James Thurber Thurber, James (Grover)

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(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 Yorker, in which all but two of the articles in Let Your Mind Alone! appeared, are likely to be less problematical when leftward-looking politics is the subject—so we get "What Are the Leftists Saying?" I thought it tearfully lame; but for all I know it may be judged by typical New Yorker readers the most devastating bit of fun since the discovery of the banana peel.

The first ten pieces, which give [Let Your Mind Alone! ]...

(The entire section is 6,676 words.)