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James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire
The New Yorker
[James Thurber] was born in the blowy uplands of Columbus, Ohio, in a district known as 'the Flats', which, for half of the year, was partially underwater and during the rest of the time was an outcropping of live granite.... This condition led to moroseness, scepticism, jumping when shots were fired, membership in a silver cornet band, and finally, a system of floating pulley-baskets by means of which the Thurber family was raised up to and lowered down from the second floor of the old family homestead.
Any biography of James Grover Thurber is bound to be entertaining, if only because a biographer would have to rely on the humorist himself for much of the information. Thurber had a marked preference for dramatised near-fiction over the dull facts, and raconteured accordingly. Readers of his autobiographical anecdotes should either keep a topped-up salt-cellar within reach or ask no questions, raise no eyebrows and merely enjoy one of the most famous humorists of the early 20th Century.
If in his art he told the truth, in his life he told it off.
My Life and Hard Times
James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, where so many awful things happened to him, on December 8, 1894. He was unable to keep anything on his stomach until he was seven years old, but grew to be six feet one and a quarter inches tall and to weigh 154 fully dressed for winter.
Columbus, Ohio may well have been the greatest influence on Thurber's work. 'I have always waved banners and blown horns for Good Old Columbus Town.... [My readers] are all aware of where I was born and brought up [and that] half my books could not have been written if it had not been for the city of my birth.' In his autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, Thurber recounts charming tales of Midwestern American culture at the turn of the 20th Century1: 'The Car We Had to Push' ('Don't you dare drive all over town without gasoline!'); an aunt who threw shoes at 'burglars' every night; 'The Night the Ghost Got In'; the day the entire town stampeded under the misguided impression that the dam had broken ('Go east! Go east!'); a maid named Juanemma, sister to Juanhelen, Juangrace and Juanita; 'The Dog Who Bit People' who they fed on a small table because nobody would risk exposing their arm by putting his bowl on the floor; and Uncle Zena, who died of Chestnut-tree Blight.
Another undeniable influence on Thurber was his mother; her flair for dramatic overreaction figures largely in his early autobiographical accounts and he remained close to her for the rest of her life. (Harold Ross, Thurber's boss, reportedly got along smashingly well with her.)
Possibly the most awful thing that occurred to young Thurber in Columbus was an accident during a game of William Tell at age seven, which blinded him in his left eye. Biographers and critics make much about how the youngster, unable to play sports with his fellows, must have turned inward, thereby developing something or other. They may even be right. Thurber admits that once as a child he was up all night trying to recall the name of a city in New Jersey. Granted, 'Perth Amboy' is the sort of name that can be very exasperating to not remember, but it is not the type of thing that keeps most little boys awake at night.
My World – and Welcome to It
It's impossible for me to be happy when I am stripped and being asked a lot of questions.
At Ohio State University, Thurber discovered he was not very good at higher education. He repeatedly failed botany because he couldn't see plant cells through the microscope. He nearly failed gym because they disallowed glasses during exercises and because he couldn't swim. He failed military drilling three times because he 'was no good at all'. He dropped out during his sophomore year, but returned 'just to read'. Professor Joseph Taylor introduced him to Henry James and he never quite got over it — for the rest of his life he considered James his favourite author, and it's been said he once parodied 'the Master' to his face2. Thurber wrote for the daily college paper, The Lantern, edited the university humour magazine, the Sun-Dial, and wrote plays for The Strollers, the university drama club.
On the Flying Trapeze
'You're just a blur to me,' I said, taking off my glasses. 'You're absolutely nothing to me,' he snapped, sharply.
Thurber left Ohio State University in June, 1918, without a degree, in order to join the army, but he failed in that pursuit, too. By his own account, due to administrative confusion, he was called before the draft board almost weekly, where he stripped, jogged, and had his heart, lungs, feet and eyes examined. He was always dismissed after the eye examination. One week he idly picked up a stethoscope and suddenly found the draftees lining up in front of him for examination. He drifted to the heart and lungs line, where he did examining every time he was called for four months, before he bored of it and returned to being examined. None of the doctors recognised him3.
During World War I, Thurber worked as a publicity agent for an amusement park. From 1918 - 1920 he was a code clerk in the American Embassy in France. He later moved on to report for the Columbus Dispatch, where he earned his own column. Somewhere along the line he married ambitious Althea Adams, a sophomore and the most beautiful girl on the Ohio State campus. Then he returned to Paris as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a freelance writer and a press agent. He also tried to write a novel, but 'got tired of the characters'. In 1926, he returned to the United States to find a publisher for his humorous pieces.
