Authors: James Thurber

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Is Sex Necessary?, 1929 (with E. B. White)

The Owl in the Attic, and Other Perplexities, 1931

The Seal in the Bedroom, and Other Predicaments, 1932

My Life and Hard Times, 1933

The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1935

Let Your Mind Alone!, and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, 1937

The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures, 1939

Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, 1940

My World–and Welcome to It!, 1942

The Great Quillow, 1944

The White Deer, 1945

The Thurber Carnival, 1945

The Beast in Me, and Other Animals: A New Collection of Pieces and Drawings About Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures, 1948

The Thirteen Clocks, 1950

Thurber Country: A New Collection of Pieces About Males and Females, Mainly of Our Own Species, 1953

Further Fables for Our Time, 1956

The Wonderful O, 1957

Alarms and Diversions, 1957

Lanterns and Lances, 1961

Credos and Curios, 1962

Drama:

The Male Animal, pr., pb. 1940 (with Elliott Nugent)

Many Moons, pb. 1943

A Thurber Carnival, pr. 1960 (revue)

Nonfiction:

The Thurber Album, 1952

The Years with Ross, 1959

Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1982

Biography

Generally considered the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain, James Grover Thurber was born on December 8, 1894, in Columbus, Ohio, the setting for many of his comic reminiscences. His father was active in local politics; his mother had a histrionic gift of comic impersonation that gave his mind “a sense of confusion that . . . never left it.” When Thurber was six, his older brother accidentally shot him with an arrow in the left eye, which was replaced with a glass one. In Columbus, Thurber attended the public schools and Ohio State University, where he wrote for the campus paper and for the student monthly, of which he became editor in chief.{$I[AN]9810000873}{$I[A]Thurber, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Thurber, James}{$I[tim]1894;Thurber, James}

James Thurber

(Library of Congress)

In June, 1918, Thurber left Ohio State University without taking a degree. He had tried to enlist in the armed forces but was rejected because of his eyesight. Instead, he became a code clerk for the State Department, first in Washington, D.C., then at the American embassy in Paris. In the summer of 1920, Thurber returned to Columbus, where for the next four years he was a reporter and columnist for the Columbus Dispatch. In 1922 Thurber married Althea Adams of Columbus. Two years later, he resigned from the Dispatch to try his hand at freelance writing. In 1925 he went with his wife to France to write a novel, which never materialized. Instead, he became a reporter for the Paris, and later the Riviera, edition of the Chicago Tribune. After a year in France, the Thurbers returned to the United States, and Thurber began work as a reporter for the New York Evening Post.

In February, 1927, Thurber finally began his real career when he met E. B. White, the celebrated writer for The New Yorker, and The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who hired him. Thurber contributed to “The Talk of the Town” column and submitted his own comic stories and essays. In 1929 he and White collaborated on what was for both a first book, Is Sex Necessary?, which spoofed books on sex therapy. Here Thurber found one of his recurring themes, “the melancholy of sex,” which he would develop into a full-scale mock war between men and women. Is Sex Necessary? also introduced Thurber as a cartoonist and illustrator. White found that he had been filling wastebaskets with penciled drawings, which White rescued, inked in, and persuaded the publishers to include as illustrations. All Thurber’s subsequent books except four fairy-tale and fantasy books were illustrated by the author, and his cartoons and drawings soon became a hallmark of The New Yorker.

In 1931 Thurber published his first book alone, The Owl in the Attic, and Other Perplexities. The first section, a series of eight stories about Mr. and Mrs. Monroe, deals with the sort of matrimonial relationship that was to become a major subject of his later work. The domination of the American male by the American female and the innocence of animals figure in The Seal in the Bedroom, and Other Predicaments, Thurber’s first book of cartoons and drawings. A self-taught draftsman, Thurber developed a unique and instantly recognizable style that renders people and objects in linear outline, flowing gracefully but without shading or cross-hatching. In 1933 Thurber published My Life and Hard Times, a comic autobiography that many readers consider his most amusing work. In it, Thurber carries to burlesque extremes some of the episodes of his boyhood and college days. It is a prime example of his definition of his humor as “emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”

