Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790

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 entire section contains 24114 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this James Thurber study guide. You'll get access to all of the James Thurber content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

Is Sex Necessary?; Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do [with E. B. White] (essays) 1929
The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities (essays) 1931
The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments (essays, drawings) 1932
My Life and Hard Times (memoir) 1933
The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (essays) 1935
Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces (essays) 1937
The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (fable, drawings) 1939
Fables for Our Times and Famous Poems Illustrated (fables, drawings) 1940
The Male Animal [with Elliot Nugent] (drama) 1940
My World-and Welcome to It (short stories, drawings) 1942
Men, Women and Dogs (short stories, drawings) 1943
Many Moons (fairy tale, drawings) 1943
The Great Quillow (fairy tale, drawings) 1944
The Thurber Carnival (essays, short stories, drawings) 1945
The White Deer (fairy tale, drawings) 1945
The Beast in Me and Other Animals (essays, drawings) 1948
The Thirteen Clocks (fairy tale, drawings) 1950
The Thurber Album (reminiscences, drawings) 1952
Thurber country (reminiscences, sketches, drawings) 1953
Thurber's Dogs (essays, short stories, drawings) 1955
Further Fables for Our Time (fables, drawings) 1956
The Wonderful O (fairy tale, drawings) 1957
Lanterns and Lances (essays) 1961
Credos and Curios (essays, sketches, reminiscences) 1962
A Thurber Carnival (essays, short stories, drawings) 1962
Thurber and Company (essays, drawings) 1966
Selected Letters of James Thurber (letters) 1981
The Night the Ghost Got In (short stories) 1983
Collecting Himself (essays, short stories, drawings) 1990

Nathaniel Benchley (review date 25 November 1962)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

SOURCE: "If There Is No Human Comedy, It Will Be Necessary to Create One," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 25, 1962, p. 3.

[The following positive review considers Thurber's Credos and Curios in relation to the author's whole body of work.]

Reviewing a book by James Thurber is something like describing the Taj Mahal; what can possibly be said that hasn't been said before? His twenty-fifth book is a collection of some of his last pieces and some not so recent, and it demonstrates, as though the point hadn't already been made, the wide range of Thurber's subjects and moods. There is none of the wild comedy of the early, or My Life and Hard Times, Thurber, nor any of the quick satire of the Fables for Our Time; this book shows the brooding, sometimes bitter Thurber, alternating with flashes of warmth and sentiment that are all the more welcome for being unexpected.

The things that troubled Thurber were well worth brooding about, such as bigotry, Babbittry, and the decline of humor, to say nothing of the future of mankind and the cult of burgeoning stupidity. These he attacked in a number of ways, sometimes in the short-story form, sometimes in parable, and sometimes in the form of a two-man monologue (or, if you prefer, a one-man dialogue) in which he and a straight man discussed a subject from as many angles as possible, in the end leaving it torn and bloody on the rug. In one piece, called "The Future, If Any, of Comedy, or, Where Do We Go From Here?" he said: "I even remember when we wrote about the bright human spectacle, and the human comedy. If there is no human comedy, it will be necessary to create one. How long can the needle of the human gramophone stay in the rut of Angst without wearing out and ending in the repetition of a ghoulish gibbering?… Life at the moment is a tale told in an idiom, full of unsoundness and fury, signifying nonism." And if there was anything that Thurber hated (and there were several things) it was nonism.

On the other hand, there are seven pieces about friends or acquaintances: Mary Petty, E. B. White, Elliott Nugent, Robert Benchley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George S. Kaufman, and John McNulty. They are all written about people he admired, and the warmth that glows through the McNulty piece makes a fond and fitting conclusion to the book. Describing his friend, he said, "He was small, I guess, measured by physical height and weight, but I have a tendency to look up when I think of him, for to me he was nine feet tall. That was the stature, at any rate, of his unflagging comic spirit…. There was nothing of the literary elf about McNulty, who once said to me, 'Only people with Vincent for a middle name write about leprechauns.'" And he quotes the last letter McNulty wrote him, a one-sentence message shortly before McNulty's death saying simply: "I think that maybe threescore years and ten is subject to change without notice."

All of the pieces, both the bitter and the gentle, have one thing in common, and that is Thurber's love and mastery of words. Thurber could juggle words like a circus acrobat, flinging them high in the air, bouncing them off similar and dissimilar words, breaking them up into their component parts and juggling them for a while, then reassembling them all into a sentence or paragraph that sang like a brook. His similes were incomparable ("He is as menacing as a flung knife." "Falling back on journalism is like falling back full-length on a chest of carpenter's tools"), and his ear for the sound of a sentence was flawless, as when he described Ross as "a Borglum figure out of the deep tangled wildwood of the Far West, a brilliant and restless man of distinguished profanity and articulate gesture." He could make words do anything he wanted (who else could write a book without using the letter "O"?) and what he wanted was nothing but the best.

Frank Getlein (review date 22 December 1962)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

SOURCE: "Thurber's Last Collection," in The New Republic, Vol. December 22, 1962, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review the critic deems that Thurber's posthumously published essays and sketches in Credos and Curios are a representative summary of Thurber's career.]

My introduction to graduate studies consisted, in part, of a mournful account, by a seminar director, of how the next of kin of practically all literary figures were permitted to lay ignorant hands on whatever papers were lying about and, even more unthinkably, were permitted to throw them into the trash barrel or the fireplace in the name of cleaning the place up for the realtor. The seminar director felt, very strongly, that law should protect all papers for the eventual arrival of the graduate student to count, collate, and publish what in his lifetime the subject himself had not published.

On the other hand, I know a lady in Milwaukee who has a long-standing agreement with her next-door neighbor: whichever of them dies first, the other is pledged to rush into the house, empty the bureaus and desks, and burn everything.

Both attitudes have been evoked by the posthumous publication of Thurber's last collection of short pieces with a foreword by Mrs. Thurber, which at first gives the impression of being a conventional memorial. The fact, however, seems to be that Credos and Curios was planned, and titled, by Thurber himself and is not a sweeping up of manuscripts left lying around. Moreover, all of the 21 pieces were previously published in a wide variety of magazines or books. The present selection is his own and clearly represents an assembled statement he felt worth repeating.

"Credos" in the title is an alarming word and it may have been the cause for the alarm some reviewers have expressed about the book. In the last decade of his life Thurber's gloomy pronouncements about modern times caused a lot of people to sigh for the carefree life in old Ohio, where football players were transported to the state university on scholarships, where electricity was thought to leak from empty light sockets, and where a memorable Thurber uncle was cut down in his prime by the Dutch Elm disease.

Thurber himself suffered the diminishing of faith and the lack of prudence to state publicly that McCarthy, in addition to his other crimes, had pretty well killed comedy. In this Thurber was wrong. He had himself taken on McCarthy—and bested him—a good decade and a half before McCarthy became a menace. There is no single character in the show to correspond directly with the late Senator, but the whole spirit of bumbling evil that is the antagonist of The Male Animal is the spirit of the times that made McCarthy, incredibly, a formidable figure.

Yet the evidence of the book is not that the Ohio days represent the golden youth of the writer, with gloom and doom closing in with the closing years, or, for that matter, with the closing in of eyesight. On the contrary, the earliest piece in the book, dated 1928, is a lot gloomier than anything that comes from more recent times.

A good part of Thurber's credo is expressed in the form of tributes to his friends—Benchley, McNulty, Elliott Nugent, George S. Kaufman. They all behaved professionally in the way Thurber regarded as ideal. They had the gifts of sharp observation and precise phrasing which he had himself. To a man they were and still are underrated. Thurber was writing for all of them and for himself, though not deliberately, when he wrote, "The heavier critics have underrated Benchley because of his 'short flight,' missing his distinguished contribution to the fine art of comic brevity. He would thank me not to call him an artist, but I think he was an artist who wouldn't give up to it, like a busy housewife fighting the onset of a migraine headache."

Probably the most beautiful of the many beautiful drawings in the book is the one on the jacket, "Thurber and his Circle," which shows the author, arms aloft, talking enthusiastically to a roomful of slumbering men, women, dogs and pictures on the wall. The core of the book seems to be a series of pieces about talk, or of talk. Sometimes they are stories of people talking about talking in one context or another. Throughout the section, Thurber is enchanted by what can be done with words and appalled by what is being done to them by forces as different as television, psychoanalysis—another old opponent, early bested—and the national determination to get to the moon. Or are these topics all that different? Possibly Thurber, at the risk of being denounced as a senile punster, is, besides getting off a steady stream of word-play, seriously defending language itself from the encroachments of barbarian hordes who have in common only their ignorance of language and their easy assumption that they own it.

The Atlantic Monthly (review date December 1962)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

SOURCE: "Three of a School," in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 20, No. 6, December, 1962, pp. 170, 172.

[In the following brief review, the critic laments that Thurber's Credos and Curios is likely his last work.]

When a writer has entertained us so well for so many years as James Thurber did, it is difficult to pick up his latest book and believe it will be the last, as the posthumous Credos and Curios may very well be, unless, please God, there is more uncollected Thurber lying around. The loss is all the more painful when we notice that the most recent pieces here collected show that the incomparable humorist retained every bit of brilliance and verve to the very end.

Most of these pieces, I suppose, might be labeled "casuals," though in the literal sense of the word Thurber never wrote anything casual in his life. His style was a product of intense concentration, and few writers of our time could pack more into a single page or paragraph. Much of his comic effect depended upon the ability to bring his entire point of view—really a weird kind of common sense—to bear upon the apparently trivial points his terrier mind could root out of the human confusion around us.

In his last years he turned more and more frequently to pieces of personal reminiscence, like his wonderful memorial to Harold Ross, where the humor became more affectionate than biting. The present volume includes a number of fine personal portraits and tributes: to Robert Benchley, Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, and others. The most moving of these—and, fittingly enough, it is placed at the end of the book—is a salute to his dear departed friend John McNulty, which maintains so wonderfully the tone of hail and farewell that one finds oneself wishing Thurber were around to say the last words about himself.

Charles E. May (essay date Fall 1978)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

SOURCE: "Christian Parody in Thurber's 'You Could Look It Up,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 453-4.

[This essay views Thurber's baseball short story "You Could Look It Up" as an "ironic, modernized retelling" of a biblical tale.]

A basic characteristic of James Thurber's short fiction is that many of his stories are ironic treatments of established literary conventions, fables, and tales. Thurber imposes his own brand of satire on the adventure story in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the perfect crime story in "The Catbird Seat," and the American success story in "The Greatest Man in the World." Fables for Our Time represents a sustained effort in the ironic, modernized retelling of ancient stories and tales. Several critics have noted Thurber's technique of transferring the basic' plot line of such legends and conventions to a modern milieu and then cluing the reader to what he is doing by scattering puns and allusions to the original story throughout his retelling.

Usually the story behind the story is quite obvious and easily pointed out. However, no one has ever noted this basic Thurber device in his Lardner-like idiomatic baseball story, "You Could Look It Up," where the legend beneath the legend is more subtly embedded. Anthologized in, among several other collections, Warren and Erskin's best-selling Short Story Masterpieces, the story has surely been read by enough students and teachers for someone to have spotted the game Thurber is playing here; yet, as far as I can tell, his joke has remained private.

Thurber once said that history and legend are so close in his world that he often walks with one foot in each. Consequently, the reader who tries to follow the repeated suggestions of Doc, the narrator of "You Could Look It Up," and look up the story behind the story might, after failing to find it in history, try legend. An analysis of the plot and central characters of the story as well as the many puns and allusions throughout suggests that Thurber wants us to "look it up" in the New Testament. The story is an Americanized retelling of the scapegoat Christ story. In a country where baseball is the national sport, followed religiously every weekend, the record books of the game might easily parallel the Bible for those true believers who can quote scores and name players the way some preachers can quote scripture.

The plot of the story is quite simple. The manager of a baseball team in a slump signs a midget that no one can pitch to. However, the midget loses an important game by bunting (which, given his size, is the only kind of hit he can get) into an unintentional sacrifice play; his sacrifice and subsequent disappearance bring new spirit into the team. At first glance, this might seem a poor parallel to the coming of Christ whose sacrifice infuses a new spirit into mankind. However, the many puns and allusions throughout the story suggest that this is indeed Thurber's intention. The midget, Pearl du Monville, pops up "outa nowheres," a mysterious freak that the manager Squawks Magrew must touch to find out if he is real. Of no determinate sex ("Most people name of Pearl is girls," says Doc, "but this Pearl du Monville was a man, if you could call a fella a man who was only thirty-four, thirty-five inches high.") and of no determinate age ("He might 'a' been fifteen or he might 'a' been a hundred, you couldn't tell."); Pearl's name suggests who he is.

Pearl is the Pearl of Great Price, a metaphor that many Biblical commentators see as a prefigurative reference to Christ. Furthermore, Pearl is du Monville, that is, of the City of Man. Magrew introduces him as a "monseer," i.e., "man seer," of the "old, old school." Doc's favorite malapropism, repeated several times throughout the story, is "Bethlehem broke loose"; the phrase takes on added significance at the climax of the story when Pearl makes his sacrifice play: "Bethlehem broke loose on that ball field and in them stands. They ain't never been nothin' like it since creation was begun." This broadly comic scene symbolically enjambs both the birth and the death/ascension of Christ, as Pearl toddles toward first base "yelping like a stuck sheep" and Magrew sends him flying high into the air toward center field where the center fielder pulls him down "like he was liftin' a sleeping baby from a cradle."

Just as Christ "fails" in a literal sense while on earth, yet "succeeds" when he sacrifices self and ascends, so does Pearl lose the game, yet, after vanishing "into the thin of the air," truly "win" for the ball club by infusing a "new spirit" into them, thus ending their slump. Thurber's ironic game in this story then is not only to satirize the "golden days of the national pastime," but also to retell within a modern American myth and idiom, the story of the golden days of the Christian religion.

