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Thurber, James 1894–1961

Thurber, a short story writer, cartoonist, essayist, and dramatist, is generally considered the outstanding American humorist of this century. A distinctive stylist both in his prose and his cartoons, Thurber satirized the events of middle-class life and the relations between the sexes. His portrait of the bewildered...

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Thurber, James 1894–1961

Thurber, a short story writer, cartoonist, essayist, and dramatist, is generally considered the outstanding American humorist of this century. A distinctive stylist both in his prose and his cartoons, Thurber satirized the events of middle-class life and the relations between the sexes. His portrait of the bewildered modern man beset by the world's mundane woes appeared so consistently in his work as to become the stereotypical Thurber man. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Julian Moynihan

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In a tribute to Mary Thurber written after her death in 1955 and reprinted in Alarms and Diversions Thurber testified to the life-long occupation of his mind by a sense of confusion apparently brought on by his formidable mother's addiction to practical jokes involving elaborate disguises and sudden shifts of identity. Images of this confusion—Mitty's autism, the 'chronic word garblings' of lady conversationalists in the party pieces, the famous drawings of the seal in the bedroom, the House-Woman and the enormous inscrutable rabbit blocking life's path to the Goal—proliferate in his work, suggesting that he wrote and drew with a firm professional hand to exorcize a deep uncertainty which was often dangerously close to sheer panic. And yet, because he was an authentic artist, Thurber's invention has given a shape and face to the unconfessed dreams and angst of all but the most robust men….

Thurber's attitude toward his favourite subjects was always complicated and sometimes ambiguous. In celebrating the modern sex war he regularly portrayed Woman as just a little bit taller, tougher, surer and faster on the draw than her opponent, and he agreed with 'those wiser men who spoke of the female with proper respect, and even fear.' At the same time he called himself a feminist and backed the feminine conspiracy on the cogent grounds that women sought to seize power in order to prevent the world from being blown to fragments. Another of his obsessions was language. An inveterate wordgamesman and dictionary reader he brooded and wrote a good deal about the 'disfigurations of sense and meaning' which accompany Cold War propaganda tactics and about the 'carcinomenclature of our time' fostered by the adulteration of common speech by professional and technological jargons…. Thurber's whimsy is often more relevant to issues in the great world than first appears….

As Yeats once remarked, the peculiar heroism of modern artists is chiefly manifested in their unflinching attentiveness to the world's and the self's chaos as revealed to them by the contents of their own minds. Thurber had a good measure of this heroism….

Julian Moynihan, "No Nonsense," in New Statesman (© 1962 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 14, 1962, p. 872.

Louis Hasley

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Beyond question the foremost humorist of the twentieth century, James Thurber was a divided man. With minor exceptions he did not explore the century's large social and political problems. War, religion, crime, poverty, civil rights—these were not his subjects. Instead he struck at the immemorial stupidities, cruelties, and perversities of men that lie at the root of our ills. A disillusioned idealist, he satirized mean behavior to sound the clearest note of his discontent. Yet he considered himself an optimist or near kin to one. He insisted that the perceptive reader would detect in his work "a basic and indestructible thread of hope." (p. 504)

Aside from relatives and family servants, he gives us artists and intellectuals like himself, isolates in our time, self-exiled by a temperament alien to the world and at the same time treated contemptuously by that world. Validity might then be dismissed as an irrelevance because we are faced with two conflicting sets of ideas. It was the study of man, however, that absorbed Thurber, and the proof of his right to the title of artist lies in his ability to universalize his subjects.

The world of James Thurber is conjugal, social, artistic, and psychological, as it is in his favorite author, Henry James. It is, of course, less genteel, less sinister, less subtle, less refined, less elaborate than in James, but it fits the pace of life in today's journalistic offices and studios, as well as its upper-middle-class social gatherings that are viable only with plentiful alcoholic stimulation. Here the artist-intellectuals and their long-suffering spouses communicate among themselves, having only tangential contact with this or that "outsider" from the practical world of affairs. James Thurber found man a frightening subject, although a large part of his best work was in perceptive, affectionate, admiring tribute to [relatives,] friends and New Yorker associates…. (pp. 504-05)

In a civilization in which women were winning the battle of the sexes, Mitty the non-hero [in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"] is among the defaulters by virtue of allowing his wife to dominate him. He achieves secretly a kind of compensatory victory by indulging in interludes of stream-of-consciousness fantasy, triggered whenever the immediate outside event threatens to run him down—fantasy in which he vividly and heroically figures as a man among men. The story is a masterpiece of associational psychology in its shuttling between the petty, humiliating details of his outer life and the flaming heroism of his self-glorifying reveries. He becomes the prime exemplification of the Thurber man, as critics have called him, a figure of the little man such as appears prominently in other Thurber stories to the end of World War II. This man is likewise brilliantly celebrated in many of Thurber's sophisticatedly primitive cartoons, which are necessary adjuncts to the full appreciation of the people whom Thurber envisioned. Similarly, Mrs. Mitty is the practical, no-nonsense, hard-headed wife ("the Thurber woman") who bosses her husband about as she might an irresponsible child. (p. 506)

