Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1345
To say that there are two worlds—the world of ordinary men and the world of James Thurber—is a cliché that would never have been tolerated by Thurber himself, for one of the charms of his style is a scrupulous avoidance of anything resembling the trite. Among his many phobias there must have existed the dread of turning a corner in a sentence and being waylaid with a cliché. His precision of language and careful attention to detail are the qualities that infuse his writing with interest and charm, as is his ability to impose a world of fantasy on a world of reality and to achieve an interrelationship of the external and the internal, the factual and the imaginative.
In his preface to My Life and Hard Times, Thurber apologizes for writing an autobiography before he had reached the age of forty and for not conforming to Ford Madox Ford’s dictum that one’s memoirs should paint a picture of one’s time. Thurber more or less admits that there is no time and that all he intends to tell is what happened to this one writer. Since what follows could have happened to no one but Thurber, he thus implicitly admits the existence of the Thurber world.
This world reaches beyond the boundaries of the real or the commonplace and extends into a region of fable, peopled by such figures as the cook Emma Inch and her asthmatic dog, Feely; Della, who made cretonnes for the soup and whose brother worked in an incinerator where they burn refuse; Barney Haller, the hired man, whom thunder followed like a dog; and Walter Mitty, that frustrated, comic Prufrock with his dreams of heroism and glory. Strange things happen in this world because Thurber sees it that way: An old woman with a parasol is seen to walk through a truck, a cat rolls across the street atop a striped barrel, and an admiral in full uniform rides a bicycle across the highway in the path of an oncoming car. That these things are never what they seem but fragments of the ordinary world suddenly revealed in a new light or a different perspective is the secret of Thurber’s humor. It is a form of humor little concerned with the conventional or the obvious. It arises quite naturally from a recognition of the inner, emotional chaos of a sensitive, individualistic man trapped in the affairs of the practical, demanding world, with no weapon of defense but his own resistances and inferiorities.
Hence that air of the fabulous that also invests Thurber’s drawings: the meek, rotund men with poses of resignation, whose faces reveal long-thwarted efforts to think and act in a positive manner; the aggressive, rather frightening women who never seem disturbed by doubts as to their superiority; the huge, sadly patient dogs. They belong in a world in which life has grown complicated for men and animals, from which one way of escape leads into a Cloud-Cuckoo Land where the illogical becomes the logical and the fantastic reveals the dilemma of people facing the psychological confusion and insecurity of their place in a world almost devoid of sense and meaning.
Nowhere does Thurber display to better advantage his genius for uncovering the incongruous in everyday human affairs, in the daydream escapes from personal confusion or catastrophe, than in the nine episodes that center on Thurber’s youth in Columbus, Ohio, as told in My Life and Hard Times.
“The Night the Bed Fell” is about the night the bed did not fall on Thurber’s father while he slept in the attic where Grandfather was supposed to sleep. Grandfather, who refused to believe that the army of the Potomac was not still trying to take Richmond, had wandered off some days before; eventually he would turn up with profane criticism of the campaign, its military leaders, and the administration in Washington. Actually, James Thurber rolled out of his cot; his mother was convinced that the bed had fallen on Father and he must be pulled from the wreckage; a visiting cousin poured a glass of camphor over himself, and Father was sure that the house was on fire. Mother, who always called it the night on which the bed fell on Father, was looking on the bright side of things when she said she was glad Grandfather had not been there.
“The Car We Had to Push” is about all sorts of things, but mostly about Grandfather’s brother, Zenas, who contracted the chestnut tree blight and died of that strange malady in 1866. “The Day the Dam Broke” is about the day the dam did not break. Expected catastrophes have a way of not happening in the Thurber world, but the effects are very much the same. The citizens of Columbus, thinking it had broken, fled in panic. The police were summoned to the Thurber household on “The Night the Ghost Got In,” and Grandfather shot one police officer in the shoulder under the hallucinated impression that the men in blue uniforms were deserters from General Meade’s army.
“More Alarms at Night” deals with brother Roy’s feigned delirium; even at the best of times Roy was likely to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “Marching Through Georgia” in his sleep. He awakened Father in the small hours, called him Buck, and announced that his time had come. Father, a mildly nervous man, aroused his family. Everyone assured him that he had had a bad dream. The sketch also deals with another night when James awoke poor Father to get help in remembering the name of a New Jersey city, Perth Amboy. Sure that his son had gone mad, Father ran from the room.
“A Sequence of Servants” tells of 162 servants, including Vashti, who told her lover that he must never tangle with her jealous stepfather, who had married her mother just to be near Vashti; it turns out that Vashti had invented her stepfather to pique the lover.
A memorable Airedale named Muggs is “The Dog That Bit People.” When he died, after biting almost everybody in Ohio—including Lieutenant-Governor Malloy—Mother wanted to bury him in the family plot under “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” or some equally misappropriate inscription. The family dissuaded her, however, and Muggs was interred along a lonely road beneath an epitaph of Thurber’s choice: “Cave canem.” Mother was always quite pleased with the classic dignity of that simple Latin phrase.
“University Days” presents Bolenciecwcz, star tackle on the Ohio State football team, whom an economics professor tried to make eligible for the Illinois game by asking him to name one means of transportation; after hints, prods, and auditory and visual demonstrations by the professor and the whole class, Bolenciecwcz mentioned a train and the day was saved. There is also an agricultural student named Haskins, who wanted to be a journalist and whose beat for campus news covered the cow barns, the horse pavilion, the sheep house, and the animal husbandry department in general.
The final sketch, “Draft Board Nights,” describes Thurber being repeatedly called before the draft board, which always turned him down because of poor eyesight, and then, through some repetitive mistake, called him back. He eventually drifted into service, not in the U.S. Army, but as an unauthorized and undetected examiner of draftees—a pulmonary man, to be exact. What put a merciful end to that was the Armistice.
It is useless for critics to debate the place of Thurber in the literature of his time. His humor, which creates its effects according to the laws of its own logic and yet always with a savoring of common sense, is superbly his own, as his would-be imitators have discovered. His manner is nimble without being racy; it has poignancy without sentimentality. His touch with words is delicate yet precise. Best of all, he illustrates his own books with inimitable drawings that, like his prose pieces, distort the familiar into the fantastic without losing touch with reality.