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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68

Walter Mitty and Mr. Martin both feel oppressed by individual women. Which man induces more sympathy and why?

What is misogyny? Are James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat” misogynistic?

How does the use of the grammatically challenged narrator enhance “You Could Look It Up”?


(The entire section contains 2147 words.)

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Walter Mitty and Mr. Martin both feel oppressed by individual women. Which man induces more sympathy and why?

What is misogyny? Are James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat” misogynistic?

How does the use of the grammatically challenged narrator enhance “You Could Look It Up”?

How does Thurber employ irony in his short stories?

Are the conclusions of Thurber’s stories plausible?


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811

Harrison Kinney’s critical biography of James Thurber is also a literary history of one of the most important chapters in twentieth century American literary history: the founding and early decades of The New Yorker magazine, when that journal and its writers were at the center of an exhilarating New York literary life. Thurber’s story and the history of the magazine are inextricably tied together in their best decades of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Thurber was to become the most important American humorist of the twentieth century—as Mark Twain had been for the nineteenth—and not only as a writer but as a cartoonist as well (he had nine one-man art shows in his lifetime). His “sure grasp of confusion,” as his New Yorkercolleague Wolcott Gibbs aptly described Thurber’s genius, allowed him to make comic sense of the increasingly complex world of mid-twentieth century America. Yet while the magazine he helped to make famous continued to grow after World War II, Thurber’s life went into serious decline in the years before his death in 1961.

Essentially, Thurber’s life falls into three main periods. The adult life of this most famous native of Columbus, Ohio, would be shaped significantly by his early midwestern years. A 1902 accident cost Thurber his left eye, and improper medical treatment would mean the almost total loss of vision in the last twenty years of his life. A shy middle son in a fairly unstable family, Thurber would turn the difficulties and disasters of his early life into his best books (for example, My Life and Hard Times[1933] and The Thurber Album [1952]).

After being graduated from Ohio State University and spending postwar years in Europe, Thurber found himself in New York, in an early and unhappy marriage to his first wife, Althea. The propitious meeting of Thurber with Harold Ross meant destiny for them both. The New Yorkerhad been founded in 1925 and was still trying to find its editorial voice and style in 1927, when Thurber started writing, editing, and drawing for the magazine. As Kinney argues,

Thurber would hardly have achieved his success and fame had he not been hired by the New Yorker in its early years. The magazine’s uncharted editorial direction and the consequent receptiveness of its founder to new ideas quickly opened for Thurber the unique chance to exploit his genius.

The New Yorker was at the center of an explosive period in American fiction and humor, what has come to be known as the Second American Literary Renaissance. Like the lunchtime Algonquin Round Table—which hosted many of the magazine’s creative talents, including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, just around the corner from the magazine’s offices—writers and editors such as E. B. White and his wife, Katharine Angell, helped to shape the magazine into a sophisticated journal of poetry, fiction, and humor that would welcome the greatest creative talents in America for decades.

Together, White and Thurber explored an early spectrum of New Yorkerpossibilities, set standards for the rest of the book to follow, and helped liberate Ross from his dependencies on other publications. In the course of it, they helped complete the emancipation of American letters from the English, and from wearying nineteenth-century literary traditions everywhere. They raised humor from cracker-barrel philosophy to an art, wrote satire without smugness, and implied civilized tastes without arrogance. They also helped make the New Yorker likable and respected.

The magazine, Kinney shows, happened along at exactly the right moment in the 1920’s and tapped into “a postwar irreverence” toward conventional American tastes and attitudes. “This attitude flourished in a carefree period of bootleg gin and politically and sexually emancipated women.” Ironically, however, it was during the Great Depression that both Thurber and the magazine reached their zenith; in the mid-1930’s, Thurber was producing eighty to ninety cartoons and literary pieces a year for The New Yorker.

In 1935, however, Thurber left the magazine to begin his free-lance career. The New Yorker would always maintain an office for him, however, and his best work would continue to appear there. In the same year he married his second wife, Helen, who became an absolutely essential partner for his last quarter-century, for Thurber was legally blind for twenty-one of the twenty-six years they were married. This third and final period of his life, as Kinney demonstrates again and again, was not a happy one for the humorist. After he suffered through a series of operations that did not help his vision, his blindness, coupled with his alcoholism, led to almost constant attacks on the world.

According to Kinney, the Thurber story “had moved into that sad period in which, one by one, Thurber irrationally begins to turn on the people and institutions he had long drawn upon for his livelihood, companionship, and intellectual sustenance”— including The New Yorker, the Whites, and even his own Columbus family. Yet he kept writing and drawing, to the acclaim of an increasingly international audience. His “sightlessness seemed to help him retrieve the past, for his powers of recollection were better than ever.”

Kinney goes on to show that during this period, Thurber was “writing by ear . . . and his stories depended for their development on cocktail talk—usually misunderstood by one of the conversationalists—wordplay, marital tension, and literary allusion.” His last works—The Thurber Carnival (published in 1945 and made into a musical in 1960), Thurber Country (1953), The Wonderful O (a fairy story published in 1957), andMy Years with Ross (a 1959 memoir of their days together at The New Yorker)—were among Thurber’s most popular books.

