Biography, Literature, Quote of the Day

Happy Birthday, James Thurber

Anyone who reads at all diversely during these bizarre 1920s cannot escape the conclusion that a number of crazy men and women are writing stuff which remarkably passes for important composition among certain persons who should know better–James Thurber on Gertrude Stein


Thurber in 1954I don’t know enough about Thurber to speculate on what he said, or even what he might have said about the “Beat Generation” which got seriously underway in the mid-to-late 1950s–not long before Thurber died–(Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, etc); or the “Gonzo” school founded by Hunter S. Thompson (well, Thurber was dead by then, so it probably doesn’t matter), but it’s comforting to project his words into the future and onto all the self-serving, narcissistic, “smell-me” drivelists that have come since, their navel-gazing thoughts often relayed by vessels so imperfect that their psychopathy, narcissism, misogyny (and not in the sense of “he patted my bottom in the office twenty years ago” sort) and antisocial behavior can hardly be excused, no matter how much one or another of us may admire the muse which inspired it.

James Thurber had a difficult life in his own right, having been blinded as a child when shot in the eye with an arrow unleashed from the bow of his brother, during a game of “William Tell.”  Over time–as often happens when one eye is seriously injured–he lost most of the sight in the other, and became almost totally blind.  This physical limitation informed most of his later cartoons (Thurber was–almost unique among American humorists–almost as well known for his cartoons as he was for his imaginative stories), as he resorted to drawing in large scale, on huge sheets of paper, with thick crayons.  As do most damaged everyday heroes, he put one foot in front of the other, and simply kept on going, as best he could.

Thurber has been called “the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain,” and, like Twain, his humor aims straight at the heart of our common, ordinary humanity.  In partnership with E.B. White, another New Yorker columnist (who tempered Thurber’s rough edges and occasional mean outbursts) he helped make that magazine–for a few decades at least–great, first as a staff member and then as a contributing writer.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (Thurber’s original story, not the unrecognizable and banal recent movie–if you must see Mitty’s dreams brought to life, watch the charming 1947 Danny Kay version) is perhaps his best known short story.  The eponymous hero is a meek-mannered, ineffectual, hen-pecked husband whose inner life of daydreams is composed of one-after-another feats of derring-do in all fields of life, and spontaneous encounters with ravishing (in all senses of the word) women.

Mitty’s role in the military:

Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, 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!” . . .

Mitty’s role in medicine:

The new anaesthetizer is giving way!” shouted an intern. “There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!” “Quiet, man!” said Mitty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep. He began fingering delicately a row of glistening dials. “Give me a fountain pen!” he snapped. Someone handed him a fountain pen. He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. “That will hold for ten minutes,” he said. “Get on with the operation.” A nurse hurried over and whispered to Renshaw, and Mitty saw the man turn pale. “Coreopsis [LOL] has set in,” said Renshaw nervously. “If you would take over, Mitty?” Mitty looked at him and at the craven figure of Benbow, who drank, and at the grave, uncertain faces of the two great specialists. “If you wish,” he said. They slipped a white gown on him; he adjusted a mask and drew on thin gloves; nurses handed him shining . . .

Mitty in the courtroom:

You are a crack shot with any sort of firearms, I believe?” said the District Attorney, insinuatingly. “Objection!” shouted Mitty’s attorney. “We have shown that the defendant could not have fired the shot. We have shown that he wore his right arm in a sling on the night of the fourteenth of July.” Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. “With any known make of gun,” he said evenly, “I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.” Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. A woman’s scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty’s arms.

And so on.

Mitty taking his wife to the hair salon:

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”

“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. “You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.”

And picking her up at the hotel:

Something struck his shoulder. “I’ve been looking all over this hotel for you,” said Mrs. Mitty. “Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?” “Things close in,” said Walter Mitty vaguely. “What?” Mrs. Mitty said. “Did you get the what’s-its-name? The puppy biscuit? What’s in that box?” “Overshoes,” said Mitty. “Couldn’t you have put them on in the store?” “I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She looked at him. “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,” she said.

And, finally, Walter Mitty, triumphant:

Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking. . . . He put his shoulders back and his heels together. “To hell with the handkerchief,” said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Hard to know by that point if the “firing squad” was the one inside his head, or the one awaiting him at home.

James Grover Thurber, a man of simple but extraordinary insight who brought enjoyment to millions but who struggled a bit himself, was born on December 8, 1894.  Happy 127th Birthday! And thank you.

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