James Thurber (1894-1961) is the proof that at least some Americans understand irony. Thurber was a famously poorly-sighted humorous essayist and cartoonist, much of whose output appeared in The New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 1940s. He also wrote a few comic novels
He writes with a dry humour and an impeccable command of language, apparently effortless, yet beautifully crafted, leading you into, often, punchlines loaded with bathos. His work takes its place in the canon of American essayists such as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Leacock, S.J. Perelman and, most recently, P.J. O’Rourke.
The result is hilarious, and still fresh.
Excerpt from The Secret Life of James Thurber
I have only dipped here-and there into Salvador Dali’s “The
Secret Life of Salvador Dali” (with paintings by Salvador Dali
and photographs of Salvador Dali), because anyone afflicted
with what my grandmother’s sister Abigail called “the permanent
jumps” should do no more than skitter through such an auto-
biography, particularly in these melancholy times.
One does not have to skitter far before one comes upon some
vignette which gives the full shape and flavor of the book: the
youthful dreamer of dreams biting a sick bat or kissing a dead
horse, the slender stripling going into man’s estate with the high
hope and fond desire of one day eating a live but roasted turkey,
the sighing lover covering himself with goat dung and aspic
that he might give off the true and noble odor of the ram.
Let me be the first to admit that the naked truth about me is
to the naked truth about Salvador Dali as an old ukulele in the
attic is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts. Senor
Dali has the jump on me from the beginning. He remembers and
describes in detail what it was like in the womb. My own earliest
memory is of accompanying my father to a polling booth in
Columbus, Ohio, where he voted for William McKinley.
Excerpt from The Night the Bed Fell
I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus,
Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. It makes a better
recitation (unless, as some friends of mine have said, one has
heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it
is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors, and
bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude
to what is admittedly a somewhat incredible tale.
And from Fables for Our Time
The Little Girl and the Wolf
One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl
to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother.
Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket
of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the
wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her
where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and
he disappeared into the wood.
When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house
she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and
nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five
feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother
but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more
like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like
Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket
and shot the wolf dead.
(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)
In addition, his cartoons are possibly even more famous than his writing.
Veterinarian’s Advice column
Q. Mr. Jennings bought this beast when it was a pup in
Montreal for a St. Bernard, but I don’t think it is. It’s grown
enormously and is stubborn about letting you have anything,
like the bath towel it has its paws on, and the hat, both of which
belong to Mr. Jennings. He got it that bowling ball to play with
but it doesn’t seem to like it. Mr. Jennings is greatly attached
to the creature.
MRS. FANNY EDWARDS JENNINGS
A. What you have is a bear. While it isn’t my bear, I should
recommend that you dispose of it. As these animals grow older
they get more and more adamant about letting you have any-
thing, until finally there might not be anything in the house
you could call your own—except possibly the bowling ball.
Zoos use bears. Mr. Jennings could visit it.
Thurber confessed that some of his weirder offerings were the result of mistakes, best described as follows by Thurber himself, “My drawings have been described as pre-intentionalist, meaning that they were finished before the ideas for them had occurred to me. I shall not argue the point.” The captions are often reminiscent of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons.
I found it hard to restrict the examples to these few. If you like them, and investigate further, you will find the quality is retained throughout his work. A good place to start is The Thurber Carnival.
Here is my old Penguin copy of The Thurber Carnival, bought in about 1959, second-hand from Bobby’s Bookshop, as indicated by the clipped corner of the cover (a primitive code used by Bobby, meaning: “It took ages to shift this book. We don’t intend to buy it back”). It was abridged in 1950, reprinted 1957.
It’s out of print, but obtainable. A few years ago, I thought I’d lost my paperback or loaned it out once too often, but I was able to buy an even older edition from eBay. This edition – 1945, reprinted 1950 – contains a number of extra items not in the Penguin.
Thurber has dropped out of sight since his death, a regrettable, though predictable, outcome that I am seeking to reverse with this review.
Two wonderful stories, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Cat-Bird Seat”, were made into films that were unrecognisable as the work of Thurber. If you think you know Thurber from either of these, you are wrong. You know Danny Kaye and Peter Sellers, who are both laudable in their way. But the films missed the point, which is Thurber’s dead-pan delivery of a really funny concept.