Men, Women and Dogs
I got back to New York...with ten dollars, borrowed enough to hold on until July...and began sending short pieces to The New Yorker, eating in donut shops, occasionally pilfering canapé s at cocktail parties (anchovies, in case you don't know, are not good for breakfast).
Nobody was willing to buy anything of Thurber's, so he took a job at the Saturday Evening Post. The first piece of his to be accepted by The New Yorker was a burlesque in which a little man goes round and round a revolving door, setting the world's record for it as an endurance feat. After one acceptance, Thurber's submissions were no longer read by John Chapin Mosher, self-appointed rejection machine, and he had no trouble getting further stories published. EB (Andy) White, a staff reporter, called Thurber in early 1927, said his sister remembered Thurber from the ship to France and would he like to come down to the office to meet him? Five minutes after they met, White introduced Thurber to Ross, who, under the impression that they were lifelong friends, immediately hired Thurber as Managing Editor of The New Yorker4.
Thurber was no more interested in managing the magazine than he was suited for the job. After six months of convincing Ross of his incompetence, he managed to work his way down to a position as a Talk reporter, where he shared a tiny office with White. Jim and Andy became fast friends; after his death, Thurber's wife said that he loved White more than any other man, bar one5. The twosome admired each other's work and shared a comically dismayed approach to city life; Thurber's cartoons of himself usually show a small, tousle-headed man peering through thick glasses at the menacing world and tackling it as best as he can, while White frequently took a bemused tone when writing about his city escapades.
Andy's sense of humour was more understated, while Thurber's was more sensational — he once burst into editor Rogers EM Whitaker's office with a toy pistol shouting, 'Are you the son of a b— that keeps putting notes in red ink on the proofs of my Talk stories?' (Whitaker fainted.) The two never failed to keep each other well entertained.
It took Thurber six months to learn how to write a 'Talk' piece, and as he moved into the position, Andy moved out, until Talk of the Town was Thurber's jurisdiction. Thurber credits White with taming and disciplining his writing, but the influence went both ways. For the next ten years, White and Thurber dominated and shaped The New Yorker magazine.
We hadn't been to the aquarium for two or three years until last week. Miss Ida Mellen, who used to look after the ailing fish, isn't there anymore; she has a little house in the country now, where she writes articles on poultry. Or maybe they said poetry. Anyway, her successor is Mr Christopher W Coates... He's been experimenting with nervous fish for some time and has found out what we always suspected — that no fish is born nervous. They are born calm and imperturbable. What gets them down is having peering people loom up at them on their own level when, in their own element, they were always used to disturbances coming from above.... Not long ago, Coates observed a male Rosy Barb who kept phoning a female Rosy Barb, writing her notes, etc, but getting nowhere. The two always ended up in a fight at her door after they had gone out for a swim together: he would leap into a taxi, shouting imprecations, and she would rush up to her room, sobbing. Coates put them in a private tank, and almost at once they started to turn from a pale yellow to rose, which is a sign among Rosy Barbs that everything is going to be all right.
The Male Animal
We are all about six years old in our hearts; some of us are more reckless than others in revealing it.
Thurber was easy to love — unless you hated him — at least partially because he needed to be loved. He never properly grew up and to the end retained a schoolboyish petulance. When Ross died and White was asked to write The New Yorker's obituary, Thurber, who was very close to Ross, was naturally hurt. Still, it was childish of him to call his friend's farewell 'a rotten piece of work'.
He got along well with Ross, both of them sharing the sentiment that funniness is next to Godliness and an appreciation for a well-conducted practical joke. Ross was frequently the butt of Thurber's jokes; the humorist knew well how to poke the Editor in all his weak spots. A few hours after Ross complained to Thurber about the overuse of 'pretty' and 'little' as modifiers, Thurber sent him a Talk piece with the sentence 'The building is pretty ugly, and a little big for its surroundings.' One of Ross's convictions was that all of his writers and artists were one brick shy of an institution. While lunching at the Algonquin with Ross one day, Thurber turned pale, stared blankly at the menu and trembling, got to his feet.
'Are you all right?' [Ross] demanded nervously. I kept on staring at the bill of fare. 'What the hell is this thing?' I croaked.
While Ross could take a good joke at his own expense, Thurber played on the weaknesses of less amiable acquaintances with equal enjoyment. John O'Hara was paranoid that all his friends were plotting behind his back; Thurber once told O'Hara that a review panning his book was written by a close friend. Sid Perelman recalls a party where Thurber managed to make everyone present angry with everyone else before Perelman could get rid of him. The next day Thurber called Perelman to chirp, 'Sid! What a marvellous party! I never had such a good time.'
