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Though an Ohioan at heart, James Grover Thurber made his name as one of the earliest contributors to The New Yorker magazine. Hired by founder Harold Ross in 1927, Thurber wrote humor and satirical pieces, and created cartoons that became one of the magazine’s best-known features. He straddled several genres during his three-decade career, dipping joyfully into autobiography, fable writing, children’s literature, acting, and playwriting. Thurber was also a prolific correspondent; his witty and warm letters for family and famous friends—E.B. White and Dorothy Parker among them—have been anthologized in several volumes. Thurber’s most famous creation is the dreamy, eponymous hero of the short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” first published in The New Yorker in 1939. An increasingly prominent theme in his later writing was a deep concern for language and usage.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Midwestern Beginning
Born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 8,1894, James Grover Thurber was Charles and Mary Fisher Thurber’s second son. Charles Thurber had hoped to be an actor or a lawyer, but instead he spent his life in various politically appointed positions, forever miscast and ill at ease. Mame, as Mary Thurber was nicknamed, was from an influential Ohio family, and she ordered the lives of those around her. Thurber recalled her as a gifted and fearless comedienne and prankster. Both parents would serve as prototypes for their son’s famous gender archetypes—the models he would use to create his distinct characters.
In the summer of 1901, the three Thurber boys were playing ”William Tell”—a game mimicking the legendary Swiss hero known for expertly shooting an arrow straight through an apple perched atop his son’s head. Tragically, eldest brother William missed, and pierced one of James’s eyes. There was considerable delay in removing the damaged eye, a circumstance that probably led to Thurber’s total blindness by 1951, and the long series of operations and illnesses that accompanied that decline.
Early on, affected but not devastated by his injury, Thurber began his writing career by working on the high-school newspaper. After entering Ohio State University in 1913, he worked on the university’s literary and humor magazines. His writing was influenced by the popular culture of his day, which included comic strips, movies, and dime novels. He also enjoyed the work of short-story master O. Henry. In college he read the works of Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, and a new favorite and lifelong influence, Henry James. He also befriended Elliott Nugent, with whom he would later coauthor the popular Broadway play The Male Animal (1940).
An International Reporter
In 1917, the United States entered World War I, which had raged across Europe since 1914. Thurber was eager to join the military, but his damaged eyesight barred him from service. Instead, from November 1918 until March 1920, Thurber served as a code clerk for the State Department in Paris. His letters of the period to Nugent reveal Thurber as a Midwestern innocent, both enticed and offended by provocative postwar Paris. He returned to Ohio in the spring of 1920 and reported for the Columbus Evening Dispatch. In 1922 he married Althea Adams by most accounts, an attractive and strong-willed woman.
After a stint in New York City, and another in Ohio, the Thurbers headed back to France, and arrived in Normandy in 1925. Thurber worked on a novel, later jettisoned, before they relocated to the French capital, where he was hired at the Paris Tribune. It was there he began to display his particular writing genius.
Thurber transformed the skeletal details of sporting events and political speeches into epic stories—a flirtation with fabulist tendencies that would define his writing style over the course of his career. The most significant of his freelance publications at this time was the short story ”A Sock on the Jaw—French Style,” published in 1926. It humorously contrasts French and American modes of disagreement and celebrates the elaborate chaos resulting from the French method. Notably, Thurber did not socialize with local expatriates Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Gertrude Stein, who also lived in Paris at the time, though he knew their work. By 1931, he still regarded himself an amateur writer, and so departed for New York to make a serious effort at professional writing.
A Niche at The New Yorker
After showering him with rejection slips, the fledgling magazine The New Yorker finally accepted three of Thurber’s pieces. In February 1927 Harold Ross hired Thurber as an editor, but he was much better suited to his next title—staff writer. Thurber’s office mate at the magazine was writer E. B. White, who greatly influenced Thurber’s prose style and enthusiastically promoted his drawings. At White’s insistence, Thurber’s illustrations appeared in their coauthored satirical book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929). The book was a humorous reaction to the growing popularity of and popular misconceptions concerning psychologist Sigmund Freud, credited with being the father of modern psychoanalysis. Freud was particularly renowned for his theories regarding sex, development, and gender identity.
Thurber became one of the most prolific and best known of The New Yorker writers. He embraced what has come to be called the ”New Yorker style,” which features correct, clean, urbane, and witty prose. As an editor he helped impose this style on other contributors—writers and cartoonists alike.
Thurber was encouraged to write humor about the line of tension where order and chaos meet. Writing in these early years, he established several of his most important subjects. One was the perpetual battle between dominant, unimaginative women and neurotic, fantasy-embracing men. Another was the constant conflict between man and machinery. He also focused on the general superiority, in character and good sense, of animals over humans, and the bewildering but liberating powers of chaos, idiosyncrasy, and imagination. Thurber’s classic and oft-anthologized short story ”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (first published in The New Yorker in 1939) featured perhaps the best example of the dreamy ”Thurber man,” while the shrewish and domineering wife in ”The Unicorn in the Garden” typifies the ”Thurber woman.”
Thurber resigned from his staff position at The New Yorker on the heels of his divorce from Althea in 1935 (they had one child, Rosemary, born in 1931). He then married a former magazine editor, Helen Wismer, (whom he later labeled his ”seeing eye wife.”) just one month later. Thurber remained a regular contributor to The New Yorker for many years, and always maintained a fondness for the magazine. The relationship between Thurber and the magazine is best summarized by the author’s contention, stated in a letter to Ross: ”The New Yorker is the only magazine for which a man can write with dignity and tranquility.”
