"Humor," Mark Twain remarked, "must not professedly teach, and must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever . . . by forever, I mean 30 years."
James Thurber's whimsical stories, essays, parodies, fables, fantasies, plays and cartoons have proved true to Twain's definition. It is testimony to their appeal that of the 25 volumes Thurber published during his lifetime, more than 20 remain in print - 33 years after his death and 100 years after his birth.Thurber's humor, based on the oddities of human nature, results in a smile rather than a laugh out loud. The finest form of writing was neither comedy nor tragedy but what he termed "tragicomedy," "for humor and pathos, tears and laughter are, in the highest expression of the human character and achievement, inseparable."
Born Dec. 6, 1894, in Columbus, Ohio, James Thurber was the second son of Charles and Mary Agnes Fisher Thurber. When he was 6, James and his older brother were playing with homemade bows and arrows and James, acting out a scene of a play, held an apple on his head as a target. William accidentally shot an arrow into James' left eye. His mother, who at the time was experimenting with Christian Science beliefs, refused to seek medical assistance. Ultimately an inept doctor advised leaving the blinded eye in its socket. This misjudgment resulted in "sympathetic opthalmia," an inflammation of the right eye. Several weeks passed before the blinded left eye was removed. However, the damage had been done. His eyesight worsened - and by the time he was at the peak of his career in the 1940s he was completely blind.
Thurber attended Ohio State University, but even though he was considered remarkable by many of his writing instructors, he never obtained a college degree.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," based on what Thurber said was "every other man I have ever known," is probably his best-known story. "Mittyisms," a byword of our time, come from the character who fled the stresses and anxieties of his humdrum life (and annoying wife) through daydreams of impossible but grandiose times.
The bittersweet theme of escaping the brow-beating, badgering mate was a common one for Thurber in both stories and cartoons. But the recompense for the down-trodden is also a trademark. For example, in "The Unicorn in the Garden," the husband who claims to have seen the unicorn is pestered by the wife until she relates his story to the psychiatrist. When the man denies seeing the "mythical beast" in front of the police they declare, " `Take her away . . . your wife is as crazy as a jaybird.' So they took her away, cursing and screaming and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after."
Among literary elements that impressed Thurber early in his life were O. Henry's parodied families, Henry James' subtle emotional men, Joseph Conrad's stoic adventures and the dreamlike fantasies of Lewis Carroll. While he never intentionally copied these, their qualities are apparent in his work.
Thurber's trademarks were brevity and conciseness. "I like it perfectly done, the well-ordered, as against the sprawling chunk of life."
Given this obsession with compactness of text and art, he paid respect to E.B. White, co-author of "The Elements of Style," who recommended Thurber as a staff writer for the New Yorker. "The precision and clarity of White's writing helped me a lot, slowed me down from the dogtrot of newspaper tempo and made me realize that a writer turns on his mind, not a faucet," Thurber said.
Thurber's drawings of men, women and dogs are completely original. Never intended as a "special form" of art, they are what Dorothy Parker described as "the outer semblance of unbaked cookies . . . boneless, loppy beings with . . . a touching quality."
The figures of "the Thurber man" and "the Thurber woman," are simply explained as artless apparitions with a strong undercurrent of perplexity. His male characters are drawn as frightened or hurt individuals with a glimmer of frustration, almost as if they are trying to rid themselves of being contained in a crowded room, a meaningless conversation or even a state of mind. They are often bald and stooped, wearing ascots or bow ties and sometimes a pince-nez. Critics have noticed that those cartoons of lopsided men most like the artist himself wear glasses, an item Thurber was never without.
The "Thurber women" are quite different in temperament and demeanor. They stalk the victims or stand erect, and as Thurber himself said, "are much less capable of making themselves uncomfortable." They are dumpy, with stringy, unkempt hair that might protrude from a cloche hat.
While men are usually the "victims" in the Thurber cartoons, that is not always the case. In a series called "The Masculine Approach," mates are seen as manipulators with dishonorable wooing techniques called "The You'll-Never-See-Me-Again Tactics" or the "Let-'Em-Wait-And-Wonder Plan." Thurber admits that while the men seem to win out, there is the symbolic big rock, gun or ball bat behind the woman's back that suggests the war is not over, so far as she's concerned.
White said, "He is the one artist I have ever known capable of expressing, in a single drawing, physical embarrassment during emotional strain. That is, it is always apparent to Thurber that at the very moment one's heart is caught in an embrace, one's foot may be caught in a piano stool." This quotation has become one of the most popular critiques of Thurber's art.
