James Thurber 1894–1961
(Full name James Grover Thurber) American dramatist, essayist, short story writer, cartoonist, illustrator, memoirist, and author of children's fiction.
The following entry presents an overview of Thurber's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 11, 25.
One of the most popular and respected humorists of the twentieth century, James Thurber was often called the Mark Twain of his era. Among his admirers were Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Along with E. B. White, Robert Benchley, and other writers under the tutelage of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Thurber set the standard for sophisticated humor and prose style for a generation of American readers and writers. His stories, essays, and drawings combine the mundane and the absurd to create characters and situations at once strange and familiar that continue to fascinate and amuse his audience.
Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894, the second son of Charles and Mary Fisher Thurber. His parents, a not very successful father and strong-willed mother provide the apparent models for the "Little Man" and the domineering woman characters that populate much of his writing. As a youth, Thurber suffered a severe eye injury while playing a game of William Tell with his older brother. This accidental blinding in one eye is believed to have contributed to the gradual loss of sight-in the other eye, and Thurber was completely blind by 1951. A good student and writer for his high school newspaper and literary and humor magazines at Ohio State University, Thurber nonetheless struggled in college, taking a year off in 1914–15 and leaving without a degree in 1918. Excluded from military service by his blindness, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the U. S. State Department in Washington and then at the U. S. Embassy in Paris. Upon his return to Columbus in 1920, Thurber became a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. In 1922, he married Althea Adams. His only child, Rosemary, was born in 1931. During the mid-1920s. Thurber began writing humorous fiction in his spare time. In 1925, he took a position as a rewrite man for the Paris edition of The Chicago Tribune. Returning to New York in 1926, he worked for the New York Evening Post and continued his freelance writing. The following year he met E. B. White, who landed him a job on the fledgling New Yorker magazine. Thurber left the New Yorker in 1933, but continued to be a regular contributor to the magazine until his death in 1961.
Thurber and the New Yorker were perfectly suited to each other, and his "Talk of the Town" column soon made him a celebrity. He and White collaborated on Is Sex Necessary? in 1929. His short, humorous pieces from unusual perspectives provided the material for The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), and My Life and Hard Times (1933). These works gave him a solid and enthusiastic audience, and he left the New Yorker in 1933. After half a dozen collections of stories, essays, and drawings, and a successful play-The Male Animal (1940), written in collaboration with his college friend Elliot Nugent—Thurber turned to children's books, publishing Many Moons (1943), The Great Quillow (1944), The White Deer (1945), The Thirteen Clocks (1950), and The Wonderful O (1957) while also producing seven collections of stories, essays, drawings, and fables for his loyal adult audience. Thurber's most famous story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," appeared in My World—and Welcome to It (1942), along with another popular story, "The Catbird Seat." Thurber's own favorite, and that of his long-time friend White, was the decidedly serious reflection on the human penchant for war—The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (1939).
Since its earliest appearance, Thurber's work has been highly acclaimed. Critics have appreciated his precise, fluid style, his apt phrasing, and the understated caricatures in his drawings. Hemingway called him the best writer in America, and T. S. Eliot thought his works would endure as "documents of his age." Though his writing style and type of humor has become somewhat dated, his early essays, his "casual" pieces, and the drawings from his years at the New Yorker continue to delight and provoke readers and critics alike. In recent years, some observers have pointed out the misanthropy and bitterness of many of his characterizations and the personal unhappiness of his final years. However, Robert D. Arner calls Thurber's art an accurate documenting of the Depression era. To prove his point, Arner quotes author E. B. White: "it [Thurber's work] is not merely a criticism of manners … but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to."