I first encountered James Thurber when I viewed the Danny Kaye film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I was a teenager at the time and was just discovering that movies were often adapted from prose. Finding the humor of Mitty to my liking, I eagerly sought out Thurber's work and must admit, was disappointed. I have, however, delved back into his work over the years and am pleased to report that either Thurber, or I, have improved with age. Although some of his references are dated, his insight into the human condition still rings true today and it is easy to see why he is considered by many to be the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain.
James Grover Thurber was born on December 8, 1894 in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Charles Leander Thurber, worked in a number of clerical and secretarial jobs for various Ohio politicians and had many periods of unemployment. His mother, Mary Agnes Fisher, was a full-time housewife, lifelong practical joker and her skewed sense of humor was probably the major influence on Thurber's writing. There was another influence, however, that was of a much more serious nature.
At the age of 7, Thurber was engaged in a game of William Tell with his brothers and was struck in his left eye during the game. There was some delay in removing the damaged eye and his right eye suffered as a result. For the rest of his life, Thurber was plagued by failing eyesight. The injury also impacted his childhood since kept him from participating in many activities. As a result, Thurber excelled at academics throughout his school years and, although he was quite popular in school, he tended to spend many hours alone studying, developing elaborate fantasies for his own amusement and teaching himself to draw.
Upon graduation from high school, Thurber entered Ohio State where he failed to attain a degree after two attempts (he did, however, keep close ties to the University). Next, he worked for the State Department during WWI as a code clerk and, after the war, tried his hand as a reporter. In 1922, he married Althea Adams, who many consider the prototype of the "Thurber Woman": a shrewish and domineering female figure. Shortly after his marriage, Thurber began work as a freelance writer and supplemented the lean times with more newspaper work.
Thurber's fortunes changed, however, when he met E. B. White in 1927. White introduced Thurber to Herbert Ross, the editor of The New Yorker. Ross hired Thurber as a editor/writer and also began to use Thurber's cartoons in the magazine. In 1929, White and Thurber collaborated on a book, Is Sex Necessary?, a parody of popular psychology books of the time, and, although not widely advertised, it sold quite well. A book of Thurber cartoons followed in 1932 and within a short time, Thurber was able to step down from his editorial post at The New Yorker.
For nearly the next 30 years, Thurber made his living as a freelance writer, contributing essays and fiction to The New Yorker and other publications and later collecting these works into books. But, there was a dark side to his life. His marriage to Althea, never very good as marriages go, ended bitterly in 1935. Although he remarried a mere two months later, all accounts suggest that his second union was not a happy one for either party. His eyesight continued to deteriorate, he lost the ability to draw and became legally blind in the 40s. He also became withdrawn, subject to nervous breakdowns, and had problems with alcohol. Throughout it all, however, Thurber continued to write comedy and, even if it was humor with a darker edge, it still made light of the world and the people who lived in it. He was even able to pull himself together enough to portray himself for eighty-eight performances in one of the sketches of the play A Thurber Carnival in 1960. His health began to spiral downward after this and he eventually succumbed to pneumonia and other medical complications on November 2, 1961.
"A Visit from Saint Nicholas IN THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY MANNER" originally appeared in The New Yorker, December 24, 1927.
Introduction © 2004 by Bob Gay
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For further information on the life and works of James Thurber, stop by the Thurber House website as a part of your journey.