Wes D. Gehring (essay date Winter 1979–80)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2571

SOURCE: "The Comic Anti-Hero in American Fiction: Its First Full Articulation," in Thalia, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 11-14.

[In this essay, Gehring identifies Thurber's work for the New Yorker in the 1920s as one of the first instances of a new twentieth-century literary figure, the comic antihero.]

The comic anti-hero, who tries to create order in a world where order is impossible, is the dominant type in American humor today. Terms associated with anti-hero frustrations have entered our vocabulary, from Joseph Heller's "catch-22," from the book by the same name, to Kurt Vonnegut's "and so it goes," from Slaughterhouse-Five.

America's favorite cinema clown—Woody Allen—is based on the anti-hero mold, just as America's favorite cartoon character is—Charlie Brown. In today's American literature, the important comedy artists also draw equally from this mold, from Philip Roth and John Barth to the aforementioned Vonnegut and Heller. In fact, a Nobel Prize in literature has recently been given to one of the most distinguished creators of anti-heroes, Saul Bellow.

Credit for the full blossoming of the anti-hero in American humor is usually given to the early New Yorker magazine (1925–30s): "The magazine which was more responsible than any other medium for the rise of a new type of humor …" More specifically, this meant four writers—Clarence Day, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and S. D. Perelman, Walter Blair has noted:

… though they did not entirely break with the past—no humorist is likely to do this—they wrote humor based upon assumptions quite different from those of older humorists and employed techniques contrasting with older techniques.

The real significance of the New Yorker was that it allowed the American comic-anti-hero to come to center stage. Though he was not new to American humor, few comedy figures ever are, he had generally played a secondary role (when he appeared at all) to the more capable figures of the 19th-century American humor, such as the practical New England Yankee or the crafty frontiersman of the southwest (both capable crackerbarrel figures). A sustained articulation of the contrast between the two types of heroes is to be found in The Biglow Papers of James Russell Lowell. These letters juxtapose Yankee Hosea Biglow against anti-heroic Birdofredum Sawin. The complete stupidity of Birdofredum underlines the capabilities of the Yankee Hosea Biglow.

It should also be noted that even the capable 19th century figure—the crackerbarrel type—could sometimes display anti-heroic characteristics. Norris Yates has labeled such case examples of the "wise fool":

… the humorous writers frequently made the country-store philosopher expound unwelcome truths behind a protective mask of character deficiency or of linguistic, logical or factual error … Thus Huck Finn notices that the hogs have the run of a certain country church, and he says, "Most folks don't go to church only when they've got to; but a hog is different."

Secondary characters like Birdofredum Sawin or "wise fools," such as Huck Finn, mark 19th century predecessors for the 20th century anti-hero. However, these anti-hero ancestors existed in a comedy world still considered to be rational. Thus, the dominant comedy type continued to be the capable, reasoning crackerbarrel philosopher. Yates implied just that when he noted that "… one important difference between them [the crackerbarrel philosophers] and the Little Man [the comic anti-hero] is that the latter is not certain of his identity."

As American comedy tastes began to find an increased affinity with the anti-hero, early in the 20th century, the antihero as well as anti-heroic traits became more visible in our comedy culture, from the cartoon strips of George Herriman ("Krazy Kat") and George McManus ("Bringing Up Father") to vaudeville comics like Joe Cook and Ed Wynn. Yet it still remained for the aforementioned New Yorker writers to create the first full articulation of the anti-hero.

A close analysis of this New Yorker work reveals five distinctive characteristics of the comic anti-hero. Each characteristic also constitutes a break with what was then still the dominant character type in American humor—the capable figure. Particular attention will be paid to the work of Benchley and Thurber, because it best exemplified the antihero and because they were most productive during this period.

First, the comic anti-hero of these New Yorker writers generally tends to have time on his hands. The use made of this leisure time is probably most often associated with Thurber (thanks to his "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") and his protagonist's fantasy daydreams of bravery and high adventure. It is the free time fate of this figure to be a "hero" only in dreams:

… Captain Mitty stood up and strapped on his huge Webley-Vickers automatic. "It's forty kilometers through hell, sir," said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. "After all," he said softly, "what isn't?" The pounding of the cannon increased; there was the rattat-tatting of machine guns …

Something struck his shoulder. "I've been looking all over this hotel for you," said Mrs. Mitty. "Why do you have to hide in this old chair?"

Secondly, the New Yorker anti-hero virtually never seems to have the opportunity or the inclination to foster an interest in politics. His is a non-political but frustrating domestic life, occasionally punctured by an equally frustrating sortie to the store, or a small social gathering. These minor domestic chores must take first priority for him to maintain some hold on reality. This hold, which is slipshod at best, is put at a precarious imbalance by world events and political figures. Thus, when a comic anti-hero makes one of his very rare excursions into the political arena, reality begins to swirl down the drain:

Mussolini seemed to be a good man to interview; so I got an interview with him. "Mr. Mussolini," I said, "as I understand your theory of government, while it is not without its Greek foundations, it dates even farther back, in its essence to the Assyrian system."

"What?" asked Mussolini.

"I said, as I understand your theory of government, while it is not without its Greek foundations, it dates even farther back to the ancient Assyrian system. Am I right?"

"Assyrian here seen Kelly? K-E-double-L-Y. That was a good song, too," said Il Duce.

"A good song is right," I replied. "And now might I ask, how did you come by that beard?"

"That is not a beard," replied the Great Man.

"That is my forehead I am smooth shaven, as a matter of fact."

"So you are, so you are," I apologized. "I was forgetting."

We both sat silent for a while, thinking of the old days in Syracuse High.

The third characteristic of the New Yorker comic anti-hero is constant frustration. Any attempt to lead a rational life is destined to fail; it is an irrational world for him, and any attempt to bring order to it results in total frustration. The frustrations themselves, however, can be lumped into two main danger areas.

Women represent the first category of these potentially severe frustration spots for the man. The secret to this female power can be found in Thurber's "Destructive Forces in Life." Near the beginning of the story he pens a drawing of an unhappy man and smiling wife, entitling it "A Mentally Disciplined Husband with Mentally Undisciplined Wife." This domestic mugshot leads to the sad story of one more frustrated male. But the key at this point is the conclusion of the tale: "… the undisciplined mind [that of the woman] runs far less chance of having its purposes thwarted, its plans distorted, its whole scheme and system wrenched out of line. The undisciplined mind, in short, is far better adapted to the confused world in which we live today than the streamlined mind [the disciplined mind—that of the man]. This is, I am afraid, no place for the streamlined mind."

To have an "undisciplined mind" merely means that one can cope with life, make decisions, and proceed with living. This often invites eccentricity in the anti-hero woman. In a sense, this is an offensive maneuver—what better way is there to deal with an irrational world than by being irrational? Probably Thurber's best example of such a woman is his grandma:

who … lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house. It leaked … out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on. She would go around screwing in bulbs, and if they lighted up she would hastily and fearfully turn off the wall switch … happy in the satisfaction that she had stopped not only a costly but a dangerous leak.

But the point remains that, as eccentric as Grandma Thurber may be, she makes decisions and does things—and then gets on with living. Meanwhile, the male attempts to make sense of it all (both women and the world) and goes near crazy in the process of trying. Moreover, he cannot proceed without understanding and since there is no understanding….

Machinery represents the other category of these potentially severe frustration spots for the comic anti-hero—something Thurber captures quite nicely in a story whose title says it all: "The Car We Had to Push." Yet, for the best capsule definition of the dangers of mechanization, one must turn to Perelman's attempt to put together a mothproof closet known as the Jiffy-Cloz—"The shortest, cheapest method of inducing a nervous breakdown ever perfected."

It should be kept in mind, moreover, that the frustrations of the anti-hero, be they precipitated by females, machines, or other irritants, are often seen in physical terms. As has been the case with earlier American schools of comedy, what is generally funny about the New Yorker anti-hero's predicament are descriptions of physical frustration, frequently displayed through physical discomfort. A glance at some typically anti-heroic titles underlines this: "The Dog that Bit People," "The Night the Bed Fell," "The Calf in the Closet," and "How to Break 90 in Croquet." Moreover, this visual sense is accented by the celebrated drawings of Thurber, the delightful caricatures by Gluyas Williams that grace the Benchley stories, and the cartoons of Day.

The fourth characteristic of the New Yorker's anti-hero is the fact that he is portrayed as a childlike figure. This is most effectively shown in the eight stories comprising "Part One: Mr. and Mrs. Monroe" of Thurber's The Owl in the Attic—especially in "Mr. Monroe and the Moving Men." In this story, once the wife leaves, the husband is helpless. This helplessness occurs despite the fact that before she left" … little Mrs. Monroe had led her husband from room to room, pointing out what was to go into storage and what was to be sent to the summer place …" But now, "little Mrs. Monroe was away, unavoidably away, terrifyingly away," and he cannot remember where things should go and what she had said. And he certainly has no ready answers for the moving men's questions. The names they use to address him progressively indicate a loss of respect for him, and range from "chief" and "mister," to "buddy" and "pardner," to the child nickname of "sonny." By the end of the story, he is reduced to tears.

The fifth and final characteristic is that the anti-hero is an urban dwelling animal. In fact, the New Yorker was founded literally on an attack against the old value system—as a "magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque … a magazine avowedly published for a metropolitan audience …" Thus, the New Yorker focuses on the city. Yet, what is written about metropolitan living hardly constitutes a love letter.

The trials of city living are nicely sketched by Benchley. He has a poor sense of direction and the complex modern city only compounds this—in "Spying on the Vehicular Tunnel," he becomes lost on a walking tour of the Holland Tunnel. When he attempts to leave the driving to someone else (especially on formal dress occasions) by taking a taxicab, he invariably enters a musty vehicle that more closely resembles "… the old sleigh which used to stand up in the attic at Grandpa's barn in Mullbury" than an automobile. Moreover, there are so many people squeezed into the city that he must stand in long lines for everything. For Benchley, this is best exemplified by the post office—"It has been estimated that six-tenths of the population of the United States spend their entire lives standing in line in a post office."

Ironically, despite the fact that the New Yorker anti-hero is based in the city, he is a loner, either playing by himself or hiding. The city is full of eccentric people and he wants to avoid them. Yet, despite the fact that he avoids them, and possibly because he avoids them, his behavior also takes on something of an eccentric nature. For Benchley's hero this eccentricity might be diagnosed as seeing little animals, while Thurber's has a tendency to hide in boxes or let his mind wander a bit too far. Despite the fact that these visions become plausible when explained as merely momentary harmless regressions to childhood or as typical fleeting daydreams, they are dangerous if too much time is spent in these nether conditions, for they might lead the hero to be institutionalized. Thus, like Thurber's "A Unicorn in the Garden" (where a wife tries to get her husband committed for seeing this mythical animal, but is committed herself), the anti-hero must be careful to whom he relates these phobias.

These, then, are the five main characteristics of the New Yorker comic anti-hero. Though each one was not necessarily new to American humor, as a group they represented a distinct break with the more traditional (and capable) figure of American humor, such as the Yankee crackerbarrel philosopher. There is no easy explanation as to why the transition, from capable hero to incompetent, has taken place. Yet, if a consensus were necessary, it would no doubt focus on Wylie Sypher's statement: "The comic now is more relevant, or at least more accessible, than the tragic."

In a world that seems every day more irrational, the antihero is fated to be forever frustrated. He is frustrated because he tries to create order (as his 19th century comedy counterparts did) in a world where order is impossible. But the scope of today's crises goes beyond the common-sense platitudes of any updated crackerbarrel philosopher. The anti-hero is "… incapable of inventing homespun maxims about hundred-megaton bombs, or of feeling any native self-confidence in the face of uncontrollable fallout." He eventually deals with this frightening outside world by not dealing with it at all. Instead, he focuses: "microscopically upon the individual unit … that interior reality—or hysteria … In consequence, modern humor deals significantly with frustrating trivia." Thus, the non-political, domestically frustrated anti-hero comes to represent that old cartoon of the ostrich with his head in the sand. Initially the audience laughs at him (instead of with him, as was the case with the capable hero) both with a feeling of superiority and with surprise (that anyone could be so incompetent)—embracing two classic comedy axioms. Yet, at heart, it is an audience that is only too aware of the closeness, even parallels, existing between the anti-hero's frustrations and their own lives—frustrations that are often mere microcosms of greater fears.

Anti-heroes help us cope (through laughter) with this absurd modern world, where our only good defense seems to be a humor founded in absurdity.

Roderick Nordell (review date 14 December 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

SOURCE: "Laughter Improves Everything," in Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1981, pp. B1, B3.

[This review of Selected Letters of James Thurber warmly appreciates the substance of the volume but comments unfavorably on the selection criteria for which letters are included.]

James Thurber deftly took care of the whole business of collecting authors' letters when he reviewed an imagined volume of his own correspondence. "A certain Groping, to be sure, is discernible," he wrote, "but it doesn't appear to be toward anything." Used as a Foreword to this book of actual Thurber letters, his critique demonstrates in spades the vision of humor that glints through the following pages—a vision undiminished by the impaired eyesight that looms large in the letters but not without an edge of humorous perspective, too.

"Laughter need not be cut out of anything, since it improves everything." Thurber writes. "The power that created the poodle, the platypus, and people has an integrated sense of both comedy and tragedy." He goes on to give an example of taking humor seriously, as all good humorists must, even while fighting the impulse to take themselves too much so. "[Robert] Benchley once said, 'Only a humorist could take humor apart, and he has too much humor to do it.' Serious definition of a free-lance writer: One who gets paid per word or per piece. Benchley's humorous, hence perfect, definition: 'One who gets paid per word per piece or perhaps.' Which is the more serious, the utterly serious, or the partly humorous?"