Thurber’s men and his own personae in his writings often suffer from hesitation, neuroses, hypochondria, apprehension, and fragmentation of character. The real Thurber bore little resemblance to these characters; friends and interviewers noted that far from being shy and trapped, Thurber was confident and assured. The antihero features in The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, one of Thurber’s best collections of stories and essays, published in 1935. In their subdued way, Thurber’s protagonists are often frustrated romantics, like Walter Mitty. Thurber objected to any attempts to regiment the freewheeling imagination, and Let Your Mind Alone! includes a number of pieces satirizing inspirational and self-help books, which Thurber believed were trying to discipline readers into a pedestrian conformity to a dull norm.

Despite the birth of his daughter Rosemary in 1931, Thurber’s marriage had been troubled for a long time, and in 1935 he was divorced. Several stories written around this time–“One Is a Wanderer” and “The Evening’s at Seven”–are serious, poignant studies of loneliness. That same year, however, Thurber married Helen Wismer, a magazine editor, and this marriage endured for the rest of his life. As for the battle of the sexes, Thurber said that it was a gimmick, that he admired vibrant and intelligent women. His is a mock misogyny: He truly believed that women could manage things better than men.

During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the war years, Thurber produced several successful books, both serious and humorous, that pointedly denounced or mocked human behavior: The Last Flower, a poignant book-length cartoon denouncing war; The Male Animal, a play written in collaboration with college friend Elliott Nugent (later a successful actor and director), which continued the battle-of-the-sexes theme and championed academic freedom while it attacked right-wing witch-hunting on the campus of a midwestern university; Men, Women, and Dogs, his second book of cartoons; and My World–and Welcome to It!, which contains his best-known short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” featuring a protagonist who triumphs over a nagging wife by retreating into a fantasy world in which he is the superhero he wishes to be.

While Thurber was having all these artistic successes, the sight in his remaining eye began to deteriorate, and despite a series of operations, he gradually became blind. After 1951, he had to give up drawing altogether; his later books are illustrated by earlier drawings, sometimes reversed or rearranged. Fortunately for his writing, he could memorize several entire versions of a story or essay before dictating it. During his operations, Thurber wrote a few stories reflecting frustration and rage–“The Cane in the Corridor” and “The Whip-poor-will,” for example. Thurber’s reaction was usually more positive, and he soon turned to writing fairy tales that entertain with a gentle and humane moral. The first two of these, Many Moons and The Great Quillow, were written for children; the third and best tale, The White Deer, is for adults as well.

In 1945 Thurber had his biggest success, with The Thurber Carnival, an anthology of his best work up to that time. One obstacle to recognition of Thurber as a serious and significant artist was the fact that his work was in miniature short stories, essays, cartoons, and drawings–but The Thurber Carnival provided an overview that allowed a more appreciative focus on his entire body of work. By 1948, Thurber was receiving the recognition he deserved. In 1949 Columbia University gave him the Laughing Lions Award for humor, and over the next four years he received honorary doctorates from Kenyon College, Williams College, and Yale University.

The Thurber Album appeared in 1952–a departure from Thurber’s usual humor, being a series of well-researched biographical sketches of family members, friends, and Ohio State University professors who offered positive role models for American values. In 1956 Further Fables for Our Time satirized intellectual and political intolerance, rumor, and vicious innuendo, winning the American Library Association’s Liberty and Justice Award. In 1957 another book-length fantasy, The Wonderful O, told the story of a pirate whose mother tries to ban the letter o on an island, only to have the islanders rebel and reaffirm the o in “love,” “valor,” and “freedom.” Thurber visited England in 1958 and was the first American since Mark Twain to be “called to the table” for Punch’s Wednesday luncheon. In 1959 he published The Years with Ross, a book-length sketch of his time with the founder of The New Yorker. He won a Tony Award for adapting some of his short pieces into a revue, A Thurber Carnival, which was produced successfully in New York in 1960. In September, Thurber joined the cast, playing himself for eighty-eight performances in a sketch titled “File and Forget.” The next year, 1961, he revisited Europe and published another collection, Lanterns and Lances. On October 4, Thurber was stricken with a blood clot in the brain, underwent emergency surgery, and rallied–but he died of pneumonia on November 4. He is buried in Columbus, Ohio.

