long-term New Yorker friends, reveal a blunt, strong-minded, highly individualistic man, gifted with an unerring sense of the absurd.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Something about the Author, Vol. 13; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 4.)

Kenneth Burke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That skillful literary man, St. Augustine, has warned that one should never smite an opponent in bad grammar. Applying a loose interpretation, we could translate his wise teaching thus: If a man would carry a discussion through points A, B, C and D, don't let him think he has got anywhere, in the way of cogency, simply by lining up a good argument. For should he have a lisp, or should someone in his audience periodically sneeze in a notable way, or should there be an irrelevant voice echoing from the corridors, our hero is all Achilles' heel. Especially when there is a Thurber about.

In fact, if he should make a statement that requires as many as three sentences, and there is a Thurber about, he is as vulnerable. For Thurber may choose to hear only the first sentence, proceeding joyously and outrageously to build upon it. We generally think of funny men as irrational. But they are as rational as the constructor of a Mother Goose rhyme (who gets to his crooked house via a crooked man, crooked smile, crooked sixpence, crooked stile, crooked cat and crooked mouse). And one thing they learn early is that, if a thought requires three sentences for self-protective presentation, they would be disloyal to their method in hearing out the three. Where three parts are needed, the professional funny man just knows that he should stop at part one. His one Marquis of Queensberry rule is: Belts are to hit below.

A Thurber, having singled out part one, will next proceed, with perverse rational efficiency, to ponder this broken part. He will invent "case histories" with which to try it out—and of course, they won't fit.

But a mere bad fit is not enough. The funny man will also seek a situation such that his readers want a bad fit. If they are good Catholics, for instance, he knows it will be hard to make them meet him halfway should he decide to play havoc with an encyclical. He will lay off such dynamite, leaving it for the news itself to provide the outrageous incongruities, as when, reporting a Papal blast on communism at the time of Mussolini's triumph in Africa, the dispatch proceeded: "On the subject of Ethiopia, His Holiness was less explicit." On the other hand, readers of The New...

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Wilfrid Sheed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thurber was a marvelous comic writer, but alone among such he was able to sketch the phantasmagoric goo from which his funny ideas came. If Henry James or Dostoevsky had done their own illustrations, the results could hardly have been stranger or more illuminating. Men, Women and Dogs is like a writer's head with the back open; the fact that it's funny back there is as spooky as anything in Jung. Thurber did not make up his jokes in his mouth, like so many clowns, but somewhere between the optic nerve and the unconscious, an area where the slightest tilt can lead to torment and madness.

As it did, we now know, in his last years. But this book belongs to the sunny period before he literally lost his sight and had to move into his own skull for good, with no fresh images to lighten the nightmares. At this point his defective eyesight was still an asset conjuring up useful if scary visions of rear admirals on bicycles and dogs guarding window ledges…. (p. 229)

Although Thurber's prose had its own unique glories, it could not endure the loss of his sight … but fell off tragically and bewilderedly. There was a brief, gallant period in the early 1940s when he mustered his last clear visual memories and produced at frantic speed his finest work. Then a period of wild word-play in which he strove vainly to make the words do it all but couldn't quite swing it. And finally those last stories in which people pour drinks upon drinks, and the author can no longer see things for them to do.

So his comic genius hung by a thread to his flickering vision, which had already been cruelly reduced by a childhood accident involving a bow and arrow. His life was in fact a sickeningly literal enactment of The Wound and the Bow theory (namely, that to draw the magic bow of art, one must have a disabling wound). Thurber's wound gave him a funny-looking world to draw and write about, and then his wound took it away again.

Thus the beguilingly blurred figures undercut by the incisive voice of the half-blind man, perhaps not quite sure where he is even in his own drawings. Some of these pictures are downright accidental. The notorious first Mrs. Harris was supposed to be crouched on a staircase not a bookcase: but it seems the artist's perspective failed him into a masterpiece. No wonder Thurber downplayed his art. Yet an openness to the accidental is a mark of genius. And precisely because it is accidental, Thurber blunders into effects beyond the reach of controlled draftsmanship. (For the last months of Walt Kelly's noble life, someone else did his drawing for him. But who could imitate Thurber's mistakes?)

Yet if his eyes were a crucial part of his comic machine, they were not the only part; his ears were in there too. The blurry women who menace the Thurber male, and the shaggy dogs that comfort him, are respectively strident and quiet as snow. In real life, Thurber was surrounded by his share of menacing women, starting with his mother, who set the trend, and one imagines their voices crackling out of the fog as harshly as the blind man's crackles back at them. But it is too simple to say that Thurber hated women. A close look at the creatures he drew...