Hence, no doubt. Thurber's regard for research, for getting things right as well as funny. When, for instance, he writes his celebrated book about editor Harold Ross and the New Yorker, he fusses in letters about not being able to set down everything that he would like to. The letters add to the Thurber legend of hard writing making easy reading, the man whose first drafts "sound twelve years old." whose supple prose is the product of multiple rewrites.

Yet Thurber is, or lets himself appear as human as the characters in his humor. He admits to being depressed when, amid all the lines attributed to New Yorker writers, "something of my own, of which I was fond, was never repeated to me by anyone." It was when someone asked him to draw new illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and he replied, "I tell you what let's do, let's keep the Tenniel drawings and I'll rewrite the book." He also rather liked the sign he put up at the office when partitions were being constantly changed: "Alterations going on as usual during business."

The word "selected" really means something in the title of this volume. We're left wanting more missives to editor Ross; for instance, who gets fewer pages than Thurber's eye doctor. We wish we could see the omitted letters, of which there were tantalizing glimpses in Burton Bernstein's biography of Thurber. There is a lot of white space in addition to the still incomparable Thurber drawings.

But the selected morsels are often hilarious or touching. Here is the comic technician debating getting extra mileage from cartoons by finding new captions for them. Here is the friend concerned with matters far from the printed page, whether or not the correspondents are writers, too, like Katherine and Andy (E. B.) White.

Thurber admires Sinclair Lewis for being nice to his secretary's elderly mother. He delights in being able to write "that hardest of all things, a letter to a girl six years old" (if only one of those were included!). He defends John O'Hara's small-boyishness, for unless artists "can remember what it was to be a little boy, they are only half complete as artist and as man."

"Every time is a time for humor, especially now," he writes to Andy White in the early 1950s, "because the Communists set out long ago to knock it off, and writing it is doing battle in one small corner of the field."

Thurber's corner has turned out to be not all that small and it is good to have these letters, so congenially edited by Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks, to fill it a little fuller.

David Montrose (review date 5 February 1982)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

SOURCE: Review of Selected Letters of James Thurber, in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2655, February 5, 1982, p. 24.

[This brief review faults the editors of this volume of letters for their selection criteria, calling the compilation disappointing.]

Thurber was an inveterate letter writer from college days until his death in 1961. When his appalling eyesight became blindness in 1947, he simply resorted to dictation; even afterwards, friends still received occasional notes in his big scrawl. That the letters provide a valuable biographical source was amply recognised by Burton Bernstein, whose Thurber (1975) frequently resembles a collection of letters interspersed with commentary. This being so, devotees of—Twain perhaps excepted—America's greatest humorist will approach this selection with much anticipation, especially as they have waited 15 years since their last fix: the posthumous Thurber and Company. They are liable to be disappointed.

The editors cannot be blamed for the familiarity of these letters, nearly all of which were included, along with many others in Thurber, they can be blamed for their eccentric selection methods. The earliest letter dates from August 1935, by which time Thurber was 40, had published three books (a fourth appeared later that year), and had already left the New Yorker. All very curious until one recalls that Thurber married Helen, his second wife, in July, 1935. So it seems that, for some reason, Mrs Thurber has used her editorial position to eliminate letters predating the marriage.

The selection remains puzzling even if this peculiar arrangement is overlooked. The letters to Harold Ross are drawn exclusively from 1947–49, and there are only five of them: a derisory morsel from a relationship that spanned four decades, from 1927, when Thurber joined the New Yorker, until Ross's death in 1951; the two sets of letters to E. B. White are separated by an unexplained 'lost decade': one set is from 1936–39, the other from 1950–61; there are no letters to Elliott Nugent, Thurber's collaborator on The Male Animal and a friend since their Ohio State days; the editors have deliberately chosen brief letters, despite Thurber's preferences for long rambling missives. Above all, the selection is just too slender—a fragment of a voluminous archive—with little sense of connection or continuity between individual letters. Each letter wastefully begins on a new page, so the book contains many white blanks.

The letters that are included are a mixed lot: inconsequential chatter to friends; numerous bulletins on Thurber's eye condition (one section comprises letters to his ophthalmologist); business letters to editors about works-in-progress (a section deals with the composition of his memoir, The Years with Ross); some nice anecdotes and reminiscences. Tactfully, the editors have omitted the 'raving' letters Thurber tended to write during his final years when his mental health—always troubled—was exceptionally fragile.

Selected Letters of James Thurber is, then, an incomplete and unbalanced compilation. Thurberphiles might better look to Bernstein's book, which features a larger and wider selection of letters and enables them to be seen in perspective and in context.

Marilyn Underwood (essay date Summer 1982)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

SOURCE: "Thurber's 'The Catbird Seat,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 140, No. 4, Summer, 1982, pp. 49-50.

[In this brief essay, Underwood offers a previously overloooked explanation for the events of Thurber's classic story.]

Critics of James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" invariably refer to his humorous tone, his control of language, and his effective characterization in this tight-plotting short story. But this is not all; one needs to dig deeper to unearth what devices Thurber uses to make this story the success it is. One device in particular has been overlooked by critics. A biologist would not have been so negligent: he would have looked at the catbird's seat and would have seen an instant correlation to the events and characters in Thurber's story.

Anyone who picks up a copy of Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963) will find on page 182 a description of the catbird. This bird is unobtuse, "skulks in undergrowth," and is hard to rile. However, upon being disturbed, it will come out from the underbrush, where it meshes with its environment because of its drab coloring, and will flare its tail feathers, showing a rusty tuft of seat (or "under tail-coverts") to the cause of its disturbance.

This description is significant to understanding Thurber's short story. Consider who is first "sitting in the catbird's seat" or "sitting pretty"—Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, an upstart, a new-comer, a defiler, an intruder in the territory of Erwin Martin. That her name sounds much like sparrows is equally significant. Note the imported sparrow's characteristics: a little gray bird that takes territory away from the domestic bird by "setting in" noisily, eating the seeds of the domestic, and making, literally, a mess of the former domestic bird's habitat. The sparrow, with its conical-shaped short bill, is quick and effective in pecking away the foundations of the former owner's home. Soon only sparrows inhabit the territory, the take-over complete.

Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is "sitting in the catbird's seat," flaunting her tail (if you will) in the face of everyone in the office of F & S. She is an import, having been brought in by Mr. Fitweiler. She "eats the seeds" of the employees at F & S, taking from them the sustenance, the employment that has been theirs for years. Aggressive as an efficiency expert, she has several fired; others just quit. If she is not stopped, the very foundations of F & S will crumble. Mr Martin, astute as he is austere, comprehends this eventuality, but, like the catbird, remains quiet and unobtuse—until she invades his territory.

Consider now Mr. Martin and the connotations inherent in his name. The martin is a member of the swallow family, a small gray bird with long wings, a forked tail, swift and graceful flight. Swallowtail is a term for cutaway, a man's formal coat with tails. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Mr. Martin clad in a cutaway, as he is precise in nature, impeccable in character, and haughty in his regard for his occupation and position.

Mr. Fitweiler innocently brings Mrs. Barrow to his firm—as if in a fit (defined as "a sudden, acute attack" and "a highly emotional reaction") to the F & S weiler or hamlet. Also innocently, he allows her to quack and bray commands, yell and bawl obscenities, and chip and pick "at the foundation stones" of F & S. Thurber's descriptive terms of Ulgine Barrows are similar to the terms used to describe the calls of yet another bird—the cuckoo-burro—which is distinguished by a raucous, braying, laughing call that approximates the ass for which it is appropriately named (as is apparently Mrs. Barrows).

Barrows' asininity does not concern Mr. Martin, though it bothers him; but her invasion of his territory does, to the extent that he plans his strategy, which he changes at the last minute. Instead of "rubbing her out," he flaunts his tail jauntily by being obnoxious, by exhibition of characteristics not his own. In short, he shows a color heretofore covert. When the deed's done, he very unobtrusively returns to his underbrush, the W20 file, "wearing a look of studious concentration," while his antagonist is removed from the coveted "catbird's seat."

Robert D. Arner (essay date Summer/Fall 1982)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6465

SOURCE: "'The Black, Memorable Year 1929': James Thurber and The Great Depression," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 3, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer/Fall, 1982, pp. 237-52.

[In this essay, Arner discusses the first ten years of Thurber's writing career and his humor's relation to the Depression era.]

The first ten years of James Thurber's career coincide almost exactly with the decade that historians have generally agreed to call the Great Depression, 1929–1939. Although Thurber had been working for and contributing to the New Yorker since March of 1927, his first book, a collaboration with E. B. White entitled Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do, did not appear until November 7, 1929, about two weeks after Black Thursday. Other collections of casuals and cartoons followed in quick succession: The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), My Life and Hard Times (1933), The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and Let Your Mind Alone! (1937). Thurber's final book of that despairing decade, The Last Flower (1939), appeared shortly after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and, in its haunting, poignant parable in pictures about the collapse of civilization before the brutal onslaught of war, it clearly reflects the success of Hitler's blitzkrieg and most of the other anxieties of the modern age as well. Together with the pieces that Thurber eventually gathered into "Fables for Our Time" in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and that had already begun to appear in the New Yorker in 1939, The Last Flower reveals, among other things, that the humorist could no longer afford to shut his ears "to the ominous rumblings of the dynasties of the world moving toward a cloudier chaos than ever before." As early as 1933, in "Preface to a Life," Thurber had indicated an awareness that playful humor was to be a casualty of the Depression, political collectivization, and fascism—abroad and at home. But this awareness accelerated during the decade.

If Thurber's attentiveness to the world at large had changed during the decade on matters like "the menaces of empire" (TC, 174), on one issue it seems to have remained the same. In the middle 1950s, he was to tell George Plimpton and Max Steele of the Paris Review that the Depression had had a permanent impact on American humor, "Much worse than Hitler and the war," but in the writings and cartoons that actually appeared during that time there are at most a scant half dozen direct references to the Depression itself as a woeful fact of American life, and all of these are very brief, with the exception of an uncollected piece entitled "Mr. Hoover or Mr. Coolidge" (1932), which spoofs the Republican effort to comprehend the true nature of the economic issues at stake in the upcoming Presidential election. Perhaps his most important acknowledgment of the plight of the nation while the Depression was still the main problem of Americans is the opening line of "Pythagoras and the Ladder" in Let Your Mind Alone! from which I have taken part of the title of this paper. "It was in none other than the black, memorable year 1929," Thurber writes,

that the indefatigable Professor Walter B. Pitkin rose up with the announcement that "for the first time in the career of mankind happiness is coming within reach of millions of people."

Thurber's irony, it seems to me, aims not only at the disjunction between the historical moment and the glad tidings proclaimed by an accomplished American huckster of happiness, but also at the American's preoccupation with being happy, with happiness as the goal of life, as if in perverse misapplication of the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence. Unhappiness is un-American, we seem to believe, and becoming happy is something in the nature of a patriotic duty for all of us. Thurber's remark also takes in, I believe, most of the politicians of the period, from men like Herbert Hoover, who offered only genial assurances that prosperity was just around the corner, to men like Franklin Roosevelt, whose plan of action Thurber seems generally to have approved but who came to power at the Democratic Convention of 1931 with the premature announcement that happy days were here again. It is not hard to hear in such assertions, at any rate, the familiar ring of an authentically American confidence game.

Thurber's most extended comments on the Depression appear in a piece that could be termed a retrospective, since it was written and published more than a year after Pearl Harbor. Entitled "The Secret Life of James Thurber" (1943), this casual takes off from the high price of Salvador Dali's The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, which reminds Thurber that his own "autobiography," My Life and Hard Times, had gone for just $1.75 back in 1933. "The publishers explained," says Thurber,

that the price was a closely approximated vertical, prefigured on the basis of profitable ceiling, which in turn was arrived at by taking into consideration the effect of diminishing returns of the horizontal factor. (TC, 30)

"In those days," Thurber explicates this explanation, "all heads of business firms adopted a guarded kind of double talk … because nobody knew what was going to happen and nobody understood what had … [O]ur civilization was in greater danger of being turned off than of gradually crumbling away" (TC, 31). But now, he says, "with the world in ten times as serious condition as it was in 1933" (TC, 31), Dali's publishers want six dollars for his life story. His own mistake, Thurber concludes, lay in not baring enough facts of his secret life to justify a higher price.

Thurber's chief mode of participating in the Depression was his running battle with Leftist writers and critics. Given the infrequency and brevity of Thurber's comments on the Depression, together with the New Yorker's unmistakable ambience of affluence with its ads for Packard and Pierce-Arrow, Brooks Brothers and Bonwit Teller, it is small wonder that Leftists viewed his writing with distrust and dismay. Thurber's assessment of the complaint against New Yorker writers in general, that "we don't attack communism but we don't go for it, head over heels" (Bernstein, 229), greatly understates the true animosity involved in this particular literary controversy. Certainly it oversimplifies the issues. Like most other modernists, Thurber maintained throughout that he was simply defending art from contamination by life. Art was inescapably autobiographical, to be sure, as he told Malcolm Cowley: "[O]ur own lives must always be the subject for our writings, come what may" (Bernstein, 230). But the achievement of art required distance from life, as he wrote to Max Eastman at about the same time. "Humor," he said, "is a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect." In this version of Wordsworth's dictum, calm and quiet are clearly needed to transmute the raw materials of experience into art. The mistake of the Leftists, in Thurber's opinion, was that they were at once too conscious of being literary people and too involved in politics to practice the patience that art requires. This first point he made, once again, in a letter to Cowley, condemning the contributors to Granville Hick's Proletarian Literature in the United States as "a bunch of writers" who speak to each other and not to the worker in a language workers can understand:

Those writers really want to be writers, making money, laying lovely women and handsome men…. [T]hey don't really want to be out suffering with the worker (after all, they remember Waldo Frank and his broken head and that it wasn't the police or the strike-breaker who broke it). (Bernstein, 235)

In a more comic vein, Thurber tried to make his point about the Leftists' use of a language alien to their intended audience in a piece entitled "What Are the Leftists Saying" (1937), in which he "defines" for the uninitiated the meaning of terms like "escapism" and the practice of unmasking ideologies. His second point, that the Leftists try to live their lives as though life were literature, is the main theme of "How to Write a Long Autobiography" (1937), in which Thurber produces the following sentence from Joseph Freeman's An American Testament: "'It was my idealistic, religious, artistic bias which made me blind to pragmatism'" (LYMA, 219). "That is the topic sentence of a letter which somehow does not sound like a letter to a friend at all," writes Thurber. "It sounds more like an essay written to save in a file and someday print in a book" (LYMA, 219).

