Born December 8, 1894, in Columbus, OH; died of pneumonia following a stroke, November 2, 1961, in New York, NY; buried in Columbus, OH; son of Charles Leander (name later changed to Lincoln; a politician) and Mary Agnes (Fisher) Thurber; married Althea Adams, May 20, 1922 (divorced, May 24, 1935); married Helen Muriel Wismer, June 25, 1935; children: (first marriage) Rosemary. Education: Graduated from Ohio State University, 1919.
Humorist, cartoonist, illustrator, and playwright. Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, OH, reporter, 1921-24; Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL, reporter for Paris edition, 1925-26; New York Evening Post, New York, NY, reporter, 1926; New Yorker, New York, NY, managing editor, 1927, staff writer, chiefly for "Talk of the Town" column, 1927-33, regular contributor, 1933-61. Exhibitions: Artwork was exhibited in several one-man shows, including shows at the Valentine Gallery, New York City, 1933, and the Storran Gallery, London, England, 1937. Wartime service: Code clerk at the Department of State, Washington, DC, and at the American Embassy, Paris, France, 1918-20.
Authors League of America, Dramatists Guild, Phi Kappa Psi, Sigma Delta Chi.
Ohioana Book Award second place, Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, 1944, for The Great Quillow; Caldecott Honor Book, 1944, for Many Moons; Ohioana Book Award, Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, 1946, for The White Deer; Laughing Lions of Columbia University Award, 1949; Sesquicentennial Career Medal, Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, 1953; T-Square Award, American Cartoonists Society, 1956; Library and Justice Award, American Library Association, 1957, for Further Fables for Our Time; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Special Award, 1960, for A Thurber Carnival; Certificate of Award, Ohio State University Class of 1916, for "Meritorious Service to Humanity and to Our Alma Mater," 1961. The Years with Ross was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
ESSAYS AND STORIES
(With E. B. White) Is Sex Necessary?; or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, Harper (New York, NY), 1929.
The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, Harper (New York, NY), 1931.
The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, introduction by Dorothy Parker, Harper (New York, NY), 1932.
My Life and Hard Times (includes "The Night the Bed Fell," "The Day the Dam Broke," and "More Alarms at Night"), Harper (New York, NY), 1933.
The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze: A Collection of Short Pieces (includes "One Is a Wanderer" and "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife"), Harper (New York, NY), 1935.
Let Your Mind Alone!, and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, Harper (New York, NY), 1937.
The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures, Harper (New York, NY), 1939.
Cream of Thurber, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1939.
Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (includes "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Green Isle in the Sea"), Harper (New York, NY), 1940.
My World—and Welcome to It (includes "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1942.
Thurber's Men, Women, and Dogs, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1943.
The Thurber Carnival, Harper (New York, NY), 1945, abridged edition published as Selected Humorous Stories from "The Thurber Carnival," edited by Karl Botzenmayer, F. Shoeningh, 1958.
The Beast in Me and Other Animals: A Collection of Pieces and Drawings about Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1948.
The Thurber Album: A New Collection of Pieces about People, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1952.
Thurber Country: A New Collection of Pieces about People, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1953, published as Thurber Country: A Collection of Pieces about Females, Mainly of Our Own Species, 2002.
Thurber's Dogs: A Collection of the Master's Dogs, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1955.
A Thurber Garland, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1955.
Further Fables for Our Time, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1956.
Alarms and Diversions, Harper (New York, NY), 1957.
The Years with Ross, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2001.
Lanterns and Lances, Harper (New York, NY), 1961.
Credos and Curios, Harper (New York, NY), 1962.
Vintage Thurber, two volumes, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1963.
Thurber & Company, introduction by Helen Thurber, Harper (New York, NY), 1966.
Snapshot of a Dog, Associated Educational Services, 1966.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Associated Educational Services, 1967.
The Catbird Seat, Associated Educational Services, 1967.
The Night the Ghost Got In, Creative Education (Mankato, MN), 1983.
92 Stories, Avenel (New York, NY), 1985.
The Works of James Thurber, Longmeadow (New York, NY), 1986.
In a Word, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
Thurber on Crime, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1991.
The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Elliott Nugent) The Male Animal (three-act; first produced on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, 1940; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1940.
Many Moons (also see below), produced in New York, NY, 1947.
A Thurber Carnival (produced in Columbus, OH, at the Hartman Theatre, 1960; later produced on Broadway at the ANTA Theatre, 1960; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1962, reprinted, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1994.
The Little Girl and the Wolf; and, The Unicorn in the Garden, Reader's Theatre Script Service (San Diego, CA), 1982.
Also author of librettos for Oh My, Omar, and other musicals produced by the Scarlet Mask Club, Columbus, OH, and of the two-act musical Nightingale.
Many Moons, illustrations by Louis Slobodkin, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1943.
The Great Quillow, illustrations by Doris Lee, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1944, reprinted, 1994.
The White Deer, illustrations by Don Freeman, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1945.
The Thirteen Clocks (also see below), illustrations by Marc Simont, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1950.
The Wonderful O (also see below), illustrations by Marc Simont, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1957.
The Thirteen Clocks [and] The Wonderful O, illustrations by Ronald Searle, Penguin (New York, NY), 1962.
Margaret Samuels Ernst, The Executive's in a Word Book, Knopf (New York, NY), 1939.
Elizabeth Howes, Men Can Take It, Random House (New York, NY), 1939.
James R. Kinney, HowtoRaiseaDog, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1953, published as The Town Dog, Harvill, 1954.
Selected Letters of James Thurber, edited by his wife, Helen Thurber, and Edward Weeks, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.
People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber, edited by Michael J. Rosen, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994.
James Thurber: Writings and Drawings, Library of America (New York, NY), 1996.
Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber, edited by Harrison Kinney, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
Most of Thurber's papers are in the Thurber Collection at the Ohio State University Library in Columbus, OH.
My Life and Hard Times was filmed as Rise and Shine by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1941; The Male Animal was filmed by Warner Brothers in 1942, and again in 1952 as She's Working Her Way through College; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was filmed by Samuel Goldwyn Productions in 1947; A Unicorn in the Garden was adapted as an animated film by Learning Corporation of America in 1952, and by Columbia Pictures in 1953; The Thirteen Clocks was adapted as an opera and as a television special in 1954; several of Thurber's stories were adapted as the play Three by Thurber, written by Paul Ellwood and St. John Terrell, first produced in New York, NY at the Theatre de Lys in 1955; some of Thurber's work was adapted for the film Fireside Book of Dog Stories by State University of Iowa in 1957; The Last Flower was adapted as a dance by a French ballet company, 1959; "The Catbird Seat" was filmed as The Battle of the Sexes by Continental Distributing in 1960; Many Moons was filmed by Rembrandt Films, c. 1960, was adapted as a filmstrip by H. M. Stone Productions in 1972, and as an animated film by Contemporary Films/McGraw in 1975; My World—and Welcome to It was adapted as a television series in 1969; several of Thurber's stories were adapted as The War between Men and Women by National General Pictures Corporation in 1972. Excerpts from the Broadway production of A Thurber Carnival were recorded by Columbia Records in 1960; Caedmon recorded readings by Peter Ustinov of The Great Quillow, The Grizzly and the Gadgets, and Further Fables for Our Time, and The Unicorn in the Garden, and Other Fables for Our Time in 1972, and of Many Moons in 1973; recorded remarks by Thurber and others were collected on The World of James Thurber by Miller-Brody Productions.
Called "one of the world's greatest humorists" by Alistair Cooke in the Atlantic, James Thurber was one of the mainstays of the New Yorker magazine, where his short stories, essays, and numerous cartoons were published for over thirty years. "Comedy is his chosen field," wrote Malcolm Cowley in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, "and his range of effects is deliberately limited, but within that range there is nobody who writes better than Thurber, that is, more clearly and flexibly, with a deeper feeling for the genius of the language and the value of words."
"I'm always astounded when my humor is described as gentle," Thurber is quoted as saying in Burton Bernstein's biography, Thurber. "It's anything but that." An underlying tension, a desperation, is present in Thurber's work. Charles S. Holmes, in his Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, noted "the pessimism and the sense of disaster which give Thurber's world its special atmosphere"; and in his The Art of James Thurber, Richard C. Tobias suggested that he made "laughter possible for us by deliberately choosing subjects that will create nervous, unsettling and unbearable tensions." Speaking of himself and other "writers of light pieces" in his foreword to My Life and Hard Times, Thurber pointed out that "the notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue.... To call such persons 'humorists,' a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy." According to John Updike in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, "Thurber's genius was to make of our despair a humorous fable."
Although Thurber's writings cover a wide range of genres, including essays, short stories, fables, and children's books, it is his stories concerned with middle-class domestic situations, often based on actual events in Thurber's own life, that made his reputation. In these stories, timid and befuddled men are overwhelmed by capable and resourceful women or by the mechanical contraptions of modern life. The conflict between the sexes—inspired in part by Thurber's troubled first marriage—and the dangerously precarious nature of everyday life are the recurring subjects in all of his work.
A Childhood in Ohio
"Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Charles Leander Thurber and Mary Agnes Fisher," wrote Paul A. Carter in the Dictionary of American Biography. "Relatives and other Columbus residents would later appear in Thurber's writings as laughable eccentrics in his highly fictionalized My Life and Hard Times (1933) or as praiseworthy examples of old-fashioned individualism in his more documented account, The Thurber Album (1952)."
Carter noted that "during Thurber's childhood his father held a succession of clerical or secretarial jobs under various Ohio Republican politicians. As secretary to local Congressman Emmett Tompkins, Charles Thurber moved his family to Falls Church, Virginia, to be near Washington. In the summer of 1901, during a backyard William Tell bow-and-arrow game with his two brothers, Thurber lost the use of his left eye. The injury was not promptly treated, and the damage eventually spread to the other eye."
"The failure of Tompkins to win renomination in 1902," Carter recounted, "resulted in the family's return to Columbus, where Thurber's flair for art was first noticed by a fourth-grade teacher. In junior high and high schools Thurber did well, graduating with honor from East High in 1913. He entered Ohio State University in 1913 but dropped out during his sophomore year. When he returned in 1915 he came under the protection of a fellow student, Elliott Nugent, who helped him into a fraternity and coached him in the social graces."
Following college, Thurber was unable to join the army during World War I because of his poor eyesight. He worked instead as a State Department code clerk, first in Washington and then in Paris. Thurber's writing career began after his stint as a code clerk. When the war ended, he returned to Columbus, Ohio, to work as a newspaper reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. For a time he wrote a weekly column for the paper titled "Credos and Curios" in which he covered current books, films, and plays. After marrying in 1922, Thurber and his wife left for Paris. Attracted to Paris by the budding literary scene of American exiles there, Thurber found work with the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. He also wrote essays and "casuals," placing some in various American magazines and newspapers. Although, as Judith S. Baughman wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "France does not figure prominently as a subject in James Thurber's works," the country was one of his favorites; between 1918 and 1938, he lived there for three extended periods. These European visits were important to Thurber's development as a writer, Baughman related, dislodging his early provinciality and unleashing his comic voice. Moreover, these stays provided him "with norms against which to measure the American attitudes and manners examined in his best essays, stories, and drawings."
