James Thurber has been unlucky in his biographers, who have tended to like him overmuch or not or all. Their task might have been easier had the story had more drama, or had Thurber been born at a different time. He was too young for the Algonquin wits of the 1920s and too old for the literary Marxists of the 1930s. His crowd was the Hiding Generation, not the Lost Generation. He took refuge in his cartoons and stories, for which he sought inspiration from impossible love affairs and from Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Almost forgotten today, he was the funniest American writer of his day.
Thurber is recalled in Thurber Country, a reissued collection of short stories (first published in 1949), and The Thurber Letters, an 800-page tome edited by Harrison Kinney. For further reading, Kinney helpfully recommends “the definitive biography” by one Harrison Kinney. Put the two Kinney volumes together and they weigh in at over 2,000 pages, a bad joke to play on a comic writer who prized brevity.
We have been taught to think it a tragedy when a family destroys a writer’s personal letters. Kinney’s Thurber suggests that we should rethink this silly prejudice. Until he was forty Thurber’s letters were mawkish and naïve, filled with an adolescent self-pity that makes the reader cringe. Thurber himself was under no illusions about literary letters. In the introduction to the collection of letters his wife edited, Thurber wrote “It is only when a man’s letters are published after his death that they have any effect and this effect is usually only on literary critics.” Summarizing his output, he wrote “Thurber laid the Foundation for his voluminous correspondence during his Formative Years. In those years he wrote to many distinguished persons, none of whom ever replied.”
I have been unable to find any one of Thurber’s many correspondents who saved any of his letters. “We threw them out when we moved,” people would tell me. Thurber gradually became aware of this on his return to America (the Final Phase) because of the embarrassed silence that always greeted him when he would say “Why don’t we get out my letters to you and read them aloud?”
Thurber was born in 1894 into a mildly eccentric family. His comic talent must have been inherited from his mother, who once appeared before her father’s prim guests in a nightgown to announce that she had been held in the attic because of her love for Mr. Briscoe, the postman. Her own mother thought that electricity dripped invisibly into the house from empty sockets—but then that’s what most trial lawyers believe today.
When he was seven Thurber lost an eye, and the accident left him a shy and retiring child. He could not play at games, and his weak eyesight in the remaining eye interfered with his studies. He could not see through a microscope to pass the mandatory biology course and left college without a degree. Taken on by the American Embassy in Paris, he began his diplomatic career in Thurberesque fashion. Colonel House had wired that he wanted a dozen code books, but, as code books were lacking, the message was garbled and Thurber was one of a dozen code clerks sent in response. He stayed there for more than a year, and then tried journalism.
We should perhaps never have heard of Thurber but for his chance meeting in 1927 with Harold Ross, the editor of a new humor magazine called The New Yorker. Ross was looking for a managing editor and had just interviewed a score of people. They all had told him they were writers. Ross asked Thurber what he did. “I’m a newspaperman,” he answered; and he got the job.
Editing The New Yorker taught Thurber the economy of style which became his trademark. He was a great admirer of something F. Scott Fitzgerald once told Tom Wolfe. “You’re a putter-in,” Fitzgerald told the long-winded Wolfe. “I’m a taker-out.” Thurber took the lesson even further: He became a short-story writer, not a novelist. Everything he wrote seemed naturally to end after 8,000 words.
Thurber’s other great teacher was E. B. White. He once told White that had White teamed up with G. B. Shaw the country would have had the E.B.G.B’s. And “it would have been a good thing for us.” With White he co-authored his first book, Is Sex Necessary?, a spoof on the self-help books that began to appear in the 1920s. The book also launched Thurber as a cartoonist. Before then nobody took his doodling seriously. Thurber’s most famous cartoon was rejected by The New Yorker when he first submitted it. A man in bed looks about, scratching his head. His wife tells him, “All right, Have it Your Way—You Heard a Seal Bark!” Behind the bedstead a seal smiles unconcernedly past them. The art director complained that seal whiskers didn’t look like that. “That’s how a Thurber seal’s whiskers look,” said White.