Though Thurber is now firmly established as the major American humorist of the twentieth century, admired by writers such as T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Edmund Wilson, his work, like that of all great humorists, has an underlying seriousness in its satire on war, failed communication between the sexes, political intolerance and extremism, thought control, and linguistic degeneration; it offers an astute commentary on human nature, addressing the predicaments and perplexities of modern times.

BibliographyBernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975. This official biography, written with the cooperation of Thurber’s widow, provides a thorough survey of Thurber’s life and career.Bowden, Edwin T. James Thurber: A Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968. This book provides a complete listing of Thurber’s published writings and drawings.Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. A biography that examines the context of Thurber’s work. Provides an interesting discussion of the background to the writing of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and its reception when first published in The New Yorker.Holmes, Charles S. The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber. New York: Atheneum, 1972. This literary biography devotes special attention to the relations between Thurber’s Ohio background and his works. Supplemented by drawings, photographs, and a bibliography.Holmes, Charles S, ed. Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. This useful collection includes twenty-five critical and biographical essays, as well as a chronology and a brief annotated bibliography.Kaufman, Anthony. “‘Things Close In’: Dissolution and Misanthropy in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’” Studies in American Fiction 22 (Spring, 1994): 93-104. Discusses dissolution and misanthropy in the story; argues that Mitty’s withdrawal is symptomatic not of mild-mannered exasperation with a trivial world but of anger; concludes that Mitty is the misanthrope demystified and made middle-class–the suburban man who, unable to imagine or afford the drama of a retreat into the wilderness, retreats inward.Kenney, Catherine McGehee. Thurber’s Anatomy of Confusion. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984. A survey of Thurber’s creative world, including discussions of his most characteristic works. Discusses Fables for Our Time and such stories as “The Greatest Man in the World” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Argues that the latter examines the impotent world of modern urban America, embodying all of the elements of Thurber’s fictional world.Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. A biography that focuses largely on Thurber’s relationship to the development of The New Yorker magazine. Discusses how Thurber made use of overheard conversation, wordplay, and literary allusions in his stories. Discusses Thurber’s obsession with the war between the sexes in his prose and cartoons.Long, Robert Emmet. James Thurber. New York: Continuum, 1988. This biographical and critical study divides Thurber’s works into drawings, fiction, autobiography, fables, fairy tales, and occasional pieces, giving each a chapter. Complemented by a bibliography.Morsberger, Robert E. James Thurber. New York: Twayne, 1964. Morsberger sketches Thurber’s life and then analyzes his works, looking at his contributions to various art forms and his characteristic themes. Contains a chronology of Thurber’s life and a brief annotated bibliography.Thurber, James. My Life and Hard Times. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933. This tremendously amusing, semifictional collection of autobiographical essays focuses on Thurber’s early life in Columbus and his eccentric relatives. Russell Baker, a prominent New York Times columnist, called it “possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever written.”Thurber, James. The Thurber Carnival. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945. This is the best collection of Thurber’s memoirs, profiles, short stories, humor pieces, mood pieces, parodies, fables, and cartoons. It provides an overview of Thurber’s themes, interests, talents, and life experiences. Publication of this potpourri made Thurber famous and financially secure.Thurber, James. The Years with Ross. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. Thurber discusses his long association with the eccentric Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker. Thurber’s opportunity to become a staff writer was the most important event in his career, and he helped the struggling new magazine develop its unique style. Ross allowed him freedom to discover his own themes and aptitudes.Tobias, Richard Clark. The Art of James Thurber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970. Tobias studies Thurber’s themes and worldview, with special attention to his methods and techniques in creating humor.
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