Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1729

V Facts and Fantasy ‘‘Dis morning bime by,’’ said his hired man Barney Haller, ‘‘I go hunt grotches in de voods.’’ Such a statement set Thurber’s mind on fire. ‘‘If you are susceptible to such things, it is not difficult to visualize grotches. They fluttered into my mind: ugly little...

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V Facts and Fantasy
‘‘Dis morning bime by,’’ said his hired man Barney Haller, ‘‘I go hunt grotches in de voods.’’ Such a statement set Thurber’s mind on fire. ‘‘If you are susceptible to such things, it is not difficult to visualize grotches. They fluttered into my mind: ugly little creatures, about the size of whippoorwills, only covered with blood and honey and the scrapings of church bells.’’ The grotches turn out to be nothing more than crotched branches of trees, but a world without grotches is a duller place. ‘‘There is no person,’’ wrote Thurber, ‘‘whose spirit hasn’t at one time or another been enriched by some cherished transfiguring of meanings’’; and he gave as an example the youngster who thought that the first line of the Lord’s Prayer was, ‘‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, Halloween be thy Name.’’ ‘‘There must have been for him in that reading a thrill, a delight, and an exaltation that the exact sense of the line could not possibly have created.’’

A militant realist might scoff at such a mind as Thurber’s; but, in so doing, he would miss much of the charm of life—like the patient bloodhound who went through the world with his eyes and nose to the ground and so missed all its beauty and excitement. The realist worries about heredity and environment, depression and taxes; Thurber too knew that life is perilous, but he worried about being ‘‘softly followed by little men padding along in single file, about a foot and a half high, large-eyed and whiskered.’’ (For a picture of these little men, see The Seal in the Bedroom.) ‘‘Fantasy is the food for the mind, not facts,’’ wrote Thurber; and one of his cartoons shows a social gathering in the midst of which sits an austere, scholarly looking man, chin in hand, scowling; while behind his back, one woman explains to another, ‘‘He doesn’t know anything except facts.’’

Robert Louis Stevenson expressed what is essentially Thurber’s position:

There are moments when the mind refuses to be satisfied with evolution, and demands a ruddier presentation of the sum of man’s experience. Sometimes the mood is brought about by laughter at the humorous side of life. . . . Sometimes it comes by the spirit of delight, and sometimes by the spirit of terror. At least, there will always be hours when we refuse to be put off by the feint of explanation, nicknamed science; and demand instead some palpitating image of our estate, that shall represent the troubled and uncertain element in which we dwell, and satisfy reason by the means of art. Science writes of the world as if with the cold finger of a starfish. . . .

Thurber recognized the dangers of carrying the imagination to extremes. While commenting that ‘‘Realists are always getting into trouble,’’ he went on to say that ‘‘I do not pretend that the daydream cannot be carried too far.’’ ‘‘You can’t live in a fantastic dream world, night in and night out, and remain sane,’’ he explained. Charlie Deshler in ‘‘The Curb in the Sky’’ tried to do just this and ended up in an asylum. In ‘‘A Friend to Alexander,’’ Mr. Andrews, who took to dreaming constantly about Aaron Burr, withdrew farther and farther into his imagination, dreaming of finally wreaking vengeance on Burr, for whom he felt an intense hatred because the face of Alexander Hamilton resembled that of Andrews’ dead brother. When he finally faced Burr’s phantom in an imaginary duel, Andrews, identifying himself with Hamilton, dropped dead.

For all of his fantasy, Thurber satirized those who mistook illusion for reality. In his study of soap opera, he told of listeners who thought that radio characters were real and sent in wedding gifts and layettes to the studio when ‘‘Big Sister’’ got married or the daughter on ‘‘Just Plain Bill’’ had a baby. When another actor took over the role of the husband in ‘‘Pepper Young’s Family,’’ ‘‘Indignant ladies wrote in, protesting against these immoral goings on.’’ Another woman listener, recognizing that Kerry Donovan, the husband in ‘‘Just Plain Bill,’’ and Larry Noble, the husband in ‘‘Backstage Wife,’’ were played by the same actor, wrote to the studio that she was aware of this double life and threatened to expose the bigamy. Such a confusion of fact and fiction Thurber found pathetically absurd.

Thurber himself was certainly well grounded in reality. His work even more than Wordsworth’s is full of concrete details and observations, sometimes interesting and informative, sometimes dead wood. Thurber had total recall, and once commented about himself: ‘‘He can tell you to this day the names of all the children who were in the fourth grade when he was. He remembers the phone numbers of several of his high school chums. He knows the Birthdays of all his friends and can tell you the date on which any child of theirs was christened. He can rattle off the names of all the persons who attended the lawn fete of the First M. E. Church in Columbus in 1907.’’ As a result, he filled his work with a mine of incidental information which, while sometimes irrelevant, helped give his writings verisimilitude. Henri Bergson noted that ‘‘Humor delights in concrete terms, technical details, definite facts. . . . This is not an accidental trait of humor, it is its very essence.’’

