THURBER

The works of James Thurber are not appreciated as they deserve. He has been, if not damned, certainly belittled with faint praise. Calling him a humorist is like calling Mozart a tunesmith, or Fischer-Dieskau a crooner. I come to praise Thurber, not to bury him.

Thurber worked in the format that was available to him: the New-Yorker-type short piece. Some of his output, skillful as it is, does not exceed the limits of that genre. There are a few standard humor pieces that could have been written by Robert Benchley or Stephen Leacock:
     The Pleasure Cruise and How to Survive It; What's So Funny?; Look at That Darling Thing!
There are a few that testify to his empathy with animals:
     Snapshot of a Dog; The Dog that Bit People; The Bloodhound and the Bug; The Wood Duck
There are a few of the kind that I cannot abide: pointless Chekhov-like descriptions of depression, depressing to read:
     The Evening's at Seven; One is a Wanderer; Teacher's Pet

But those were the exceptions. Thurber made the genre his mother tongue, transcending it and raising it to literary heights. The result is a body of masterpieces disguised as a collection of occasional humorous sketches. One must not be fooled by this illusion of triviality. Would you say that O. Henry wrote "only" short stories with surprise endings, or that Marenzio composed "only" madrigals, or that Chopin composed "only" piano pieces?

Thurber's straight satires, like the collection Fables for Our Time, are merely verbal. More original, and more amazing, are collections like Famous Poems Illustrated, in which the texts are simply unaltered old favorites like "Barbara Frietchie" and "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight," while the satire is in Thurber's illustrations. He also published a collection of drawings that looks, at first glance, like a photographic history of the Civil War, but whose title -- and subject matter -- is The War Between Men and Women.

He wrote many superlative satires in which the narrative voice pretends to be in dead earnest, like that of Jonathan Swift. Some are about fads that he thought silly:
     Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic (1927) = The Greatest Man in the World  
               (1931)
     Freudian psychology = Sex Ex Machina
     "What-if" history = If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox
     Detective novels = The Macbeth Murder Mystery
Others are about fads of the culture vultures, that caused media frenzies in their day:
     Salvador Dali = The Secret Life of James Thurber
     Gertrude Stein's famous line "Pigeons on the grass alas." (1927) = There's an Owl in my 
               Room
(1934)
     Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road (1932) = Bateman Comes Home (1936)
     T.S. Eliot: The Cocktail Party (1949) = What Cocktail Party? (1950)
His venomous satiric portrait of a Hollywood producer -- The Man Who Hated Moonbaum (1940) -- was especially remarkable because it was prophetic. Thurber's own Hollywood catastrophe did not occur until 1947. In that year, he watched helplessly as Samuel Goldwyn turned his greatest masterpiece -- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty -- into an idiotic infantile abortion of a movie starring Danny Kaye.

Thurber's pieces are not really humorous in the ordinary sense of the word. I would rather say that the narrative voice is amused -- and bemused -- by the freakishness and absurdity of the world and the people in it. A favorite subject was the ineptitude of his fictional self:
     Recollections of the Gas Buggy; Back Home Again; Lady in a Trap
and its private fantasies: 
     The Case Book of James Thurber; Do You Want To Make Something Out Of It?; The Lady 
               on 142; The Admiral on the Wheel; What a Lovely Generalization!

In the course of describing the quirks and kinks of other people, Thurber deftly created unforgettable characters. The copiousness of his caricature of humanity is evidence of his genius. Wonderfully weird Thurber characters include:
     Doc Marlowe; The Departure of Emma Inch; The Luck of Jad Peters; The Figgerin' of Aunt 
               Wilma; The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery
The weirdness of some of these characters is their eccentric relationships with the English language:
     What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?; The Black Magic of Barney Haller; Here Lies Miss Groby
Thurber especially despised practical jokers, and several pieces revile them -- perfect examples of "humor" that is not really funny.
     Destructive Forces in Life; The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl; A Friend of the Earth; Shake 
               Hands with Birdey Doggett
Several magnificent pieces are merciless satires on egomaniac authors:
     Something to Say; The Interview; A Final Note on Chanda Bell

Many of Thurber's pieces chronicle the crazy interactions between the weird characters and the narrator.
     My Life and Hard Times
Some depict dialog between French speakers who know no English and a Thurber who knows no French:
     A Ride With Olympy; The Girls in the Closet
Some, like epistolary novels, consist of exchanges of letters with mindless bureaucrats:
     File and Forget; Joyeux Noel Mr. Durning