Thurber had a high, quick voice that he could manipulate with ease, which he put to good use making crank calls. Sometimes his jokes went too far; once, when the Whites were visiting London, Thurber called them, posing as an English reporter, and requested first an interview, and when that was refused, a photograph of Katherine leapfrogging naked over Andy. The Whites were not amused7.
[Thurber] never listens when anybody else is talking, preferring to keep his mind blank until they get through so he can talk.
James Thurber preferred to be at the centre of attention. When he spoke, which was as often and for as prolonged a period as possible, he was entertaining, if self-centred. Even those who did not like him could only marvel at his witty loquaciousness. If he had never written a word he 'might still have made his mark as a great conversationalist', proclaimed The Guardian's obituary. Peter De Vries noted, 'He was a storyteller, mimic, fantasist, realist, running commentator and mine of information on every subject under the sun'.
The essence of Thurber is such that in any real contest of personalities everyone else would be well advised to take to the hills.
If anyone is entitled to pass judgement on James Thurber, it's Andy White. White found Thurber to be one of the most self-centred men he knew, but declared 'There never was a kinder, nicer friend — when he was sober.' (Thurber when drunk was fearsome indeed, but by the next morning was pathetically contrite.)
His mind was never at rest, and his pencil was connected to his mind by the best conductive tissue I have ever seen in action... You had to sit next to him day after day to understand 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 he instantly enlarged, put in focus, and made immortal, just as he enlarged and made immortal the strange goings on in the Ohio home of his boyhood. His waking dreams and his sleeping dreams commingled shamelessly and uproariously.
The Seal in the Bedroom
A drawing and its caption dovetail, or should dovetail. When they don't they are hard to figure out.
The White-Thurber office was frequently short of paper because Thurber enjoyed doodling. He particularly enjoyed doodling on White's notepad and watching the frantic reporter scrabble for a clean page while on the phone. Thurber's drawings were usually minimalist sketches of long-eared, short-legged dogs and people with what Dorothy Parker called the 'outer semblance of unbaked cookies', but sometimes he tried to fill them in with cross-hatching. White told him to stop cross-hatching: 'If you ever got good you'd be mediocre.'
It was White who first decided that Thurber's drawings deserved publication. He sent a doodle of a seal on a rock into a Tuesday afternoon art meeting. Though anything backed by Andy White impressed Ross, the art editors took the liberty of assuming this was some kind of prank. Rea Irvin drew a picture of a seal's head on the paper and wrote, 'This is the way a seal's whiskers go'. The following week White sent the drawing back, with a note reading, 'This is the way a Thurber seal's whiskers go'8. White continued sending in drawings that were wordlessly rejected. 'How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?' was Ross's only comment.
In late 1929, White and Thurber finished Is Sex Necessary?, a parody of self-help books, and Andy insisted that Thurber do the illustrations. White sent the book to Harper Brothers, who accepted it, and then showed up with a sheaf of Thurber drawings. The editors nearly choked. 'I gather these are a rough idea of the kind of illustrations you want some artist to do?' one asked. 'These are the drawings that go into the book,' White replied firmly. Harper was not happy, but the illustrations were published, the book was a bestseller and Ross kept hearing about it, particularly the illustrations. Within a week, he was in their office demanding Thurber drawings for The New Yorker, though he never did understand their appeal.
A cartoonist yelled at Ross once in the thirties: 'Why do you reject drawings of mine and print stuff by that fifth-rate artist, Thurber?'
Thurber was nearly as astonished as Ross that his doodles were 'art'. Possibly, they weren't. Even the proud citizens of Columbus, Ohio considered Thurber's drawings to be of dubious merit. He churned them out at an astonishing rate and without much forethought. Once he submitted a drawing of a woman crouched on top of a bookcase while a man below says to a guest, 'That's my first wife up there.' Clarity was essential to Ross, who quickly called Thurber to ask if the woman was alive, dead or stuffed. Thurber called back later and said the woman was alive because his doctor said dead people couldn't support themselves in that position, while his taxidermist said you can't stuff women.
'Then, goddam it, what is she doing naked in the house of her former husband?'
Ross was not the only one who thought Thurber crazy. A psychiatrist wrote to Thurber that his drawings were symptomatic of something deeply wrong and offered to treat him for it.
With the hearty backing of Paul Nash, Thurber's popularity in damp England outstripped his popularity in America. From 1937 - 1938, he toured Europe with his work and ran a highly successful one-man art show in London. Sophisticated citizens of the nation actually paid for the privilege of scuttling sideways along a wall of scrap paper and doodles, as their New York counterparts had only a few years earlier.
