Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1763
James Thurber was one of the most popular humorists of the twentieth century. Many of his stories, essays, and drawings remain in print long after his death. This book, the second published volume of Thurber’s letters, is almost three times the size of Selected Letters of James Thurber (1981). The challenge of editing Thurber’s letters was “similar to trying to herd cats,” editor Harrison Kinney writes in the book’s introduction. While correcting mere typographical errors, he tried at the same time to preserve the “idiosyncratic mannerisms” that are essential to the character of Thurber’s writings.
Kinney, a lifelong Thurber fan, is a former reporter for The New Yorker, and one of Thurber’s biographers. He presents the letters chronologically, in five sections, as Thurber ambles into adulthood, wanders from place to place, has his greatest triumphs, and faces severe challenges.
In the first section, “The Emerging Years,” the first letter has the twenty-three-year-old Thurber telling his friend Elliott Nugent about his new job. Thurber had dropped out of Ohio State University, started working as a code clerk for the United States Department of State in the aftermath of World War I, and was looking forward to a posting in Paris. He was also rather mixed up in affairs of the heart. His letters declare his adoration for Eva Prout, a grade-school classmate who became a singer and actress, along with a fondness for Minette Fritts, who had been his classmate at Ohio State University. According to Thurber’s letters to each of the ladies and to Nugent, Fritts was quite attracted to him, but he was much more interested in Prout, who apparently was cordial but paid him little heed. Fritts eventually married another man and moved to Seattle. In 1922 Thurber married an Ohio State student, Althea Adams, whom he had met a year earlier. Although the marriage lasted thirteen years, it was rocky from the start.
“When I was younger,” he wrote to Fritts at age thirty-five, “a dedication to some woman seemed enough. It isn’t. Women find out sooner than we do, that a dedication to one person will not serve. . . . Our feet of clay stick out from under the covers and get cold, or else our shoulders do. I spend a great deal of time sorting over my past. . . . Some of my emotions are . . . disturbing.” He admitted that he harbored a “childish feeling” toward Fritts, that he had experienced similar feelings about Prout and also felt attracted to Ann Honeycutt, whom he met in 1927. None of this diminished his caring for his wife.
After leaving the foreign service, Thurber wrote some material for a college theater group, worked as a newspaper reporter, and tried unsuccessfully to make it as a freelance writer. He went back to France, tried to write a novel, then worked for the Chicago Tribune’s French editions. In 1926, broke, he returned to the United States.
The second section, “The Wandering Years,” starts later that year, after Thurber had landed a job with The New York Post. He made his first freelance sale in 1927, to The New Yorker magazine. Thanks to E. B. White, who was then a staff writer, Thurber joined the magazine’s staff and contributed numerous “casuals,” the personal comic essays for which he and The New Yorker became known, along with some drawings. His first duties there were mostly editing and administrative chores. When he told editor Harold Ross that he wanted to write more, Ross grudgingly agreed but said it would be considered part of his editorial duties and thus for no additional pay. For five months Thurber worked seven days a week, until he demanded a day off. His half-dozen casuals drew enough attention that Ross eventually, and still grudgingly, made him a writer. Somehow, Thurber and Ross remained friends and correspondents until Ross’s death in 1951.
Thurber’s marriage suffered several separations during this time, but he and his wife moved to a country home in Connecticut and in 1931 had a daughter, Rosemary. By 1935, though, they had divorced, and Thurber promptly married magazine editor Helen Wismer and left the staff of The New Yorker. He continued to sell casuals and drawings to the magazine. He had never paid much heed to money, but after Helen began to handle his finances, she told him that The New Yorker had routinely underpaid him.
In “The Triumphant Years,” the letters show the Thurbers becoming good friends of Ronald and Jane Williams, young publishers of The Bermudian, and giving some essays to their struggling little paper. In 1937 James and Helen headed for Europe, where they spent more than a year, including four months on the French Riviera. Thurber kept in close touch with White, but other friends also received his letters from Europe.
Autumn of 1938 saw the Thurbers back in the United States, renting houses in several Connecticut communities before buying what Thurber called “The Great Good Place,” in West Cornwall. He was exceptionally productive in 1939, writing Fables for Our Time, The Last Flower, and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” He also wrote the play The Male Animal, in collaboration with Nugent in Los Angeles. This show opened in New York in early 1940 and gave Thurber a substantial income for the first time in his life.
