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July 25, 2017

Thurber: Mitty and Dangerous

On this day in 1939 James Thurber published "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in The New Yorker. It became one of the most anthologized stories in American literature, and his "ta-poketa-poketa" hero became the archetype for dreamy, hapless, Thurber Man.

Thurber believed that the horror, the horror of life was fundamentally mechanical – "No man who has wrestled with a self-adjusting card table can ever be quite the man he once was" – but he had more than his share of the Mitty gene. He was such a fidgety, never-finished type that in the early days his exasperated wife would set the alarm clock for forty-five minutes and tell him to get something done – his first sale to The New Yorker came this way. Life-as-misadventure started at age six, when his brother shot wildly with his bow and arrow and so damaged one of Thurber's eyes that it had to be removed. The other eye would eventually be lost too – Thurber was legally blind in his last years – but it was the squinty, one-eyed view of things which made him famous and, when it was not getting him almost-killed, made him an almost-killer:
    Helen and I have just returned from dinner at the Elm Tree Inn in Farmington, some twenty miles from our little cot. It was such a trip as few have survived. I lost eight pounds. . . . A peril of the night road is that flecks of dust and streaks of bug blood on the windshield look to me often like admirals in uniform, or crippled apple women, or the front end of barges, and I whirl out of their way, thus going into ditches and fields and up on front lawns, endangering the life of authentic admirals and apple women who may be out on the roads for a breath of air before retiring. . . .
Thurber's relationship with The New Yorker lasted for decades, though the last years became contentious, sometimes in a Mitty way, or in the style of Thurber's famous cartoons. Truman Capote was a teenaged office boy at the magazine during this phase, and among his duties was to tend to Thurber's needs. Blindness had escalated Thurber's drinking problem into alcoholism and his chronic moodiness -- his wife called them "The Thurbs" -- into a nervous breakdown; it also caused him to start having affairs, one of which was with the office secretary. It fell to Capote to deliver Thurber to these assignations, dress him afterwards, and return him to his chauffeur, who would eventually return him to his wife. Capote put Thurber's socks on inside out one day, and when his wife helped him undress that evening, just as she had helped him dress that morning, there were some tough questions. (One of them would not have been Is Sex Necessary?, a question Thurber and E. B. White had definitively answered in their hilarious 1929 send-up of pop psychology.)

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