The Romantic element is only one aspect of Thurber’s work and is balanced by a great deal of skillful satire, a genre traditionally associated with Classicism. However, Thomas Wolfe observed that ‘‘The best fabulists have often been the greatest satirists. . . . Great satire needs the sustenance of great fable.’’ As examples, Wolfe cited Aristophanes, Voltaire, and Swift; to these we might add Rabelais, Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Thurber himself. Sometimes Thurber combined romanticism and satire, as when he attacked the excesses of scientists and psychologists in their efforts to direct or control the imagination.

Perhaps psychiatrists have helped bring about the decline of fantasy (except in science-fiction) by making it too much a subject for analysis. One psychiatrist told Mrs. Thurber that if he had her husband under treatment for a few weeks, he would cure him of all his drawings. Thurber shrugged this incident aside, but he was highly incensed when the psychiatrist Dr. Paul Schilder analyzed Lewis Carroll and concluded that Alice in Wonderland is full of ‘‘cruelty, destruction, and annihilation.’’ If carried to their illogical extreme, views such as Dr. Schilder’s would destroy imaginative literature almost entirely. ‘‘Dr. Schilder’s work . . . is cut out for him,’’ wrote Thurber. ‘‘He has the evil nature of Charles Perrault to dip into, surely as black and devious and unwholesome as Lewis Carroll’s. He has the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen. He has Mother Goose, or much of it. He can spend at least a year on the Legend of Childe Rowland, which is filled with perfectly swell sexual symbols— from (in some versions) an underground cave more provocative by far than the rabbit hole in Wonderland to the sinister Dark Tower of the more familiar versions. This one piece of research will lead him into the myth of Proserpine and into Browning and Shakespeare and Milton’s Comus and even into the dark and perilous kingdom of Arthurian legend. . . . When he is through with all this, Dr. Schilder should be pretty well persuaded that behind the imaginative works of all the cruel writing men . . . lies the destructive and unstable, the fearful and unwholesome. . . .’’ Dr. Schilder would probably think that Lewis Carroll would have done better to devote himself solely to mathematics or to some other aspect of Reality; but Thurber believed that Alice is more valuable; and he wrote that, after all of Tenniel’s political cartoons, the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland had given him something important to do. In reply to Dr. Schilder, Thurber quoted Dr. Morton Prince, ‘‘a truly intelligent psychologist,’’ who says of the creatures of artistic imagination that ‘‘Far from being mere freaks, monstrosities of consciousness, they are in fact shown to be manifestations of the very constitution of life.’’

Certainly Thurber, an extremely careful craftsman and conscious critic of his work, which often underwent two dozen revisions, would not endorse the Freudian theory of the unconscious origins of art as a product of sublimated neurosis. As for Freud’s study of humor, Thurber wrote in 1949: ‘‘I strongly believe that the analogy between dreams and wit rests on a similarity more superficial than basic, and the psychic explanation of wit fails to take in the selectivity of the artist whose powers of rejection and perfection are greater than his vulnerability to impulse.’’ ‘‘Don’t you think the subconscious has been done to death and that it’s high time some one rediscovered the conscious?’’ he wrote as caption for a cartoon advertisement of S. N. Berhman’s Rain from Heaven (1935).

‘‘I have not always, I am sorry to say, been able to go the whole way with the Freudians, or even a very considerable distance,’’ he wrote in 1937. His first book, Is Sex Necessary? spoofs the sort of sex books that transform love into nothing more than an inherited behavior pattern with a heavy dose of neuroses. Never caring for the attitude that cherishes neuroses and even considers them a sign of superior sensitivity, Thurber wrote that through the early part of this century ‘‘neuroses were staved off longer, owing to the general ignorance of psychology.’’ Accordingly he found little use for the theories of Dr. Louis E. Bisch, the ‘‘Be-Glad-You’re- Neurotic’’ man, whose concepts he dismissed as mere mysticism. Thurber refused to indulge in psychic hypochondria and maintained that the analysts could not have him while he still kept his strength. ‘‘We worry so much about being neurotic that we never really delve into our minds,’’ he told W. J. Weatherby in 1961. ‘‘Modern psychology and psychiatry have made us all afraid of ourselves,’’ he wrote in the same year. ‘‘Angst is spreading, and with it mental ailments of whose cause and cure, one authority has recently said, we know little or nothing. But the terminology of psychiatry proliferates to the point that almost everybody now seems to think he is schizophrenic, schizoid, or schizo.’’

Source: Robert E. Morsberger, ‘‘The Romantic Imagination,’’ in James Thurber, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 55–59.

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