James Thurber

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James Thurber
James Thurber NYWTS.jpg
Born: December 8, 1894
Columbus, Ohio
Died: November 2, 1961 (age 66)
Occupation(s): humorist
Nationality: American
Writing period: 1929 to 1961
Literary genre: short stories, cartoons, essays
Subject(s): humor, language
Magnum opus: My Life and Hard Times,
My World - And Welcome to It

James Grover Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961) was a U.S. humorist and cartoonist. He had begun his career as a journalist, but made his mark with prose writing. Hailed as the greatest contributor to American humor writing since Mark Twain, Thurber wrote hundreds of essays, and short stories, that often featured gender battles between dominant women and little men as in his The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Catbird Seat.

He was best known for his contributions (both cartoons and short stories) to The New Yorker magazine, for which he was also a staff member from 1927-1936. He chronicled his years with The New Yorker in an amusing nonfiction study of the magazine entitled The Years With Ross (1959).

Thurber was considered a moral satirist who was able to put a new and humorous twist on fables, and all varieties of human behavior. He once said, "If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons."[1]

Contents

Personal life

Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes (Mame) Fisher Thurber. Growing up in Columbus and its Midwestern atmosphere shaped Thurber’s values and his worldview. His father, a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor, is said to have been the inspiration for the small, timid protagonist typical of many of his stories. Thurber’s mother, nicknamed Mame, was a strong-willed woman with a sense of humor. She was a practical joker, on one occasion pretending to be crippled and attending a faith healer revival, then jumping up and proclaiming herself healed. A controlling woman by nature, Mary undoubtedly served as a model for Thurber’s portrayal of his archetypal woman.

Thurber had two brothers, William and Robert. Once, while playing a game of William Tell, his brother William shot James in the eye with an arrow. Because of the lack of medical technology, Thurber lost his eye. This injury would later cause him to be almost entirely blind. During his childhood he was unable to participate in sports and activities because of his injury, and instead developed a creative imagination,[2] which he shared in his writings.

Thurber graduated from high school with honors, as a contributing writer for the school newspaper and senior class president. From 1913 to 1918, he attended Ohio State University, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He never graduated from the University because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course, though he was posthumously awarded a degree in 1993.

From 1918 to 1920, at the close of World War I, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C. and then at the American Embassy in Paris, France. After this Thurber returned to Columbus, where he began his writing career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed current books, films, and plays in a weekly column called "Credos and Curios," a title that later would be given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber also returned to Paris in this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.

In 1922 Thurber married Althea Adams. Though the marriage ended in divorce in 1935, Adams gave birth to his only child, Rosemary, born October 7, 1931. Perhaps not coincidentally, Althea, like Thurber’s mother Mary, had many of the strong-willed characteristics of his female characters. It was Althea who encouraged Thurber to begin freelance writing, and this eventually led to the publication of Josephine Has Her Day, the first fiction piece for which Thurber was paid.

After living in Normandy, France for a short time, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor with the help of his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor, E. B. White. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 when White found some of Thurber's drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication. Thurber would contribute both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.

Thurber remarried in June, 1935 to Helen Wismer. It was Helen who nursed him through bouts of alcoholism and depression, allowing his literary career to continue to thrive. He died in 1961, at the age of 66, due to complications from pneumonia, which followed a stroke suffered at his home. His last words, aside from the repeated word "God," were "God bless … God damn," according to Helen Thurber.[3]

Literary career

Thurber’s association with Harold Ross’ young publication The New Yorker began with the purchase of his An American Romance, published eventually in March 1927. The piece was the first published with the magazine after many rejections, and it was penned by means of a decidedly atypical approach. While Thurber had always invested great time and care into his pieces, the rejections took their toll on him, and by his wife’s advice he took no more than 45 minutes to write the piece. An American Romance also featured the little man hero, a small, meek, sometimes-emasculated man, who would appear in many of his pieces with the magazine and in his books.

