James Thurber

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

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

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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!] its title, are a very amusing burlesque of psychoanalysis. The field offers a good opportunity for Thurber's phenomenal gifts. The study of the mind has brought to the fore many paradoxes. A man may think he is doing one thing when he is actually doing another. This state of affairs outrages common sense—the thought of it makes one uneasy—hence we are glad to meet that man halfway who will expend his jocular enterprise to vindicate the judgments of common sense.

There are pages that make one laugh very hard. One is glad that Thurber does his part to keep the leftward-lookers on their toes. I am even willing to concede him his constitutional right, as funny man, to start too soon, to remain dumb on purpose, dying that others may live—though he tends somewhat to flatter stupidity, making it a kind of accomplishment within reach of all, like getting drunk…. (pp. 55-7)

His drawings are good always for the perception his writing has sometimes. But I do wish he'd go after bigger game. He shoots too many cockroaches. To get such heightened value, I'd even be willing to hand him over to the reactionaries. Let him hound the "socially conscious" more consistently, in case he finds their attitude of "uplift" too much for his antinomian perversity. He need not join the author of "Redder Than the Rose." But let him at least make an indirect contribution, in serving to keep the statements of the Left alert (though they could never be alert enough to forestall all possibility of Thurberization). I have just been reading Jacques Barzun's book on theories of racial superiority. I think fondly of what a Thurber might do by examining these documents on crooked thinking and translating them into the idiom of hilarity. But that would be asking too much (at least until his waggish remarks on cocktail parties run out—and he is so ingenious and fertile with them that I doubt whether they ever will run out). So I am willing to have him become our Lord Macaulay of fun-making, a reactionary keeper-thin of the Left. Unction must be made difficult—so let him be the deunctifyer. But as things now stand, he too is purveying a patent medicine. The trivial has its medicinal aspect—but too often he expends his talents to load the trivial with all the traffic can bear. (pp. 57-8)

Kenneth Burke, "Thurber Perfects Mind Cure," in his Thurber Perfects Mind Cure: "Let Your Mind Alone!" and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces (copyright © 1937 by Editorial Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), Editorial Publications, Inc., 1937 (and reprinted in The Critic As Artist: Essays on Books, 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 55-8).

Wilfrid Sheed

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330

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 suggests a fondness and a bizarre companionship. If some of his women are a bit on the tough side, they need to be to help the Thurber male across the street. This would be a screaming grievance later when, in real life, he had to be led to the bathroom, but shouldn't be read back too far. In [Men, Women and Dogs] men and women carry each other inexplicably home about equally often, and the monsters are more than made up for by gentle spirits "from haunts of coot and hearn" and good-hearted blondes and nude pianists. Although the Thurber woman is most triumphantly herself as the back part of a house lunging toward an apprehensive male, she is not always herself.

At his crudest ("Goddamn pussycats"), Thurber reflects the hearty misogyny of the frontier, echoing Mark Twain and his own boss, Harold Ross, who periodically blamed the state of the nation on women schoolteachers. As such he is merely a footnote to social history: sensitive boys from the macho country, blaming their mothers for making them sissies and lunging around speakeasies getting even with Wellesley girls and other effete Easterners.

But his feeling for women is usually more complicated than that. Their abiding gift is the power to baffle; Thurber's women may be illogical, but they are seldom stupid—and there is always a sense that they are probably right, that they "know" something. This imputation of mystical qualities may still be maddening to feminists, but at least Thurber's women are never inferior, and his response to them is closer to fear than contempt.

Furthermore, in emphasizing his alleged hatred of women, commentators have overlooked his equal and similar hatred of men. Riffling through the cartoons again, one notes that the males are just as liable to wild flights of illogic and of fiendish malice as the females. The only constant is warfare, culminating in the crashing cadenza in the back, "The War between men and women." Yet even this is complicated by strange collusions and crossings of sex lines. The dreadful Thurber couple hunting in pairs puts in several appearances: e.g., the unholy twosome who have broken into someone's apartment to perform their mad dance. ("I don't know them either, dear, but there may be some very simple explanation.")

Checking with Thurber's prose pieces, one finds the same people with the gloves (Thurber's) off: the couples who stay all night, zestfully wrecking homes and marriages, the swinish practical jokers and dotty women poker players, and—significantly often—a goodly measure of men picking on men. Life for Thurber was as competitive as it was for any hustling Midwesterner or for those compulsive games players in the Algonquin set, but it was softened by his goofy eyesight; as he said of the drawing captioned "Touché," "there is obviously no blood to speak of in the people I draw."