After his departure, Thurber once again found himself in France. It was 1937, and he and Althea enjoyed good social contact with Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Lillian Hellman, among others. Much of the conversation of those gatherings focused on the Spanish Civil War, in which many American writers and artists had become actively involved on the Loyalist side. Thurber, however, opposed his friends’ political fervor, arguing that writers should simply write and not allow themselves to be caught up in war and factionalism. His views on this seem to have changed in later years, as his fables became starker, gloomier, and more pointedly in opposition to the disturbing events and such figures as Adolf Hitler, who led Nazi Germany into World War II, and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused thousands of Americans of being Communist sympathizers in the 1950s.
Fables and Fairytales as Blindness Descends
Thurber’s increasing interest in fables and fairytales (of which he eventually produced seven volumes), began with the onset of his blindness, as did the increased emphasis upon word-game comedy and conversation pieces. Thurber once explained his attraction to fables in the following way: ”Every writer is fascinated by the fable form; it’s short, concise, and can say a great deal about human life.” Among Thurber’s fables is an updated version of ”Little Red Riding Hood,” in which Little Red, rather than be fooled by the wolf’s disguise, ”took an automatic pistol out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.”
By the time he became effectively blind, his famously savant-like memory was so accurate that he could compose a two-thousand-word story in his mind at night and then edit it as he dictated it next morning. Thurber’s outlook during this period became darker and more cynical. Only The Years With Ross (1959) and the montage play, A Thurber Carnival (1960)—both of which drew upon earlier experiences and materials—broke the pattern of ever-increasing pessimism that characterized the works of Thurber’s later period, such as Further Fables for Our Time (1956) and Lanterns and Lances (1961). In these bitter volumes, chaos—whether social, political, cultural, or linguistic—is neither funny nor liberating, as it once seemed to Thurber, but is instead the mark of a terrible decline in the modern world. Thurber, too, would suffer a swift and terrible decline. After attending a party for actor and playwright Noel Coward in October of 1961, Thurber endured a massive stroke that kept him hospitalized in a state of semiconsciousness until November 2, 1961, when he died of pneumonia.
Works in Literary Context
Thurber was a master at mining his own life for humorous material, starting, naturally, with his childhood and family—a wickedly funny mother, a middle-America setting. David Sedaris, with his witty and humorous autobiographical essays and The New Yorker connection, is among those in debt to Thurber’s signature blend of fact and fiction. The radio storyteller Garrison Keillor, himself an editor of a Thurber anthology, and famous for his tales of Lake Woebegone on A Prairie Home Companion, makes similar use of his experiences.
It is often said that the fantasy genre must be as accommodatingly immense as the imaginations of the writers whose work comprises it. Though Thurber’s style of fantasy, which became more and more prevalent as his eyesight deteriorated, wasn’t reminiscent of the genre’s standard-bearers like J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, he shared with those writers the idea of the noble quest. His heroes were men of imagination, shapers who ordered the meaningless jumble and made sense out of them. These fantasists succeed where more practical men—represented by mathematicians, physicians, lawyers, and experts of every type—fail. In fact, the playful yet biting modern fiction of both George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut owes a debt to Thurber’s fantasy-tinged humor and satire pieces.
Works in Critical Context
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
This story is unquestionably Thurber’s most famous; published first in March of 1939 in the New Yorker and later collected in My World-and Welcome to It, the story has been frequently reprinted and anthologized. In addition to being renown, Mitty is a truly beloved character, one to whom many can relate. There isn’t anyone who hasn’t been wrenched out of a dream—asleep or awake—and not experienced the acute longing to return to the comfort of sleep or the quiet of one’s own thoughts. He is a hero who does not prevail, yet finds joy and solace within himself, just as everyone must do.
Carl Linder, writing in the Georgia Review, writes ”As a result of being perpetually interrupted at crucial moments in these fantasies, it seems only proper that Mitty’s final role should be that of the condemned man about to be executed by a faceless firing squad for reasons not explicitly given. This vision is a marvelously telling projection of Mitty’s place in the world as he feels it.”
The Thurber Carnival
The publication in 1945 of The Thurber Carnival, a collection of past hits and new material, was proof that Thurber had arrived as an important figure in American letters. The critical reception was extravagant and wide, and for the first time a Thurber book found a truly mass audience, and set the stage for all that would follow.
Between 1939 and 1957, Thurber wrote one self-illustrated parable, two collections of fables, and five fairytales. What critics observe most frequently about these works is, as Richard Tobias remarked, that although the stories seem to be written for children, they are more rich for an adult mind that catches and enjoys the outrageous tricks played in them upon experience and time.”
- Bernstein, Burton. Thurber. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1975.
- Black, Steven A. James Thurber: His Masquerades. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.
- Holmes, Charles S., ed. Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
- Tobias, Richard C. The Art of James Thurber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969.
- White, E.B. The Letters of E.B. White: Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
- Gottlieb, Robert. ”The Years with Thurber.” The New Yorker (September 8, 2003). Maslin, Janet. A Mailbag of Thurber, From Fond to Scathing, The New York Times (July 31, 2003).
- Lindner, C. ”Thurber’s Walter Mitty: The Underground American Hero.” Georgia Review Review (2001): Summer, 1974, p. 283-289.
- Wilhelm Tell Festival-New Glarus Wisconsin. Retrieved November 9, 2008 from http://www.wilhelmtell. org/about/.
- IBDB: The Official Source for Broadway Information. Retrieved November 17, 2008 from http://www. ibdb.com/show.php?id=9341.
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