If Mitty has only an escapist's psychological victory, Martin's triumph [in "The Catbird Seat"] is complete and unalloyed; but both are widely considered exceptions in the female-dominated world of James Thurber. Still a third "exception" occurs in the fable, "The Unicorn in the Garden," wherein the man, whom the wife tries to have put in the booby-hatch, manages to have her put away instead. In the series of drawings called "The War Between Men and Women," it is the women who surrender to the men. Perhaps the number of such "exceptions" is sufficient to puncture the legend of the monolithic triumph of women over men in Thurber's world. (pp. 506-07)

In its contempt and grotesquerie, ["The Greatest Man in the World"] is equaled only by Ring Lardner's story "Champion" … in depicting a blind and indiscriminate hero worship by the American public, with a secondary indictment of the press in pandering to the debased tastes of its masses of readers. The nation's political leaders likewise share guilt with the press….

In the realm of slangy satire, "The White Rabbit Caper" is a hilarious take-off on radio mystery stories as written for children. An animal story with clever dialogue that teems with puns and is touched with rare fantasy, it is one of the funniest pieces Thurber ever wrote. At another extreme is "A Call on Mrs. Forrester," a beautifully imagined and sensitive account of a visit by the narrator to the charming Marian Forrester, the central character in the novelette, A Lost Lady, done in the manner of its author, Willa Cather. (p. 507)

Given Thurber's passion for brevity, clarity, and conciseness, and his satirist's desire to teach, it was reasonable that the fable as a form should exert a magnetic attraction upon him. That his didacticism was intentional many of the morals readily show…. Though most of the fables are universal in their cast, several are geared to political relevance in our day…. The most fully worked out and best realized symbolically is "The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble," an allegory of the operation of the Big Lie among nations and a satire of imperialistic, protective invasion. Ultimately the most charming and probably the most enduring of the fables is "The Unicorn in the Garden," a parable justifying the imagination and its sense for beauty, telling us that only those who can see a unicorn can truly see reality.

Dogs, mechanisms, language, women, marriage, and sex are the subjects about which Thurber wrote most of his delightful personal essays. (pp. 508-09)

One of the passions of James Thurber was his devotion to language. He battled often and zealously against obfuscation, against "the carcinomenclature" of "an agglomerative phenomenon of accumulated concretations." What he insisted on was clarity, accuracy, and sense. He blamed the merchandisers and the "political terminologists of all parties" for the continuing debasement of our language, asking instead that it be used with dignity and grace. Some of this advocacy is straight, but much of it is woven lightly and wittily into a great variety of situations and contexts, including word games…. (pp. 509-10)

Thurber was continuously preoccupied with relations between the sexes, bringing to the subject an extensive knowledge of modern psychology supported by a keen observation of what went on in the society around him…. The most characteristic of his women are business-like, matter-of-fact, dominating if not domineering, unintellectual, somewhat parasitical, and given to exasperating oversimplifications. Their husbands, feeling vaguely injured and resentful for having allowed the women to take command, must assume some small share of the responsibility with the wives for the quarrels—quarrels which are usually encouraged alcoholically during or after parties…. As to sexuality itself, Thurber temperamentally maintains (like Ade, Marquis, Lardner, and most literary humorists) a diffident distance and a decorously dressed posture. (p. 510)

A "sure grasp of confusion" is one of Thurber's hallmarks…. The various "confusion pieces," demonstrating the often perverse irrationality in human endeavor, must be rated among the most humorous of all of Thurber's blends of the absurd and the commonplace.

