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James (Grover) Thurber (1894-1961)


American writer and cartoonist, who dealt with the frustrations of modern world. Thurber's best-known characters are Walter Mitty, his snarling wife, and silently observing animals. His stories have influenced later writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Thurber is generally acknowledged as the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain (1835-1910).

'"What was the matter with that one policeman? mother asked, after they had gone. "Grandfather shot him," I said. "What for?" she demanded. I told her he was a deserter. "Of all things!" said mother. "He was such a nice-looking young man."' (from 'The Night the Ghost Got In', in My Life and Hard Times, 1933)

James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Charles L. Thurber, was a clerk and minor politician, who went through many periods of unemployment. Mary Thurber, his mother, was a strong-minded woman and a practical joker. Once she surprised her guests by explaining that she was kept in the attic because of her love for the postman. On another occasion she pretended to be a cripple and attended a faith healer's revival, jumping up suddenly and proclaiming herself cured. Thurber described her as "a born comedienne" and "one of the finest comic talents I think I've ever known." Thurber's father, who had dreams of being an actor or lawyer, was said to have been the basis of the typical small, slight man of Thurber's stories. Later Thurber portrayed his family in My Life and Hard Times (1933). "I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father," Thurber wrote in the book.

Thurber was partially blinded by a childhood accident – his brother William shot an arrow at him. When he was unable to participate in games and sports with other children, he developed a rich fantasy life, which found its outlet in his writings.

Thurber began writing at secondary school. Due to his poor eyesight, he did not serve in WW I, but studied between 1913 and 1918 at Ohio State University. He worked as a code clerk in Washington, DC, and at the US embassy in Paris. In the early 1920s he worked as a journalist for several newspapers. He also lived in Paris, writing for the Chicago Tribune.

In 1926 Thurber went to New York City. For a period he worked as a reporter for the Evening Post, and then joined Harold Ross's newly established The New Yorker, where he found his clear, concise prose style. "Everybody thinks he knows English," Ross said to Thurber, "but nobody does. I think it's because of the goddam women and schoolteachers." Later Thurber published his memoirs from this period under the title The Years with Ross (1959). Originally Ross hired Thurber to be his "Jesus," (a corruption of "genius"), who would make the magazine to work, but during the years he hired one Jesus after another, who never quite managed to deliver what they were supposed to.

Thurber was married twice, and had one daughter. He married in 1922 Althea Adams, the daughter of an army doctor; her mother was a faculty member of the Home Economics Department at Ohio State. She was a striking woman, a dominating personality with strong intellectual and artistic interests. The marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce in 1935. Althea filed divorce papers in Connecticut, on the grounds of "intolerable cruelty." She received the house in Sandy Hook, custody of their daughter Rosemary, life insurance policies, alimony until she remarried and the first year's profits from My Life and Hard Times. After divorce Thurber met Hele Wismer, a magazine editor, in the Algonquin Hotel lobby in New York; they were married one month later. She got his finances in order, dressed him well, and became a friend to Rosemary, and Althea, too. "Of the twenty-six years they were together," wrote Harrison Kinney, "Thurber was legally blind through twenty-one of them, and that he kept going as long and as well as he did may be credited in large part to Helen's care and her commitment to the partnership." 

Thurber's first book, Is Sex Necessary?, came out in 1929. It was jointly written with the fellow New Yorker staffer E.B. White. The book presented Thurber's drawings on the subject, and instantly established him as a true comic talent. Thurber made fun of European psychoanalysis, including Freud's work, and theorists who had been attempting to reduce sex to a scientifically understandable level. In 'The Nature of the American Male: A Study of Pedestalism' Thurber claimed that "in no other civilized nation are the biological aspects of love so distorted and transcended by emphasis upon its sacredness as they are in the United States of America." According to Thurber, baseball, prize-fighting, horse-racing, bicycling, and bowling have acted as substitutes for sex. The female developed and perfected the "Diversion Subterfuge" to put Man in his place. "Its first manifestation was fudge-making."