In his stories they bleed and bleed, and without the gloss of the drawings he would be remembered as a sardonic provincial in the Ring Lardner manner—a valuable American tradition in its own right, but Thurber didn't bite clear through like Lardner. Yet the stories plus the drawings give us the extra angle that reveals a genius. The stories are like the engine behind the drawings. Thurber came east with his mouth as wide as Scott Fitzgerald's, and for a while he reveled in what he took to be the glamor of it all. But then under pressure of booze and intelligence the mouth collapsed in a snarl and he became unfathomably bitter. When his eyes closed for good, he lost his most cheerful feature and joined the Lardner-Fitzgerald stream of disappointed Americans—than whom there is no one in the world more disappointed.

But thank God, he compiled Men, Women and Dogs first, while youthful high spirits could still put funny hats on his nightmares and the intoxication of humorous invention was glamor enough. The dark themes are there in embryo—in especial, the husband and wife who, having exhausted the competition, round on each other for the finals, the death struggle, But he could still be diverted by jokes that had nothing to say about anything, and Thurber is at his best when he isn't saying anything about anything. (pp. 230-32)

Wilfrid Sheed, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright © 1975 by Wilfrid Sheed), in Men, Women and Dogs by James Thurber, Dodd, Mead, 1975 (reprinted as "James Thurber: 'Men, Women and Dogs'," in The Good Word and Other Words by Wilfrid Sheed, E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1978, pp. 228-33).

Brian Attebery

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848

[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)

Between the time of The White Deer and that of The 13 Clocks, Thurber came to rely more on tricks of sound than on sight. Occasionally … sound repetition alone creates the effect of an entangling spell….

Buried in the prose of both tales are strings of rhymes and metric feet…. Sometimes these regularities seem accidental, an eerie piling up of poetic coincidence. Other times they signify the formality of a spell or decree…. (p. 148)

The headiest verbal magic in The White Deer accompanies the labors of the three princes. In the first of these parallel episodes, Thurber turns toward Lewis Carroll, rather than Baum, as a guide. Prince Thag, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, loses his name in a forest of confusion and meets a man with Humpty-Dumpty's disregard for linguistic norms…. (pp. 148-49)

The second Prince, Gallow, finds a different kind of nonsense in the Forest of Willbe: the destruction of meaning brought about by wrenching language to economic ends. (p. 149)

Prince Jorn's labor, on the other hand, moves from nonsense to sense. He finds the true witch's broom hidden in a clump of witches'-broom, solves a riddle, and, with help, discovers that counting a thousand thousands (part of his appointed task) is not the same as counting to a million.

The nonsensical lands encountered by the three Princes are not, as in Lewis Carroll, the whole fantastic universe. Rather they are isolated pockets of absurdity like the places Dorothy and her friends encounter in The Emerald City of Oz…. They help, through contrast, to define the norm, which is an orderly realm despite its surprises and inversions…. And … everything will come out right in the end, for that is the kind of world we are dealing with. Thurber has not departed so far from old-style fairy tale as to change that essential feature.

Nor does he drastically alter the fairy tale structure which leads to such a happy conclusion. Each of the fairy tales, as Charles S. Holmes points out, has approximately the same pattern. It begins with a problem—what Propp calls a lack or insufficiency—proceeds through several attempts at solution by false heroes, men of worldly importance; and ends with the true hero in triumph, with girl or kingdom or some more private reward, like the respect of his fellows.

The smaller movements within this overall scheme also derive from traditional Märchen. There are interdictions and violations of interdictions, announcements, departures, thresholds, deceptions, meetings with helpers, and confrontations with enemies, all in the prescribed sequence, though not every element occurs in every tale.

It seems that Thurber determined to follow the rules of his chosen form, just as he did with his fables. Like the fables, however, the fairy tales add something above and beyond the structure: a certain self-consciousness, a covert announcement that, yes, the form is antique, but the author has reasons for selecting it and no other. Those episodes mentioned earlier, the labors of the three princes, call attention to the fairy tale conventions by briefly violating them. Suddenly encountering the twentieth century in the middle of the story is a shock that makes us more aware of, and grateful for, the return of an older, quieter world. Other things direct our notice from the story to things outside of it: references to "tarcomed" and "nacilbuper" and the "Forest of Artanis" (read them backward), echoes of popular songs, caricatures of people like New Yorker editor Harold Ross, figures of speech just short of anachronism, and unexpected playful turns, like a villain who feeds his enemies, not to pigs or dogs or tigers, but to geese.

