“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
THE LITERARY WORK
A short story set in a suburban Connecticut town during the mid- to late 1930s; published in 1939.
Through his imagination, a man leaves behind his humdrum life for the road to high adventure.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, James Thurber (1894-1961) moved to New York in 1926, where he worked as a reporter, writer, editor, and cartoonist. The unknown Thurber began sending his stories and humorous essays to a new and equally unknown magazine in the city, the New Yorker. Like most young authors, he suffered the disappointment of multiple rejections, but eventually his work and tenacity ended with the sale of his short story “An American Romance” to the discriminating magazine in 1927. Following the sale, the New Yorker’s founder, Harold Ross, offered Thurber a position on the magazine staff. Thurber left the staff in 1933, remaining a contributor to the magazine, the original publisher of his story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The story comments on the average man’s unattainable dreams of grandeur which, when coupled with common stress, can drive him into a world of egotistical fantasy.
The birth of radio entertainment
Before television had captured audiences, entertainment seekers turned to their radios for music, drama, and the news. American radio came into being on November 2, 1920, in a small shack outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On this experimental broadcast, radio announcers relayed to listeners the results of the presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. Despite this humble beginning, the owners of station KDKA, Westinghouse Electric Company, held fast to their belief in the profitability of the medium. Their faith paid off, for within eighteen months of that initial news program, both the American public and commercial enterprise had turned radio into a national fad. Two years following the inaugural broadcast, 1.5 million homes owned radio sets that could tune in to the 550 stations nationwide.
By the late 1920s, American radio produced a variety of pleasant but insipid shows. Poets like Tony Wons and cheerful hosts like Cheerio (Eugene Fields) mingled their broadcasts with soft music and gentle words. Not until the appearance of Amos ’ri Andy in August of 1929 did radio become a format of engaging entertainment. Its two white dialecticians, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, posed as black characters whose daily trials and conversations amused the nation. Almost 60 percent of the United States tuned in Monday through Saturday to hear the fifteenminute program. The show brought success not only to its creators, but to radio programming in general. Both network officials and advertisers jumped on the idea of other serial format shows. By the end of 1929, two other types had come into being. The Rise of the Goldbergs introduced drama to the radio waves, while the Rudy Vallee Show ushered in the variety-show format.
Originally the motion-picture tycoons of Hollywood resisted involvement with radio. Studios would not allow stars to “cheapen” their box-office appeal by appearing on programs, and most radio stations could not afford the fees demanded by such high-profile personalities. However, with the appearance of Lux Radio Theater, a series that dramatized scenes in movies for the radio, the relationship between Hollywood and the air-waves changed. The Lux program ran successfully from the mid-1930s through 1955. It featured such stars as William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man; Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night; Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story; and Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston in The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
With such big names appearing over the air-waves, America witnessed the birth of the cult of celebrity. Average listeners not unlike the fictional Walter Mitty could tune into these nightly broad-casts and lose themselves in the fantasy worlds of invented characters whose lives were, of course, much more exciting than their own. Often, fantasy and reality became confused. On October 30, 1938, film director Orson Welles presented a radio adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds (also covered in Literature and Its Times). Enacting the program as if Martians had really invaded America, Orson Welles caused a panic among those listeners who had missed the opening explanation about the nature of the program. From New York City to Seattle, the United States was hit with mass hysteria. This single event demonstrated both the need for programming regulation and the susceptibility of the American public to fictional influences.
Real-life heroes of the 1930s
Most of Thurber’s short story takes place in the imagination of Walter Mitty. While the character conjures up several invented roles for himself, the personalities he imagines actually resemble historical figures of the day. James Thurber never acknowledged specific allusions to real-life people in his story. In fact, he felt that “no writer can ever put his finger on the exact inspiration of any character in fiction that is worthwhile” (Thurber in Bernstein, p. 311). Nonetheless, Mitty-like day-dreamers could turn to some real-life heroes of the 1930s for inspiration.
One of Mitty’s first adventures finds him in the shoes of a world-renowned surgeon. Not only is the imaginary Dr. Mitty adept at the operating table, but he also leads his field in research. A colleague remarks, “I’ve read your book on streptothricosis.... A brilliant performance, sir” (Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” pp. 273-74). Within five minutes Dr. Mitty saves a prestigious patient from death’s door, and fixes the hospital’s anaesthetizer with a common fountain pen. Thurber could have been thinking of Sir Alexander Fleming when he concocted this scenario.