Along with this success, however, 1939 also brought various health problems, including the beginning of his blindness. He had lost his left eye at age seven, while playing with his brother. Now his right eye began to fail him. In June he wrote to Dr. Gordon Bruce, “Life is no good to me at all unless I can read, type, and draw. I would sell out for 13 cents.” Despite five operations, the eye continued to deteriorate. When he could not see to type, he used pencil and yellow copy paper but eventually hired a secretary. He managed to continue producing drawings up to 1951.
“The Challenging Years” is by far the largest of the five sections, spanning 322 pages and fourteen years. When World War II ended their vacation trips to Bermuda, the Thurbers started vacationing in Virginia. With gasoline rationed, they took an apartment in Manhattan. Thurber met Peter De Vries, editor of Poetry Magazine, in 1944, and they became loyal friends and correspondents. He helped De Vries get hired as poetry editor for The New Yorker. In 1945 The Thurber Carnival was published, showcasing his best writings and drawings to date.
Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and hired Thurber to work with scriptwriter Ken Englund. All of Thurber’s suggestions were rejected, however, and he was scornful of the outcome. He told Life magazine of his fear of the motion picture being “spoiled by one or more of Mr. [Danny] Kaye’s . . . famous, but to me, deplorable scat or git-gat-gittle songs.” Indeed, he wrote, “Mr. Goldwyn . . . substituted what is to me an utterly horrifying, shockingly out-of-taste-and-mood piece of scat.”
Thurber had long been a big fan of radio, and his blindness led to him to listen to it even more frequently. That, in turn, led him to research the world of soap operas for his New Yorker series “Soapland.” In 1947, more than a year before the series started, he wrote that his letters and literature on the subject already ran to a half-million words. He even suggested to Ross that The New Yorker could sponsor a soap opera. By 1950, Thurber was a frequent guest on radio and television programs. More of his work was being adapted to stage shows and music.
From the late 1930’s, his book reviews, essays, and letters had frequently condemned the politics of the literary Left. In the 1950’s, though, he became concerned about the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused an honorary degree from Ohio State University, to protest its screening of campus lecturers for any hints of “unamerican” ideas. “I have always been a vehement anti-communist . . . ” he wrote to James Pollard at the journalism department, “but I have no doubt that like almost all writers, I will one day be named as a Red.” By such censorship, he said, “the university deprives itself of a wonderful chance to heckle and confound such speakers.”
In 1951, he drew a self-portrait for Time magazine and announced that it would be his last drawing. The next spring, a hyperthyroid condition was wrongly diagnosed and treated. This lasted almost two years. Sometimes unable to tie his shoes or to tolerate alcohol, he grew irritable.
In the book’s last section, “The Twilight Years,” Thurber researched a book about his quarter-century of association with New Yorker editor Ross. Preparing “The Years with Ross” engendered much correspondence, as he and former contributors reminisced in lengthy letters. It began to run in The Atlantic Monthly magazine in late 1957. Some of Ross’s associates disliked it as overly critical of The New Yorkerand its founder, but it was a big success.
In 1959 a Peter Sellers film, The Battle of the Sexes, was produced, based on Thurber’s story “The Catbird Seat.” The Broadway musical review A Thurber Carnival, made from Thurber’s prose and art, drew good reviews in 1960. At age sixty-six and blind, Thurber even joined the cast, playing himself. A year later, he and Helen tried and failed to promote a British production of it. The effort left them dejected and tired. In October, Thurber suffered a brain hemorrhage in his hotel room. He died a month later.
For serious Thurber devotees, The Thurber Letters is an excellent vehicle for getting into this creative man’s mind. For more casual fans, a little of it can go a long way. It has an adequate index, although some names seem to be indexed at the merest mention while some important names and events, such as the House Un-American Activities Committee and Helen Thurber’s detached retina, which imperiled her role as “seeing-eye wife,” are not to be found. Numerous index entries with subentries also have undifferentiated page numbers following the main entries.
To its credit, the book includes numerous drawings sent by Thurber to accompany his letters. Included is an eight-page gallery of photographs of the writer, his friends, and his family members, from the 1920’s through 1960.
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life, July/August, 2003, p. 26.
Commonweal 130, no. 18 (October 24, 2003): 28-29.
The Economist 368, no. 8338 (August 23, 2003): 67.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 11 (June 1, 2003): 790.
Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 15, 2003): 84.
Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003, p. R3.
The New York Times, July 31, 2003, p. E8.
The New York Times Book Review, August 10, 2003, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 21 (May 26, 2003): 60.
The Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2003, p. W10.
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