Because of this self-consciousness, one is always aware, in reading Thurber's fantasies, that the happy ending is a fragile thing that depends very much on our accepting the conventions of the genre. It is different from the inevitable falling into place of a true Märchen. We can accept the idea that a fairy tale Prince and Princess will live happily ever after, but we are all too aware that we tarcomeds and nacilbupers will not. What we can do is to retell their stories and take courage and comfort from them.

The hero of a Thurber fairy tale is, in addition to being the prince or plucky commoner of Märchen, an artist of some sort. Prince Jorn is a musician and versifier, as is the nearly identical Prince Zorn of The 13 Clocks. Other Thurber heroes are poets, toymakers, and jesters. The fairy tale hero is common man in romantic guise, but the Thurber hero is uncommon man, the man of imagination and sensibility. There is a reflection of culture in this difference. Oppressed peasant storytellers tell how a youngest son or a soldier—someone of relatively low rank—can attain maturity and the dignity of marriage and property. Thurber tells how an artist—someone whose rank seemed to him to be low and sinking lower in mid-century America—can restore an ailing land and indeed is the only one who can do so.

Because Thurber's heroes are more imaginative than those around them, they are more in touch with the marvels of the fantasy world. They understand the linguistic and sensory playfulness represented by magic; it is just the sort of thing they themselves strive for in their art. Perhaps this is the reason that Thurber portrays magic primarily as a beneficent force in league with Jorn or Zorn or the great Quillow. For every hostile magical creature there are two or more that aid the hero in his task…. The less familiar creatures of The 13 Clocks waver interestingly between good and evil, but generally choose good…. (pp. 149-51)

In [Thurber's fantasies] he was working out for himself questions of love and honor, time and mortality, and the role of the artist in modern society. He uses fantasy as a kind of algebra, or a special language, in which to evaluate and debate all sides of the case. In order for his conclusions to be fair and valid, however, he must treat the fantasy form with the respect due any artistic endeavor, as he was well aware…. (p. 151)

As simple and brief as Thurber's fairy tales are, they are … packed with philosophy …, for philosophical inquiry pervades plot, characters …, and even the very language of each story. They are the natural vehicles for Thurber's qualified reaffirmation of faith in his craft and in mankind. (p. 152)

Brian Attebery, "The Baum Tradition," in his The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (copyright © 1980 by Brian Attebery), Indiana University Press, 1980, pp. 134-53.∗

Jonathan Yardley

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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 collaborator, E. B. White, remains perhaps the country's most beloved writer. Two decades after his death, Thurber seems to have been relegated to the status of "minor" writer: a humorist of the New Yorker school and the author of a handful of short stories that appear, even now, in anthologies.

But Thurber, as he himself well knew, was far more than that; his literary legacy is larger and more durable….

Thurber's humor, as these letters at times brilliantly demonstrate, has a timeless quality that should guarantee him a readership far into the future. It is for one thing a deeply American humor, rooted not in the brittle style of The New Yorker but in his own native Ohio…. He loved the Anglo-American language, explored all its labyrinthine passages, and played with it constantly—yet his humor depended far less on facile wordplay than on deeper, more universal quirks of character and incident. (p. 3)

In these letters Thurber writes of many things. New York…. The new age…. Humor: "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 that it may do some good."

Indeed it may. The humor of James Thurber probably had done as much "good" as that of any American writer of the 20th century. Certainly he ranks with those who influenced him. Twain and Lardner in particular, and far above those whom he influenced; in that crowd, only Peter De Vries comes close Because he was possessed by what he described in My Life and Hard Times as "the damp hand of melancholy," he was all the more keenly aware of the need to bring forth the bright light of laughter. (p. 13)

Jonathan Yardley, "Amusements and Diversions from the Thurber Carnival," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), November 8, 1981, pp. 3, 13.

William Zinsser

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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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

[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 the old archetypes. To say that something is 'Thurberesque' is a code for something quite complex and almost unexplainable, but it certainly has much to do with this nearly blind writer's luminous perceptions of the shapes and movements of our unadmitted fears, presumptions and pretensions. (p. 20)

My appreciation of [Selected Letters of James Thurber] in great measure depends on my taste for Thurber the artist. At one level there is little spectacular about them…. But, if you like Thurber, then the epistolatory style will be a solid addition to the corpus, revealing not so much his unknown intimate side as his ability, under personal stress, to issue personal communiqués of marvellous clarity, generosity and quietly mad jokiness. His throwaway lines can be piercingly accurate and funny….

