Wednesday, September 5, 2007

James Thurber

Having sung the praises of Albert Schweitzer yesterday, it might well be expected that I would choose more heroes along the lines of the secular saints, maybe Gandhi or King or the like. I decided to talk about people with whom I have something in common. With Hilbert, we have math in common. With Schweitzer, we both play the keyboard. With James Thurber, we both make an effort to write something funny. The thing that makes them heroes to me is that they do the thing I do much better than I do it, and they have other talents I don't possess.

I discovered James Thurber's writings and cartoons when I was a kid, and I love them to this day. His most famous works were first published in The New Yorker, a magazine known for its sophistication. Like many New Yorkers, Thurber was a transplant. He was born in Ohio, and many of his best stories are about his childhood. He did not see himself as particularly sophisticated, as his essay The Secret Life of James Thurber shows, comparing his own dreams and fantasies with those of Salvador Dali.

When Thurber was young, he and his brother were playing William Tell, and James was shot in the eye. Medical knowledge being what it was in the 19th Century, the eye was lost. As a kid, he was unable to join in with sports and games, and instead lived in a world mostly of his own imagination. He attended Ohio State University, but was unable to graduate because R.O.T.C. training was mandatory back then, and he couldn't pass the course due to his vision problems. After college, he worked as a code clerk during World War I, then went into the newspaper game back in Columbus, Ohio. His several gigs with newspapers included a stint as a foreign correspondent in France. His writings gained popularity, but what made him stand out among his contemporaries were his cartoons, what he called his "beautiful drawings".

Because of his poor eyesight, his drawings were done on very large sheets of black paper, drawn in white chalk. They were color reversed and shrunk down for publication. No one could say that Thurber was a great draftsman, but if we define cartooning as the ability to capture a scene with just a few lines, Thurber's cartoons rank with the very best. They weren't to everyone's taste. Dorothy Parker, his co-worker at The New Yorker, said the drawings had the "semblance of unbaked cookies".

As in this cartoon, a lot of Thurber's humor comes from the tension between men and women. His first marriage ended in divorce, and a lot of his short stories sound like only slightly fictionalized scenes from a marriage heading for trouble.

Besides memoirs from his childhood and stories of timid men and bossy women, some of Thurber's best stories are about the dogs he owned throughout his life. Among his quotes about dogs:

Now I am not a cat man, but a dog man, and all felines can tell this at a glance — a sharp, vindictive glance.

I am not a dog lover. A dog lover to me means a dog that is in love with another dog.

The dog has seldom been successful in pulling Man up to its level of sagacity, but Man has frequently dragged the dog down to his.

In conclusion, I say that if you have not read Thurber, I can only ask "Why not?" And if you have read Thurber, the next question is "How recently?"


dguzman said...

Oh, Matty--I try to get at least a little Thurber at least once a month! I love his cartoons. God, he was the funniest.

Karla said...

Oh, Thurber's wacky, meandering essays on the proper use of language -- which were sly takeoffs on his friend EB White's own work -- still make me spit milk outta my nose. And I don't even drink milk!

Yay Thurber!

dguzman said...

Oh, and I just remembered his essay on generalizations, and one in particular that I always say myself now: "Peach ice cream never tastes as good as you think it will." Amen, JT.

Matty Boy said...

I remember his description of a lineman on The Ohio State University football team back in his day. "While he was not dumber than an ox, he certainly wasn't any smarter, either."