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.)
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.
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,...
(The entire section is 2,711 words.)