In the 1950s Thurber published modern fairy tales for children, The 13 Clocks (1950) and The Wonderful O (1957), which both were hugely successful. Thurber's children's tales display a cynical undercurrent, and show at times a great deal of bitterness. Truman Capote also worked at the New Yorker, but according to his reminiscences he was a general dogsbody, who helped Thurber to and from meetings, or escorted Thurber to his trysts with one of the magazine's secretaries. Thurber had already in 1933 left The New Yorker staff, but remained still its contributor. His eyesight became worse in the 1940s, and by the 1950s his blindness was nearly total. Thurber continued to compose stories in his head, and he played himself in 88 performances of the play A Thurber Carnival. He received a Litt.D. in 1950 from Kenyon College, one from Yale in 1953, and an L.H.D. (honorary) from Williams College in 1951.

In later years he lived with his wife at West Cornwall, Connecticut. He suffered from alcoholism and depression, but Helen's devoted nursing enabled him to maintain his literary production. His drinking companions included the actor Humphrey Bogart, who read more widely than just the scripts. Bogart had Thurber's The Middle Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze on his bookshelf and cartoon "Jolly Times" on the wall in his Hollywood home. In 1958 the editors of Punch magazine gave a luncheon in Thurber's honor. James Thurber died of a blood clot on the brain on November 2, 1961, in New York.

"One night nearly thirty years ago, in a legendary New York boîte de nuit et des arts called Tony's, I was taking part in a running literary gun fight that had begun with a derogatory or complimentary remark somebody made about something, when one of the participants, former Pinkerton man Dashiell Hammett, whose The Maltese Falcon had come out a couple of years before, suddenly startled us all by announcing that his writing had been influenced by Henry James's novel The Wings of the Dove. Nothing surprises me any more, but I couldn't have been more surprised than if Humphrey Bogart, another frequenter of that old salon of wassail and debate, had proclaimed that his acting bore deep impress of the histrionic art of Maude Adams." (from 'The Wings of Henry James', in Lanterns and Lances, 1961)

During his career Thurber experimented with many types of writing. He said that his ideas were influenced by the Mid-western atmosphere of Columbus, movies, and comic strips. Thurber's wry humor showed great sensitivity to human fears and follies. His observations had often a timeless, aphoristic quality. "Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead," he said in Fables for Our Time (1940). His poor eyesight was several times the source of surrealistic misunderstandings, which found their way into his writings. "The kingdom of the partly blind is little like Oz, a little like Wonderland," he wrote. "Anything you can think of, and a lot you would never think of, can happen there." Thurber also was inspired by confusion with language as in the story 'The Black Magic of Barney Haller' (1935), where his handyman Haller's linguistic innovations startle him more than the thunder. "Humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity," he once said. Thurber's misogynist theme of war between men and women has been criticized by his feminist readers.

Thurber's story 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' was taken up by psychologist. 'Walter Mitty Syndrome' was put forward in a British medical journal as a clinical condition, which manifested itself in compulsive fantasizing. The title character is a meek, mild-mannered husband, who escapes his everyday existence in heroic fantasies. "Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?" he says to Mrs. Mitty. "I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home," she says. The character inspired Danny Kaye's movie of 1947, in which Boris Karloff played Dr. Hugo Hollingshead, a psychiatrist.

The Male Animal (1939), a satire of athlete worship, was written with Elliott Nugent, who featured in the 1940 Broadway play as a jealous college professor, whose wife is warming up to an old football star. The play co-starred Gene Tierney, Leon Ames, and Don DeFore. In the film adaption from 1942 Henry Fonda played the role. A musical version, produced by Warner Bros. and directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, was made in 1952, starring Ronald Reagan as the professor and Virginia Mayo as a stripper who aspires to become a writer. Thurber's short pieces have been adapted more than dozen times for TV.

In addition to his fame as writer, Thurber was a highly respected artist and cartoonist as well. His surreal, minimalist sketches were regular features of the New Yorker, where they became prototypes of the sophisticated cartoons. Thurber did not consider himself an artist, but his "non-mastery of line" has been compared to that of Matisse. Thurber was also a passionate letter writer. A collection of his letters, edited by Harrison Kinney and Rosemary A. Thurber, was published in 2003.