Communist intellectuals are the most facile and articulate of all writers, and words come out of most of them like water from a faucet, so I can't say for sure the letters were rewritten; I just say they sound rewritten. (LYMA, 220)

Thurber also wrote another piece, "Notes for a Proletarian Novel" (1934), in which he laments the fact that he has no deep knowledge of the plight of the worker and so cannot hope to produce writing that will please critics like Granville Hicks.

The Leftists, for their part, countered Thurber's laughter with the charge of triviality and detachment from life that has stuck with Thurber ever since. Reviewing a book by Franklin P. Adams in the New Masses in 1934, Robert Forsythe (the pen name of Kyle Crichton) found Adams' "mild jousting at minor evils," insignificant though it was, a relief when compared with the work of "such other humorists as James Thurber, Frank Sullivan, E. B. White, and S. J. Perelman …"

They are so resolutely turned away from anything in life that what they write has the quality of a fantasy, something written on and about the island of Atlantis. At first glance it seems a mystery how they maintain their seclusion from contemporary ideas, but it is not so much that they fail to know things are happening as that they feel any upsurge of emotion is not quite civilized. Obviously what one must have to be a success with the New Yorker is an ability to make even the most transcendental event trivial. The trick is never to raise the voice, never to become excited in the face of disaster, always to drink the old-fashioned to the last orange peel despite the revolution without.

Thurber and his colleagues, Crichton concluded, were but the "court jesters for their decaying betters," displaying all the prejudices of "young men who are at last accepted on Park Avenue" (24).

Although he found himself in distinguished company on Crichton's list, Thurber took strong exception to these remarks. They were in fact, the proximate cause of his review of Hicks' anthology of proletarian writing, in which Thurber stated: "[W]hat some of these proletarian writers need to learn is simply how to write, not only with intensity, but with conviction, not only with a feeling for the worker but a feeling for literary effects." But he was not content to criticize them only in such direct ways. To demonstrate what he meant about a lack of feeling for literary effect, for example, he wrote "Bateman Comes Home" (1936), a parody of Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell's work appeared with some regularity in the New Masses, and Thurber obviously took him as the prototype of the proletarian writer who confuses life with art. "Bateman Comes Home" consists of three pages of insane dialogue in grotesquely rendered dialect capped by a single sentence: "If you keep on long enough it turns into a novel" (TC, 99). So much for Caldwell's sense of form and the Leftists' claim that their writing represents reality unmediated by art. Insofar as it draws the reader's attention to the conventions of literary discourse, parody is a doubly effective weapon for combating the proletarians' contention that what they write is taken directly from life rather than from literary tradition. It neutralizes what Thurber called their "added advantage of writing sloppily and mushily just because whatever they have to say is so significant it doesn't make any difference how they say it …" (Bernstein, 231).

Thurber's remarks about the sloppiness of proletarian writing were not aimed at Caldwell, however. His chief target was William Saroyan, whose short story "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" and subsequent collection of stories under the same title were hailed by Leftist critics as a major literary event of 1934. Both the story and Saroyan's writing in general appalled Thurber. "I have been working for weeks on a Saroyan parody," he told Cowley. "I get so mad I spoil it and have to let it dry."

It seems to me significant that this man, who can not write and in admitting it really boasts that he can, should have caught whatever fancy it is that he has caught. Is he a proof and sign of the fact that if your writing deals with poor people out of work, etc. it is now bound to sell, no matter how bad it is?

Saroyan, Thurber concluded, "writes a whole lot like Jack Johnson … would write if he could" (Bernstein, 230). Apparently Thurber never cooled down sufficiently to complete his Saroyon parody. The writing of parody requires at least some measure of sympathy with the intended target. Thurber had none for Saroyon. Thurber took his revenge in the title of his next collection of New Yorker pieces, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), which acknowledges Saroyan's presence on the literary landscape only to reject in the volume every major Leftist premise about the forms, themes, and proper subjects of literature. The title illustration shows an awkward, obviously out-of-place fellow, pince-nez perched precariously on his nose, who has let go of his trapeze prematurely only to discover with some astonishment that the woman on whom he had counted to catch him has no intention of doing so. She is suspended supinely in the classic pose of sexual receptivity but faces the wrong way and wears an enigmatic smile. What foolishness about the proper role of males could have tempted Thurber's male up there in the first place? The drawing ironically makes use of the rhythmical surge and swing of the trapeze as a metaphor for sexual intercourse, in this case coitus interruptus, and spoofs the Freudian symbolism of flight. Possibly for autobiographical reasons—his marriage to Althea Adams ended in divorce on May 24, 1935 (Bernstein, 246)—this is perhaps Thurber's bleakest book, though also one of his best; but the central theme of miserable marriages nonetheless works well with the title as a critique of Saroyanstyle realism even as it also underscores Thurber's simultaneous criticism of the middle-class illusion of romantic love.

For Depression-weary Americans, Thurber's title would also have summoned up two other social myths besides Saroyan's, both of them somewhere near the conservative end of the political spectrum. One of these myths recalls post-Civil War America and the small town and rural society which Thurber had already treated comically in My Life and Hard Times and would later celebrate in Thurber Country (1952). This is the world in which the song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" originated in the first place, a world where, as Thurber described it in "Return of the Native" (1950), "There was a lot of picnicking and canoeing and cycling, and going for hikes in the woods on Sundays in spring, the men in boaters and bright blazers, and the women in shirtwaists and skirts." Its virtues were self-sufficiency, contentment, modest economic competence, and a kind of wide-eyed innocence before the outside world. There are, Thurber suggests, no daring young men any more, only worn out and ludicrous middle-aged ones who make themselves look even more foolish by placing themselves in situations into which only daring young men should enter. But there are, alas, plenty of P. T. Barnums left in Depression-ridden America, and there are still more suckers born every minute.

The second social myth entangled in Thurber's allusive title is, like the first one, a myth of a better, communal world. The song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" was, as it happens, very popular in 1935, owing entirely to its resurrection in It Happened One Night, a movie that had won four Academy Awards the previous year. The film was directed by Frank Capra, whose overriding purpose in this and other films has been described by historian Robert Sklar as a "desire to revitalize the nation's old communal myths." Capra's film starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and handily defeated for best movie of the year such competitiors as King Vidor's Our Daily Bread, a film that focused Marxist social philosophy and nostalgia for the rural past upon the problems of contemporary America. It Happened One Night is noteworthy for its portrait of some American capitalists as phony stuffed shirts whose effete nature has caused all the trouble in the nation, while others are fatherly, kindly, and understanding men like Colbert's father.

Thurber's controversies with the literary Leftists of the 1930s left him with deep scars. Thurber never did live down the charge of triviality first leveled against him in the New Masses. Though he bitterly assailed the Communist-hunting activities of Senator McCarthy and his cohorts in the late forties and early fifties, he never quite forgave such former friends as Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker. As late as 1960 when he wrote "The Case of Comedy," they were very much on his mind. The Leftists, he said, are continuing their "concerted attack on humor as antisocial, antiracial, antilabor, [and] antiproletarian…. [T]hey have left no stereotype unused in their attack, from 'no time for comedy' to the grim warnings that humor is a sickness, a sign of inferiority complex, a shield and not a weapon." Those final metaphors belong to Dorothy Parker, and they originally appeared in the New Masses during a debate already nearly a quarter century old when Thurber penned his words.


Had the Depression inspired only such pieces as "How to Write a Long Autobiography," "What Are the Leftists Saying?," and the parodies of Caldwell and a few other writers, that would indeed have seemed to justify Kyle Crichton's claim that politics for Thurber was largely a matter of personal preference and class prejudice and that he wrote in a social vacuum. But there are, in fact, numerous other pieces not so purposefully or narrowly political which show Thurber as an acute observer of his times; these works clearly grow out of the Depression broadly considered as a psychological if not an economic and political phenomenon. Perhaps the most cynical story Thurber ever wrote, for example, "The Greatest Man in the World" (1931), belongs equally in time and temperament to the Depression era, when disillusionment with the American dream was rampant. The extravagance of the title tells us that this is a story about the carny hype and hoopla of the popular press, which affixed such hyperbolic labels to the latest hero as a mere matter of course. The term carries no historical force; it is unabashedly superlative because it does not really intend to invite comparison with other great men but simply to promote the most recent and, therefore, the "greatest" one. It belongs to the world of P. T. Barnum, to circus showmanship and spectacle, and is not something with which responsible journalism would have anything to do.

But, Thurber implies, in the 1930s no journalism was responsible. It is one measure of the depth of his cynicism that the story is told from the perspective of 1950, as if only in the future could Americans hope to gain a clear view of events supposedly taking place in 1937 but actually being written and read about in 1931. The effect of this tactic is ultimately ironic in the extreme, for in the context of the story the narrator's claim that Lindbergh and Byrd were true heroes cannot be given credence. It is impossible to reveal the "true" story about one hero without in some measure calling into question the pedigree of all heroes, Lindbergh and Byrd included. Perhaps, after all, these men were only more pliable than Jackie "Pal" Smurch, more malleable beneath the pressure of the press and the wishes of the President. The future stretches far beyond 1950, at any rate, and tomorrow or tomorrow may bring new facts to light about the "real" Byrd and Lindbergh. Moreover, a story in which newspapermen distort facts both to sensationalize them and then to cover up a murder, in effect rewriting the life and death of Jackie Smurch, inescapably raises questions about the motives of this anonymous reporter who reports the facts from the future. What purposes of the "present" does this view of the "past" serve? What does the narrator expect to get out of telling the story? The net effect of Thurber's "futuristic" strategy—that is, of publishing a story in 1931 about events in 1937 told about by a narrator in 1950—is to highlight the theme of fiction at the expense of historical fact. There is, perhaps, no ascertainable truth inherent in any moment of history; there are only the stories that men see fit to tell.

Still, there are both benign and sinister fictions. So far as the reader can tell, the entity entitled "The Greatest Man in the World" falls into the first category, while the reconstruction of the events of Smurch's life and death within the story falls into the second. The murder of Smurch is motivated by yet another fiction, the myth of the American hero, which is believed most by those most responsible for creating it. Not the smallest irony in a story of many ironies is that Smurch's accomplishment is actually substantial, just as the circumstances of his humble, Western origins could be made to fit the outlines of an approved American myth if only he would cooperate. A tinkerer and mechanic by trade, like the Wright Brothers or like Lindbergh himself, Smurch represents not so much a parody as a reduction to the lowest common denominator of the "heroic" American virtues of individualism, initiative, resourcefulness, and self-reliance. He has all of these but nothing more, and in his vulgarity he reveals that such "virtues" are in reality only other names for antisocial acquisitiveness, egotism, and simple greed. He unmasks the myth of the American hero, just as his intractable behavior will at last unmask American officialdom. Smurch has at least the saving grace of understanding and admitting that there is money to be made by becoming a celebrity, but the myth denies such motivation and attempts to ground American heroism instead on rural innocence and altruism. In this regard, I think it likely that "The Greatest Man in the World" was written, at least in part, to satirize through Jackie Smurch the simplistic view of Will Rogers, whom Thurber actively disliked (Bernstein, 237), that aviation would provide America with her next generation of heroes and restore society to those frontier values now deeply buried beneath consumerism and bureau "bunk." Thurber would have agreed with the diagnosis, but the man who wrote in 1929 that aviation and sex had been greatly overemphasized by our civilization would have viewed the popular infatuation with flight, which the popularity of Will Rogers did much to promote, as just another form of bunk.

In many ways, "The Greatest Man in the World" hearkens back to the Roaring Twenties, the decade that invented public relations and mass consumption to begin with and that perfected hero worship as a fine and essential American art. It is the decade that gave America the public symbol of Silent Cal and the rural boyhood of Herbert Hoover so wonderfully satirized in Grant Wood's painting, "The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover." Thurber's story also constitutes a critique of the hypocrisy of prohibition, which offered Americans the heavy drinking Warren Harding as the candidate of the "dries" and defined the average American as a criminal if he or she drank while largely ignoring the evidence of corruption that finally became public as the Teapot Dome scandal. The mass adulation of Lindbergh, Thurber sensed, arose in large part out of the moral morass that American government had become and continued to be. Americans ascribed to the aviator precisely those virtues from which they most feared they had departed, thereby re-assuring themselves that they still valued what they did not. Thurber's story comprehends as well the notion that hero worship in the twenties and the thirties measured the failure of the average American's life, his or her fall into mere statistical existence and anonymity at the hands of mass marketeers. In the exploits of Lindbergh or Ruth or even Al Capone, Americans could vicariously experience the success that had eluded them, the celebrity that they would never share.


As Americans during the Depression sought to relieve the dullness and dreariness of their lives, they turned to movies for their heroes and for escape. One promotional blurb for a major studio put the matter perfectly, attempting to obscure the profit motive of film production behind the genial guise of public service: "There's a Paramount picture probably around the corner. See it and you'll be out of yourself, living someone else's life." In this context, I think it is significant that two of Thurber's major fictions, "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" (1930) and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939), literary fantasies of escape, practically enclose the decade of the Depression and abound in images drawn from the popular media, including not only movies but also adventure fiction and tabloid journalism. In these stories, I believe, Thurber touches the mentality of the Great Depression most intimately.

