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Thurber, James

James Thurber

Born: December 8, 1894
Columbus, Ohio
Died: November 2, 1961
New York, New York

American writer and artist

James Thurber was an American writer and artist. One of the most popular humorists (writers of clever humor) of his time, Thurber celebrated in stories and in cartoons the comic frustrations of eccentric yet ordinary people.

Early life in Ohio

James Grove Thurber was born on December 8, 1894, in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles Leander and Mary Agnes Thurber. The family soon moved to Virginia where Charles was employed as a secretary to a congressman. While playing with his older brother, Thurber was permanently blinded in his left eye after being shot with an arrow. Problems with his eyesight would plague Thurber for much of his life. After Charles's employer lost a reelection campaign, the Thurbers were forced to move back to Ohio. Thurber attended the local public schools and graduated high school with honors in 1913. He went on to attend Ohio State Universitythough he never took a degreeand worked for some years afterwards in Ohio as a journalist.

Life in New York City

Thurber moved to New York City in 1926 and a year later he met writer E. B. White (18991985) and was taken onto the staff of the New Yorker magazine. In collaboration with White he produced his first book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929). By 1931 his first cartoons began appearing in the New Yorker. These primitive yet highly stylized characterizations included seals, sea lions, strange tigers, harried men, determined women, and, most of all, dogs. Thurber's dogs became something like a national comic institution, and they dotted the pages of a whole series of books.

Thurber's book The Seal in the Bedroom appeared in 1932, followed in 1933 by My Life and Hard Times. He published The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze in 1935, and by 1937, when he published Let Your Mind Alone!, he had become so successful that he left his position on the New Yorker staff to become a freelance writer and to travel abroad.

The Last Flower appeared in 1939; that year Thurber collaborated with White on a play, The Male Animal. The play was a hit when it opened in 1940. But this was also the year that Thurber was forced to undergo a series of eye operations for cataract and trachoma, two serious eye conditions. His eyesight grew steadily worse until, in 1951, it was so weak that he did his last drawing. He spent the last decade of his life in blindness.

Later years

The last twenty years of Thurber's life were filled with material and professional success in spite of his handicap. He published at least fourteen more books, including The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and the extremely popular account of the life of the New Yorker editor Harold Ross, The Years with Ross (1959). A number of his short stories were made into movies, including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947), which is also regarded as one of the best short stories written in the twentieth century.

Thurber died of pneumonia (an infection of the lungs) on November 2, 1961, just weeks after suffering a stroke. Thurber left behind a peculiar and unique comic world that was populated by his curious animals, who watched close by as aggressive women ran to ground apparently spineless men. But beneath their tame and defeated exteriors, Thurber's men dreamed of wild escape and epic adventure and, so, in their way won out in the battle of the sexes.

For More Information

Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975. Reprint, New York: Arbor House, 1985.

Fensch, Thomas. The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber. The Woodlands, TX: New Century Books, 2000.

Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: H. Holt, 1995.

Thurber, James. My Life and Hard Times. New York: Harper, 1933. Reprint, New York: Perennial Classics, 1999.

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James Grove Thurber

James Grove Thurber

James Grove Thurber (1894-1961) was an American writer and artist. One of the most popular humorists of his time, Thurber celebrated in stories and in cartoons the comic frustrations of eccentric and statureless people.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, James Thurber attended Ohio State University—though he never took a degree—and worked for some years in Ohio as a journalist. He moved to New York in 1926. In 1927 he met writer E. B. White and was taken onto the staff of the New Yorker magazine. In collaboration with White he produced his first book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929). By 1931 his first cartoons began appearing in the New Yorker seals, sea lions, strange tigers, harried men, determined women, and, most of all, dogs. Thurber's dogs became something like a national comic institution, and they dotted the pages of a whole series of books. His book The Seal in the Bedroom appeared in 1932, followed in 1933 by My Life and Hard Times. He published The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze in 1935, and by 1937, when he published Let Your Mind Alone!, he had become so successful that he left his position on the New Yorker staff to free-lance and to travel abroad.

The Last Flower appeared in 1939; that year Thurber collaborated with White on a play, The Male Animal. The play was a hit when it opened in 1940. But this was also the year that Thurber was forced to undergo a series of eye operations for cataract and trachoma. His eyesight grew steadily worse until, in 1951, it was so weak that he did his last drawing. He spent the last decade of his life in blindness.

The last 20 years of Thurber's life were filled with material and professional success in spite of his handicap. He published at least 14 more books, including The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and the extremely popular account of the life of the New Yorker editer Harold Ross, The Years with Ross (1959). A number of his stories were made into movies, including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947).

Thurber's comic world was peopled by his curious animals, who watched in resignation as predatory women ran to ground apparently spineless men. But beneath their docile exteriors, Thurber's men dreamed of wild escape and epic adventure and, so, in their way won out in the battle of the sexes.

Further Reading

Robert E. Morsberger, James Thurber (1964), is useful for biographical facts, and Richard C. Tobias discusses Thurber's literary significance in The Art of James Thurber (1969). See also Edwin T. Bowden, James Thurber: A Bibliography (1968). For background see Walter Blair, Horse Sense in American Humor (1942), and Malcolm Cowley, The Literary Situation (1954). □

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Thurber, James

James Thurber, 1894–1961, American humorist, b. Columbus, Ohio, studied at Ohio State Univ. After working on various newspapers he served on the staff of the New Yorker from 1927 to 1933 and was later a principal contributor to the magazine, considerably influencing its tone through his various drawings, stories, and anecdotes of his misadventures. Beneath the vague outlines of Thurber's cartoons and the wistful and ironic improbabilities of his writings—often dealing with incidents and characters from his Midwestern childhood or with the vexed relationship between the sexes—there is a deep psychological insight that sets him apart from most 20th-century humorists.

With E. B. White he wrote and illustrated Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a satire of books on popular psychoanalysis. The Male Animal (1940), a play he wrote with Elliott Nugent, satirizes collegiate life. Collections of his drawings and writings include The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), My Life and Hard Times (1933), Fables for Our Time (1940), The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), Thurber's Dogs (1955), The Wonderful O (1957), and Credos and Curios (1962). Among his other works are The Thirteen Clocks (1950), a children's book, and The Years with Ross (1959), a memoir of his days with the New Yorker. Thurber's later career was hampered by his growing blindness.

See H. Thurber and E. Weeks, ed., Selected Letters of James Thurber (1981) and H. Kinney and R. A. Thurber, ed., The Thurber Letters (2003); biographies by C. S. Holmes (1972), B. Bernstein (1975, repr. 1985), R. E. Long (1988), N. A. Grauer (1994), and H. Kinney (1995).

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Thurber, James Grover

Thurber, James Grover (1894–1961) US humorist and cartoonist. From 1923, he was a regular contributor of essays, short stories and cartoons to the New Yorker. Collections of Thurber's essays and stories include My Life and Hard Times (1933), and My World and Welcome to It (1942), which includes his best-known short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1932).

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