Although no records exist of Fleming reviving hospital equipment, history still remembers him as a brilliant doctor whose work forever altered the course of modern medicine. Born in a rural Scottish community in 1881, Fleming traveled to metropolitan London to begin his medical studies at the age of twenty. Early on, he built his reputation for effortless perfection. Not only did Fleming win the Hospital Entrance Scholar-ship, the Chemistry Prize, and the Biology Prize within his first year of medical school, but he also made a name for himself as an expert marksman in the Rifle Club, a member of the water polo team, an active participant in the Dramatic Society, and a member of both the Medical and Debating Societies. He was, in reality, the Renaissance man, or expert at multiple endeavors, that Mitty could only be in his mind. With each year of schooling, Fleming’s accolades grew. By the time he completed his exams in 1909, Fleming had become one of the few students to qualify in both the research and the surgical fields.
During the course of his studies, in 1904, Fleming became a member of Almroth Wright’s laboratory staff at St. Mary’s Medical School in London. For some time Wright had been experimenting with vaccinations as possible cures to bacterial diseases. As a collaborator on many of Wright’s research papers, Fleming began to make a name for himself as a bacteriologist. His years of work came to fruition in 1928 when Fleming noticed something peculiar about a petri dish he had saved from the garbage can. It was covered with a bacteria, staphylococci (a bacteria responsible for ailments ranging from strep throat to pneumonia), except in the areas where mold had begun to grow. The mold seemed able to attack the infectious organism. This seemingly serendipitous discovery eventually led to the development of penicillin. In 1945 Fleming received the Nobel Prize for his work in this field.
Walter Mitty’s next adventure has him in the role of a notorious killer who claims on the witness stand, “With any known make of gun... I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand” (”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” p. 275). Although cities like Chicago and New York in the 1920s and 1930s were home to large crime families, perhaps the most well-known mobster was Alphonse Capone. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899, Capone quickly came to dominate the bootleg liquor scene during the era of Prohibition (1920-33). By killing all of his rivals, Capone eliminated any competition during the Chicago gang wars of the 1920s. The single event that earned Capone his true notoriety, however, was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Late in the year of 1928, two brothers in the rival “Bugs” Moran gang received orders to assassinate Capone’s chief lieutenant, Jack McGurn. Unfortunately for the brothers, Pete and Frank Gusenberg, and the entire Moran gang, the assassination attempt failed. McGurn, recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, began planning his revenge not only against the two brothers, but against their comrades as well. Al Capone gave his blessing and $10,000 for the counterattack, although he wanted no active role in the killings.
Over a period of weeks, McGurn assembled a team of assassins and closely watched the movements of the Moran gang. He decided to gain access to the gang through the disguise of Chicago policemen on a raid. With the help of an associate, McGurn acquired an authentic police car and uniforms for the assassins to wear. He then arranged for a dummy shipment of whiskey to be sold to Moran at an abandoned garage. Capone kept in constant contact with McGurn during this planning stage, and on the morning of February 14, 1929, the plan went into action.
McGurn’s assassins entered the garage, looking like policemen on a routine raid. They ordered the seven Moran gangsters to face the wall with their hands on their head. After disarming the men, the “cops” opened fire with two machine guns, a sawed-off shotgun, and a .45 caliber hand gun. After seeing the seven slaughtered men, a federal detective announced, “Nothing that’s ever happened in this town since Prohibition can compare with [this].... Never has there been such a massacre” (Bergreen, p. 312). The “massacre” is how the event quickly came to be known. The fact that the killers had used police uniforms particularly bothered the law and the public, and “Bugs” Moran fingered Capone as the mastermind of the entire affair. With the nationwide headlines, Capone was catapulted into the public eye as the most well-known gangster of the era. Like Walter Mitty’s fantasy mobster, however, Capone eventually faced the witness stand. Although authorities could never link him to his bootlegging activities or to the many murders attributed to him, Capone eventually went to prison in October of 1931 on income-tax evasion charges.
Air force pilot
In one of Mitty’s final episodes, he assumes the role of an air force pilot. This fantasy perhaps comes closest to resembling one of Thurber’s own wishes. Because of blindness in one eye, Thurber could not participate in either of the world wars. He himself regretted this inability to fight. As Captain Mitty, Thurber’s character dares to fly alone through enemy territory even though a colleague remarks, “It takes two men to handle that bomber...” (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” p. 276).