Thurber’s spare style made him a better humorist. We laugh better when we do not try to laugh all the time, and nothing is more fatal to humor than the compulsive punster’s strident efforts to amuse continually. Thurber knew that the secret is taking-out, not putting in, and he took to heart Groucho Marx’s advice to reduce the number of gags in The Male Animal.
Thurber’s economical style and madcap sense of humor resembled that of Evelyn Waugh’s early novels. Thurber admired Waugh, and the Walter Mittys and Paul Pennyfeathers were brothers under the skin. Both were removed from life, both asked for our kindness. “They expect so little of life,” said Dorothy Parker. “They remember the old discouragements and await the new. They are not shrewd people, nor even bright, and we must be very patient with them.” In the end both triumph, but not from anything they do. Instead, life rolls over them, sometimes pushing them down and sometimes, improbably, buoying them up.
Thurber saw himself in his characters, like Mr. Monroe in The Owl in the Attic. “He had a certain charm, yes; but not character. He evaded difficult situations; he had no talent for firm resolution; … and he wasn’t even very good at renunciation, except when he was a little tired or a little sick.” He also recognized his own ill-temper, particularly in the Battle between the Sexes. The Thurber male is a romantic daydreamer and a disorganized bumbler; the Thurber female is a condescending manipulator and a domineering monster of efficiency. Together they were Thurber and his first wife, Althea. In reviewing Modern English Usage, Thurber observed that the grammarian’s strictures must always permit exceptions. To say that the split infinitive is always wrong “is a piece of the sentimental and outworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady.”
We cannot laugh without that tiny drop of malice which turns the whole pail black. Thurber had malice in buckets. On a visit to Los Angeles he wrote, “It is 104 here today but the papers in this godawful hellhole proclaim ‘Angelenos suffer no discomfort.’ I hope the sons of bitches burn up.” Sober during the day, at night he turned into “that tall, wild-eyed son of a bitch, with hair in his eyes, a glass in his hand, screaming and vilifying.” He was particularly unpleasant to women. One day some lady tourists from Thurber’s home town approached him for an autograph. Get lost, he told them. They persisted. “We’ve just been to the theater and it would be just so perfect if you would sign our napkins.” Thurber picked up the telephone from the table and threw it through a glass wall. “Have I convinced you?,” he asked. The women ran sobbing out of the Algonquin.
We are nicer than that now, and today’s prissy New Yorker has little time for Thurber’s malicious sense of humor. Brendan Gill complained that “Thurber was almost as thoroughly a product of the nineteenth century and its reprehensible preoccupation with horseplay as [Harold] Ross was. As far as I know, since Thurber’s time no practical jokes have been played by anyone on the magazine.” We should never have thought otherwise.
We may be nicer, but are we as funny? It takes a taste for the dark side to draw a woman snuggling up to a horrified man with “Have You Fordotten Our Ittle Suicide Pact?” Or a large woman leering at a nervous little man, “If you can keep a secret, I’ll tell you how my husband died.” More than anything, a sense of humor requires the self-awareness to pierce through our amour-propre and recognize the drop of malice in our own hearts. The Just hug themselves in self-delight, and, as they are just, permit themselves to hate the unjust; but like Fontenelle they never make “Ha, Ha.”
The best humor, Thurber wrote, is “closest to that part of the familiar which is distressing, even tragic.” He didn’t want anyone to sugar-coat it. E. B. White recalled how angry he became when he heard someone say that humor is a shield, not a sword. “He wasn’t going to have anyone beating his sword into a shield.” Only once, when he lost his sight, did his nerve fail. He asked Mark Van Doren whether his blindness might be a punishment for his satires. He had always looked for flaws in people and never praised their strengths. Van Doren assured him that humor’s message about the absence of goodness and intelligence in the world is a valuable one.
