James Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961) is best known as the author of humorous sketches, stories, and reminiscences dealing with urban bourgeois American life. To discuss Thurber as an artist in the short-story form is difficult, however, because of the variety of things he did that might legitimately be labeled short stories. His essays frequently employ stories and are “fictional” in recognizable ways. His “memoirs” in My Life and Hard Times are clearly fictionalized. Many of his first-person autobiographical sketches are known to be “fact” rather than fiction only through careful biographical research. As a result, most of his writings can be treated as short fiction. Thurber seemed to prefer to work on the borderlines between conventional forms.
There is disagreement among critics as to the drift of the attitudes and themes reflected in James Thurber’s work. The poles are well represented by Richard C. Tobias on the one hand and the team of Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill on the other. Tobias argues that Thurber comically celebrates the life of the mind: “Thurber’s victory is a freedom within law that delights and surprises.” Blair and Hill, in America’s Humor (1978), see Thurber as a sort of black humorist laughing at his own destruction, “a humorist bedeviled by neuroses, cowed before the insignificant things in his world, and indifferent to the cosmic ones. He loses and loses and loses his combats with machines, women, and animals until defeat becomes permanent.” Although Tobias sees women as vital forces in Thurber’s work, Hill and Blair see Thurber as essentially a misogynist bewailing the end of the ideal of male freedom best portrayed in 1950’s Western film and pathetically reflected in the fantasies of Walter Mitty. In fact, it seems that critics’ opinions regarding Thurber’s attitudes about most subjects vary from one text to the next, but certain themes seem to remain consistent. His weak male characters do hate strong women, but the men are often weak because they accept the world in which their secret fantasies are necessary and, therefore, leave their women no choice but to try to hold things together. When a woman’s strength becomes arrogance as in “The Catbird Seat” and “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the man often defeats her with the active power of his imagination.
Characterizing Thurber as a Romantic, Robert Morsberger lists some themes he sees pervading Thurber’s writing: a perception of the oppression of technocracy and of the arrogance of popular scientism especially in their hostility to imagination; an antirational but not anti-intellectual approach to modern life; a belief in the power of the imagination to preserve human value in the face of contemporary forms of alienation; and a frequent use of fear and fantasy to overcome the dullness of his characters’ (and readers’) lives.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is Thurber’s best-known work of short fiction. Its protagonist, the milquetoast Walter Mitty, lives in a reverie consisting of situations in which he is a hero: commander of a navy hydroplane, surgeon, trial witness, bomber pilot, and condemned martyr. The dream is clearly an escape from the external life which humiliatingly interrupts it: his wife’s mothering, the arrogant competence of a parking attendant and policeman, the humiliating errands of removing tire chains, buying overshoes, and asking for puppy biscuits. In his dreams, he is Lord Jim, the misunderstood hero, “inscrutable to the last”; in his daily life he is a middle-aged husband enmeshed in a web of the humdrum. Tobias sees Mitty as ultimately triumphant over dreary reality.
Blair and Hill see Mitty as gradually losing grip of the real world and slipping into psychosis. Whether liberated or defeated by his imagination, Mitty is clearly incompetent and needs the mothering his wife gives him. Often described as an immoral and malicious woman, she is actually just the wife he needs and deserves; she seems to exist as a replacement ego to keep him from catching his death of cold as he somnambulates. The story’s artfulness is readily apparent in the precise choice and arrangement of details such as sounds, objects, and images that connect fantasy and reality. The technical devices are virtually the same as those used by William Faulkner and Joyce to indicate shifts in levels of awareness in their “free-association internal monologues.” Mitty has become a representative figure in modern culture like T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, although perhaps more widely known. Although many of Thurber’s stories are similar to this one in theme and form, they are astonishingly diverse in subject, situation, and range of technique.
The Black Magic of Barney Haller
Another large group of Thurber stories might be characterized as fictionalized autobiography. One of the best of these sketches is “The Black Magic of Barney Haller” in The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. In this story, “Thurber” exorcises his hired man, a Teuton whom lightning and thunder always follow and who mutters imprecations such as “Bime by I go hunt grotches in de voods,” and “We go to the garrick now and become warbs.” The narrator becomes convinced that despite his stable and solid appearance, Barney is a necromancer who will transform reality with his incantations. At any moment, Barney will reveal his true devilish form and change “Thurber” into a warb or conjure up a grotch. It does not comfort him to learn the probable prosaic meanings of Haller’s spells, even to see the crotches under the heavy peach tree branches. At the end of the story, he feels regret that the only man he knows who could remove the wasps from his garret has departed.
The humor of these incidents is clear, and a humorous meaning emerges from them. The narrator would rather hide in Swann’s Way, reading of a man who makes himself in his book, but he feels threatened by the external supernatural power of another’s language to re-create the world. He first attempts exorcism with Robert Frost, well-known for having successfully disposed of a hired man. He quotes “The Pasture” in an attempt to make the obscure clear, but succeeds only in throwing a fear that mirrors his own into Barney. This gives “Thurber” his clue; in the next attempt he borrows from Lewis Carroll and the American braggart tradition, asserting his own superior power as a magician of words, “Did you happen to know that the mome rath never lived that could outgrabe me?” The man with the superior control of language, the man of superior imagination, really is in control; he can become a playing card at will to frighten off black magicians. This story is typical of Thurber in its revelation of the fantastic in the commonplace, its flights of language play, and its concern for the relations among reality, self, imagination, and language. My Life and Hard Times is the best-known collection of fictional/autobiographical sketches.
