Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Throughout his long career, and ever since, James Thurber has been considered one of America’s great humor writers, and My Life and Hard Times, the book that ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ comes from, is widely considered to be his best work. In 1933, the year that the book...

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Throughout his long career, and ever since, James Thurber has been considered one of America’s great humor writers, and My Life and Hard Times, the book that ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ comes from, is widely considered to be his best work. In 1933, the year that the book was published, Robert M. Coates wrote in the New Republic that it constituted ‘‘the pleasantest mixture of fantasy and understanding, one of the funniest books of recent times.’’ More than half a century later, Robert Emmet Long writing in his book James Thurber still referred to that particular volume of Thurber’s work as ‘‘one of the most striking and original books published in America in the 1930s.’’

The public never seemed to lose its appreciation for Thurber’s comic pieces and his drawings, which came less and less frequently as his eyesight failed. What was unusual, however, was the sustained approval of literary critics. As he aged, critical appreciation for Thurber grew to almost mythic proportions. Three years before his death, Robert H. Elias wrote in the American Scholar, ‘‘For more than a generation James Thurber has been writing stories, an impressive number of them as well shaped as the most finely wrought pieces of Henry James, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.’’ Elias went further, comparing his prose to that of H. L. Mencken and J. D. Salinger, his insights to those of poets E. A. Robinson and Robert Frost, pointing out the unfairness that Thurber had never been nominated for a Nobel Prize. The excess of such enthusiasm was recognized by Melvin Maddocks, who wrote in the Sewanee Review that ‘‘The superlatives applied by Thurber’s colleagues and contemporaries seem excessive to the point of embarrassment today.’’ Looking back on Thurber’s career, Maddocks was able to identify a formulaic pattern to his stories, one that applied to other humor writers who wrote for the New Yorker as well. Like most critics today, Maddocks appreciated Thurber’s comic innovation while accepting his limits.

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Essays and Criticism