"The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" perhaps lacks the historical resonance of "The Greatest Man in the World," but as Thurber's earliest excursion into the world of fantasy it commands our attention for its handling of a theme that was to become increasingly important to Thurber over the years. Its frame of reference, as allusions within the story make clear, is to be found in books like Al Capone and 10,000 Public Enemies and in movies like Alibi (1929), reminding us that in 1931 "Hollywood stars and Chicago mobsters topped the list of best-known personalities on the American scene; as a life choice, stardom and grand-scale crime loomed equally out of reach for the average man," who nevertheless would gladly have exchanged his banal existence for a moment of glory. One of the major surprise hit movies of 1935, The Whole Town's Talking, worked this fantasy to perfection, Edward G. Robinson plays both a notorious gangster and an accountant whose one distinction is that he looks exactly like the gangster. Encouraged by the police to play a part to entrap the public enemy, the accountant begins to take on aspects of the gangster's assertive identity and to learn the argot of the underworld. The point of the movie, according to one historian of American crime movies, is that "in every milquetoast there beats the secret heart of a mobster" (Carlens, 141).

But Thurber got there first. His character, Samuel O. Bruhl (the acronym of Bruhl's initials perhaps hints equally at an identity buried deep beneath Bruhl's conventional self and at the pathos of Bruhl's life), is "just an ordinary-looking citizen, like you and me, except for a curious, shoe-shaped scar on his left cheek, which he got when he fell against a wagon-tongue in his youth" (TC, 143). So far Bruhl's biography is explicable. That scar, however, marks him out for a strange destiny, for it completes an otherwise vague resemblance to George "Shoescar" Clinigan, a notorious gangster. When a gang war erupts and Clinigan is severely wounded, Bruhl begins to fear for his own life. He begins to slink around and to dodge imaginary enemies, although on this point the narrator seems to wish us to understand that someone may actually have begun to follow Bruhl. Gradually, Bruhl's personality changes. His wife discovers books about gangsters hidden in the recesses of his closet, an analogue for the inaccessible spaces of his mind, and soon he starts lounging about the house in red pajamas, like Al Capone, and speaking in hardboiled "gangsterese." Eventually, he is assassinated at a small inn in the Catskills, but, true to the code of omerte he refuses to describe who has shot him. "'They never talk,'" says the New York City Police Commissioner who has been brought to the scene to question him, and Mr. Bruhl, hearing this, "smiled, a pleased smile, and closed his eyes" (TC, 148).

So far as the historical placement of this story within the general emotional milieu of the Depression is concerned, the most important elements of Thurber's portrait of Mr. Bruhl are set before us in the opening paragraph. Samuel O. Bruhl, we are told, "had a good job as treasurer for a syrup-and-fondant concern, a large, devout wife, two tractable daughters, and a nice home in Brooklyn."

He worked from nine to five, took in a show occasionally, played a bad, complacent game of golf, and was usually in bed by nine o'clock. The Bruhls had a dog named Burt, a small circle of friends, and an old sedan. They had made a comfortable, if unexciting, adjustment to life. (TC, 143)

If boredom is indeed the absolutely indispensable precondition for fantasy and the fantastic that critics have claimed it is, then Mr. Bruhl has clearly been set up for a total reversal of the plot line of his life. Possessed already of the outward signs of the American dream, or at least the minimal middle-class version of it, Bruhl lacks any inner substance; he is, in fact, a void, a mere "case" (the pun lurks in Thurber's title, of course), and the identity of Shoescar Clinigan easily moves into the vacuum within. Up to a point, we are not witnessing a fantasy at all but a genuine psychosis of a kind reported fairly frequently in psychoanalytical literature: Mr. Bruhl has become the thing he most fears.

But not entirely so. It is not Clinigan whom he fears after all, but rather the gangsters and police who have sworn to get Clinigan. Thus he has objectified his existence as a victim of bureaucratic manipulation by transforming himself into the subject of a massive police manhunt, even as he has given expression to an unstated wish to be somebody else, someone exciting, by becoming a desperado. What remains fantastic in the story is not Bruhl's transference of identity but rather his ability to make his inner world visible upon the page, to summon up before our eyes the gangsters who shoot him down. Their rigorously maintained silence as they ritualistically assemble their guns links them at once and simultaneously with the inner, silent world of Bruhl's fantasies—the narrator is incapable of invading Bruhl's consciousness—and the external world of gangster lore, in which they seem, however, like Hemingway's gangsters in "The Killers," both themselves and caricatures or parodies, that is, literary versions, of themselves—and creatures of Mr. Bruhl's cliche-ridden imagination.

It is this familiarity of the gangsters' bearing and being that links them most closely to the world of the uncanny. How strange yet how predictable are the truths of personality that may lie beneath conventional existence? This theme is driven home by Thurber's relentless use of cliched expression to register the narrator's inability and unwillingness to penetrate into Mr. Bruhl's interior. When we think about it, what untranslatable worlds of mystery beyond our comprehension are simultaneously held at bay and yet acknowledged by our word "coincidence" and by such commonplace expressions as "oddly enough" and "quite by accident" or by subjunctive structures. These are the structures and transitions that move Thurber's story forward, the small change of daily speech revealed at last as a language that admits the fantastic and uncanny into life. In the silence beyond such phrases Thurber's story really happens.

One key allusion in the "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" brings home the boredom of Bruhl's daily life while at the same time relating it to the inexplicable. A man of "colorless comings and goings" whose dreams are of "small stature" (TC, 143) indeed, Bruhl reminds the narrator of "the sort of average citizen that observers of Judd Gray thought Judd Gray was" (TC, 143). Readers in 1930 would have no difficulty remembering the murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Judd Gray, in 1927 and the sensational Snyder-Gray murder trial of the same year, with all its strange disclosures about secret personalities, its journalistic hoopla, and its bizarre fascination for the American public. Villains to hiss and boo, it seems, are just as necessary to people uncertain of their own morality as are heroes to a populace losing individual identity amidst increasing throngs of the faceless, and Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in turning so entirely on each other and trying to blame each other for plotting and carrying out the murder, played the role of villain to perfection. Gray was unmanly, the papers said, in not protecting his former lover even under such circumstances and in trying to save himself by accusing her; Ruth Snyder was the "Clytemnestra of Long Island," as Elmer Davis of the New Yorker saw things, and Gray was but a featureless Aegisthus. To John Kabler, looking back on the crime ten years later, Gray was "the Caspar Milquetoast who never quite rates the better high-school secret societies" and his murder of Albert Snyder symbolized "the frenzy of the little man … renouncing his littleness, avenging a lifetime of inferiority and frustration." The key to it all, Kabler implicitly agreed with Thurber, was that the American Dream had become a nightmare of meaninglessness and pointlessness, even for Albert Snyder and his wife before Gray ever entered the picture:

They came to Queens, that dead-level Canaan of the white collar worker, where addresses run dizzily into five digits and uniform clap board houses jammed cheek by jowl, row upon row and block after block, stretch into limitless monotony; where a radio enlivens every other home and existence is placid, routine, inexpensive—until revolt against tedium explodes without warning. (9)

Although Thurber thought highly enough of his story to include it in two major anthologies, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze and that showcase of the very best of Thurber, The Thurber Carnival, critics have had very little to say about it except that Bruhl, like Walter Mitty, demonstrates the self-destructive powers of fantasy. Perhaps so. But Thurber's placement of the story next to "The Luck of Jad Peters" in The Thurber Carnival, an autobiographical reminiscence which is also concerned with the strange coincidences by which Fate rides men down, indicates that both this theme and the historical character of Judd Gray held a special fascination for Thurber. The mode of "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" is somber, hardly comic at all, unless we define comedy very broadly as aiming at some clarification of the mystery of our lives—a definition that will also do for tragedy as well. Next to this piece, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," though disquieting, seems almost lighthearted.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is so well known and has been discussed so frequently in criticism that I want to add at this point only a caution to those who see Mitty as a version of Thurber—and their numbers are legion—that this piece, too, is best viewed in a cultural context that includes the Depression and the mounting crisis in Europe. There are oblique allusions to heroic films like Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), as Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill have pointed out, and the world of Perry Mason does not lie far away, but the only important historical allusion is to the Waterbury trial of 1938, which Mitty, typically, gets all wrong. The newsboy's shouting about the trial precipitates Mitty into a fantasy in which he is on trial for murder, but the actual Waterbury trial involved large scale and high level graft and corruption. Thurber uses the allusion to add a subtle touch to his characterization of Mitty and to enlarge the frame of reference of his story to include other characters who, like Mitty, have led secret and prohibited lives. It may also be worth remarking that the same year in which Walter Mitty was invented saw the debut of Superman, a character who is able to solve apparently unsolvable problems and whose secret life is lived as a Walter Mitty-ish fellow named Clark Kent. The disjunction between his real and his imaginary self reverses the comic split in Walter Mitty, but it is worth pondering if this at first unlikely pairing of Mitty and Superman does not lead to the same point at the end: in every Superman there lurks unrecognized a man like Walter Mitty, inadequate to history and inept at personal relationships both with bosses and with women. The widespread popularity of both Walter Mitty and Superman throughout the 1940's suggests that they spoke to something in American experience, and I suggest that that something is identical for each.


This overview of Thurber in the thirties has necessarily scanted or ignored entirely important aspects of his writing in order to concentrate on those works most closely tied to the Depression or to states of mind engendered by the Depression. Thurber's last attempt at fantasy before turning to the fairy tale in the middle 1940s came in "The Lady on 142" in 1943, a piece which clearly demarcates the dream from the reality by enclosing the fantasy—a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers and The Maltese Falcon—within a framework of reality. If Thurber, somewhat paradoxically, found more freedom for his imagination in the bound motifs and preformed literary material of the fairy tale and the fable, the reason, I believe, has something to do with an altering national mood. If this paper has demonstrated anything, however, it is that the standard approaches to Thurber that emphasize the war between men and women, the essential sameness of the Thurber male and female, or even the theme of melancholy as the key to Thurber's humor, are inadequate to explain his fiction and cartoons. Despite the recent appearance of a new study, we badly need a re-reading of his work. Such a reappraisal would emphasize Thurber's themes and forms in relation to particular historical moments, popular culture, and the like. Only then, I believe, will we fully appreciate the wisdom of T.S. Eliot's assessment of Thurber's comic genius. "Unlike so much humor," Eliot said of Thurber's work,

it 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.

As we have seen, Thurber's work does indeed document the Depression years, and I believe that his humor in general will finally be recognized as documenting the age in which it was written.

Melvin Maddocks (essay date Fall 1985)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2107

SOURCE: "James Thurber and the Hazards of Humor," in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 597-601.

[This rapid overview of many of Thurber's most famous works aims to dispute Thurber's critical reputation as the foremost American humorist of his time.]

While he was still alive, James Thurber was judged to be the best humorist since Mark Twain—if not something more. After calling him his "favourite humorist," T. S. Eliot weightily pronounced Thurber's writing and illustrations to be "a document of the age they belong to." Ernest Hemingway appeared on Thurber dustjackets, declaring that here was the "best writing coming out of America."

Nothing kills a soufflé like praising it in terms of a roast-beef dinner. The pleasures of Thurber are still there for the rereading, but one savors them moderately. The superlatives applied by Thurber's colleagues and contemporaries seem excessive to the point of embarrassment today, especially when applied to his essays. In retrospect the essays of New Yorker humorists—those famous "casuals"—come across as group representatives of a journalistic genre. Frank Sullivan, Russell Maloney, E. B. White, Thurber—there is something institutional and anonymous, something interchangeable, about the way these writers and others domesticated madness into mere whimsy and clothed it in the finest English-tweed prose native Americans could produce.

In fact Thurber's first success was a collaboration with White, in which the authorship of chapters is nearly impossible to spot. Is Sex Necessary? was published just weeks after the 1929 stock-market crash. The book sold 50,000 copies in that first dark year and still remains in print. The titles of the chapters are self-explanatory: "A Discussion of Feminine Types," "What Should Children Tell Parents?", "Frigidity in Men," "The Sexual Revolution: Being a Rather Complete Survey of the Entire Sexual Scene." Thurber and White had their sitting target—the sexpert, even then filling the air with solemn jargon that reduced passion to a clinical exercise. The two satirists made up extravagant case histories, inventing names like Lt. Col. H. R. L. Le Boutellier, C. I. E., Schlaugenschloss Haus, King's Byway, Boissy-Le-Doux sur Seine.

Thurber first served as illustrator in this volume, tamely and realistically by later standards. A typically literal cartoon bore the caption: "Occasions arise sometimes when a girl presses her knee, ever so gently, against the knee of the young man she is out with." This is clearly superior college humor, but it does not wholly escape the category of lampoon; and there is a sense that the brilliant bumbler Robert Benchley, clearing his throat and waving a pointer at his charts, had mocked The Authority more wittily before. Benchley was the original for the New Yorker humorists who followed.

When an ambitious case is being made for Thurber, My Life and Hard Times (1933) almost invariably gets nominated as his masterpiece. The comparison with Mark Twain is a little too glibly justified by this fanciful autobiography, pitting a boyhood in Columbus, Ohio, against a boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri. "I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father," Thurber began, and the hyperbole flowed freely from there.

Thurber was not a subtle inventor. When he set out to invent confusion, he invented chaos. When he set out to invent a character, he invented an eccentric. The chaos verged on slapstick humor; the eccentric verged on a comic-strip cartoon. Take first-cousin Briggs Beall, apparently a total fabrication. Beall kept a glass of camphor by his bed from fear that he might suffocate in his sleep one night without the aid of this pungent reviver. Instead he almost suffocated from the camphor.

