VII: Literature

James Thurber (1894 - 1961)

Photo of James Thurber’s boyhood home, Columbus. Courtesy Thurber House
       Summarizing James Thurber’s life is as precarious as explaining humor itself. The temptation to dwell on the preciosity of early 1900s Midwestern culture, or his quirky family members, or his own physical and mental difficulties can trivialize the work, which is what brings us to Thurber, one of the few canonical figures in American humor. His life and times may have been harder than many, yet his genius prevailed by twisting reality “to the right into humor rather than to the left into tragedy.” He became the first major American writer whose reputation (agonizing as this was for him) was based on short pieces.

            In his 1933 autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, Thurber took liberties with his midwestern roots: Born on December 8, 1894, “in the blowy uplands of Columbus, Ohio, in a district know 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, rising in dry weather to a height of two hundred feet. This condition led to moroseness, skepticism, 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.” The book recounts the most memorable events of his college years living in and commuting by trolley from what is now The Thurber House, a literary center in the restored Victorian home his family rented from 1913-1918. It is here “the ghost got it,” sockets “leaked” electricity, and alarms were heard in the night.

            Thurber’s childhood included two enduring influences: his mother’s uncanny memory and eccentric and dramatic sense of humor, and a severe eye injury caused by an arrow while “playing” William Tell, which left him blind in one eye and, decades later, overtook his other eye. Owing to this, his school days began with a certain frailty and introspection. However, with the recognition of his writing and drawing abilities, his years at East High blossomed with honors, including class presidency.

            At his hometown Ohio State University, he struggled with subjects like botany and military drill, but found professors to hone his appetite for literature. There he met Elliott Nugent, whose theatrical gifts and energy redirected Thurber’s unchanneled creativity. Thurber wrote for OSU’s newspaper, edited its humor magazine, and created plays and songs for the dramatic club. Without a degree, he left the University. The army rejected him because of his eyesight, and Thurber departed for Paris for a year before returning to Columbus, where he began his first column, “Credos and Curios”—an admixture of commentary, parody, cultural observation, and humor—for The Columbus Dispatch.
While writing for The Scarlet Mask Club, OSU’s dramatic group, Thurber met Althea Adams; they married, and eventually returned to France. Before Thurber joined The New Yorker in 1927, he’d worked at a musical comedy, a novel, the Paris edition of The Chicago Tribune, a book-length parody of bestsellers, and other freelance projects, many of which proved frustrating.

            E. B. White arranged Thurber’s first meeting with editor Harold Ross who had just started The New Yorker. Thurber was hired on as managing editor and, so he claimed, worked his way down to writer. In 1929, he and White published Is Sex Necessary? a parody of popular sex and psychology books. Thurber provided spontaneous pencil sketches that White inked. This inspired Thurber to submit drawings to the magazine, which eventually published hundreds of his cartoons and spot illustrations. Thurber’s artwork, at his peak, powered national advertising campaigns, appeared on clothing and tableware, and illustrated dust jackets and books. He was so profligate with his drawings that he often bragged that if someone stretched out all his drawings they’d create “a mile and half of lines.” As his eyesight failed, he created pictures with white chalk on black paper or by using a jeweler’s Zeiss loop to magnify his work (he called himself a welder from Mars). His sight failed completely, in 1951, after a series of stressful operations.

            Thurber divorced Althea after twelve difficult years. He soon married Helen Wismer who, for most of their twenty-six years, was also his business manager, editor, help-mate, “seeing-eye wife,” and nurse. Between 1930 and 1961, Thurber published nearly thirty books (several more were published posthumously), an unparalleled breadth of personal essays, memories, journalism, profiles, parodies, fables, and scores of stories such as “The Catbird Seat,” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” two of the most anthologized pieces of modern fiction. He also published five children’s books and saw three of his works produced on Broadway: The Beast in He, The Male Animal, and a revue, A Thurber Carnival, which won a Tony Award. His subjects were equally broad: photography, bicycling, Antarctica, colloquialisms, dogs, soap operas, science—he addressed each with a calm, plain-speaking that could be mistaken as inherently midwestern: he underplayed the ironic, allying himself with the curious, general reader.

            Although Thurber resided in New York, Connecticut, Bermuda, and France, Columbus remained the well-spring for much of his best work. “In the early years of the nineteenth century,” he wrote in My Life and Hard Times, “Columbus won out, as state capital, by one vote over Lancaster, and ever since then has had the hallucination that it is being followed, a curious municipal state of mind which affects…all those who live there. Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen and in which almost everything has.”
Encroaching blindness plagued his last decade, as did The New Yorker’s changing attitudes and staff. Partly because of his eideticmemory, much of Thurber’s later work revels in word play and restless interior monologues preoccupied with McCarthyism, the preternatural, America’s linguistic slovenliness, and the “darkening” of humor. 

            Thurber collapsed one evening in Manhattan: a large tumor was discovered and removed from his brain. After a month-long coma, he succumbed to respiratory failure on November 2, 1961. His remains are buried in Columbus.
Michael J. Rosen
Founding Literary Director, Thurber House
Harrison Kinney, James Thurber: His Life and Times (1995); Harrison Kinney, ed., The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber (2002); James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival (1945); James Thurber, The Thurber Album (1952); James Thurber, The Years with Ross (1959); James Thurber, People Have More Fun Than Anybody, ed. Michael J. Rosen (1994)