Wednesday, April 23, 2014



James Grover Thurber, born 8 December, 1894, died 2 November, 1961, was an American cartoonist, author, journalist, and celebrated wit. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories, published mainly in The New Yorker magazine and collected in his numerous books. One of the most popular humorists of his time, Thurber celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people.

I first read James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, at about the age of eight or nine years old. I don't remember learning how to read, and I was reading singularly advanced literature by the age of eight: I read Harlan Ellison's short story collection Strange Wine, when I was nine and was captivated by it, but one of my all time-favorites and life-long loves has been the American author and humorist, James Thurber.

James Thurber, circa 1926.

Before starting this post, I knew a bit about his early life, He attended Ohio State University, although did not graduate, due to an early childhood accident. He was playing a game of William Tell with his brothers William and Robert, when an arrow pierced his left eye, which left him blind in that eye and he would subsequently lose the eye and later become almost entirely blind. Unable in his childhood to partake in sports and other activities because of his injury, he elaborated upon an already creative mind, which he then used to express himself in writing and with his cartoons.

How do you answer that?
Some neurologists have suggested that he may have suffered from Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a neurological condition that causes complex visual hallucination in otherwise mentally healthy people who have suffered some degree of visual loss. Thurber himself wrote of this in his short piece The Admiral At The Wheel. Before I became partially-sighted, I could imagine him seeing things far down a road and his mind filling in pieces; now I know this to be a fact. I see all sorts of strange things, up close and far. It must be noted however, and laughingly, that I am not mentally sound. Still, there was a mouse that ran through my computer room recently, the size of a canoe, that had me jumping into the closet. My roommates can attest to the mouse, but not the size; since I have no depth perception cars and mice are the same size to me.

The picture would seem to suggest a much larger-than-normal hippopotamus, but completely ignores the question of why it is present in the first place.
James' mother Mary, was a comical and creative woman who James described as a “born comedian” and “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known”. She was a practical joker; on one occasion pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed. This says much about his accounts in stories like The Night The Bed Fell, where before the end of the night, such mayhem has occurred within the household, it's a wonder there weren't more deaths by accidental shooting, or falling, or poisoning in the Thurber household. Add his hypochondriac cousin, Briggs Beal who must be woken every hour with spirits of camphor, to prevent his dying in his sleep, and you have the makings of total disaster.

James Thurber loved dogs unreservedly and wrote of them humorously and movingly. He said once, "If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have know will go to heaven, and very, very few persons."

I can relate. Once when home ill from school, I heard my mother answer the door, and went downstairs to see who it was. There was my Ma, frenetically waving her hands at a batch of Jehovah's Witness ladies, pretending she knew American Sign Language. I, at that moment, had a 3-foot piece of twine over my head, with both ends tied to a wire coat-hanger and had my fingers stuffed in my ears, banging the coat-hanger into things to “hear” the vibrations, in my red-and-white striped PJs, with feet. I was 16. I said, “Ma, what in the hell are you doing? You're not deaf?” Caught in the act, she jumped, turned, and looked at me, and hollered “Well, you don't look too sick!” The JW ladies looked at the two of us, and fled. Ma and I howled. It was a “Thurber” moment in the house, one of many. But, I digress.

The Pet Department - Dog

Q. No one has been able to tell us what kind of dog we have. I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures. He only has two. The other one is the same as this except he faces in the opposite direction. - Mrs EUGENIA BLACK

A. I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct. 
                                                                                                                James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival, 1945

From 1918 to 1920, at the close of World War I, James worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D. C., and then at the Embassy of the United States, Paris, France. Upon his return to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of his time there, he reviewed current books, films and plays in a weekly column called Credos and Curios.

                                                                                                                                 Thurber's Airedale

James moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E. B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of James' drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.

                                                                                     The Night The Bed Fell

Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life, but he also wrote darker material, such as The Whip-Poor-Will, a story of madness and murder. His best-known short stories are The Dog That Bit People and The Night The Bed Fell; they are found in My Life and Hard Times, the creative mix of autobiography and fiction which was his “break-out” book. He wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Catbird Seat, A Couple of Hamburgers, and If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.

                                                                                                                               The James Thurber Audio Collection, Keith Obermann, Narrator

If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox

James also wrote about his time in Paris and his confusion with the French language. This echoed the later confusion he would sow with his maids, most of them African-American, who he would befuddle with lesser-known synonyms, when they came at him with their own colloquialisms. “It only enriches the confusion,” he noted later.

Illustration from The Day The Dam Broke

In France, he once cut himself with a knife, and left to his own devices, as his wife was out for the afternoon, this led him to run screaming through the lobby “I am sick with the knife!” in broken French. Luckily, Helen arrived in time to sort out the confusion and tie up the wound. With his seemingly endless parade of housemaids, one he was quite fond of, would come to him and say, “Ooh, Mistah James, the front yard is full of flickers!” James would whip out his Thesauras and ask, “Are they making arrows?, thinking that perhaps they were fletchers. The maid would say, “Um, no, Mistah James”. James would then run through a list of improbable things from wheelwrights to coopers, before finally getting up and looking out the window to see his front yard full of finches.


I know what he means about enriching the confusion; he and I are alike in more ways than one. I delight in engendering confusion around me and a lot of the time it is on purpose. But much of the time, it IS truly accidental. If I'm not following myself on my own blog, I'm rebutting myself under the name of “Andi-roo” who runs theWorld4Realz. Thank God she was her usual good sport, with a “Girl! You crack me up!” I'm not nearly as funny as she thinks I am. Like Thurber's people and his animals, I'm just making my way through life; if I find an opportunity for a good one-liner, or a hilarious article about some of my own stupidities, or my crazy homeless house-mates, narcoleptic stand partners, or stupid ex-husbands, I'm all for it. Otherwise, I'm just bumbling along, enriching the confusion with my patented Confuse-a-What™ making everyone's day a little brighter. Maybe.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mary - I know of James Thurber but didn't know any information on him ..

Loved the story of your mother and you and the Jehovah's Witnesses ... fun .. and as you say great to howl with laughter and tears too no doubt - just hysterical ... Cheers Hilary

Viola Fury said...

Hi Hillary!

There were times I thought we were acting out some of the Thurber stories, much like Scout, Gem and Dill did in "To Kill a Mockingbird".

But, my folks were rather odd. I remember them trying to read the poem, "Abou Ben Adhem" by James Henry Leigh Hunt. They were going to tape it on a tape casette and send it to my Aunt Mary (my father's sister) for some unknown reason.

I have never read this poem, but I DO know that it starts "Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase) Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace. . .

At this point in the recording, my father had a fit of the giggles and then my mother started. They tried for the next 2 hours to read this poem, and never got one character farther than the "e" in "peace". It was awesome to behold.I was about 12 years old at the time, and the sight of the two of them rolling around on the floor, taking turns trying to read the thing is still with me.

Not exactly a Thurber moment, although we had several of those! Thank you so much for the visit, Hillary! You're a peach! Mary xoxox