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Brian Attebery

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[James Thurber's] work is often said to be in the line of Twain, Henry James, or T. S. Eliot, and, indeed, he shares traits with all three. In view of his literary standing and the evident sophistication of his themes and techniques, it may seem presumptuous to squeeze such a figure into the [tradition of fantasy writers like L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz]. But there he belongs, as the fullest flowering of that tradition.

Thurber was content, for many years, to write fictionalized accounts of his Ohio past and his Connecticut present, along with assorted parodies and word games. Anything he had to say about marriage, character, and the imagination—principal early themes—could be said within those limits. Nevertheless, he had already begun toying with the stuff of fantasy, like a man who unconsciously rubs flax straws into fiber but has not yet thought of spinning them into thread. His toying was along two related lines, one dependent upon the ear, the other upon the eye, and both upon a unique and lively imagination. (p. 145)

In the 1940s, Thurber, troubled by darkening vision and a world situation even darker, made a break with the rational frame that had hitherto held his fantastic imagination in check, limiting it to flights of fancy and figures of speech. I can think of two possible reasons for his departure from the ordinary: one artistic, the other personal. First, he had always depended on close visual observation for his stories and sketches, even when he exaggerated what he saw. His reputation as a comic artist nearly equals his fame as a writer, and, just as his cartoons are fully developed stories caught at the moment of truth, his early stories are like sequences of cartoons, dependent as much upon gesture and composition as on dialog and plot. When Thurber could no longer see his subjects, he could not manipulate them: except for The Thurber Album, which reworks the materials of My Life and Hard Times, his later conventional sketches become increasingly circumscribed and static.

A more personal reason for a change of form is that Thurber began to want to say more than he could say in a contemporary, naturalistic setting. He felt increasingly that the world was on the wrong track, and he wanted to tell it so. Rather like Melville after Typee and Omoo, he was tired of recounting his adventures and was plumed for a flight of the imagination. The inner landscape he had been preparing for years now became the only world that was both accessible and satisfying. His mind's eye could still see, and it showed him a fairyland in which, unlike the real world, problems could still be overcome.

Thurber the fantasist emerged at the same time as Thurber the Jeremiah: indeed, the two are neatly combined in the pictorial fable The Last Flower and in the Fables for Our Time…. Those works led to the creation of his most sustained pieces of writing, The White Deer and The 13 Clocks, as well as to the slighter fairy tales Many Moons, The Great Quillow, and The Wonderful O.

In 1934, Thurber wrote an appreciation of L. Frank Baum…. In it, he praises the Oz stories for being "fairy tales with a difference."… (pp. 146-47)

Thurber first read The Wizard of Oz and The Land of Oz when he was ten. Forty years later their influence surfaced in the writing of The White Deer. It, too, along with The 13 Clocks, is a fairy tale "with a difference," a difference which extends to each of the five facets of fantasy.

First of all is the fantasy world. The worlds of both The White Deer and The 13 Clocks lie closer to traditional fairy tale settings than does Oz. We find castles, enchanted forests, dukes, and wizards, all much as we might find them in works of the literary followers of the brothers Grimm. Thurber was never particularly interested in landscape as such, not like Baum, who was an unconscious regionalist. He was content to let convention dictate his locale, up to a point. The level at which his world strikes out on its own is that of fine detail. The enchanted forest of The White Deer is a standard magical forest, dark and mysterious, full of wizards and eerie creatures. But a closer look shows the Thurberian imagination at work, altering a flower here, an animal there, to exploit the magical possibilities of its name or shape…. (pp. 147-48)


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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Thurber was often an irascible and difficult man, but there is little of that side of his personality in these Selected Letters. Here we find him for the most part sunny side up—and what a pleasure that is. This is a slender volume, evidently intended to be a representative rather than an inclusive selection of his correspondence, but it contains enough first-rate Thurber to be ranked among his better books.

Indeed, if justice is at work in the world these days, the publication of these letters may initiate a Thurber revival. It is my sense, based on nothing except intuition, that Thurber is not widely read these days—even though his friend, New Yorker colleague and occasional...