Joins New Yorker Magazine
It was not until 1927, when he joined the staff of the New Yorker magazine, that Thurber's career blossomed. Thurber had met E. B. White at a Greenwich Village party in February of that year. White, already working for the New Yorker, thought Thurber might make a fine addition to the staff. He introduced him to Harold Ross, editor of the magazine, and Thurber was hired as managing editor. "I found out that I was managing editor three weeks later," Thurber wrote in The Years with Ross, "when I asked my secretary why I had to sign the payroll each week, approve the items in Goings On [the New Yorker calendar of events], and confer with other editors on technical matters." Thurber did not last long as managing editor. "An editor and organizer Thurber was not," admitted Peter A. Scholl in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "but he could not convince Ross that he would be happier and more effective as a staff writer. Ross was finally convinced when Thurber returned two days late from a visit to Columbus, having overstayed his leave to look for his lost dog." In The Years with Ross, Thurber remembered Ross's reaction to that incident: "I thought you were an editor, goddam it," Ross said, "but I guess you're a writer, so write."
Thurber wrote for the New Yorker full time until 1933 and was a regular contributor to the magazine until his death in 1961. "Between 1927 and 1935," wrote Baughman, "Thurber became one of the most prolific and best known of the New Yorker writers." He always credited White with having helped him fine tune his writing style for the magazine. "I came to the New Yorker," Scholl quoted Thurber explaining, "a writer of journalese and it was my study of White's writing, I think, that helped me to straighten out my prose so that people could see what I meant." This style, described by Thurber as "played-down," was economical, lean, and conversational. Because many of his humorous subjects bordered on the bizarre, Thurber deliberately chose a writing style that was calm and precise. Thurber understood, School argued, "that the comedy is heightened by the contrast between the unexcitable delivery and the frenetic events described." Michael Burnett, in his contribution to Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, also noted the unobtrusive nature of Thurber's style. "It is a style," Burnett observed, "which does its best not to call attention to itself through any deviations from the norm." Louis Hasley, writing in the South Atlantic Quarterly, found that Thurber "was, it must be conceded, a fastidious stylist with psychological depth, subtlety and complexity; with a keen sense of pace, tone, ease, and climax; and with imagination that often wandered into surrealism."
"During the thirty-four years of his association with the New Yorker, which was essentially his whole writing career, both Thurber and the journal profited," wrote Steven H. Gale in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Over this period he honed his style, a style that coincided with, exemplified, and helped establish the magazine's characteristic style. He was encouraged to write humor about what has been described as the line of tension where order and chaos meet, producing some of the finest humorous prose in his country's history. He likewise was instrumental in developing the notable tenor of one of America's preeminent journals. Ultimately, perhaps, the relationship between Thurber and the New Yorker 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.'"
His Cartoons Appear in the New Yorker
White was also instrumental in bringing Thurber's drawings to public attention. Thurber often doodled cartoons while working at the office, absently filling pads of notepaper with pencil drawings. As Brendan Gill recounted in his Here at the New Yorker, he even drew upon the walls of the New Yorker offices: "There were Thurber drawings of men marching up endless flights of stairs, of dogs romping or fighting. . ., and of men and women engaged in contests wholly mysterious to us, thanks to Thurber's having failed to provide any captions for the drawings." White urged Thurber to submit his drawings to the magazine's art department, but he refused. One day White, who shared an office with Thurber, retrieved some of the discarded drawings from the wastebasket, inked them in, and took them to the New Yorker art editor. To everyone's surprise, the drawings were accepted.
Because he had no formal art training, Thurber's cartoons were simple and rudimentary. Dorothy Parker, in her foreword to The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, fondly described all of Thurber's characters as having "the outer semblance of unbaked cookies." The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, a collection of Thurber's drawings, takes its title from one of his most famous cartoons. Like other of his works, this cartoon evolved by accident. The original cartoon—drawn in pencil while Thurber doodled at the office—showed a seal on a rock in the Arctic waste. In the distance are two specks. "Hmmm, explorers," says the seal. The published version of the cartoon is quite different. After drawing the seal on the rock, this time in ink, Thurber decided that his rock looked less like a rock and more like a headboard for a bed. So he added a couple lying in the bed. The wife is saying, "All right, have it your way—you heard a seal bark!"
Thurber told Cooke that "somebody once asked Marc Connelly how you could tell a Thurber man from a Thurber woman. He said, 'The Thurber women have what appears to be hair on their heads.'" Thurber noted in his preface to The Thurber Carnival that his drawings "sometimes seemed to have reached completion by some other route than the common one of intent." One famous Thurber cartoon was indeed unintentional. Attempting to draw a crouching woman at the top of a staircase, Thurber got the perspective wrong and the woman was instead perched on the top of a bookcase. Unperturbed, Thurber drew in three other characters, two men and a woman, standing on the floor. One of the men is speaking: "That's my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris." According to Helen Thurber in her introduction to Thurber & Company, "My husband never cared much for the label of cartoonist, but he was equally reluctant about being called an artist. He had so much fun drawing pictures that he never really took them seriously." "In the best of his drawings," according to Edwin T. Bowden in Supernatural Fiction Writers, "there is often the same curious admixture of the everyday and the bizarre that can be found throughout his written work."
Thurber's writing career, Tobias noted, falls into three loosely defined periods. The first, from 1929 until about 1937, "develops the comedy of the little man menaced by civilization." The second period is a time of exploration for Thurber, when he published fables like The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures and Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, had his play The Male Animal successfully produced, and wrote the first of his children's books. The last period, the 1950s, saw Thurber return to the subject matter of his early work but with a deeper understanding. The books of Thurber's first period, collections of short pieces and drawings first published in the New Yorker, are generally considered to contain most of his best work. Many later titles reprint pieces from these books, sometimes including other Thurber material not previously reprinted from the New Yorker.