The "night the bed fell" is neatly bracketed with the "time I fell out of the gun room in Mr. James Stanley's house," an anecdote Thurber introduces in the last chapter and then coyly evades. But the general pattern remains constant. Our raconteur is a man to whom the oddest people, the most personable dogs, and the orneriest automobiles are attached. There is a charm to Thurber's manner—offhand and meandering, setting up one tall tale after another by making a virtue of the non sequitur. In effect he is a snob of the comic disaster, taking every mishap as "one of those bewildering involvements for which my family had, I am afraid, a kind of unhappy genius." The more fantastic, the more grandly muddled, he makes his Columbus and his people, the more he is able to love them.

Thurber's short stories share the same simple if not simplistic outline of his essays and autobiography. His most famous short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," is a single joke ingeniously sustained. The Caspar Milquetoast, dreaming of heroic deeds as a navy commander or a surgeon while waiting meekly for his wife to finish shopping, is the raw material of a New Yorker cartoon. Thurber stories provide few second insights. A rereading of "Walter Mitty" only makes Thurber seem excessively tender and indulgent toward the Small Boy he treasured in men—and found threatened by Thurber women.

"The Breaking Up of the Winships" explicitly treats the war between the sexes as an absurd escalating argument over the merits of Greta Garbo and Donald Duck as cinematic geniuses. Thurber maintains an evenhanded position through most of the story, before tipping the balance against the wife at the end.

"The Catbird Seat" measures, even more starkly than his cartoons, Thurber's animosity and fear toward women. The discrediting of poor Ulgine Barrows, the office efficiency-expert, is savage revenge beyond any reasonable provocation within the story.

Even in a memoir of his days in France, the unmistakably menacing Thurber woman appears, "large and shapeless and possessed of an unforgettable toothiness. Her smile, under her considerable mustache, was quick and savage and frightening, like a flash of lightning lighting up a ruined woods."

"Jim had it in for women," E. B. White, perhaps his closest friend, conceded.

Whatever emotion Thurber's short stories possess derives from two chief plots: men harassed by women; and men abandoned by women, like the protagonist of "One Is a Wanderer," drinking himself into a fit state to retire to sleep in his lonely hotel room.

When all is said and done, Thurber may have loved only his dogs and his idealization of writing-men-in-groups, Our Crowd at the New Yorker. And the latter were totally safe in his affections only when dead. He praised John McNulty posthumously thus: "The angel that writes names in a book of gold must long ago have put McNulty down as one who delighted in his fellow man." Robert Benchley also brought out heavenly choirs from the otherwise skeptical Thurber. He quotes a Benchley friend saying of the angels: "They're going to have to stay up late in heaven now." Then Thurber goes on to top even that tribute: "Yes, they're staying up late, I know, and, what is more, they must be having the time of their infinities. Lucky angels."

The self-perception of New Yorker writers, especially the humorists, is a fascinating subject. Benchley condemned himself because he failed to become a scholarly critic of English poetry, as he presumed his Harvard professors intended him to be. S. J. Perelman hung a portrait of James Joyce on the wall of his study, signaling him as the exemplar for his own surrealistic prose. To those readers simply after a good laugh, E. B. White announced that humor "plays close to the big hot fire that is Truth." Thurber spoke so often of Lewis Carroll and Henry James that a reader could take these allusions as self-referrals.

The connection between what Thurber was writing and what he thought he was writing is not always clear. In his preface to My Life and Hard Times, after providing ballast with a passage from Benvenuto Cellini, Thurber mused characteristically about the destiny of the humorist: "This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane…. To call such persons 'humorists,' a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma…. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy."

Toward the end of his life Thurber wrote more and more pieces with titles like "A Farewell to Speech" and "The Decline and Fall of the King's English." His preoccupation with language became fastidious to the point of being cranky. An insomniac, he counted words the way other men counted sheep, winding up with lists of words beginning with "P, the purloining letter, the stealer of sleep." He struck the posture of a Minister of Culture in a very small republic.

The social critic Otto Friedrich accused Thurber of becoming obsessed with trivia. Thurber did not deny it, but huffily defended himself with his latter-day loftiness: "Trivia Mundi has always been as dear and as necessary to me as her bigger and more glamorous sister, Gloria."

He called anger "one of the necessary virtues," but he seemed to get angry about less and less. His life became a litany of gripes. A reader found Thurber besieged and beleaguered by rock music, radio news broadcasts, junk mail, and unwanted phone calls. Everything shoddy flourished, while worthy institutions, like the railroad, went to hell.

Thurber constantly complained about the decline of humor, even in the New Yorker ("the magazine is turning grim and long"). But while criticizing glumness in others, he wrote, "I cannot confine myself to lightness in a period of human life that demands light."

The allusions to Henry James went up and up. Within a few pages he used the same tag from Horace twice. "He was pompous and unbelievably humorless when he decided that he was a man of letters," his longtime friend Ann Honeycutt complained.

His prose fell into a new richness. He referred to aging as suffering "the silent artillery of time," and to his insomnia as "the white watches of the woeful night." The Last Flower, his obvious and sentimental fantasy about future world wars, became his favorite work.

"The Last Clock"—a "Fable for the Time, Such As It Is, of Man"—holds up far better today. This less ambitious (and less famous) fairy tale of an ogre who eats up all the clocks in his castle and then in his town plays lovely variations on the conquest of time. It reads as if it were being told—improvised.

Was Thurber ever quite the writer he and his contemporaries took him to be? As a writer Thurber generally slaved over his revisions. He had a penchant for clean copy, and he was forever typing his pages, again and again. For Thurber as an artist there was serendipity from the start when he drew one of his most celebrated illustrations of a seal on the headboard of a bed because he was having difficulty drawing a seal on a rock.

The proof of Thurber's minor genius as an artist may be shown by the success of his illustrations to some of poetry's most tired warhorses in "Famous Poems Illustrated." In "The Sands o' Dee" Charles Kingsley wrote: "The creeping tide came up along the sand"—and what a "creeping tide" Thurber drew, all baleful eyes and round paws—a hopelessly overweight, waddling puppy of a tide.

Young Lochinvar, swinging his grumpy and plump "fair lady" aboard his charger, is a sight to see. But it is the Thurber charger, wide-eyed and apprehensive at his double load, that carries the scene.

When he came to Longfellow's youth, bearing through an Alpine village the "banner with the strange device—Excelsior!", Thurber had the inspiration to draw an Ivy Leaguer with a bow tie, carrying the sort of pennant waved by undergraduates on the fifty-yard line.

In a childhood accident Thurber was blinded in one eye by his brother's arrow. As he slowly went blind in the other eye, he was left to his dark fancy, and he summoned up the vividly rounded blurs of his inner vision. His response was an act of courage and imagination.

When Thurber cultists who admired his art threatened to turn his head by overblown comparisons, mostly to Matisse, E. B. White sensibly told him: "If you ever got good you'd be mediocre." A reconsiderer of Thurber almost a quarter of a century after his death might extend White's clever observation to argue that Thurber "got good" as a writer, and became as other writers. But as an artist he remained blessedly unimproved, and today his squiggled lines still say witty, quirky, and revealing things beyond the power of his words.

Edward Sorel (review date 5 November 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784

SOURCE: "The Business of Being Funny," in New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, p. 36.

[This brief review finds most of the works included in Collecting Himself not worth a new anthology but nonetheless appreciates a few of Thurber's more insightful essays.]

I somehow assumed that James Thurber's literary bones had been picked clean long ago. After all, posthumous collections had been published in 1962 and 1966 (Thurber died in 1961), and even then there was not enough new material to fill the books—both included work from previous collections. How, then, can there be at this late date unanthologized Thurber worthy of yet another volume?

Well, there can't. The fact is that although Collecting Himself contains many drawings never before published—reason enough to buy it—only some of the writing deserved to be resurrected. Several parodies are dated and no longer amuse, and many of the "casuals" (The New Yorker's term for informal fiction and nonfiction articles) are too precious, too ephemeral. The book's editor, Michael J. Rosen, can certainly not be blamed for wanting to bring more of the humorist's work to light—he knows we Thurber addicts will take whatever we can get—but judging by this collection, there is not much choice Thurber left.

Whatever the book lacks in vintage material, however. It does give us Thurber working in a lot of different literary forms. We have book and theater reviews, essays on a wide variety of subjects, letters, reminiscences, satires, gag cartoons and a scathing polemic aimed at a professor of psychiatry who considered Alice in Wonderland too unwholesome for his children. Mr. Rosen, the literary director of the Thurber House—a writers' center in Thurber's Columbus, Ohio, boyhood home—has wisely avoided any attempt at arranging the pieces chronologically. Had he done so, the book would have been too light at one end (Thurber's early copy for The Columbus Dispatch) and too heavy at the other (tendentious, angry letters from his last years).

When both Thurber and The New Yorker were young, they enjoyed poking fun at anything that seemed staid or pretentious. A fine example of the irreverent Thurber is "Recollections of Henry James," which appeared in The New Yorker in 1933. That year Thurber had overdosed on autobiographies that contained reminiscences of James, and he determined to offer his own, undeterred by the fact that he had never met the illustrious novelist. Written in the serpentine style that distinguishes James's prose, this piece gets my vote for the best parody of the much-parodied James, as well as being a marvelous spoof of the reverential memoirs that, praise be, are no longer fashionable. Here, at least, is an example of Thurber in top form.

Still, it is the serious, somewhat bitter essays that Thurber wrote late in his life that most hold one's attention. Many of these sober ruminations are, oddly enough, about the nature of humor and the business of being funny. He gave much thought to what constitutes humor and the different forms it takes. Once, while being interviewed on television by Edward R. Murrow, he extemporized what became a classic definition: "The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself."

Thurber himself was all three, but it was as a humorist mocking his youth in a fictive Columbus that he most endeared himself to Americans. When My Life and Hard Times was published in 1933, it turned everyone from Ernest Hemingway to T. S. Eliot into a Thurber enthusiast. From that time on he was constantly being compared to Mark Twain, favorably as a rule. Like Twain, Thurber had his dark side (see Burton Bernstein's superb biography), and he shared with Twain a low opinion of his fellow man. There is no better example of Thurber's misanthropy than "Thinking Ourselves Into Trouble"—a dark piece, written in 1939, with such an unrelenting sense of doom for the future of man that I would never have taken it to be by Thurber, except that no one else could have written about the cosmos in quite this way.

"It is surely not going too far, in view of everything, to venture the opinion that Man is not so high as he thinks he is. It is surely permissible to hazard the guess that somewhere beyond Betelgeuse there may be a race of men whose intelligence makes ours seem like the works of an old-fashioned music box. The Earth, it seems to me, may well be the Siberia or the Perth Amboy of the inhabited planets of the Universe."

If Collecting Himself has done nothing more than resurrect this anguished, long-forgotten essay, it will have been worth all Mr. Rosen's determined rummaging.

Anthony Quinn (review date 15 December 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

SOURCE: "Laughter in the Dark," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 2, No. 80, December 15, 1989, p. 37.

[In contrast to unenthusiastic responses to Thurber's Collecting Himself, this review finds the collection a "luminous delight."]

Trying to explain the mechanics of humour can be a dispiriting business. Analyse a poem and one's appreciation might be enriched; analyse a joke and something quite different happens, delicate ironies and clever nuances evaporate before your eyes, punch lines wither and die. "Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind," was E B White's sage observation.

One fancies that a professional humourist would always guard the "secret" of his art, but White's friend and colleague James Thurber seemed genuinely interested in its disclosure, and arrived at a conclusion that touches us all on the raw: "Human dignity, the humourist believes, is not only silly but a little sad. So are dreams and conventions and illusions. The fine brave fragile stuff that people live by. They look so swell, and go to pieces so easily."

An eloquent diagnosis, perhaps, but it hardly explains why this new compendium of Thurber's essays, reviews, cartoons, articles and letters is such a joy. I have never come across anyone who has properly elucidated the essence of Thurber's gift—I'm not sure I want to. Michael Rosen has corralled these loose bits and pieces into rough clumps of categories, reasoning that they have never been collected between hard covers before and together offer a coherent body of opinion on style, or, as the book's sub-title promises, "on writing and writers, humour and himself". All we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Thurber wrote and drew for the New Yorker in its heyday, sharing space with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Benchley, Woollcott and White, and battling with the editorial eccentricities of Harold Ross. These were evidently something of a trial to a writer whose natural facility for language was constantly trammelled by Ross's pedantry and fastidiousness. He quotes this example of editorial "lunacy"—"You have the word 'make' on galleys 3, 9 and 11", and his own exasperated response—"For God's sake, Shakespeare used 'to be' twice in one line and 'tomorrow' three times in one line. Where were the New Yorker editors then?" Realising that language should take precedence over "house style", Thurber gives grammar a thorough medical, slicing open sentences with the brisk confidence of a surgeon to check for sclerotic commas or inflammation of the syntax. He lights the way towards clarity with a civilised grace and wit.

He grew progressively blinder during his lifetime, though as the essays and book reviews here bear out, his critical gaze was undimmed. In a funny and trenchant piece on Thomas Wolfe he takes a sidelong swipe at the glib extravagance of book reviewers: "At least twice a month, as all readers of book reviews know, a new genius emerges and sets an all-time all-American tidemark with a vital and all-embracing picture of American life that is haunting and unforgettable and filled with a unique power and a strange and moving beauty." The observation has worn all too well. Elsewhere parodic shafts expertly pin down writers both admired and loathed, either deflating the splendour of Henry James's interminable periods, or skewering the pretentious twaddle of Gertrude Stein. Chekhov's lugubrious tug and Eugene O'Neill's tortuous psychodrama are sent up in miniatures of teasing affection.

Collecting Himself is a valuable reminder of Thurber's everyday brilliance, and a tonic in the midst of present-day drabness. These writings and drawings present a world view less jaundiced than that of Parker and Perelman but one that is no less perceptive, despite—or maybe because of—his waning eyesight. For him it may have been laughter in the dark; for us it's a luminous delight.