During the last ten years of his life, Thurber turned more and more to serious treatments of literary subjects and people. His spirit followed a less creative, more critical turn, and while he never yielded wholly to despair, the note of gloom is unmistakable. Art, he declared, was "the one achievement of Man which has made the long trip up from all fours seem well advised." But the present time, he said, meaning around 1960, "is one of formlessness in literature, in drama, and in comedy as well as in speech." Comedy, he asserted in a piece called "Magical Lady," "has ceased to be a challenge to the mental processes. It has become a therapy of relaxation, a kind of tranquillizing durg."… In pointing up the decline of comedy, he calls attention to the prevalence of horror jokes and comics, sick comedians, and a Zeitgeist that is manic. (pp. 511-12)

Turning to a final category, we cannot fail to recognize Thurber's eminence in the portrayal of actual people. There is, first of all, the volume that has the rightful claim to be considered his best, the somewhat burlesque autobiography, My Life and Hard Times. Despite its autobiographical basis, it is the most consistently creative and humorous of all his books. (p. 512)

Thurber's style is an enviable model of twentieth-century American—supple, witty, unmannered, sensitive to words, marked by humor that ranges from the quiet to the explosive, and by inspired metaphor…. About the only device of humor that crops up with regularity is some form of paronomasia—elaborate punning or word play, often done with song lyrics, as in "I want a ghoul just like the ghoul that buried dear dead Dad." Confusion is sometimes served by a snowballing technique or by exaggeration, as in "The Night the Ghost Got In." That night the police answered a burglar alarm from the Thurber residence by "a Ford sedan full of them, two on motorcycles, and a patrol wagon with about eight in it and a few reporters."

Thurber once declared in a letter to this writer, "I almost never plan the use of a literary device, but just take it when it comes along." Of course a number of them occasionally came along, several of which are the incongruous catalogue, the reduction ad absurdum, the comic neologism, understatement, altered clichés, nonsense, alliteration, slang, parody, literary allusion, and invective.

Thurber was, it must be conceded, a fastidious stylist with psychological depth, subtlety and complexity; with a keen sense of pace, tone, ease, and climax; and with imagination that often wandered into surrealism. He handled minor tragedy with unparalleled expertness. Revisions were frequent and painstaking, a given piece often being revised ten or (as with "Mitty") fifteen times. (pp. 512-13)

The areas of contemporary life which he left unexplored are extensive, as indicated at the outset of this essay. There are no lengthy sustained, creatively structured works. He was a critic of manners only (as were James and Jane Austen!). Aside from the fantasy pieces, his writing was in one way or another confined to his experiences, which show an almost provincial concern with a narrow band of society…. And except for certain engaging eccentricities in his subjects, his nostalgia provides a nil nisi bonum principle of selection. (p. 513)

On the score of attitudes to women he was ambivalent. Half-satirically he admitted that men had made a mess of things and that women would have to take over. In Lanterns and Lances, published the year of his death, he drops the satire and says flatly, "If I have sometimes seemed to make fun of Woman, I assure you it has only been for the purpose of egging her on." Throughout his work there is a distrust of science and reason, for which men are principally responsible; it would seem, therefore, that Thurber subscribes, though in no unmasculine way, to the more intuitive and human approaches to reality which characterize the feminine makeup.

He was chary of ultimates. His writings set this life in no perspective of religious or anti-religious conviction. Escapist that he admitted to being, one feels that he kept religious questionings and promptings closely in check. (p. 514)

Thurber's widow, Helen Thurber, in the … Foreword to the posthumous Lanterns and Lances, is intent also on refuting any attribution of final hopelessness to her late husband. "It was not too long before his death that he wrote the lines: 'Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.' He showed all three at times—anger certainly, fear perhaps—but he always put awareness above the others. That, I think, is the real key to James Thurber as a person and as a writer."

And with that expert testimony, why not let the record stand until better comes along? (p. 515)

Louis Hasley, "James Thurber: Artist in Humor," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Autumn, 1974, pp. 504-15.

Kenneth Hurren

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The temptation to tangle with an analysis of the late James Thurber's gay and anguished humour is generally irresistible to reviewers confronted with such excerpts from the work of this inconsistently gifted man as may, from time to time, be offered upon a stage. It probably will, however, be resisted by me. This is partly because analysis entails rationality, and I doubt whether that is quite the thing to bring to any question involving humorous taste; partly because I can see the folly of attempting a task in which so many devoted students have failed; partly, too, because I have no really confident view of Thurber, whose fancies sometimes entertained me immoderately, but whose reputation had, I think, to survive some of the most unfunny and aimless pieces of writing and drawing ever put between covers; but mostly, perhaps, because Thurber intended the stuff to be between covers (either in magazines or in books) and however it goes in the theatre has little relevance to its real quality.

This is not to say that some of it doesn't take pretty vivaciously to the boards: a show some years ago called A Thurber Carnival managed to turn a lot of the stories and observations of the minutiae of American living into engaging sketches and I remember it with affection. (p. 22)

Thurber [was] a sporadic comic genuis and … a warm and compassionate observer of human frailty, echoing the bewilderment, the perplexity and the unquiet desperation that occasionally besiege us all. (p. 23)

Kenneth Hurren, "One Man's Thurber," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 5, 1975, pp. 22-3.

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