Writes a Sex Spoof with E. B. White
In 1929 Thurber teamed with White to produce a spoof of the sex manual genre entitled Is Sex Necessary?; or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. As Edward C. Simpson reported in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the two authors "parody the serious writers on the subject, making light of complexities, taking a mock-serious attitude toward the obvious, delighting in reducing the case-history technique to an absurdity, and making fun of those writers who proceeded by definition." The two men wrote alternate chapters of the manual, while Thurber provided the illustrations. The artwork—some forty drawings—took Thurber only one night to produce. "The next morning," Thurber told Cooke, "we took them down to the publishers, and when we got there, we put them down on the floor. Three bewildered and frightened publishers looked at them, and one man, the head publisher, said, 'These I suppose are rough sketches for the guidance of some professional artist who is going to do the illustrations?' and Andy [E. B. White] said, 'Those are the actual drawings that go in the book.'" The drawings were included. In his foreword to the manual, White found in Thurber's artwork "a strong undercurrent of grief" and described Thurber's men as "frustrated, fugitive beings." White went on to speak of "the fierce sweep, the economy, and the magnificent obscurity of Thurber's work.... All I, all anybody, can do is to hint at the uncanny faithfulness with which he has caught—caught and thrown to the floor—the daily, indeed the almost momently, severity of life's mystery, as well as the charming doubtfulness of its purpose." Is Sex Necessary? has gone through dozens of printings since its initial publication.
The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, Thurber's second book and first collection of New Yorker pieces, includes eight stories, a selection of drawings and short writings about pets and the "Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English." Most of the stories are taken from Thurber's own life and feature the character of John Monroe in domestic battles with his wife and with uncooperative household products. Some of the marital battles are based on Thurber's own stormy first marriage. The Monroe stories, Tobias believes, combined the comic with the tragic. John Monroe "has more potential for pathos than comedy," Tobias wrote, "but his frightening and agonizing situations are more extreme than that and thus comic. Further, the situations also suggest that behind the comic mask is a raw human experience which the writer, by his craft, has subdued for our pleasure. What is painful in life is transformed into a finer tone by the comic vision." Scholl reported that with the publication of The Owl in the Attic, "Thurber's reputation as a writer and an artist was firmly established." And Tobias found Is Sex Necessary? and The Owl in the Attic to be "astonishing performances for the beginning of a career."
Publishes Stories of His Childhood
Perhaps the most important of Thurber's early books is the story collection My Life and Hard Times, which recounts some outlandish events and disastrous misunderstandings from Thurber's childhood. Calling it the "peak achievement of Thurber's early career," Charles S. Holmes also stated in The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber that "for many readers it is his one unquestioned masterpiece." One of the chief virtues of the collection is the distance that Thurber maintained between himself and his past experiences, allowing him to use his own life to comic effect. As he wrote in the afterword to collection, "The confusion and the panics of last year and the year before are too close for contentment. Until a man can quit talking loudly to himself in order to shout down the memories of blunderings and gropings, he is in no shape for the painstaking examination of distress and the careful ordering of event so necessary to a calm and balanced exposition of what, exactly, was the matter."
My Life and Hard Times, stated Scholl, "is Thurber's best single collection of integrated stories, a series that can be read as a well-wrought and unified work of art." Hasley found that "despite its autobiographical basis," the book represents "the most consistently creative and humorous of all his books," and displays "Thurber's eminence in the portrayal of actual people." Holmes analyzed the stories in this collection and believed that throughout the book Thurber had celebrated "what might be called the Principle of Confusion.... Nearly every episode shows the disruption of the orderly pattern of everyday life by the idiosyncratic, the bizarre, the irrational." With My Life and Hard Times, concluded Holmes, Thurber "arrived at full artistic maturity."
In The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, a book described by Baughman as a "generally darkertoned miscellany," there is one curiously unfunny piece that sheds light on Thurber's personal life. The story "One Is a Wanderer" portrays a lonely middle-aged man in New York City who lives alone, drinks too much, and has alienated most of his friends. Taken from Thurber's situation during his first marriage, when he lived alone in New York City while his wife and daughter lived in the country, the story ends with the revelation, "Two is company, four is a party, three is a quarrel. One is a wanderer." In the humorous stories, too, there are depictions of Thurber's troubled life. "The quarrels, the fights, the infidelities, and the loneliness of these years are animated in the humorous pieces," Scholl commented. In "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife," for example, Thurber successfully blends the absurdly comic with the tragic. Mr. Preble wants his wife to go into the cellar with him; she knows he wants to kill her there but, because she is tired of arguing about it and is as dissatisfied with their marriage as he is, she accompanies him. Another argument develops in the cellar over Mr. Preble's choice of murder weapon—Mrs. Preble does not wish to be hit on the head with a shovel—and the story ends with the husband leaving for the store to buy a more suitable weapon. His wife waits patiently in the cellar for his return.
In Let Your Mind Alone! Thurber returned to the satirical mode of Is Sex Necessary?, this time writing a self-help psychology book. Calling it "a very amusing burlesque of psychoanalysis," Kenneth Burke remarked in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970, that Thurber proposed in the book that "the undisciplined mind . . . is far better adapted to the confused world in which we live today than the streamlined mind." He then provides examples of real-life cases where this idea is proved true. E. L. Tinker of the New York Times judged it to be "intelligent humor of a particularly refreshing brand which is very rare today. It appeals to the adult and sophisticated mind." A Canadian Forum reviewer thought that popular psychology had been handled in "a brilliantly amusing fashion."