William Joyce (review date 25 November 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

SOURCE: "A Thimbleful of Thurber," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, p. 25.

[In this review, Joyce, a writer of children's books, welcomes the republication of three of Thurber's books for young people.]

I had forgotten that James Thurber had written any children's books. Or rather, I never knew it, or at least I never knew I knew it. I'd read his books as a child, but I took no notice of who'd written them. Like most kids, all I cared about was the story. Did the prince save the girl? Did the bad guy get what was coming to him? Did everything work out in the end, and most important, did I enjoy the whole rigamarole?

With Thurber's books the answer was a definite "yes" when I was a child, and that opinion still holds true now that I'm supposedly all grown up and pay attention to authors' names. With the reissue of three of Thurber's books for young people—Many Moons, The Wonderful O, and The Thirteen Clocks—we now have the fun of rediscovering some of this great man's best work.

The Wonderful O, first published in 1957 and reissued now in a fascimile edition, is an allegorical story of the tiny "Island of Ooroo." Poor "Ooroo" is invaded by treasure-seeking pirates whose leader has a bitter dislike for the letter "O" and so bans any and all use of the offending vowel for the duration of his occupation.

This wreaks considerable havoc. Not only is the name of their beloved island reduced to one measly consonant, but there are now "cabins without logs …, mantels but no clocks …, keys without locks, walls without doors, rugs without floors…. A fellow named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter and poor Ophelia Oliver now being Phelia Liver can't get a date, and saying 'Hello' at church will get you in trouble." You don't have to be a Rocket Scientist to see where all this is headed. Suffice it to say that everything ends happily; though the plot is a little musty and heavy on the message, there's still great fun in this handsome edition.

Many recent reissues of children's classics have been marred by implanting new, more "contemporary" illustrations in an attempt to update the look of the book. This is a shame. Quite often, the "colorization" of these books, with new artwork that reeks of cute, tampers with our memories and, even worse, weakens the appeal of the volume. So hats off to the publishers for retaining Marc Simont's simple, witty illustrations, a worthy accompaniment to Thurber's whirligig prose.

The Thirteen Clocks, also reissued in its original format with Simont's illustrations, is a fairy-tale romance with a traditional genre story line—a stalwart prince is out to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil duke. There are spies, monsters, betrayals, hair's-breadth escapes, spells to be broken and all the usual accouterments, but Thurber gives the proceedings his own particular deadpan spin.

The evil duke is so evil he whiles away his mornings "place-kicking puppies and punting kittens." The ever-handsome prince, bored with his royal trappings, travels foreign lands in rags, looking for the "maiden of his dreams, singing as he goes, learning the life of the lowly, and slaying a dragon here and there." It all makes for a rousing concoction of adventure, humor and satire that defies any conventional classification.

Of the Thurber works being reissued, however, my favorite is Many Moons, the story of Princess Lenore, who is bedridden from imbibing too many raspberry tarts. "If I can have the moon, I will be well again," she confides to her father the King. The Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician are all urgently consulted, but despite their vast knowledge, none can deliver the much-needed moon. The wily Court Jester is the only one level-headed enough to save the day.

Avoiding the pratfalls of most reissues, this edition with new full-color paintings by Simont has been produced with obvious though and care. It is a worthy reinterpretation, though it can't eclipse the glories of the 1943 original (which is still in print, and carries Louis Slobodkin's Caldecott Award-winning pictures).

Simont's work brings a pleasing unity to this new deluge of Thurber, and his efforts in Many Moons couldn't be better. His watercolors are airy, bold and witty. His Court Jester, a sprawling, gangling youth, is an inspired departure from Slobodkin's serene, more adult counterpart—and he even includes a caricature of Thurber as one of the King's advisers.

So James Thurber has returned to young readers, not only in word but in likeness. His style of rowdy pixilation will exert anew its cheerful influence on readers young and old.

James Idema (review date 10 July 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703

SOURCE: "From the Thurber Trove: Good Humor, Good Always," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 10, 1994, p. 6.

[The following review finds the previously uncollected works in People Have More Fun Than Anybody equal to any of Thurber's more celebrated and familiar writing and cartoons.]

It's possible that people of a certain age would find examples of writing and drawing that made them laugh out loud in their younger days just as amusing today. It's possible also that they would find the material disappointing and dated. Why did this stuff seem so funny 50 years ago?

The fact that the 100 or so essays and drawings in People Have More Fun Than Anybody were previously uncollected raises a more direct question about durability. Until now were these pieces of James Thurber's that the editor says he culled from "the crumbling pages of early New Yorkers and defunct magazines like PM unworthy of preservation between hard covers?

The evidence at hand strongly suggests no. Even the skeptical will find most of these samples to be vintage Thurber, illustrating the enduring relevance that T. S. Eliot detected in Thurber's work in 1951. In the preface Eliot is quoted from a Time cover story of that year.

[Thurber's work] is a form of humor which is also a way of saying something serious. There is a criticism of life at the bottom of it. It is serious and even somber. Unlike so much humor it is not merely a criticism of manners—that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment—but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring.

Eliot here is pretty "serious and even somber" himself. Recalling his scholarly mien one hopes that, encountering Thurber, he too laughed out loud. It's possible to get too serious about things like this. Surely one of the endearing qualities about Thurber's work is its delightful, uncomplicated silliness. When aficionados trade recollections of their favorite Thurber cartoons or essays, they don't ponder their social significance. They just laugh and recall others.

Remember the seal in the bedroom, they say, the owl in the attic, the day the bed fell and the electricity leaked. Remember that drawing of the woman confronting the hippolike beast, beside which lie a shoe, a hat and a cold pipe, and demanding: "What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?"

Those pieces from previous collections are no more entertaining than the material in People Have More Fun Than Anybody, subtitled "A Centennial Celebration." They're just more familiar. The fun in the new book (for some of us) is recognizing a long-forgotten cartoon or bit of writing that we might not have ever seen again.

A drawing from a 1936 New Yorker cover, for example, epitomizes a frequent leitmotif of Thurber's. In the near background a smilingly confident woman is racing through the woods, led by a dog on a leash. In the foreground, just out of her sight, a man cowers behind a tree. We realize he is doomed because the dog has obviously already spotted him. "My Day (With Apologies to Eleanor Roosevelt)," from the same year, is a takeoff on the first lady's popular newspaper column. Good to have this gentle parody preserved.

The familiar inhabitants of Thurber land are all accounted for here—those dogs, the ambling as well as the contemplative: those terrible women, the immensely glowering and the smugly obdurate, the startlingly athletic and the frighteningly glacial; those men, the cringing and haunted husbands, bewildered fathers, bland psychiatrists, ferocious fencers. And the stories and fables are small masterpieces of contemporary comment.

It is surely sobering to those of us who recall fondly the Thurber of Men, Women and Dogs, Lanterns and Lances and My World—and Welcome to It to realize that Thurber would have been 100 years old next December. This quote from Lanterns and Lances seems particularly fitting:

"Many things, or rather people and ideas, are dealt with here in what I hope is a humorous vein, for, as I keep pointing out, humor in a living culture must not be put away in the attic with the flag, but should be flaunted, like the flag, bravely.

Craig Seligman (essay date Fall 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4222

SOURCE: "The Cottage of Smugness," in The Threepenny Review, Vol. XV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 26-8.

[In the following mixed assessment, Seligman finds that some of Thurber's work retains a peculiar charm but that most of it is overwrought and dated, the product of a talent that never achieved its potential.]

In reviewing these skeptical reflections on the centenary of James Thurber, I find there is an aspect of his output that I've tended to slight, and so I had better acknowledge it up front: his charm. I can't deny Thurber's charm. His work is full of it; his silly drawings, especially, are rife with it. You have probably encountered the story, told in many places, of how in the late 1920s E. B. White retrieved some of his friend's doodlings from the floor of the office they shared at The New Yorker, inked in the penciled squiggles, and submitted the results to Harold Ross, the magazine's founding editor. Ross was skeptical; so was Thurber. But Thurber's drawings, like his stories and essays, have taken their place in the pantheon of American humor. They are disarmingly unforced and, technically, disarmingly primitive. "If you ever got good you'd be mediocre," White told him astutely. The fact that he never got good is probably the reason that his artwork now seems so much more idiosyncratic and so much less dated than most of his prose: the naïveté that Matisse achieved by overcoming his artistic training Thurber attained by never having had any. I don't draw the contrast out of the blue; it was made in Thurber's heyday, and not altogether preposterously. White, in fact, came to regard the drawings as his friend's greatest work. I don't agree, because they have none of the power of the writing. But they also have none of the problems: they treat the same themes that in Thurber's stories make me want to leave the room, and yet they feel whimsical, painless—fantastic.

Thurber's writing is not fantastic. Even when it takes the form of fables or fairy tales, its homely, quotidian detail (which is often an intentional deflating device) keeps it down to earth. And while at its loveliest, as in "The Catbird Seat" and "The Unicorn in the Garden," it, too, is beautifully unforced, you certainly couldn't call it primitive. Some of the essays amount to writerly attempts at doodling—bagatelles whose aimlessness is largely the point. But they never attain the purity of the drawings, because they've been too painstakingly hammered out, and labor is the surest way to kill a joke.

Thurber died in 1961, the year of Hemingway's suicide, and three decades later his name is practically as resonant. If Hemingway gave voice to a native fixation on manliness and self-reliance, then Thurber, in some odd way his counterpart, came to enunciate a native emasculation. Any reader who has perused more than a few of his stories or leafed through the many drawings of harridans and meek little men knows how transfixed he was by the vision of male ineptitude before female assurance and strength. His caricatures could make the conflict funny, pathetic, or ugly, but in every case his discomfort—his terror—is evident. One reason that "The Catbird Seat" and "The Unicorn in the Garden" stand out among Thurber's stories is that the meek little men in them prevail, which is such a rarity in his universe that they seem more like fairy tales than his fairy tales do. Much more often, almost too often to enumerate, the little man is crushed. (The Bert Pendlys and Walter Mittys retreat into the only available refuge, neurosis and fantasy.) Thurber's fear of women runs so deep that it teeters on the verge of feminism, since his women are the equals—no, the betters—of the weaklings who are supposed to dominate them. But it never occurred to him to explore this paradox by questioning the scheme of things. If the women weren't subservient, then there was something the matter with the men.

You don't have to dig to unearth the evidence of Thurber's insecurity. It isn't buried. The mortifying moment in "The Thin Red Leash" when he is walking his pert little Scottie and a "huge steamfitter" addresses him, "What d'y' say me an' you an' the dog go somewheres and have tea?" is typical. His only major fight with Harold Ross erupted after Ross called him "a sis." "Jared L. Manley," the pseudonym he took for the "Where Are They Now?" series he worked on for the magazine in the 1930s, was a reference to "the manly art of self-defense"—an art that the delicate writer, blind in one eye (and in later years in both), could never practice himself. But he loved the idea of using his fists. When Dorothy Parker declared, "Humor is a shield, not a weapon," he bristled. "Humor is as big a fist as any other form, or maybe bigger," he protested to White. And when a reader wrote The New Republic complaining that a review by Thurber had been "a slap in the face," he snapped back triumphantly, "I didn't realize my hand was open."

Strength, virility, dominance is Thurber's running subtext—his running text. His marriage tales (stories like "Am I Not Your Rosalind?," "The Breaking Up of the Winships," and "The Case of Dimity Ann") presage and sometimes rival the venom of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which owes a great deal to them. When it comes to character, though, Thurber isn't much of a psychologist; his defensiveness (and he never claims to be a disinterested observer) keeps him from getting very far beneath the surface of others. There is only one character he is really interested in probing, and the spectacle of his self-exposure can be riveting. On a few occasions—as in "Teacher's Pet,"—he takes it to frightening lengths.

Kelby, the fifty-year-old protagonist of "Teacher's Pet," has never gotten over his eighth-grade humiliation at the hands of a bully. Thirty-seven years later his cowardice still preys on him. Near the end of the story, he happens upon two boys repeating the same ugly, age-old scenario; incensed, he chases off the bully. Then he turns to the sniveling victim, whose name is Elbert, and suddenly he flips:

"Shut up!" shouted Kelby. "Shut up!" But the boy kept on. Kelby looked at his quivering lower lip and at the convulsion of his stomach. Elbert was fighting to gain control of himself, but he lost the battle and began to weep unrestrainedly. Kelby was suddenly upon him. He grabbed him tightly by the shoulders and shook him until his head bobbed back and forth. He let go of the boy's left shoulder and slapped him on the cheek. "You little crybaby!" sobbed Kelby. "You goddam little coward!"

A few paragraphs later, the story is diminished by a neat, ironic close. But the rawness of the self-loathing that breaks through at this climax is almost sickening. For the brief moment that you see clearly into Thurber's torment, you can sense the power that he had at his disposal—or might have had, if his gaze had always been so unflinching.

But even when he flinches he's revealing. The Male Animal, the 1940 comedy he wrote with Elliott Nugent, is probably the work that lays his anxieties most cruelly bare. The central figure is a milquetoast academic whose wife nearly leaves him for his former rival, a onetime football hero who has returned to the campus for a big game. Professor Tommy Turner displays his moral fiber in a fight for academic freedom against a redbaiter on the Board Trustees. But his moral fiber doesn't give off much of a sexual scent, and the academic-freedom side of the story, which was Nugent's contribution, fades before the more elemental conflict between the physically timid male and the strapping, confident one, which was, naturally, Thurber's. Thurber often does what he can to shore up his morale by making his strong men stupid, but he can't ignore their seductiveness. The play's title comes from a speech in which a sloshed Tommy proclaims that a man has to fight when his mate is lured away:

The sea lion knows better. He snarls. He gores. He roars with his antlers. He knows that love is a thing you do something about. He knows it is a thing that words can kill. You do something. You don't just sit there…. A woman likes a man who does something. All the male animals fight for the female, from the land crab to the bird of paradise. They don't just sit and talk. They act.