A real-life American who braved what became the most well-known solo flight of the era was Charles Lindbergh. As a young man, Lindbergh ran more toward adventure than academics, and decided to pursue a career in aviation after dropping out of college. While in pilot’s training, the young Lindbergh led his class in both talent and intellect. Although he had failed in his university engineering courses, as a pilot he earned the top marks in his class. Lindbergh might have just enjoyed the life of any commercial pilot, however, had it not been for Raymond Orteig. In 1927, this wealthy businessman began a contest which would award $25,000 to the first pilot to fly a solo, nonstop route from New York to Paris, France. Although two men had lost their lives already in pursuit of this goal, Lindbergh felt confident that he could accomplish the feat.
At 7:52 a.m. (New York time) on May 20, 1927, Lindbergh boarded his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, at Roosevelt Field in Long Island. During the ensuing 33 1/2 hours, Lindbergh fought off sleep—and fear of failure—to land his plane safely on the other side of the Atlantic. He arrived at Le Bourget airport in Paris at 10:22 p.m. (French time) on May 21. On arrival, a souvenir hunter grabbed Lindbergh’s helmet, and for some time, the crowd thought that the impostor was the real pilot. Eventually the matter was settled, and Lindbergh settled into his hero’s welcome. Europe bestowed on him the honorary keys to various cities, receptions, and parades. Back in the United States, President Calvin Coolidge began planning an even larger celebration. Lindbergh returned home aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Memphis. He was greeted by cheering crowds, ticker-tape parades, and $5 million in endorsement fees, film rights, and record deals. Literally overnight Lindbergh had become one of America’s biggest heroes.
Like the character of Mitty’s fantasy, Lindbergh served his country in World War II, although in a somewhat different capacity. When fighting broke out across Europe, Lindbergh originally sided with the America First committee, an organization opposed to American involvement in the war. His opposition, however, ended when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Lindbergh afterwards became personally involved. In April of 1944 he joined the war in the Pacific theater as an advisor to the U.S. army and navy forces there. Although technically a civilian, Lindbergh flew in about fifty combat missions. He also helped develop cruise control techniques that aided the accuracy and ability of U.S. fighter planes.
Walter Mitty leads the sedate life of any middle-class American. A henpecked husband, the most imposing challenge that Mitty faces during his day involves deciding which brand of puppy biscuit to purchase. This is the reality of Walter Mitty’s existence. In his mind, however, Mitty assumes the role of various, vivacious characters.
From a navy hydroplane commander to an accused murderer, the imaginary Walter Mitty appears to be nothing like his realistic counterpart. While Thurber’s story does not even total six pages in length, its content is filled with four rich worlds. Mitty the navy commander navigates his men through a hurricane. Dr. Mitty saves the life of a millionaire banker. Defendant Mitty proves that he can shoot a man with a heavy automatic weapon—even with one arm in a sling! Mitty the pilot singlehandedly challenges Germany’s air battalion. All the while Mr. Mitty, the good husband, runs errands for his wife. At the close of the story, the imaginary Mitty faces a firing squad just as Walter Mitty faces the reality of his world.
Relationships between men and women
Although she does not have a large speaking role, the character responsible for driving Mitty into the confines of his mind is his wife. The final scene of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” in fact, releases the title character from his wife’s constant nagging by way of an imaginary firing squad. Thurber writes, “Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty, the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” p. 277). This theme, a man’s imagination conquering an unimaginative woman, surfaces in many of the author’s humorous pieces.
In a collection entitled Fables for Our Time, Thurber tells the tale of “The Unicorn in the Garden.” In the story, an imaginative husband tells his shrewish wife that he has seen a unicorn eating roses in their garden. Naturally she assumes that the man has lost his mind, and telephones for the police and a psychiatrist. The police wind up carting the wife away when she relays her husband’s fantasy. The husband then lives happily ever after. Thurber used this type of relationship in several of his other works. While it might appear narrow-minded by today’s standards, many of Thurber’s readers applauded his notions.
At that time in United States history, divorce was gaining popularity as a viable option in ending a marriage. As more couples sought out the termination of their marriages, the legal requirements grew more relaxed. Couples of the 1930s could file for divorce by proving the breakdown of their marriage on grounds such as alcoholism or nonsupport by either party.
