February 21, 2018

James Thurber's Comic Vision

In 1901, six-year old James Thurber lost an eye when he and his brother were playing with their homemade bows and arrows. The damaged eye was not removed quickly, and the good eye became chronically inflamed. By his early fifties, just as the critics were calling him "the greatest and most original humourist this country has produced," Thurber was legally blind.

Thurber's comic hero, a type that came to be known as Thurber Man, is a squinty, skewed kind of guy; a digression blinking at a wife, a boss, an errand that wants him straight, and on time. He knows human nature, but not what can possibly be done about it. He is contemporary to the more dominant species, Hemingway Man, but from a galaxy far away.

Thurber knew Hemingway, preferred writers like Hemingway -- the "taker-outers," as he put it, "rather than the putter-iners" -- and for a time he seemed to want to be Hemingway: he quit his job on a Midwest newspaper and moved to France in the 20s to write the big novel -- although, typically Thurberish, he went to a farm in Normandy, instead of Paris to fail miserably at it.

By 1927, he was back in New York, a 35 year-old reporter with the literary clock ticking. This was because his wife, exasperated with his fidgety writing habits, would place an alarm clock before him, set to go off in 45 minutes. In one of these alarm clock sessions, Thurber came up with a piece about a bumbler caught in a revolving door becoming rich and famous by accidentally setting a world's record. Thurber sold it to a fledging magazine called The New Yorker, beginning a 30-year relationship that would bring his own wealth and fame.

These short, slice-of-absurd-life pieces became a Thurber speciality, and the backbone of his two-dozen books. The magazine industry calls them "casuals," but Thurber's have been translated into over 30 languages, and they stand up better today than many not-so-casuals. Thurber had other talents, too. His play The Male Animal, written with Elliot Nugent, became a small classic of American theatre; some of his fables and children's books were award-winners; "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has become one of the most anthologized short stories ever. His cartoons, especially those of the Thurber Dog, or the Valkyrie wife, were also New Yorker staples. "All Right, Have It Your Way -- You Heard a Seal Bark!" she snarls at hubby, hunched in his pajamas, a seal looking on from behind the bed.

In 1929, Thurber combined with E.B. White to write the best-seller, Is Sex Necessary? As Thurber makes clear in the preface, it was a parody of 'pop psychology,' especially of watered-down Freudians and their earnest counsels on sex and marriage:
    ...When Man first came into being, he did not think that the female was extraordinary. He did not think that anything was extraordinary. The world was unattractive, and a little dull. There was no vegetation, and without vegetation there can be no fancy. Then trees came into existence. It was trees that first made Man begin to brood. In pondering their leafy intricacies he got his first crude concept of beauty. He used to tear great branches out of trees and take them home to his cave woman. "Here," he would say to her, "lie on these." The man then reclined in a corner of the cave and watched the woman's hair mingle with the leaves, and her eyes shine through them, until he fell asleep. His dreams were troubled. Woman came into his dreams as a tree, and then a tree came into his dreams as a woman.... It was something to think about. It wasn't much, but it was something. Thus was the subconscious born, with all its strange mixture of fact and symbol.
When Thurber's eyesight began to fail him in the late 40s, so too did his sense of humour. His drinking escalated into alcoholism, and his chronic moodiness became a nervous breakdown. Thurber said it took him five years to recover; many friends said he never really did. In the last decade of his life bouts of violent, irrational, sometimes delusional behaviour drove all but his closest, or newest, friends to despair and desertion.

Having lost his sight, he now believed that he had E.S.P. and mental telepathy and that his eye was such a miracle to have worked for so long that he was going to donate it to the American Eye Institute. When Thurber died, on Nov. 2, 1961, this was done, but the Institute found nothing remarkable about the eye. The comic vision he left behind -- homo Thurberus peeking into, but not quite entering, the madhouse -- tells another, funnier, story.

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