My drawings have been described as pre-intentionalist, meaning they were finished before the ideas for them had occurred to me. I shall not argue the point.
Lanterns and Lances
Humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.
In 1935, after a separation, divorce and remarriage, Thurber divorced Althea and one month later married Helen Wismer, an editor. Helen became something of an indispensable sidekick; she took a heavy red pen to his writings, and when he became blind, transcribed his writing and escorted him everywhere. Thurber jokingly referred to Helen as his 'seeing-eye wife'. The twosome moved to Connecticut in early 1936, ending Thurber's tenure at The New Yorker.
In the thirty years of his career, Thurber published 30 books and had countless cartoons and stories published in various magazines. (Probably his most famous story is 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' and his most famous cartoon is the seal in the bedroom.) His play The Male Animal, written with a school friend, ran for 243 days on Broadway. In 1950 he received honorary doctorates from Kenyon College in Ohio and Williams College in Massachusetts. In 1953, Yale awarded him yet another one9. His fame grew in the UK, and in 1958 he became the first American since Mark Twain to be invited by the editors of Punch to carve his name on their conference table10. In 1960 he starred in the actual limelight by appearing in 88 performances of A Thurber Carnival, a play based on his writings and cartoons.
James Thurber received plenty of gushy critical acclaim, from 'James Thurber is the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain' (Charles S Holmes) to 'Too, too divine' (hostess Elsa Maxwell's guests). Of course, the best critic is time itself, and it remains to be seen how much of Thurber's work survives a century.
Alarms and Diversions
If I couldn't write I couldn't breathe, but giving up drawing is only a little worse than giving up tossing cards in a hat. I once flipped in forty-one out of a whole deck at twelve feet.
Sympathetic opthalmia caused Thurber's good eye to go blind gradually. After 1941 he began to rely on a succession of innovations to continue writing and drawing. He drew on large white papers with thick black crayons and when that ceased to help, he drew on black paper with white chalk, which was then photographed and colour-reversed. He took to drawing on the walls of the New Yorker's office, as part of what he later referred to as a 'five-year nervous crack-up'. Editors preserved these doodles from the occasional whitewashing by framing them with tape and jotting 'leave this' next to them. Some of them explored the greater cartoon potential of a 3D drawing board; one doodle consisted of a life-sized, unconcerned man strolling towards a bend in the hall. Around the corner lurked an irate life-sized woman with a club. Eventually, though, Thurber had to stop drawing.
He never had to stop writing. Thurber had an exceptional memory and could compose and rewrite a story of up to 1,500 words in his head before dictating them to his wife. This versatile method allowed him to write almost anywhere.
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.'
Thurber did sometimes write using a soft, black pencil on white paper, scrawling around 15-20 words per page, but only his wife could read his abominable handwriting.
Thurber's writing changed drastically after his blindness. His early works were full of baffled men, domineering women and general domestic chaos. As he lost his vision he was driven back into the land of fantasy, and the works he published between 1943 and 1945 are all fairytales where the funny man saves the day. As he came to rely on hearing more and more, his writing concentrated on words, wordplay and sounds. He began using puns and coinages until his later works were 'completely verbalised universes'. Sometimes he created stomach-churning paragraphs dissecting a word beyond recognition. Other times he penned funny verbal-fencing.
Miss Brothers said she was from the deep South, but Poe didn't believe it. 'Butter wouldn't melt in your South,' he said.
Thurber's blindness, or possibly just his ageing, brought about a general pessimism and misanthropy, which invaded his work. His themes tended to be cynical, and his last works are almost unreadable by any but diehard fans.
The Last Flower
Thurber's secret was a warm heart and an angry mind.
In the last few years of his life, Thurber's behaviour became increasingly erratic, probably due to the tumour growing in his brain. Then Thurber suddenly collapsed from a stroke after a theatre opening and was rushed to a local hospital where doctors discovered and removed the growth. He hung on in a coma for a month before dying on 2 November, 1961. His last words were reportedly 'God bless... God damn.' EB White wrote his obituary for The New Yorker and Thurber would have appreciated it:
He wrote the way a child skips rope, the way a mouse waltzes.... Although he is best known for 'Walter Mitty' and The Male Animal, the book of his I like best is The Last Flower. In it you will find his faith in the renewal of life, his feeling for the beauty and fragility of life on earth. Like all good writers, he fashioned his own best obituary notice. Nobody else can add to the record, much as he might like to.
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