James Thurber: It's His World, and Welcome to It A Centennial Appreciation of Thurber Meticulously Profiles the Complex Master of Comic Confession and Improbable Characters

By Rod Nordell. Rod Nordell is a former Monitor art critic and writer. | The Christian Science Monitor, January 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

James Thurber: It's His World, and Welcome to It A Centennial Appreciation of Thurber Meticulously Profiles the Complex Master of Comic Confession and Improbable Characters


Rod Nordell. Rod Nordell is a former Monitor art critic and writer., The Christian Science Monitor


JAMES THURBER: HIS LIFE AND TIMES

By Harrison Kinney

Henry Holt and Company

1,238 pp., $40

Laugh-out-loud biographies are not exactly the order of the day. So I don't mind dandling on my knee a year-late centennial monument to James Thurber that recalls the weight of our first child.

The laughs come from Thurber the talker and letter-writer as well as the meticulous author whose henpecked dreamer-hero Walter Mitty became part of the language. When a translator tells Thurber his books read better in French, he replies: "They tend to lose something in the original."

Even Thurber's mother, Mame, was funny, bending the twig that would grow into America's leading humorist after Mark Twain - not to mention a cartoonist whose eloquent simple line was compared to and admired by Matisse. Writing to Mame, Thurber's father-to-be tried to be funny, too: "... as the burglar said, 'we must take things as we find them.' "

When the family dog bit people, Mame would send chocolates. Biographer Harrison Kinney sees a similarity in Thurber's endless apologies to people he offended.

Through massive accumulation of such details, along with the graver ones of Thurber's deteriorating eyesight and stressful personal relationships, an elusive, complex image emerges: how the man saw himself and how others saw him. A man capable of generosity to young wannabes; of misogyny and friendships with women; of cyni#cal fables and the poignant hope of "The Last Flower"; of black comedy and enchanting fairy tales; of dialect jokes and what fellow New Yorker writer E.B. White called the funniest, most haunting picture caption he ever read: "If I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?"

Kinney's easy-to-take prose flashes back and forward to link life and work beyond straight chronology. A student of Thurber for several decades, he sometimes challenges previously accepted tales, such as a scandalous account attributed to Truman Capote from his days as a New Yorker office boy.

He adds to others, such as the Thurber anecdote in which President Roosevelt waggishly told Mrs. Winston Churchill that the brussels sprout was America's favorite vegetable. He ordered a pamphlet of recipes for her, and Thurber designed the cover, including a Thurber dog with a paw reaching for a sprout.

"Humor is a gentle thing," Thurber said when I interviewed him a couple of years before his passing in 1961. "That's why# it is so necessary if our species is to survive."

Thurber's humor could be tinged with horror. And humor is "part and parcel of sadness," he says in a letter Kinney quotes. He bewails "the forces of thoughtlessness that would create a fragmentation of tragicomedy."

Tragicomedy appeared in the novels of his younger friend Peter De Vries, a fellow New Yorker humorist. …

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