The Moth and the Star
Also an author of fables, Thurber published two collections of fables. “The Moth and the Star” is a typical and often anthologized example. A moth spends a long life trying to reach a star, defying his disappointed parents’ wish that he aspire normally to get himself scorched on a street lamp. Having outlived his family, he gains in old age “a deep and lasting pleasure” from the illusion that he has actually reached the distant star: “Moral: Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow.” The moth and the star suggest images in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), one of Thurber’s favorite books, but in partial contrast to that book, this story echoes the import of the great artist of the “Conclusion” of Henry David Thoreau’sWalden (1854). The aspiring idealist who rejects the suicidal life of material accumulation and devotes himself to some perfect work ultimately conquers time and enriches life whether or not he produces any valuable object. Because the moth, like the artist of Kouroo, succeeds and is happy, this story seems more optimistic than The Great Gatsby. Many of the fables are more cynical or more whimsical, but all are rich in meaning and pleasure like
The Moth and the Star
Critics and scholars have noted ways in which Thurber’s career and writings parallel Mark Twain’s. For example, both, as they grew older, grew more interested in fables and fairy tales. In the latter, Thurber was perhaps the more successful, publishing four fantasy stories for adults in the last twenty years of his life. Completed while blindness was descending upon him, these stories are characterized by heightened poetic language, highly original variations on the fairy formulae, sparkling humor, and a common theme: in the words of Prince Jorn, hero of The White Deer, “Love’s miracle enough.” Love is the key that frees imagination by giving it strength to do, and strength of imagination makes the wasteland fertile. The fairy tales may be seen as intentional responses to Eliot’s vision of the wasteland in his famous poem of 1922, perhaps from a point of view similar to that of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1840). Although “The Secret Life ofWalter Mitty” and Further Fables for Our Time may be seen as affirming the view of modern life as a wasteland, the fairy tales suggest that the ash heap of modern culture is escapable. It seems especially significant that the mode of escape is represented in tales of magic in remote settings.
The White Deer
The White Deer opens in the third period in King Clode’s memory of waiting for the depleted game of his hunting grounds to replenish. The story develops in triads, the central one being the three perilous tasks set for the three sons of King Clode to determine which shall claim the hand of the fair princess who materializes when the king and his sons corner the fleet white deer in the enchanted forest. The sons complete their tasks simultaneously, but, in the meantime, King Clode determines that the nameless Princess is not a disenchanted woman but an enchanted deer. When the returned sons are told of this, Thag and Gallow refuse her. If denied love three times, she would be a deer forever, but Jorn accepts her: “What you have been, you are not, and what you are, you will forever be. I place this trophy in the hands of love. . . . You hold my heart.” This acceptance transforms her into a new and lovelier princess, Rosanore of the Northland, and the April fragrance of lilacs fills the air suggesting direct opposition to the opening of Eliot’s The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land.” As King Clode later sees the full wisdom and beauty of Rosanore, he repeats, “I blow my horn in waste land.” Echoes of Eliot show up repeatedly in the fairy tales, but the greater emphasis falls on the powers of love and imagination, which in this fairy world almost inevitably blossom in beauty and happiness.
The cast of secondary characters and the perilous labors provide opportunities to characterize wittily the world in need of magic. There are an incompetent palace wizard as opposed to the true wizards of the forest, an astronomer-turned-clockmaker who envisions encroaching darkness (“It’s darker than you think”), and a royal recorder who descends into mad legalese when the Princess’s spell proves to be without precedent. Gallow’s labor is especially interesting because he must make his way through a vanity fair bureaucracy in order to conquer a sham dragon, a task that tests his purse and persistence more than his love. This task allows a satire of the commercial values of modern culture. Each of the fairy tales contains similar delights as well as bizarre and beautiful flights of language: the Sphinz asks Jorn, “What is whirly?/ What is curly?/Tell me, what is pearly early?” and in a trice, Jorn replies, “Gigs are whirly,/ Cues are curly/ and the dew is pearly early.”
Plays: The Male Animal, pr., pb. 1940 (with Elliott Nugent); Many Moons, pb. 1943; A Thurber Carnival, pr. 1960 (revue).
Nonfiction: The Thurber Album, 1952; The Years with Ross, 1959; Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1982; The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber, 2003 (Harrison Kinney and Rosemary A. Thurber, editors).
Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Holmes, Charles S., ed. Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Kaufman, Anthony. “‘Things Close In’: Dissolution and Misanthropy in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’” Studies in American Fiction 22 (Spring, 1994): 93-104.
Kenney, Catherine McGehee. Thurber’s Anatomy of Confusion. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.
Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
Long, Robert Emmet. James Thurber. New York: Continuum, 1988.
Morsberger, Robert E. James Thurber. New York: Twayne, 1964.
Prinsky, Norman. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 6. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Reisman, Rosemary M. Canfield. “The Catbird Seat.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Thurber, James. My Life and Hard Times. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. First published in 1933,
Tobias, Richard Clark. The Art of James Thurber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970.