In his second period Thurber explored new types of writing, while continuing to write the essays and short stories that had made his reputation. During the 1940s he wrote fables, a play, and children's books in addition to several collections of New Yorker pieces. In The Last Flower, published in 1940, Thurber created a picture book fable for adults that tells the story of World War XII and what survived: a man, a woman, and a single flower. From these three items, love emerges in the wasteland. But love leads to family, to tribe, to civilization, and inevitably and sadly, to another war. Inspired by the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the joint Soviet and Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the book was published shortly before America's entry into World War II. The book "is not funny," wrote a Boston Transcript reviewer. "It isn't meant to be funny. The Last Flower is magnificent satire." As E. Charles Vousden stated in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The message of the work [is] one of despair—humanity will never learn to avoid war."
Thurber returned to the allegorical fable in his Fables for Our Time, a collection of Aesop parodies that Fred Schwed Jr., of the Saturday Review of Literature thought showed "rather conclusively, I'm afraid, that at its worst the human race is viciously silly, while at its best it is just as silly." Containing what Vousden called "astute observations on the human condition," Fables for Our Time commented on such contemporary figures as Adolf Hitler and had fun with some of the more familiar fairy tale situations. Thurber's version of "Little Red Riding Hood," for instance, ended with Little Red shooting the wolf with a pistol. "You can read as much or as little as you please into these light and perfectly written little tales," G. W. Stoner wrote in the New Statesman and Nation.
The Male Animal, Thurber's first produced play, was written with his old friend Elliott Nugent and staged in 1940. It is set at a Midwestern college where an English professor finds himself at odds with a university trustee who is more interested in football and alumni support than with academic values. "For the first time," Tobias remarked, "the tart, astringent Thurber dialogue gets a larger framework." Thurber learned about some important differences between writing a play and having it produced. He told New Yorker colleague Wolcott Gibbs: "During rehearsal you discover that your prettiest lines do not cross the footlights, because they are too pretty, or an actor can't say them, or an actress doesn't know what they mean.... On the thirteenth day of rehearsal, the play suddenly makes no sense to you and does not seem to be written in English." The Male Animal was a huge success for Thurber, though, running for 243 performances in New York City and being adapted as a film starring Henry Fonda.
Publishes "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
Included in My World—and Welcome to It is one of Thurber's most famous short stories, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." The story concerns a man who daydreams heroic adventures to escape from a domineering wife and a boring job. According to Bowden, Walter Mitty is "one of Thurber's meek little men, who in the face of an unpleasant and continually intimidating reality seeks refuge by constructing for himself an elaborate fantasy life pieced together from the clichés and shopworn situations of dime novels and third-rate adventure movies." Thurber's attitude toward Mitty is wonderfully complicated. On the one hand, Mitty is a pathetic character who is totally ineffectual in dealing with the real world. His heroic fantasies are inevitably intruded upon by a reality seemingly bent on demeaning him. Thus, at the beginning of the story he daydreams of being a commander guiding a "huge, hurtling, eight-engined Navy hydroplane" through a terrible storm: "The crew . . . looked at each other and grinned. 'The Old Man'll get us through,' they said to one another. 'The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!'" The fantasy is abruptly interrupted by his wife: 'Not so fast! You're driving too fast! . . . What are you driving so fast for?' Mitty's daydreams are invariably terminated by similar kinds of intrusions. On the other hand, despite the tawdry stuff of Mitty's dreams, Thurber obviously feels a great deal of affection for his hero. As Mitty is confronted by a world of surly parking-lot attendants, truculent traffic cops, and aggressive, overbearing wives, his retreat into fantasy is understandable and perhaps even admirable. We may laugh at him and his third-rate fantasies, but he is indulging in so common and elemental an activity that we also cannot help but feel a certain kinship with him.
"The story is a masterpiece of associational psychology," wrote Hasley, "in its shuttling between the petty, humiliating details of his outer life and the flaming heroism of his self-glorifying reveries." In this story, according to Carl M. Lindner in the Georgia Review, Thurber "touched upon one of the major themes in American literature—the conflict between individual and society." According to D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, writing in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is "arguably the best of his stories and is still cited as an exemplar of its form during that period."
Turns to Writing Books for Children
Although he was barely able to see after several major operations on his eye in one year, Thurber began to write books for children during this second period. According to David McCord in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, "The anatomy of these . . . books is interchangeable: impossible tasks, indomitable courage, improbable solutions, appropriate wizardry, and nothing so serious or warped as not to be funny." Each of these books is a fairy tale, subtly modernized by Thurber's perspective. Comparing Thurber's children's books to the works of Frank Stockton, Edmund Wilson stated in his review for the New Yorker that like Stockton, Thurber took traditional fairy tale situations and made "them produce unexpected results."
Thurber wrote Many Moons, his first book for children, on Martha's Vineyard while recuperating from eye surgery. In the story, an indulged royal child becomes sick from eating too many raspberry tarts and refuses to get better unless she can have the moon. Although her father promises her the moon, none of his court but the jester is able to resolve the dilemma and save the princess. "Written with aptness and felicity of phrase," stated Joan Vatsek in the Saturday Review of Literature, "the story has a very special quality of lightness." Describing the book in a New York Times review, E. L. Buell commented, "Brief, unpretentious, but sound and right of its sort, his fable is one which adults and children both will enjoy for its skillful nonsense and for a kind of humane wisdom which is not always a property of his New Yorker stories."
Following Many Moons was The Great Quillow, a book that Thurber dictated because of his blindness. The story tells about Hunder the giant, who settles on the outskirts of a village, crippling its resources with his daily demands for food. However, when the toymaker convinces Hunder that he has a terminal disease that can only be cured by total immersion in the sea, the giant drowns himself. A contributor to the Saturday Review of Literature found that Thurber brought to the book "grace and humor and a phrasing that is an unending delight." Discussing the book in his biography Thurber, Burton Bernstein believed that The Great Quillow "was a timely and pertinent allegory dealing with one of Thurber's favorite themes—brawn against brain, the bully against the gentle man—and any child could see Adolf Hitler in Hunder."