While it took some effort to get in the door at The New Yorker, he found himself on the staff by February 1927, with the help of staffer E. B. White, who introduced him to Ross. In all, Thurber is credited with 365 inclusions in the journal, including short prose pieces, two profiles, drawings, poetry, and photographs. Thurber's prose included numerous humorous essays. A favorite subject, especially toward the end of his life, was the English language. Pieces on this subject included The Spreading 'You Know', which decried the overuse of that pair of words in conversation, The New Vocabularianism, What Do You Mean It Was Brillig? and many others. Thurber's short pieces, whether stories, essays or something in between, were referred to as "casuals" by Thurber and The New Yorker staff.[4]

Together with E. B. White, Thurber wrote his first book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a parody of sex manuals and psychoanalysis. White would turn out to be one of Thurber’s main influences. It was working alongside White—and for him, when writing pieces for the White-led Talk of the Town in the New Yorker—that inspired Thurber to adopt a simpler, more readable style. Harold Ross himself prized wit, detail, accuracy, and clarity of writing, which boded well for Thurber’s tenure at the magazine; though Thurber remained on staff only until 1933, he continued to supply pieces for the magazine until shortly before his death.

Thurber's attempts to write and publish long-form novels were not successful. It was clear that he excelled at constructing short, readable pieces. This is not to say that little time was spent on them, as he usually labored over the writing process, rewriting several drafts over often long periods of time.

Over the course of his career, Thurber touched upon many themes, drawing inspiration from his upbringing in Columbus, film, and comics. He was skillful in drawing out the humor of human relationships and shortcomings. He also relied on nostalgic experiences for material, as in My Life and Hard Times (1933), which brought him national attention and featured his signature fusion of humorous fictional and factual events—a device that spawned a new literary genre. The Dog Who Bit People and The Night the Bed Fell are his best known short stories from that collection.

Perhaps his most famous piece was his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," published in the New Yorker and in his collection My World—and Welcome to It (1942). It won unprecedented popularity among New Yorker readers, and featured again the "little man," who escapes his common life and the confines of marriage and society to perform fantastical, heroic acts through imagination.

In the early 1940s Thurber was beset by multiple personal difficulties, including complications with his eyes and vision, his mother’s cancer, and his father-in-law’s death. While he continued to write, his struggles shone through, as his pieces turned quite dark at times and often lacked his effortless humor. One story, "The Whip-Poor-Will" (1941) features Mr. Kinstrey, whose insomnia propels him to commit murder and suicide. By 1945, however, Thurber’s emotional struggles seemed to be behind him with the publication of The Thurber Carnival, which was a critical and popular smash.

In his later years, Thurber contended with near blindness while writing a number of children’s tales. Thurber wrote over seventy-five fables, most of which were collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). Thurber's fables were satirical in nature, and the morals served as punchlines rather than advice to the reader. His stories also included several book-length fairy tales, such as The White Deer (1945) and The Wonderful O (1957). The latter was one of several of Thurber's works illustrated by Marc Simont. Despite his poor eyesight, Thurber could rely heavily on his excellent memory, and often crafted story details in his head.

Thurber (center) with Peggy Cass (left) and Joan Anderson in 1960 by Ed Ford, New York World Telegram staff photographer.

Amidst his fame as a writer, Thurber was a hugely successful cartoon artist, and contributed heavily to The New Yorker. It was E. B. White who insisted that Thurber's sketches could stand on their own as artistic expressions—and Thurber would go on to draw six covers and numerous classic illustrations for the magazine.

While able to sketch out his cartoons in the usual fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, his failing eyesight later required him to draw them on very large sheets of paper using a thick black crayon (also, on black paper using white chalk, from which they were photographed and the colors reversed for publication). Regardless of method, his cartoons became as notable as his writings; they possessed an eerie, wobbly feel that seems to mirror Thurber's idiosyncratic view on life. He once wrote that people said it looked like he drew them under water. (Dorothy Parker, contemporary and friend of Thurber, referred to his cartoons as "having the semblance of unbaked cookies." The last drawing Thurber was able to complete was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which appeared on the cover of the July 9, 1951, edition of TIME Magazine.[5] The same drawing also appeared on the dust jacket of The Thurber Album (1952).

Thurber also forayed into writing for screen and stage. He teamed up with college schoolmate (and actor/director) Elliot Nugent to write a major Broadway hit comic drama of the late 1930s, The Male Animal, which was made into a film in 1942, starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson. In 1947 Danny Kaye played the title character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film that had little to do with the original short story and which Thurber hated. In 1951 animation studio United Productions of America announced a forthcoming feature to be faithfully compiled from Thurber's work, titled Men, Women and Dogs.[6] However, the only part of the ambitious production that was eventually released was the UPA cartoon The Unicorn in the Garden (1953).[7]

Near the end of his life, in 1960, Thurber finally was able to fulfill his long-standing desire to be on the professional stage by playing himself in 88 performances of the revue A Thurber Carnival, based on a selection of Thurber's stories and cartoon captions. Thurber appeared in the sketch File and Forget, dictating fictional correspondence to his publisher.[8] Thurber won a special Tony Award for the adapted script of the Carnival.

