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James Thurber - Biography

James Thurber (1894-1961)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

James Thurber has been called one of the world's greatest humorists. Full of sophistication, charm and wit, his stories and essays -- written between the late 1920s and early 1960s -- manifest a comic style that is never folksy but still quintessentially American. However, for one very compelling reason, his stories have not aged well, and consequently we read him today not so much for what he said as how he said it.

Thurber tended toward stories about very odd happenings and very odd people -- stories which he related in a measured, dry, calm style that was the perfect foil for his subject matter. His background as a journalist helps us accept the bizarre nature of some of his stories; for example, if we read 'On Thursday, July 2nd, at 2:24 in the afternoon, Herbert T. Owens, 34, turned himself into the police,' we immediately accept that as factual because of the journalistic style in which it is written. If, on the other hand, the same sentence read 'On Thursday, July 2nd, at 2:24 in the afternoon, Herbert T. Owens, 34, turned himself into a pig,' we laugh. We have been temporarily deceived, but we accept the little joke and are eager to read on.

The classic Thurber story centers around a hapless male character trying to survive in a world that threatens to overwhelm him. Thurber suggests that the world we accept as 'normal,' 'sane,' 'well-ordered,' and 'efficient' is in fact not normal at all; it is dry, bureaucratic, and fundamentally ridiculous. Our whimsy, which is looked upon by 'normal' people as being a sign of a weak mind, is in fact the faculty that will save us. In his stories, Thurber walks a slender tightrope between laughter and pity; if his characters had not been deliberately distanced from us by Thurber's dry, journalistic tone, they would not have been funny, they would have been pathetic. The distancing, ironically, serves to humanize them and make them seem more like us.

But hidden beneath the surface of Thurber there is a very strong strain of misogyny. Thurber obviously was deeply suspicious of women; in many of his stories they appear as dominating, dangerous, and ugly figures, with whom no one can reason. In 'The Catbird Seat,' for example, the central conflict is between a retiring male office worker and the loud, brassy woman who threatens his position at the company; he at first seriously considers killing her but then figures out an ingenious plan to get her fired instead. In 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,' the conflict is between Walter and his dominating wife, who belittles and emasculates him at every turn. In 'The Unicorn in the Garden,' the henpecked husband -- in a surprising denouement -- has his wife committed for harboring the very delusion of which she accused him. Women, Thurber seems to say, must be dealt with firmly and decisively, or they will ruin your life.

Obviously this is a philosophy which is not tremendously popular with large segments of the population today. So why read Thurber at all? We read Thurber because of the masterful way he presents his comic arguments, his precise attention to detail, and his unsurpassed ability to make a surprise ending seem like something we should have been able to predict all along. The mere fact that we don't agree with his philosophy does not obviate his skill. Everyone hoping to master the delicate art of comedy writing should read Thurber -- whether you agree with him or not.

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The Thurber Carnival (Modern Library)

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