With his psuedo-fables and cartoons he both celebrated and damned a critical passage in American life, a change from an old sedateness to a new breathlessness, from leisurely straw-picking to hyped-up 'technics'. He made fun of the change, obliquely and at a subtle, wild angle. The present edition of the letters is a joy to have, but I strongly suspect that there is another, less tameable and genial fellow buried in personal letters deemed, by his editors, just a little too—er—Thurberesque to be allowed to roam freely in the public eye. (p. 21)

Clancy Sigal, "'The Great Party of the Twenties Seemed to End Too Soon for Him'," (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1982; reprinted by permission of Clancy Sigal), in The Listener, Vol. 107, No. 2745, January 28, 1982, pp. 20-1.

Alan Coren

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888

[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 been, if we base our reasonable assumptions upon the writer that he unquestionably was, is simply not here. Did he never write privately, to anyone, about lust or love or marriage or extra-marriage, to confide, or complain, or rejoice, or even merely to tell?

The question does not proceed from irrelevant prurience, but from honest literary curiosity: for Thurber's published writings across thirty years take the disordered relationships of men and women (or, as he would jot it, men versus women) as a constant theme. And what are a writer's letters for, if not for the elucidation of the printed stuff? Particularly since the humorist's trade is so often the refraction of experience, the fabrication of an alternative reality from material whose raw state he has used his best endeavours to conceal. Does the devoted reader of Thurber not yearn for a detective hour or two spent tiptoeing through The Unselected Letters?…

Certainly, what Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks have gathered together would not, I think, have passed Thurber's obsessively rigorous criteria, nor received Harold Ross's imprimatur. They are dull dogs, almost all, too much concerned with the sort of day-to-day trivia of interest only to the recipients, the keeping-abreast, the private jokes, the inquiries into mutual friends, the evocation of mutual memories. The writing itself, casual to the point of sloppiness, is utterly uncharacteristic of so self-punishingly meticulous a prosemaker, and the laughs are very few indeed…. Nor does it seem to me, setting aside the quality of the expression, to be much use as a companion volume: it will, surely, be bought only by those who already have a considerable knowledge and love of Thurber's humour …, [but] I cannot for the life of me see how their reading of the works or their understanding of the man will be enriched by these disappointing shards of correspondence.

Except where the Eye is concerned. The agony of the eye was something from which Thurber could manufacture scant comedy (although there was one wonderful exception, The Admiral on the Wheel, written in the years before the whole terror hit), and thus, commercially unparlayable, it occupies a frequent and prominent position in his letters. The Eye, in fact, hovers over this book like a masonic emblem; at times, the book itself feels like a biography of the Eye.

Not the left eye, dead before our story begins, shot out (or, more accurately, in) during one of those childhood games in which one child pretends to be William Tell Jr. and the other pretends to know what he's doing with a bow and arrow; but the right eye. For forty years, the right eye had to make its way in the world alone; it was a tenacious and a courageous way, but that its long struggle was, quite literally, unequal, these sad letters bear bitter testimony…. The Eye struggled to do the work both of itself and of its absent mate; which doomed it. From the moment that the arrow struck, the writing was on the wall for the bereft Eye, and fading fast. It finally failed in 1947, when its host was fifty-two, leaving him fourteen further years of, now pitch, darkness.

I anthropomorphize this Eye, I give it a separate identity, only because Thurber insists upon doing so himself. He saw it as slightly apart from him, with its own personality, its own destiny, indeed its own health; the Eye's life affected his, but it belonged more to the Eye than it did to him. He observed it from within, like a compassionate, concerned and frequently irritated friend, knowing that it would one day let him down and leave him to struggle inadequately on, alone….

We cannot, obviously, evaluate [the challenge of coping with a handicap]; all we can do is evaluate the product of the challenged years, and there is no question but that there is more of the good and the true and the unquestionably Thurber in the writing of the last two, dark, decades than in the brighter two that preceded them. That all I have taken away with me from this dislocated cobbling of his letters is the reminder of the hell of his blindness, I should probably find deeply distressing, if that reminder did not also serve to astound me with the magnitude of the tragedy which Thurber overcame in order to produce the dazzling magnitude of his comedy. The example charges up the spirit, and humiliates one's own cheap grievances.

Alan Coren, "Coming to Terms with the Eye," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4113, January 29, 1982, p. 101.

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Thurber, James


Thurber, James (Vol. 11)