Soon after came The White Deer, which is about an enchanted deer-turned-princess who is rescued from the forest by three princes, each of whom wishes to marry her. When she tells them about her improbable ancestry, two princes reject her, but the third, a poet, is overwhelmed by her beauty and does not care about her previous form, thereby releasing her from the spell. "Thurber's tale is a whimsical and brilliant piece of writing—a charming story, mixed with imagery and wonderful words, with wit, with verse both rhymed and free, with acrostics and alliterations," stated a Christian Science Monitor reviewer. "It is, therefore, an unbelievable combination of five parts Lewis Carroll and one part James Joyce." Calling it a "serene and beautiful fantasy" and a "comparative still-life of beauty and grace," Isabelle Mallet remarked in the New York Times, "The book is really written for children and Thurber's dealings with candor and innocence are always on the basis of grave, beautiful simplicity."
The Thirteen Clocks is a fairy tale about a princess being held by her supposed uncle, a duke so evil that he has made time itself stop. Disguised as a minstrel, and assisted by a wizard, a prince accepts the duke's challenge to free the princess by returning to the castle with thousands of jewels by a certain time. When he succeeds, he restores time to the kingdom as well. Irwin Edman of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review called the book "a fairy tale, a comment on human cruelty and human sweetness or a spell, an incantation, compounded of poetry and logic and wit." However, a New Yorker reviewer, noting that Thurber had employed traditional fairy tale elements in The Thirteen Clocks, considered the story "ingenious satire on that form, written in a many-tiered, poetic prose style."
According to Vousden, "Marc Simont, illustrator of two of Thurber's later books, said that Thurber told him 'he wanted to write something lasting about McCarthyism.'" As a result, Thurber wrote The Wonderful O, his last fairy tale. The book is about a pirate named Black who lands on the Island of Ooroo in search of jewels; finding none, he takes control of the island. Because he hates the letter "O" and all words that contain it, he banishes them from use. When, however, a poet calls upon love and memory to overthrow the pirate, he returns freedom to the island. Calling it "witty" and "extremely clever," E. W. Foell also noted in the Christian Science Monitor that "it has a moral." But critics were most impressed by the book's style, which Dan Wickenden described in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review as "a strongly rhythmic, alliterative style that is full of echoes, assonances, outright rhymes and meters." And in the Library Journal, E. F. Walbridge called it "a dazzling feat of verbal virtuosity, with frequent lapses into interior rhyme." However, as Fanny Butcher pointed out in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, "Like all good fables, it is told in simple language and in a manner children can delight in."
Remembers the New Yorker and Harold Ross
One of Thurber's most important books of the 1950s is The Years with Ross. An informal biography of Harold Ross, founder and editor of the New Yorker, the book is also a history of the magazine and a recounting of Thurber's friendship with Ross. Told in a rambling and anecdotal style, the book is divided into sections dealing with various aspects of Ross' life and career, treating each one "as an entity in itself," as Thurber explained in the book's foreword. "The unity I have striven for. . . .," wrote Thurber, "is one of effect." Thurber relied on his own memories of Ross, the memories of other New Yorker staff members, and on letters and published articles to trace Ross' career. The book fared well with the critics, although several reviewers found Thurber's portrait of Ross a bit unclear. Finding the book "often fascinating," Gerald Weales of Commonweal, for example, said that he "came out with the feeling that Thurber must still know something that he has failed to tell me." Peter Salmon of the New Republic called it "a great book"; and writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Schorer commented: "This is a book to savor, and to treasure. It has two heroes: The first, obviously, is Harold Ross himself, a flashing and fascinating man; the second is James Thurber, a retiring and a great one." The criticism that especially hurt Thurber, though, came from his friends. E. B. White and his wife Katharine, friends of both Thurber and Ross for many years, did not like the book. Scholl noted, however, that The Years with Ross "has a lasting power to entertain and move the reader."
Thurber's last major work, the play A Thurber Carnival, is a series of skits, some of which are adapted from earlier stories and some of which are new material. In one skit a woman reads from The Last Flower and displays the book's illustrations on an easel. Some of Thurber's cartoons were enlarged and used as backdrops for the New York City production of the play. After premiering in Thurber's hometown of Columbus, the play opened on Broadway on February 26, 1960, and enjoyed a national road tour as well. When ticket sales for the Broadway production slowed, Thurber himself joined the cast, playing himself in one of the skits for some eighty-eight performances. Ticket sales increased. A critical and popular success, A Thurber Carnival won a special Tony Award in 1960.
Pessimism of Final Years
On October 3, 1961, Thurber suffered a stroke at his home in New York City. While in the hospital he developed pneumonia, and on November 2, 1961, he passed away. Toward the end of his life it seemed to many observers that Thurber's work had become pessimistic. "During the last ten years of his life," Hasley noted, "Thurber turned more and more to serious treatments of literary subjects and people.... While he never yielded wholly to despair, the note of gloom is unmistakable." Holmes, too, found this bleak outlook. "The theme of all of Thurber's late work is decline—of form, style, good sense, 'human stature, hope, humor,'" he wrote. This outlook is reflected in his personal life, too. Scholl quoted Thurber as saying to Elliott Nugent shortly before his death, "I can't hide anymore behind the mask of comedy.... People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible—and so is life!"