Legacy

By the time of his death, Thurber's work was featured in numerous collections and in more than 20 languages. He was awarded countless awards, as well as honorary degrees from several institutions, including Kenyon College (1950), Williams College (1951), and Yale University (1953). Thurber was also given a Certificate of Award from the Ohio State University Class of 1916 for "Meritorious Service to Humanity and Our Alma Mater" (1961)[9].

The Thurber House is a literary center located in Columbus, dedicated to celebrating Thurber's life and work, and supporting other writers and artists in the same tradition. The Thurber Prize for American Humor is awarded each year; it is the most prestigious award given to writers of the genre.

Bibliography

List of works by James Thurber

Posthumous Collections:

  • Credos and Curios, 1962, ISBN 978-0060142704
  • Thurber & Company, 1966 (ed. Helen W. Thurber)
  • Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1981 (ed. Helen W. Thurber & Edward Weeks)
  • Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, 1989 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • Thurber On Crime, 1991 (ed. Robert Lopresti)
  • People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber, 1994 (ed. Michael J. Rosen), ISBN 978-0156002356
  • James Thurber: Writings and Drawings, 1996, (ed. Garrison Keillor), Library of America, ISBN 978183011222
  • The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, 2001 (ed. Michael J. Rosen), ISBN 978-0060196561
  • The Thurber Letters, 2002 (ed. Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber)

Biographies of Thurber

  • Bernstein, Burton. Thurber. (original 1975); William Morrow & Co. 1996. ISBN 0688147720
  • Fensch, Thomas. The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber (2001) ISBN 0930751132
  • Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. University of Nebraska Press, Reprint edition (August, 1995) ISBN 0803270569
  • Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. Henry Holt & Co, 1995. ISBN 080503966X

Literature review

  • The Clocks Of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber by Charles S. Holmes (1972). Atheneum ISBN 0689705743

Notes

  1. James Thurber Brainyquote.com. Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  2. The neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran discusses the effect of damaged vision on Thurber's imagination in Phantoms in the Brain (co-written with Sandra Blakeslee, 1998, ISBN 0688172172). He proposes that Thurber had Charles Bonnet syndrome, a mental condition which causes certain victims of eyesight damage to see highly vivid hallucinations. In his essay "The Admiral on the Wheel," Thurber reported seeing hallucinations, including "a gay old lady with a grey parasol walking right through the side of a truck," and "bridges rising lazily into the air, like balloons." Proffered diagnoses from neurosurgeons aside, Thurber may have supplied the reasons for such sights in the essay itself: I suppose you have to have just the right proportion of sight to encounter such phenomena: … With three-fifths vision or better, I suppose … the very gay old lady, a garbage man with a garbage can on his back, ... the floating bridges, smoke from tugs, hanging in the air. … The kingdom of the partly blind is a little like Oz, a little like Wonderland, a little like Poictesme. Anything you can think of, and a lot you never would think of, can happen there.
  3. Burton Bernstein. Thurber. (New York. Dodd, Mead & Company. 1975), 501
  4. "The Business of Being Funny" The New York Times Time Inc., 1989-11-05. [1] accessdate 2007-08-17. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  5. TIME Magazine Cover: "James Thurber - July 9, 1951" Time Archive: 1923 to the Present, 1951-07-09 [2]Time Inc. accessdate 2007-01-31. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  6. "Priceless Gift of Laughter" Time Archive: 1923 to the Present, Time Inc. 1951-07-09 [3] accessdate 2007-01-31. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  7. "The Unicorn In The Garden," The Big Cartoon Database [4] accessdate 2007-01-31. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  8. Bernstein, 477
  9. Steven H. Gale, "James Thurber." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series. (A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz Campus. Gale Research, 1989), 319-334.

References

  • Bernstein, Burton. Thurber New York. Dodd, Mead & Company. 1975. ISBN 0396070272
  • Kimbal, Bobby Ellen, (ed) Gale, Steven H. "James Thurber," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz Campus. Gale Research, 1989, 319-334. ISBN 9780810311121
  • Ramachandran, V.S., Sandra Blakeslee; Phantoms in the Brain. New York. William Morrow. 1998. ISBN 0688152473

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