It is significant that, like many of the writers and artists who made up the literary renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s (F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example), Thurber emerged from the cultural inferiority of the American Midwest to become a central part of one of the most sophisticated literary centers in American history. Somehow that middle American background gave Thurber the tools necessary to deal humorously with the economic and spiritual dislocations of the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath. It is also interesting that the two major American humorists, Thurber and Mark Twain, not only emerged from the Midwest but also ended their lives in misery and misanthropy. By the end of his life, however, Thurber most resembled his contemporary James Joyce: both legally blind and both devoted to the language they could barely see. “Thurber’s livelihood” at the end of his life, Kinney reminds readers, “depended on his use of language, and he became one of its most vociferous protectors and practitioners, fighting any sign of its pollution, in speech or text, caring for the tools of his trade as fervently as any artisan.”

Thurber’s humor gently captures human vices and foibles in simple word and line portraits. In comparison to the Lost Generation of the 1920’s, Thurber once said, “Ours was the generation that stayed up all night.” Told by a reader that his works read even better in French translation, Thurber retorted that they “tend to lose something in the original.” His simple drawings of dogs, flowers, and people had a similarly pointed comic effect.

As with all great humorists, something very serious lies beneath all of Thurber’s work. If there is a central theme to the best Thurber work—the stories “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) and “The Catbird Seat” (1945), fables such as “The Unicorn in the Garden” collected in Fables for Our Time (1940), and the major works of Thurber humor (such asThe Male Animal, Thurber’s 1940 play written with his friend Elliot Nugent)—it is the battle of the sexes, the war between the ineffectual Thurber male and his overbearing wife. Though Thurber did not invent the war between men and women, his friend Alistair Cooke once remarked, “he is its bravest war correspondent.” Kinney describes this theme:

No major humorist before Thurber or since has exploited as extensively and intensively the natural conflict between men and women. He seems to have found both satisfaction and safety in going public with his domestic and romantic dilemmas. Despite the women’s battlefield surrender, in Thurber’s prose and cartoons, the men lose more frequently, highlighting the unlikable and dangerous character of the females.

The central obsession of Thurber’s art reflects the increasingly bitter misogyny of his own life, for his tirades in his last years invariably found female targets. Kinney is good at capturing not only this shaded fullness of Thurber’s career but also the richness of the periods in which Thurber lived—especially the 1920’s and the 1930’s—and the places he inhabited, from Columbus through New York to Paris.

The strengths of the biography are offset, unfortunately, by its exhaustive detail. By page 200 in most biographies, the subject would be settling his affairs, but in James Thurber: His Life and Times, the subject has yet to hold a writing job. The reader comes to page 300 before Thurber sells his first important piece, and to page 400 before he has published a book (Is Sex Necessary? [1929], with E. B. White). The consequence of the endless detail is that this fascinating personal and literary story never really catches the reader’s interest; the life of Thurber is too bogged down by its own detail. Kinney includes long excerpts from Thurber’s letters and stories—the first often as hilarious as the second—but his narrative line is swamped by his constant quotations. Having been acquainted with Thurber while working as a young reporter on The New Yorker in the early 1950’s, Kinney apparently has spent the intervening decades collecting material and interviews. He seems unwilling to dispense with any tidbit. It is clear that Kinney deserved an editor as good as he shows Thurber was. Put another way, the directness of Thurber’s humor deserves similar treatment.

The volume concludes with more than one hundred pages of appendices: a Thurber bibliography and chronology, and biographical updates for the major characters. A particular weakness of the book is that Kinney consistently refuses to give the dates of Thurber works in the bibliography or of the long excerpts that act as epigraphs to the seventy chapters, so the reader follows the life with only a vague sense of when the literary works were produced. It is unfair not to anchor the works of this important American writer in their decades. The volume is illustrated profusely, both with photographs and with Thurber’s own cartoons. One could only wish that there were fewer words, and more dates, as well.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, December 15, 1995, p. 681.

Boston Globe. December 24, 1995, p. 37.

Chicago Tribune. December 17, 1995, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXX, October 1, 1995, p. 82.

The Nation. CCLXII, January 1, 1996, p. 33.

New York. XXVIII, September 11, 1995, p. 87.

The New York Times Book Review. C, December 10, 1995, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, October 9, 1995, p. 70.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, December 31, 1995, p. 5.

Other Literary Forms

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James Thurber’s more than twenty published volumes include plays, stories, sketches, essays, verse, fables, fairy tales for adults, reminiscences, biography, drawings, and cartoons.


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James Thurber’s writings are widely known and admired in English-speaking countries and his drawings have a world following. He has been compared with James Joyce in his command of and playfulness with English, and he invites comparison with most of his contemporaries, many of whom he parodies at least once in his works. He greatly admired Henry James, referring to him often in his works and parodying him masterfully several times, for example, in “Something to Say.” While Thurber is best known as a humorist (often with the implication that he need not be taken seriously as an artist), his literary reputation has grown steadily. His short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” became an instant classic after it appeared in 1939 and was subsequently reprinted in Reader’s Digest. After his death in 1961, several major studies and a volume in the Twentieth Century Views series have appeared, all arguing that Thurber should rank with the best American artists in several fields including the short story. In 1980, “The Greatest Man in the World” was chosen for dramatization in the American Short Story series of the Public Broadcasting Service. Thurber received numerous awards for his work, including honorary degrees from Kenyon College (1950), Williams College (1957), and Yale University (1953), as well as the Antoinette Perry Award for the revue, A Thurber Carnival (1960). His drawings were included in art shows worldwide. He was the first American after Mark Twain to be invited to Punch’s Wednesday Luncheon (1958).

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