James Thurber experimented in many types of writing during his career. His journalistic contributions to the New Yorker magazine, where almost all of his best work first appeared, include several pieces concerning eccentric places and individuals of New York City for the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section and “Where Are They Now,” a series of pieces concerning once famous individuals now little known and emphasizing the ironic contrast between great early fame and later and lengthy anonymity. In both series Thurber provides the new and odd perspective on seemingly familiar events, places, and persons that marks most of his major work. Thurber also contributed numerous essays on dogs, including such memorable sketches as “Memorial” (1942) and “Snapshot of a Dog” (1935) that offer admirable examples of how to achieve sentiment while avoiding sentimentality. Thurber’s most important contributions to the essay, however, were a certain character and a certain style. Although neither was completely original with Thurber, he popularized them and became their most influential employer.
Thurber’s best-known character is the Little Man beset by insignificant but impenetrable obstacles, a character introduced into American humor by Robert Benchley. Several of Thurber’s early pieces, such as “The Gentleman Is Cold” (1935), in which Thurber is defeated by an overcoat which does not fit and has lost its buttons, and “My Memories of D.H.Lawrence” (1936), in which the person at the railroad station
Thurber assumes to be Lawrence turns out to be George R.Hopkins, owner of a paper factory in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, are pure Benchley, whose self-mockery is more successful than Thurber’s. Thurber’s real success in and distinctive contribution to this area of humor derives from his attention to the Little Man’s inner life, an inner life which adds the dimension of wild fantasy.
The most famous example of this flight into fantasy is the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1942.), but Thurber employs the same kind of figure in his Personal essays. In many essays some optical or auditory signal precipitates headlong flights into the fantastic, into what John Updike termed “the enchantment of misapprehension.”
Thurber, almost completely blind, wrote that “The kingdom of the partly blind is a little like Oz, a little like Wonderland… Anything you can think of, and a lot you would never think of, can happen there.” In such a world, described in “The Admiral at the Wheel” (1936), common objects “blur into fantasy” as Thurber, without his glasses, sees such remarkable sights as “a gay old lady with a gray parasol walk right through the side of a truck,” and an electronic welder is transformed into “a radiant fool setting off skyrockets
The other major confusion in Thurber’s world is that of language, as strange remarks lead him to even stranger imaginings. When his maid Margaret has trouble with the “doomshaped” part of his refrigerator, Thurber wonders if he is still in the real world.
When another maid, Della, announces “They are here with the Reeves,” the ensuing conversation reaches such a level of insanity that “only Lewis Carroll could have understood her completely.” When the handyman Barney Haller announces “Dis morning bime by… I go hunt grotches in de voods,” Thurber finds that “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 Black Magic of Barney Haller,” 1935). Language thus leads Thurber into a linguistically anarchic wonderland where communication falters and fantasy begins.
Perhaps the best summation of Thurber’s approach is “A Ride with Olympy” (1942), his description of a drive down a mountain road in France. The situation is at once terrifying and farcical. As they proceed down the steep road the American writer tries to explain, in very bad French, the essentials of the automobile to a Russian boat specialist whose French is equally lacking. Both the ride and the conversation spin wildly out of control so that “whereas we had been one remove from reality to begin with, we were now two, or perhaps three, removes.”
Three removes from reality is the location of most of Thurber’s best work, which appeared roughly from the mid1920s through the beginning of World War II. Thurber’s postwar essays, written for a world he no longer understood and thoroughly detested, too often become mere wordplay or unrefined and virulent objections to contemporary life.
These later essays, together with the passage of time, have seriously damaged the reputation of a writer who during his life was generally considered the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain. Also damaging were his overuse of the remarks of black maids and the deep misogyny underlying Thurber’s obsessive theme of the war between men and women, which badly date some of his work.
What seems unlikely to date are Thurber’s use of fantasy and his style. Developed under the tutelage of E.B.White and Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker, Thurber’s style is the deceptively simple prose of a journalist of genius. Its lightness, clarity, and understatement make his writing endlessly flexible, able to encompass a vast array of subjects and emotions, often far from humorous ones. His ability to imbue almost any situation, from the ridiculous to the tragic, with humor make Thurber, in Adam Gopnik’s
(1994) phrase, the “light stylist of the heavy heart.”
See also Humorous Essay
James Grover Thurber. Born 8 December 1894 in Columbus, Ohio. Studied at Ohio State University, Columbus, 1913–14 and 1915–18. Code clerk, American Embassy, Paris, 1918–20; reporter, the Columbus Dispatch, 1920–24, Chicago Tribune (Paris edition), 1925–26, and New York Evening Post, 1926–27. Married Althea Adams, 1922 (divorced, 1935): one daughter. Wrote for the New Yorker, from 1927. Married Helen Wismer,
Awards: several, including the Library Association Prize, for children’s picture book, 1943; Laughing Lions of Columbia University Award for Humor, 1949; American Library Association Liberty and Justice Award, 1957; Antoinette Perry Special Award, 1960;
honorary degrees from three universities.
Died (of pneumonia) in New York, 2 November 1961.
Essays and Related Prose
The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, 1931
The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, 1932
My Life and Hard Times, 1933
The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze: A Collection of Short Pieces, 1935
Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, 1937
My World—and Welcome to It, 1942
The Thurber Carnival, 1945
The Beast in Me, and Other Animals: A New Collection of Pieces and Drawing About Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures, 1948
The Thurber Album: A New Collection of Pieces About People, 1952
Thurber Country: A New Collection of Pieces About Males and Females, Mainly of Our Own Species, 1953
Alarms and Diversions, 1957
Lanterns and Lances, 1961
Credos and Curios, 1962
Vintage Thurber, 2 vols., 1963
Other writings: the satire Is Sex Necessary?, with E.B.White (1929), books for children, books of drawings, fables, two plays, a memoir about New Yorker editor Harold Ross (The Years with Ross, 1959), and correspondence.
Bowden, Edwin T., James Thurber: A Bibliography, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968
Toombs, Sarah Eleanora, James Thurber: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, New York: Garland, 1987
Bernstein, Burton, Thurber: A Biography, New York: Dodd Mead, and London: Gollancz, 1975
Black, Stephen A., James Thurber: His Masquerades, The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1970
Fensch, Thomas, editor, Conversations with James Thurber, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989
Gale, Steven H., “Thurber of The New Yorker,” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 1 (Spring 1984):11–23
Gopnik, Adam, “The Great Deflator,” New Yorker, 27 June-4 July 1994:168–76
Grauer, Nell A., Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Holmes, Charles S., The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber, New York: Atheneum, 1972; London: Secker and Warburg, 1973
Holmes, Charles S., editor, Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974
Kenney, Catherine M., Thurber’s Art of Confusion, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1984
Kinney, Harrison, Jatnes Thurber: His Life and Times, New York: Holt, 1995
Long, Robert Emmet, James Thurber, New York: Continuum, 1988
Morsberger, Robert, James Thurber, New York: Twayne, 1964
Tobias, Richard C, The Art of James Thurber, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969
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