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William Zinsser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Afflicted by bad eyesight and eventual blindness, James Thurber had good reason to bemoan the advancing darkness and the racing years, as, in ["Selected Letters of James Thurber"], he does. The miracle is that under such a burden he wrote 27 books (starting at the age of 35) that cheered millions of people with their humor and perpetual surprise. His drawings were uniquely antic; his prose was a marvel of sonority and warmth. In these public offerings the rest of us could glimpse some of the fears and bewilderments that vexed the private man, and because they were very much like our own fears and bewilderments—and our Mitty-like dreams—we cherished his writing.

But that was because Thurber had labored to turn ordinary life into art. He rewrote endlessly; he was obsessive about achieving control of his material….

I think Thurber would squirm to see these first drafts of his prose and his mind spread out on public view. It is the ultimate loss of control. Old men are entitled, for instance, to their umbrages, and here the aging Thurber, in several long letters to White, is found bitterly assailing Harold Ross for his penurious treatment of New Yorker writers. Perhaps the editors of this collection … think they are holding up for our admiration a champion of underpaid artists. The display is unbecoming. Ross has been dead for 30 years and Thurber for 20. One of them founded a great magazine, the other helped to shape its greatness. Their monument is their work; the rest is litter.

Still, any touch of Thurber brightens the day, and inevitably in the gray mass of this book I found some zircons that glittered and made me smile. (p. 3)

William Zinsser, "A Touch of Thurber," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 8, 1981, pp. 3, 46.

Nora Sayre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Encounters—with unfriendly food, or machinery, or objects that took on a life of their own—were essential to [James Thurber's] vision of human existence as an obstacle race. The Thurber man's feeling of helplessness when faced with collapsing cots, stalled cars, computers gone beserk, falling ceilings, malign plumbing, situations beyond control, marriages, ghosts in the attic and global war had to seem hilarious—since the author's own perception of chaos was sometimes unbearable. As Graham Greene wrote about Charlie Chaplin, "The man who falls downstairs must suffer if we are to laugh; the waiter who breaks a plate must be in danger of dismissal. Human nature demands humiliation, the ignoble pain and the grotesque tear: the madhouse for Malvolio." No one understood that better than James Thurber….

The kinship between wit and dejection always intrigued him; as he noted in the preface to My Life and Hard Times, "The little wheels of [comedy] are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy." (In conclusion, he acknowledged that "the claw of the seapuss gets us all in the end.") His often gleeful pessimism is reflected in the Selected Letters, meticulously edited by Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks. (p. 531)

Although the Thurber man was usually meek, that essence was alien to the writer: "A little crotch-kicking is a good thing, if done in anger. I can't stand guys who are merely piqued by the unforgivable…." While there is more of the genial Thurber than the fierce one in these letters, many of them muse on the painful complexities of writing….

The letters bestow the gift of spending twenty-six years in Thurber's company, of learning what engrossed or appalled him. The focus ranges from telepathy to bloodhounds, revering Henry James, and aging…. (p. 532)

The letters reveal how clearly he could see in his sleep, and the host of magnificent drawings that enrich the book resurrect the eye and the hand and the mind that died exactly twenty years ago—which now seem more inspired than ever. (p. 533)

Nora Sayre, "Chiming and Striking," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 233, No. 17, November 21, 1981, pp. 531-33.

Clancy Sigal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[James Thurber] was one of the funniest men alive, if you at all tuned in to his doggerel cartoons, with their barking seals and daffily aggressive women swooping on gloomily defenceless males, and his fables, like 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' and 'The Night the Bed Fell', which were angry parables of despair and raging frustration.

Thurber was often like one of his own flopping, loping, terrified animals. His humour, occasionally a little too arch and fey, was redeemed by a cruel pessimism laced with a sort of loony provincialism (his roots in small-town Ohio were deep) which found its sharpest focus either in his sex-war cartoons, or in newly-coined myths that did horribly inventive things to...

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Alan Coren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] wife who wants to bring out a volume of her deceased husband's correspondence has not one, but two, reputations to protect, if not, indeed, enhance. But in the case of James Thurber, this double-indemnity embraces a particular threat to candour.

Thurber was a man who spent much of his grafting life in the pockmarked redoubts of the marital front-line, sending back his withering dispatches from the Million Years War, the Ernie Pyle of the sexual barrage and the nuptial raid. Yet there is not one word among the 80,000 gummed together [in Selected Letters of James Thurber] to suggest that he enjoyed anything but snug serenity beneath the monogamous conterpane. The man that Thurber must have...

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