For further reading: James Thurber by R.E. Morsberger (1964); The Art of James Thurber by R.C. Tobias (1969); The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber by C.S. Holmes (1972); Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Charles S. Holmes (1974); Thurber: A Biography by Burton Bernstein (1975); Thurber's Anatomy of Confusion by C.M. Kenney (1984); Conversations with James Thurber, ed by Thomas Fensch (1989); Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber by Nell A. Grauer (1994); James Thurber: His Life and Times by Harrison Kinney (1995) 'Thurber, James' by John H. Rogers, in Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1997); Conversations with James Thurber, ed. by Thomas Fensch (1998); The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber by Thomas Fensch (2001) - In Finnish: Suomeksi Thurberilta on julkaistu valikoima Miehiä, naisia, koiria (1965), toim. ja suom. Tuomas Anhava, Kristiina Kivivuori ja Pentti Saarikoski

Selected works:

  • Nightingale: A Musical Comedy in 2 Acts, 1924
  • Is Sex Necessary?, 1929 (with E.B. White)
  • The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, 1931 (illustrated. by James Thurber)
  • The Seal in the Bedroom & Other Predicaments, 1932 (with an introduction by Dorothy Parker)
  • My Life and Hard Times, 1933
    - film: Rise and Shine, 1941, dir. by Allan Dawn, screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, starring Jack Oakie, George Murphy, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Milton Berle
  • The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1935
  • Let Your Mind Alone! And Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, 1937
  • Cream of Thurber, 1939
  • The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures, 1939
  • The Male Animal: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1939 (play, with Elliott Nugent)
    - films: The Male Animal, 1942, dir. by Elliot Nugent, screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Stephen Morehouse Avery, starring Henry Fonda, Olivia De Havilland, Joan Leslie, Jack Carson, Hattie McDaniel; She's Working Her Way Through College, 1952, dir. by H. Bruce Humberstone, screenplay Peter Milne, starring Virginia Mayo, Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Thaxter, Gene Nelson, Don DeFore; The Male Animal, TV drama 1958, dir. by Vincent Donohue, starring Andy Griffith, Ann Rutherford, Edmond O'Brien, Charles Ruggles; The Male Animal, BBC Play of the Month, 1968, dir. by Alan Bridges, starring Lee Montague, Anthony Perkins and Tony Robins
  • Fables for Our Time, and Famous Poems, 1940 (illustrated. by James Thurber)
  • My World and Welcome to It, 1942 (includes the story 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty')
    - films: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947, dir. Norman Z. McLeod, story by James Thurber, starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 2013, dir. by Ben Stiller, starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn and Kristen Wiig
  • Thurber's Men, Women, and Dogs: A Book of Drawings, 1943 (with a preface by Dorothy Parker)
  • Many Moons, 1943 (illustrated by Louis Slobodkin)
  • The Great Quillow, 1944 (illustrated by Doris Lee)
    - film: Quillow and the Giant, in NBC Children's Theatre, 1963, dir. by David Barnhizer, starring George Latshaw and Win Stracke
  • The White Deer, 1945 (illustrated by the author and Don Freeman)
  • The Thurber Carnival, 1945 (illustrated by James Thurber)
  • The Beast in Me and Other Animals, 1948
  • The 13 Clocks, 1950 (illustrated by Mark Simont)
    - The Thirteen Clocks, in The Motorola Television Hour, dir. by Don Richardson, starring Cedric Hardwicke, Alice Pearce and Roberta Peters
  • The Thurber Album: A New Collection of Pieces about People, 1952
  • Thurber Country: A New Collection of Pieces about Males and Females, Mainly of Our Own Species, 1953
  • Thurber Dogs: A Collection of the Master’s Dogs, Written and Drawn, Real and Imaginary, Living and Long Ago, 1955
  • A Thurber Garland, 1955
  • Further Fables for Our Time, 1956
  • The Wonderful O, 1957 (illustrated by Marc Simont)
  • Alarms and Diversions, 1957
  • The Years With Ross, 1959 (with drawings by the author)
  • Lanterns and Lances, 1961
  • Credos and Curios, 1962 (edited by Helen W. Thurber)
  • Vintage Thurber, 1963 (2 vols.)
  • Thurber & Company, 1966 (introd. by Helen W. Thurber)
  • Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1981 (edited by Helen W. Thurber & Edward Weeks)
  • The Works of James Thurber: Complete and Unabridged, 1985
  • Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor, and Himself, 1989 (edited by Michael J. Rosen)
  • Conversations with James Thurber, 1989 (edited by Thomas Fensch)
  • People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber: Being a Hundred or So ..., 1994 (edited by Michael J. Rosen)
  • James Thurber: Writings and Drawings, 1996 
  • The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber, 2002 (edited by Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber)

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