Early in his career, the author had suffered through a miserable divorce from his first wife, Althea. A small-statured, handicapped man himself (he had one glass eye and became almost completely blind in his remaining eye during his later years), Thurber championed the rights of downtrodden men. In The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, a work that many consider a masterpiece, he links together a series of short stories using the theme of argument between the sexes. Each of the tales deals with a shrewish woman and her upstanding husband. As the book was assembled during the final stages of Thurber’s divorce from Althea, its subject matter is particularly autobiographical. Perhaps the author hoped to ease some of the tabloid gossip by more or less telling his tale on his own. In print, the New York papers cited Thurber’s “nonsupport [of his wife] ... extreme infidelity, desertion, lack of concern for their infant child, and violence” (Bernstein, p. 246). While such stories were for the most part exaggerated, they troubled the author. His tension eased when he met his second wife, Helen, in 1935. Marriage with Helen proved far more peaceful than it had been with Althea, and the couple remained together until Thurber passed away in 1961. Nonetheless, the wife to whom Thurber owes credit for inspiring his famous Walter Mitty character is the one that he chose to leave.
Although Thurber created Walter Mitty at the age of forty-five, he drew his character from a lifetime of accumulated inspiration. When graduating from junior high school in 1909, Thurber was selected to write the “Class Prophecy” for the eighth grade. The shy, sensitive boy constructed the following tale:
One day, as we were sailing easily along, Harold came rushing out of the engine room with disheveled hair and bulging eyes. We asked him what on earth was the matter. For answer he pointed to a piece of rope that had caught in a part of the machinery that was situated on the farthest end of a long beam, which extended far over the side of the Seairoplane. Then he said, “unless that rope is gotten out of the curobater we will all be killed.” These awful words astounded us and we all became frightened at once. Suddenly amid all of our lamentations a cry from Harold was heard and we looked up. What was our surprise to see James Thurber walking out on the beam.... We were all very joyful that the terrible crisis had been safely passed and afterwards learned that James was a tight rope walker with Barnsells and Ringbaileys circus.
(Thurber in Bernstein, p. 29)
Even as a young boy, Thurber imagined fantastic and captivating roles for himself in his writing.
Although the Mitty character bears no true autobiographical resemblance to Thurber, the author does use the setting of Waterbury, Connecticut, where he lived with his second wife. Beyond that Thurber claims that the “original of Walter Mitty is every other man I have ever known” (Thurber in Bernstein, p. 311). According to his account, six men from across the nation wrote to Thurber following the publication of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to ask if he’d had them in mind while writing his tale.
At least one man, however, seemed certain that Thurber had indeed used him in creating his Mitty character. In 1947 Charles Yale Harrison, author of the novel Meet Me on the Barricades, brought James Thurber up on charges of plagiarism. He contended that the Walter Mitty tale might have been inspired by his own book. Indignant, Thurber refused arbitration with a panel of writers, and the case eventually disintegrated. Whether Harrison had a legitimate claim or not, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” had simply made Thurber too popular to harm with such an accusation.
Reception of the story
Published in the New Yorker magazine on March 18, 1939, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” met with immediate success. During World War II, fighter pilots named their planes after the title character and introduced themselves over the radio as “Walter Mitty.” Although he could not fight in the war, through his story Thurber felt that he contributed to the overseas effort. Over the years, the story and its character branched out to wider fields of comparison. During a Rams-Raiders football exhibition game on August 19, 1972, an NBC sportscaster announced, “If you want to play Walter Mitty for a moment, put yourself in the place of that guy [a player]” (Bernstein, p. 312). The term “Walter Mitty” appears even in presentday dictionaries, where it has been defined as “a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming” (Merriam Webster’s, s.v. “Walter Mitty”).
The story was adapted for several different mediums. Samuel Goldwyn offered Thurber $15,000 for the movie rights to the story in 1944. Charles Hamm created an opera around Walter Mitty, and Broadway even saw the production of a rather unsuccessful Walter Mitty musical. Perhaps the author’s favorite rendition of the story, however, was the 1944 radio adaptation starring Robert Benchley.
Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: the Man and the Era. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Bernstein, Burton. Thurber. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Lindbergh, Charles. The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
MacDonald, Fred. Don’t Touch That Dial! Radio Programming in American Life, 1920-1960. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 10th ed. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam Webster, 1993.
Thurber, James. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In 21 Great Stories. Edited by Abraham Lass and Norma L. Tassman. New York: New American Library, 1969.