The most unbelievable fact about Thurber's art and stories is that he produced some of his best after he went blind. (More than 300 captioned cartoons appeared in the New Yorker alone.) From childhood he had battled a murkiness of light, and when totally blind he became an "ear-writer" rather than an "eye-writer," composing sentences, paragraphs and entire stories in his head. With his remarkable memory he dictated them, sometimes without any necessary editing or changes. He not only produced more books after his blindness, but the texts were full of sound and rhythm, clearly the craft of a skilled writer.
During this time he wrote his fairy tales, meant for children but with obvious messages far broader than that audience. They are braced with onomatopoeia, alliteration, allusions, anagrams and riddles. The themes in each tale - "Many Moons" (1943), "The Great Quillow" (1944), "The White Deer" (1945), "The 13 Clocks" (1950) and "The Wonderful O" (1957) - are commitment, love and the stalwart win by the underdog.
In "Many Moons" the Princess asks for the moon, and when none of the wise men can attain it, the King is furious. It is the Court Jester who discovers that the Princess thinks the moon is "smaller than my thumbnail . . . for when I hold my thumbnail up at the moon, it just covers it."
Enhanced by Louis Slobodkin's airy color washes, "Many Moons" expresses a feeling of freedom with nature while retaining the format of a traditional tale. "Many Moons" won the Caldecott Award in 1944 for the "best picture book of the year" as selected by the American Library Association.
In Thurber's fairy tales men meant to be strong and lofty - wise men, accountants, attorneys and counselors - are unable to achieve what humor and love can readily accomplish. The villain is consistently conquered by the meek. The language is a combination of prose and poetry that blends a carefully chosen rhythm and alliteration, quite different from the writer's essays and stories.
Thurber called himself "an old word man," and language became not only a vital element in his writing but also the subject of some of the pieces. "The Wonderful O" is the dilemma of what would happen if the letter "o" was excluded from the alphabet.
Employing language as a topic, he wrote a series of essays about English usage, explaining when to use "who" and "whom." "The number of people who use `whom' and `who' wrongly is appalling . . . it would be better to say `Whom are you, anyways?' rather than a `Who are you anyways?' "
In "Only and One" he wrote, "Where to use `only' in a sentence is a moot question, one of the mootest questions in all rhetoric. The purist will say that the expression: `He only died last week," is incorrect, and that it should be: `He died only last week.' The purist's contention is that the first sentence, if carried out to a natural conclusion, would give us something like this: `He only died last week, he didn't do anything else, that's all he did.' "
Throughout his career Thurber was unchanged about two themes: the superiority of animals over people ("It would be fine if the French poodle could take over the world because they've certainly been more intelligent in the last few years than the human being, and they have great charm, grace [and] humor") and the hazards of technology. He found no solace in science and was disturbed by "a world made up of gadgets that whir and whine and whiz and shriek and sometimes explode."
Just as Thurber was influenced by writers, so many mention his influence on them. One example is New York Times columnist Russell Baker, who thought that "My Life and Hard Times" was probably the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever written and called Thurber's essays "jewels of English writing." Garrison Keillor, radio personality and essayist, has often noted Thurber's humor affected his own. Observers have said that Keillor's hometown chatter is "straight out of Thurber country."
Novelist John Updike recalls that as a teenager he sent a fan letter to Thurber and received in return a sketch he still keeps framed and never more than 10 feet from his writing desk.
Thurber's frustrations and burdens were immense later in his life. His "loss of humor" and blindness contributed to bouts of depression. In October 1961, while attending the opening of Noel Coward's musical "Sail Away," he became disoriented and later collapsed. The initial diagnosis was either a cerebral hemorrhage or a brain tumor. The surgeon found a tumor near the speech-control center of his brain, signs of previous strokes and arteriosclerosis. He died on Nov. 2 and was buried at Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus on Nov. 8, 1961. He was 67.
On that day, E.B. White's tribute ran in the New Yorker, noting Thurber's favorite story, "The Last Flower," contained faith in the renewal of life - the beauty and fragility of life on earth. "Of all the flowers, real and figurative, that will find their way to Thurber's last resting place," White wrote, "the one that will remain fresh and wilt-proof is the little flower he himself drew."
Engraved on the granite headstone of Thurber's grave in Columbus is the flower from that book.
It was said of Dickens that he wrote "to transform this great sadness into uproarious comedy." So it can be said of Thurber. He wrote of his world - what he knew, felt and perceived - and hoped that we could share the humor in it. He invited us into his world, and many of us feel welcome there.