Much of this pessimism has been attributed to Thurber's developing illness. "In his old age, racked by disease and incapacitated by blindness," John Seelye wrote in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, "Thurber became a sort of resident western curmudgeon, snarling at a changing world he could not comprehend." Jesse Bier argued in The Rise and Fall of American Humor that "Thurber's last stage represents a retreat from humor. And his irritabilities, his explicitness, his animus, his borderline perversities and grotesqueries, his final hopelessness, and his ingrownness are indices to the whole contemporary epoch, not only to his own career." Despite the later work that reflected this increasingly pessimistic viewpoint, it is the gentle wit and humor characteristic of the Thurber of the early twentieth century that readers will remember. It is a humor preserved in collected works like 1994's People Have More Fun than Anyone: A Centennial Celebration. Eighteen of Thurber's prose essays from the likes of the New Yorker, as well as over seventy-five of Thurber's line drawings, rekindle the vivaciousness of a career spent in the creation of unique, sometimes almost uncomfortably human characters: "those dogs, the ambling as well as the contemplative; those terrible women, the immensely glowering and the smugly obdurate. . .; those men, the cringing and haunted husbands, bewildered fathers, bland psychiatrists, ferocious fencers," according to James Idema, who characterized People Have More Fun as "vintage Thurber" in the Chicago Tribune Books.
If you enjoy the works of James Thurber
If you enjoy the works of James Thurber, you might want to check out the following books:
Robert Benchley, The Benchley Roundup, 1983.
S. J. Perelman, Most of the Most of S. J. Perelman, 2000.
P. G. Wodehouse, Enter Jeeves: Fifteen Early Stories, 1997.
Holmes defines two ways of approaching Thurber's body of work: "The humanistic view sees Thurber as the defender of the individual in an age of mass culture, the champion of imagination over the logic-and-formula-ridden mind, the enemy of political fanaticism.... The darker view focuses on Thurber as a man writing to exorcise a deep inner uncertainty, to come to terms with fears and resentments which threatened his psychic balance." In Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, Robert H. Elias examined Thurber's place in American literature and found that many Thurber stories are "as well shaped as the most finely wrought pieces of Henry James, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, as sensitively worded as the most discriminatingly written prose of H. L. Mencken, Westbrook Pegler and J. D. Salinger, and as penetrating . . . as the most pointed insights of those two large poets of our century, A. A. Robinson and Robert Frost." Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post Book World, judged Thurber's contribution to letters to be of lasting value. "Thurber's humor. . .," said Yardley, "has a timeless quality that should guarantee him a readership far into the future."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Atteberry, Brian, The Fantasy Tradition in AmericanLiterature, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1980.
Bernstein, Burton, Thurber, Dodd (New York, NY), 1975, published as Thurber: A Biography, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1976.
Bier, Jesse, The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt (New York, NY), 1968.
Black, Stephen Aces, James Thurber: His Masquerades, Mouton, 1970.
Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill, America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.
Bowden, Edwin T., James Thurber: A Bibliography, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 1968.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5, 1976, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 25, 1983.
Cowley, Malcolm, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Viking (New York, NY), 1959.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961-1965, Scribner (New York, NY), 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, 1980, Volume 11: American Humorists, 1800-1950, 1982, Volume 22: American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, 1983, Volume 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series, 1989.
Eastman, Max, The Enjoyment of Laughter, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1936.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
French, Thomas, editor, Conversations with James Thurber, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1989.
Gill, Brendan, Here at the New Yorker, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Grauer, Neil A., Remembering Laughter: A Life of James Thurber, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1994.
Holmes, Charles S., The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1972.
Holmes, Charles S., editor, Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1974.
Kenney, Catherine M., Thurber's Anatomy of Confusion, Shoe-String Press (Hamden, CT), 1984.
Kinney, Harrison, James Thurber: His Life And Times, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Kramer, Dale, Ross and the "New Yorker," Doubleday (New York, NY), 1951.
Long, Robert E., James Thurber, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1988.
Morseberger, Robert E., James Thurber, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1964.
Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Sheed, Wilfrid, The Good Word and Other Words, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.
Shirer, William L., Twentieth Century Journey, a Memoir of a Life and the Times: The Start, 1904-1930, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1976.
Supernatural Fiction Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1985.
Thurber, James, and E. B. White, Is Sex Necessary?; or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, Harper (New York, NY), 1929.
Thurber, James, The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, introduction by Dorothy Parker, Harper (New York, NY), 1932.
Thurber, James, My Life and Hard Times, Harper (New York, NY), 1933.
Thurber, James, The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze: A Collection of Short Pieces, Harper (New York, NY), 1935.
Thurber, James, Let Your Mind Alone!, and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, Harper (New York, NY), 1937.
Thurber, James, The Thurber Carnival, Harper (New York, NY), 1945.
Thurber, James, The Years with Ross, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959.
Thurber, James, Thurber & Company, introduction by Helen Thurber, Harper (New York, NY), 1966.
Thurber, James, Selected Letters of James Thurber, edited by Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.
Tibbetts, Robert A., James Thurber: A Guide to Research, Garland (New York, NY), 1989.
Tobias, Richard C., The Art of James Thurber, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 1969.
Toombs, Sara E., James Thurber: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Weatherby, William J., Blindsight: The Secret Life of James Thurber, Fine (New York, NY), 1992.
Yates, Norris W., The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, Iowa State University Press (Iowa City, IA), 1964.
Atlantic, August, 1956, Alistair Cooke, "James Thurber: In Conversation with Alistair Cooke," pp. 36-40.
Book Week, November 12, 1944, p. 21.
Boston Transcript, December 9, 1939.
Chicago Sunday Tribune, June 9, 1957, p. 6.
Children's Literature in Education, autumn, 1984, pp. 147-156.
Choice, December, 1986, p. 599.
Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 1945, p. 14; May 29, 1957, p. 5; May 28, 1959; December 14, 1981.
Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1958, Eddy Gilmore, "James Thurber Isn't Sure He's Funny," p. 47.
Commonweal, July 17, 1959; February 28, 1997, Nicholas R. Clifford, review of James Thurber: Writings and Drawings, p. 22.
Economist, February 13, 1982.
Esquire, August, 1975.
Georgia Review, summer, 1974.
Horn Book Magazine, November-December, 1994, p.727.
Language and Style, 1970, Alice Baldwin, "James Thurber's Compounds," pp. 185-196.
Library Journal, July, 1957, p. 1780.
Listener, January 28, 1982.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 6, 1984, p. 4; November 26, 1989, p. 33; October 21, 1990, p. 10; November 25, 1990, p. 25; July 24, 1994, p. 3.
Lost Generation Journal, winter (special Thurber issue), 1975.
Maclean's, June 1, 1951, R. T. Allen, "Women Have No Sense of Humor, but They Don't Seem to Know It" (interview with Thurber), p. 18; January 18, 1982.
Manchester Guardian Weekly, February 9, 1961, J. B. Weatherby, "A Man of Words," p. 13.
Nation, January 13, 1940, W. H. Auden, "The Icon and the Portrait," p. 48; June 13, 1959; November 21, 1981.
National Review, April 2, 1982; August 9, 1985, p. 53.
New Republic, December 13, 1933, Robert M. Coates, "James G. Thurber, the Man," pp. 137-138; September 20, 1940; May 26, 1958, Henry Brandon, "Everybody Is Getting Very Serious," pp. 11-16; June 29, 1959.
New Statesman, December 14, 1962; November 28, 1986, p. 26.
New Statesman and Nation, December 23, 1939; December 14, 1940; December 19, 1942.
Newsweek, March 24, 1975; December 10, 1990, p. 80.
New Yorker, October 27, 1945; December 9, 1950, p. 166; November 11, 1961, p. 247; December 3, 1973, p. 198; June 23, 1975; December 1, 1975, p. 178; January 4, 1982, p. 90; June 27, 1994, p.168.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, December 3, 1950, p. 7; May 26, 1957, p. 5; November 3, 1957, Maurice Dolbier, "A Sunday Afternoon with Mr. Thurber," p. 2.
New York Times, February 22, 1931; September 12, 1937; September 19, 1943, p. 6; February 4, 1945; September 30, 1945, p. 5; May 31, 1959; March 28, 1960, Arthur Gelb, "Thurber Intends to Relax Till '61," p. 35.
New York Times Book Review, June 29 1952, Harvey Breit, "Talk with James Thurber," p. 19; March 25, 1973; May 6, 1973, p. 26; July 14, 1974, p. 30; October 30, 1977, p. 57; November 8, 1981, p. 3; January 10, 1982, p. 35; December 12, 1982, p. 35; March 13, 1983, p. 27; May 13, 1984, p. 38; November 5, 1989, p. 36.
New York Times Magazine, December 4, 1949, Harvey Breit, "Mr. Thurber Observes a Serene Birthday," p. 17.
Observer, February 15, 1987, p. 25.
Ohioana, summer, 1960, Virginia Haufe, "Thurber Gives Advice to American Women," pp. 34-36.
Paris Review, fall, 1955, George Plimpton and Max Steel, "The Art of Fiction," pp. 35-49.
Publishers Weekly, September 13, 1991, review of Thurber on Crime, p. 66; October 31, 1994, review of The Great Quillow, p. 62.
Reader's Digest, September, 1972.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1999, Sally E. Parry, review of Is Sex Necessary?, p. 138.
Salt Lake Tribune, May 7, 1961, Eddy Gilmore, "American Male No Panther, He's a Pouncer," p. W-19.
Saturday Review, November 17, 1956; March 22, 1975.
Saturday Review of Literature, December 2, 1939; November 23, 1940; November 13, 1943, p.25; November 11, 1944, p. 29; February 3, 1945.
School Library Journal, November, 1994, p. 91; February, 1996, p.62.
Seventeen, January, 1960, Carol Illig, "Hear Your Heroes," pp. 88-89.
Smithsonian, January, 1977.
South Atlantic Quarterly, autumn, 1974.
Spectator, July 5, 1975.
Studies in Short Fiction, Number 19, 1982, Anne Ferguson Mann, "Taking Care of Walter Mitty," pp. 351-357; Number 23, 1986, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, "Coitus Interruptis: Sexual Symbolism in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,'" pp. 110-113; fall, 1990, George Cheatham, "The Secret Sin of Walter Mitty," pp. 608-610.
Threepenny Review, fall, 1994, Craig Seligman, "The Cottage of Smugness," pp. 26-28.
Time, July 9, 1951, pp. 88-94; March 31, 1975.
Times Literary Supplement, January 29, 1982, p. 101; November 16, 1984, p. 1323; December 29, 1989, p. 1437.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 27, 1991, p. 8; July 10, 1994, p. 5.
U.S. News & World Report, March 4, 1991, "A Moveable Carnival," p. 18.
Village Voice, December 15, 1975, p. 72.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1990, p. 50.
Voice Literary Supplement, September, 1990, p. 24.
Washington Post Book World, November 8, 1981; August 5, 1990, p. 15; September 23, 1990, p. 15; July 31, 1994, p. 13.
Yale Review, autumn, 1965.
Illustrated London News, November 11, 1961.
Newsweek, November 13, 1961, pp. 35-36.
New York Times, November 9, 1961.
Publishers Weekly, November 13, 1961.
Time, November 10, 1961.*
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 University—though he never took a degree—and 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 (1899–1985) 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.
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.
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.
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). □