Choose another writer in this calendar:
by birthday from the calendar.
||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." (Conversations with James Thurber, edited by Thomas Fensch, 1989, p. 101) 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. (Ibid., p. 7)
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 offices in Paris, on rue de Chaillot. Until February, he
lived in a small pension around the corner. From the early 1920s he
worked as a journalist
for several newspapers. He also returned to Paris in the autumn of
1925, writing for the Chicago Tribune.
In 1926 Thurber moved to New York City. For a period he employed as a reporter at the
Evening Post, and then joined Harold Ross's newly established The New Yorker,
where he found his clear, concise prose style. It was E.B. White who
introduced Thurber to Ross. Originally Ross hired Thurber to be his
"Jesus" (a corruption of
"genius"), who would make the magazine to work. Later Thurber
published his memoirs from this period under the title The Years with Ross (1959).
During his editorship, Ross hired one "Jesus" after another to make his vision come true.
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 Helen Wismer, a magazine
editor, in the Algonquin Hotel lobby in New York; they were married one
later. She got his finances in order, dressed him well, and became a
friend to Rosemary, and Althea, too. Most of years they were
together, Thurber was legally blind, but with the care of Helen he was
able to keep on going and live his life as normally as possible.
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' (1929) 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." (Writings and Drawings by James Thurber, 1996, p. 3) 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." (Ibid., p. 6)
A show of Thurber's drawings opened in London in 1937 at the Storran Gallery. "The hallmark of sophistication," the London Daily Sketch declared, "is to adore the drawings of James Thurber. Thurber met Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster, H.G. Wells, and Alexander Korda. Two of his works were stoled from the gallery. (Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber by Neil A. Grauer, 1994, p. 68)
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, p. 90)
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 stated in 'The Shrike and the Chipmunks'. (New Yorker, 18 February, 1939) 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, a little like Poictesme. Anything you can think of, and a lot you would
never think of, can happen there." (Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber by Neil A. Grauer, 1994, p. 67)
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. (New York Post, 29 February, 1960) Thurber's misogynist theme of war between men and women has been criticized by his feminist readers.
'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' was taken up by psychologists. '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 from 1947, in which Boris Karloff played Dr. Hugo Hollingshead, a psychiatrist. "Even though Danny Kaye's Walter Mitty is not precisely the mousey chap Mr. Thurber wrote about with such delightful and devastating accuracy, he is an agreeable facsimile." (The New York Times, August 15, 1947)
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 was also a passionate letter writer. A collection of his correspondence, edited by Harrison Kinney and Rosemary A. Thurber, was published in 2003.
Quite self-critical, Thurber did
not consider himself an artist. Nevertheless, his "non-mastery of line" was
compared to that of the famour French artist Henri Matisse. When Matisse declined the invitation to
meet Thurber during the 1937 exhibition in London, informing that he had never heard of Thurber, the New Yorker, or its editor Harold Ross, Thurber later remarked that "Ross had never heard of Matisse." (Americans in London by Brian N. Morton, 1986, p. 5) According
to a letter that Thurber wrote to the British art historian Anthony
Bertram in June 1951, Matisse said that he has never heard of The New Yorker or of Mr. Thurber – he did not mention Harold Ross. (The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber, edited by Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber, 2002, pp. 521-522)
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, edited 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); Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker by Thomas Vinciguerra (2016) - In Finnish: Thurberilta on julkaistu valikoima Miehiä, naisia, koiria (1965), toim. ja suom. Tuomas Anhava, Kristiina Kivivuori ja Pentti Saarikoski