Thurber caught on because he showed readers how America had changed. The nineteenth-century humor of tall tales and Mark Twain was the humor of the frontier. A frontier society is a male society, and by Thurber’s time America had become urbanized and a good deal more feminized. Like Bringing Up Father, Thurber’s battle of the sexes amused because the change was a source of tension for which laughter provided relief. “The American woman is my theme,” he told Max Eastman, “and how she dominates the male.” He thought America was a matriarchy. “It became obvious to me when I was a child that the American woman was in charge… . I think it’s one of the weaknesses of America.” Since Thurber’s time we’ve changed again, and the battle of the sexes no longer seems a suitable subject for laughter—not, I suspect, because we’re less feminized.
Thurber’s satire was social, not political. He insisted upon a wall of separation between literature and politics, and for that reason loathed Joe McCarthy. He was not without his own political views. He was a registered Republican who liked Al Smith and Adlai Stevenson, but he thought politics was mostly a comic business and once berated Edward Murrow for ignoring the Bull Moose party. The world around him had turned serious and he hated it. Students who used to ask him what Dorothy Parker was really like began to ask how the Depression would affect literature. What drove him around the bend were the literary communists who wanted art to serve a political purpose. “You see … how the Marxist boys try to twist Man around to fit a Plan instead of making the plan fit Man.” He didn’t know much about Marxism, but the joyless communists told him everything he needed to know about their cause. One of the greatest menaces he saw was “people with intelligence deciding that the point is to become grimly gray and intense and unhappy and tiresome.”
I am sorry that Thurber Country has omitted my favorite Thurber spoof, “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” The story was written for a series of fictitious, counterfactual histories, and permitted Thurber to show his southern sympathies while mocking the genre of alternative history. Lee appears at the Court House, dignified and magnificent in his uniform. Grant’s jacket is unbuttoned and one boot is off. Through an alcoholic haze, he peers at his new visitor.
“I know who you are,” said Grant. “You’re Robert Browning, the poet.”
“Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?” asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room.
“Oh sure, sure,” said Grant. He took another drink. “All right,” he said. “Here we go.” Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. “There you are, General,” said Grant. “We dam’ near licked you. If I’d been feeling better we would of licked you.”
Happily, Thurber Country does include the epistolary “File and Forget,” an account of Thurber’s battles with his publishers. In the first letter Thurber tells the publishers that their letter to him at Hot Springs, AR was forwarded to Hot Springs, VA, where he visited a year ago, and from there to his house in Connecticut; and that he did not order thirty-six copies of Grandma Was a Nudist. The publishers responds with a contrite letter pleading a change in staff. They have fixed his address in their records, and they add that “It must be lovely this time of year in Virginia.” Next comes a letter from a woman in Ohio where Thurber lived in 1907 offering to forward the thirty-six books to him. And so on, as error is compounded upon error, until Thurber receives seventy-two copies of the book and burns them in the middle of Highway 7.
The art of paragraphing, Thurber once said, was to make something that was ground out sound as if it was dashed off. He was a master at this, but his stories also had a structure and an ending and he derided The New Yorker’s minimalism. “We have invented, perfected, something that is neither a happy ending nor an unhappy ending… . We seem to find a high merit in leaving men on bases.” When you finish a good short story, he wrote, you never want to ask, “So what happened then?”
For those who are agnostic about meaning, minimalism is the best you can do. But Thurber also lacked deep beliefs, and led a cocktail party life. A less frivolous person might have written sharper satire and given us a more profound critique of his time. Like Waugh he inferred a Fall from the evidence about him, but unlike Waugh did not hope for a Redemption. He and his friends shared a commonsense morality which protected them from modernism’s dissolution of values. They lived off an inheritance which they squandered, but while they possessed it threw great parties. They had the gifts of friendship and of enmity, for they had the jester’s belief that we are put on earth to entertain each other as well as his resentment when the offering of laughter is not reciprocated. They are part of the world we left behind.
- The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber, Harrison Kinney, editor; Simon & Schuster, 798 pages, $40. Thurber Country: A Collection of Pieces About Males and Females, Mainly of Our Own Species, by James Thurber; Simon & Schuster, 276 pages, $25. Go back to the text.