James Thurber Thurber, James (Vol. 125) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Getlein (review date 22 December 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Atlantic Monthly (review date December 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles E. May (essay date Fall 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Roderick Nordell (review date 14 December 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Montrose (review date 5 February 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marilyn Underwood (essay date Summer 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Melvin Maddocks (essay date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."


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Edward Sorel (review date 5 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?


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Anthony Quinn (review date 15 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Joyce (review date 25 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Idema (review date 10 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Craig Seligman (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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