The pieces that describe sadistic interplay between his characters might be called "black humor." Even that, however, makes light of writing that is cruelly caustic -- although the narrator seems to find it amusing:
     The Catbird Seat; The Cane in the Corridor
The most vitriolic pieces are those in which the adversaries are husband and wife:
     The Breaking Up of the Winships; The Curb in the Sky; The Case of Dimity Ann; See No 
               Weevil; The Unicorn in the Garden
The best of these is A Couple of Hamburgers (1935). Its pitiless depiction of people endlessly torturing one another antedates Sartre's play Huis Clos (1944). Its pitiless depiction of a marraige based on mutual hatred antedates Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). In both cases, its depiction is no less keen, with greater economy of means and less histrionics. (Perhaps the title has a double meaning?)

His best works are so original, that they seem to have created their own genres. This is certainly true of his cartoons, in which both the drawings and the captions are like nothing else on earth. A few captions, even without the drawings, will suffice to demonstrate this:
     Darling, I seem to have this rabbit.
     It's a naive domestic burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its 
               presumption.
     Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?
     What do you want to be inscrutable for, Marcia?
     Well, I'm disenchanted too. We're all disenchanted.

Thurber's magnum opus is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is both amusing and appalling, both exaggerated and understated, both cruel and compassionate. The protagonist struggles to maintain his self-respect, even if only in his own imagination -- but his struggle is not heroic, but ludicrous. In his secret world he does not suffer and rebel. He only fabricates infantile monotonous fantasies. His humdrum life and his unfeeling wife have deprived him of dignity, even in the privacy of his own mind.

Mozart composed complete works in his head, and then wrote them down as if simply copying them out. I thought this ability was unique to Mozart until I discovered that Thurber had the same gift. (The fact that he was forced to use it because he was almost blind does not make it less amazing.) I quote from the biographical postlude in The Thurber Carnival, by Michael J. Rosen, literary director of Thurber House.

          Thurber began to compose nearly two thousand words of prose... sharpening and shaping 
          the language for hours, until a secretary or his wife Helen came for dictation, as if merely 
          printing the negatives that Thurber had taken in his mind.

In an interview by George Plimpton and Max Steele, in The Paris Review, Fall 1955, they quote Thurber directly:

          I never quite know when I'm not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party   
          and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a 
          paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” 
          my wife says, “He's writing something.” I have to do it that way on account of my eyes... 
          My usual method is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind. Then in the 
          afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her. I can do about two 
          thousand words.

There is a stupid kind of literary criticism which supposedly ferrets out the real-life models for characters and plots, probably to minimize the creative ability of the author. In the case of Thurber, the situation is even worse. He has so bamboozled his critics that they are unable to distinguish his fictions from reality.

One of his favorite fictions, in both his writings and his drawings, was the overbearing, domineering wife of the henpecked husband. (For example, see the drawing "House and Woman" in Men, Women, and Dogs.) In spite of what critics imagine, that was not a portrait of his own wife. Furthermore, in The Departure of Emma Inch, The Girls in the Closet, The Pleasure Cruise and How to Survive It, and many other pieces, he depicted a perfectly normal marital relationship, with mutual respect -- but of course there is no fun in "discovering" that fictional normality is autobiographical.

The title of a book published by Walter Fensch in 2001 makes it clear, without even turning its pages, how gross was his blunder: The Man Who was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber. Fensch cites as evidence the imagined shapes, seen with what Thurber called his "two-fifths vision," in The Admiral on the Wheel -- which is ridiculous. The fictional Thurber, who is amused and bemused by the tricks that his failing eyesight plays on him, has nothing to do with the fictional Walter Mitty, drowning in the absurdity of his life. Thurber was not Walter Mitty, just as Shakespeare was not Falstaff, and Ibsen was not Peer Gynt.

The bottom line of Thurber's work is, that truth is stranger than fiction -- and funnier. He did that so well, that the critics believe in the fictional Thurber more than in the real author and caricaturist who was a genius.

Thank goodness, not everyone misunderstood him. E.B. White, in his obituary in The New Yorker, praised "...the extravagance of his clowning, the wildness and subtlety of his thinking, and the intensity of his interest in others and his sympathy for their dilemmas -- dilemmas that he constantly enlarged, put in focus, and made immortal."