Tommy's wife, Ellen, represents one of Thurber's few attempts to set forth a woman who's not a caricature. She doesn't stand 6′6″ or look ready to wrestle, but she turns out to be, in her primped, demure way, as ruthless a castrating bitch as any of the viragoes in the cartoons. (Olivia de Havilland read the role perfectly in the 1942 movie, in which, opposite Henry Fonda's Tommy, she gave one of the hardest performances of her career.) Of course, Tommy finally proves that he's a "scrapper"—which is the same word Thurber uses in "The Thin Red Leash" to defend his little dog. But the way he prevails is so corny, so equivocal, and so lacking in conviction that it does much to explain why both the play and the movie have been forgotten.

Though Thurber got out of Columbus for good when he was thirty, it stayed with him; later on he could never quite decide whether he was a man-about-town or a hick at heart. He despised the narrowness and philistinism of the place ("Millions for manure, but not one cent for literature" was a barb he was fond of quoting). In 1951 Ohio State, his alma mater, offered him an honorary degree right on the heels of issuing a gag rule subjecting all campus speeches to prior scrutiny—weirdly paralleling the outrages he and Nugent had thought up a dozen years earlier for The Male Animal. He declined it in disgust.

And yet he stayed loyal. You would never know from any of his written recollections how much he looked down on his boyhood home. What mockery he does indulge in is fond: he treats Columbus as the norm—heartland America, unsophisticated but honest and practical. He devoted two very different books to recollections of Ohio, and both of them are, in their own ways, sugar-coated. My Life and Hard Times (1933), the source of some of his most widely anthologized stories (including "The Night the Bed Fell" and "The Night the Ghost Got In"), reorganizes his troubled childhood into a comic idyll, depicting the Thurbers as wildly eccentric but at the same time solidly normal—a prototype for the zany-but-healthy families that would infest TV sitcoms a couple of decades later. The America of these pseudo-memoirs is the same picket-fence Eden that the Hollywood studios hawked to their audience; and in both cases a public enchanted by the sweetness of the vision let itself be conned into nostalgia for something that had never been.

Thurber's second Ohio book, The Thurber Album (1952)—fifteen portraits of family pillars, local eccentrics, college teachers, and other early mentors—is far less antic than My Life and Hard Times, but no tougher. The crinkly smiles do give it a lovely surface, though. Thurber's gift for candying the past stood in inverse proportion to his prudishness and priggishness about the present, and the Album made an ideal setting for his bumpless prose. The same gift put satire beyond him: his best humor is whimsical, not satiric. The typical pattern is for an artist to learn from one or more mentors, pull away, and finally—in some fashion, at least—repudiate them. But Thurber was never able to put anybody behind him; he was fatally easy on his memories and his ideals. He soft-pedaled the flaws in the people he wrote about (and still got howls of protest from his family), and what criticisms he did offer were so gentle they amounted to caresses, even in the case of one professor who at an advanced age took up fascism. He was no scrapper—there was something fundamentally passive in his nature. He was a born protégé, which is what made him putty in the hands of Harold Ross and E. B. White.

Thurber, of course, had a large part in creating The New Yorker, and it had a larger part in creating him. The man and the magazine split rather bitterly in the years after Ross's death, but by then they were destined, like Rogers and Astaire, to be remembered as a couple. Thurber arrived on the premises when he was thirty-two, an advanced age for a writer to fall under someone else's shaping influence. But there can be little doubt that it was Ross who set the stamp on his output. By all accounts Ross had the true editor's genius for finding people who could give him what he wanted—a genius he demonstrated in hiring White and Thurber, whose previous careers had not been stellar and whose later ones probably wouldn't have amounted to much without him, either. The New Yorker, so the story goes, saved Thurber from the demands of journalistic topicality and from the intimidation of the larger forms. Working in the smaller ones, he could let his restless imagination swing like a weather vane, toward cartoons, stories, essays, sketches—whichever way the wind was blowing. He was the consummate doodler, and in letting him doodle, The New Yorker made Thurber possible.

That, at least, is the standard version. But isn't there another possibility: that the sparks that flash intermittently from his hundreds and hundreds of pages are just hints of his genius? When lightning strikes in Thurber, it mainly illuminates the surrounding expanse of flat terrain. Granted, "The Catbird Seat"—to take the story he acknowledged as his best—is perfect, on its small scale. But it isn't For Whom the Bell Tolls, and if you gather up all the scattered flashes of Thurber's brilliance, they still don't add up to a For Whom the Bell Tolls. A stale scent of disappointment wafts out from between the covers of his many books. They're charming, they're fine, but when you come upon a lethally powerful story like "A Couple of Hamburgers" or "Teacher's Pet," you get a sulfurous whiff of what might have been. Taste, decorum, and good humor were always dangers for New Yorker writers, and in Thurber they neutralized something that was ugly but potentially great: the rage, which wasn't so much controlled as suppressed.

It did eventually surface, poisoning his personality (which had never been very pleasant), but by that time it had corroded into resentfulness. In his later work, he abandoned humor for grandstanding and turned into a windbag. "How many years will it take to convince people that I'm not a clown?" he demanded the year he died. His last books make grotesquely unpleasant reading: the misogyny grew rancid, and the attempts at satire dissolved into angry carping, aimless word games, and a generalized geriatric bitterness.

But in his prime he suppressed that anger. His prose is so held in that it practically aches. Thurber's humorous writing too often carries you for long expectant periods in a state of pre-laughter, waiting for the sneeze of hilarity that never comes. And though he wasn't a one-note writer, he sounded one note at a time. There's not much ambiguity in Thurber: when he's breezy, it's unalloyed, as it is when he's touching or cruel or pensive, but he seldom brings conflicting responses into play, and a single piece almost never demonstrates his range. That's trap for the writer of casuals; and Thurber, whose youthful attempts at a novel and later forays into dramatic writing after The Male Animal all came to nothing, was always conscious of his failure in the larger forms. The locus classicus of this discomfort is his preface to My Life and Hard Times, in which he bemoans the plight of "writers of light pieces running from a thousand to two thousand words":

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats: Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane…. To call such persons "humorists," a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

Prose that fresh and delicately balanced is a peculiar medium for a message of such insecure gloom, but that's Thurber—and, of course, the passage really has nothing to do with other "writers of light pieces." Instead it's a frank evaluation of his own artistic (and personal) limitations, something close to a confession of failure.

And yet none of his contemporaries would have dreamed of calling him a failure—he was a household word, the most celebrated luminary on Ross's celebrated staff. (Auden and Eliot were among his fans.) Nor would he have called himself a failure, though the defensiveness and pugnacity of his later years suggest a self-doubt that he never honestly owned up to. He couldn't: failure was anathema. He had to be on the winning team. At Ohio State he had been a nobody until Elliott Nugent, five years younger but already a campus mover, took him under his wing, got him into his fraternity, and buoyed his confidence so effectively that Thurber went on to become a honcho in the drama society and to edit the college newspaper and the literary magazine. Later on, when he had the good fortune to be invited onto The New Yorker, it was the same story writ bigger. Belonging was everything; sometimes his clubbiness about the place is enough to set your teeth on edge. Hence his feeling of loss in the late 1930s when he returned to the office after a long absence in Europe. He was incensed at the changes, and he bitched and grumbled about them to his dying day, convinced that everyone who had a hand in shaping the magazine after he did was taking it in the wrong direction. It was no longer his club.

Thurber had opinions on all the controversies of the era and was always readier than White was to dive into the fray. Ross didn't take him seriously as a critic, though—a light that shows that his famous instinct could sometimes fail him. Thurber's book reviews for The New Republic and other magazines exhibit a contemplative appealingly confident side that's very different from the glib, ironic voice of the stories and casuals. Like White, Thurber considered himself an average Joe and narrowed his eyes at theory. His jabs at psychoanalysis suggest that above all he thought Freudians took everything (including themselves) too solemnly. And as for Marxists, "Why, in God's name," he demanded of Malcolm Cowley, "can't they have one or two likeable, genial, humorous, natural human beings to espouse their cause?"

Much more than White, he loved playing the litterateur. He never got over his infatuation with Henry James; during the course of his career he made several attempts to imitate his style that are too affectionate, and too dull, to qualify as parody. But as he always acknowledged, the decisive turn in his career came when Ross, shortly after Thurber's arrival at The New Yorker, put him in a tiny office with White (who was, like Nugent, five years his junior). Thurber said later that he "learned discipline in writing from studying Andy White's stuff"; it helped him escape the involuted rhythms of James and the other florid models he had come of age on. "I would use 'in fine,' 'as who should say,' and the like…. The precision and clarity of White's writing helped me a lot, slowed me down from the dog-trot of newspaper tempo and made me realize a writer turns on his mind, not a faucet."

Of course, as Charles S. Holmes points out in his excellent 1972 study, The Clocks of Columbus, one of the principal reasons Thurber was able to learn so rapidly from White was that they were so much alike to begin with. They brought, a curiously parochial voice to The New Yorker's sophistication, reflecting and amplifying Ross's own suspicion of anything highfalutin. They believed in good writing, certainly—good and plain; fancy thought and fancy verbiage made them wary. Thurber, though, had loftier ambitions and a grander, if wobblier, self-image. There can be no doubt that White—the same White who later, in The Elements of Style, would declare flatly, "The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity"—helped Thurber get rid of some youthful excesses. White's cleanness is a relief after the curlicued journalism that preceded it, and you can't deny its purity even if you find it (as I do) placid. But what may not be so apparent at first glance, and may never have been apparent at Ross's New Yorker, is that it's also a highly personal style. It fit White as neatly as complications and involutions fit James; but it was a style designed to simplify, and Thurber was anything but simple. Here was a man who would get soused and bully his friends, who pursued women and then couldn't perform with them, who broke down and cried at his own wedding, who missed his daughter's birth because he was out on the town with an old girlfriend—a volatile, self-destructive, complicated, sloppy man. (If Burton Bernstein's sour 1975 biography demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that.) Yet he cramped his antic imagination into the bland, inhibited, moderate-to-a-fault Yankee manner that had been perfected by White and sanctified by Ross. The unruffled, unruffling tone may have suited the teacher's pet who yearned to please; but it denied, or tried to deny, the sociopath who was spoiling to bloody every psyche in the room—the creepy, not-nice but not-dull side of Thurber, the side where all the powder was stored.

The White style works best for Thurber in the reportorial pieces, like the five-part series on soap opera that was reprinted in The Beast in Me. And that's what it remains best for. Years after the passing of Ross, a writer as eccentric and strong-willed as Truman Capote could be cowed by the aura of The New Yorker into sacrificing his peculiar voice for the neat, spare White style when he reported In Cold Blood for Ross's successor, William Shawn. We owe Ross a debt of gratitude for some of the century's best reporting, but his ideas about literature were modest: witness the rise, under the tutelage of Katharine Angell (another instance of his knack for locating people who could put his vision into practice), of the understated, under-plotted prose form that was to become known as the New Yorker story. Modesty, though, didn't become Thurber; he was an egomaniac, a braggart, and a messy, oversized talent, born, like so many of his tormented generation, to go too far. But he never went far enough.

Hemingway, to be fair, had it easier. He could inhabit his macho men with such unwavering, aching conviction because he was giving form to a cultural ideal; the culture was behind him all the way. Thurber didn't have the wherewithal to challenge the ideal, but he knew that he didn't live up to it, and he could look around him and see that not many others did, either. His work is all about getting pushed around, and about how the pushed-around shuffle through their lives deprived of conviction and self-respect. And that's why, for all the smugness and the simmering nastiness, he is still so resonant (more resonant, in the sense that he deals with the ground-down actual, than Hemingway): he enuciated the resignation, the deflation, the dull gray tragedy of American manhood. But funny?

The "mannerisms, tricks, adornments" that White warns the young writer against, given time and nurture, can grow into profound expressions of personality, as they did with James or, in a very different fashion, with Hemingway. The New Yorker style carried Thurber to fame, but it left him there, stranded down below the heights there is every indication he could have scaled. Did Ross and White give him the means to climb them, or did they hold him back? Or did he let them hold him back when, breaking away, he could have ascended beyond their view? If The New Yorker made Thurber possible, it also bound him down to the dismal earth. He had the talent but he lacked the nerve. The road of modesty led to the cottage of smugness.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285


Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1975: 517-20.

List of primary and secondary critical sources for the definitive Thurber biography.

Bowden, Edwin T. James Thurber: A Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969.

A comprehensive bibliographic source of Thurber's works and criticism.


Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1975.

A definitive work on Thurber's life, unflattering but disinterested.

Grauer, Neil. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

A sympathetic view of Thurber's life.


Appelbaum, Judith. "Paperback Talk." New York Times Book Review (12 December 1982): 34.

Positive notice of the publication of Selected Letters.

Baldwin, Alice. "James Thurber's Compounds." Language and Style III, No. 2 (Summer 1970): 185-96.

A discussion of Thurber's innovative and idiosyncratic word compounding.

Dunning, Jennifer. "Paperback Talk." New York Times Book Review (30 October 1977): 57.

Brief review of the reissue of Thurber's children's book, The Thirteen Clocks.

Review of Credos and Curios. New York Times Book Review (13 March 1983): 28.

Positive note on the reissue of the 1962 collection.

Review of Thurber's Dogs. New York Times Book Review (13 May 1984): 38.

Brief, appreciative notice of the reissue of Thurber's 1955 volume.

Stafford, Jean. Review of The Great Quillow. New Yorker 51 (1 December 1975): 178.

A very brief review of the reissue of one of Thurber's lesser known children's stories.

Illustration of PDF document

Download James Thurber Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Thurber, James (Vol. 11)


Thurber, James (Vol. 5)