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Mitty's man

Thurber's slow singe of wit packs its own ta-pocketa

by Robert David Sullivan

JAMES THURBER: HIS LIFE AND TIMES, by Harrison Kinney. Henry Holt, 1238 pages, $40.

James Thurber is a survivor. In his prose and his cartoons, he withstands the venomous tongue and emasculating stare of the Thurber Woman. In bookstores today, he holds on while the humor section is overrun by Letterman, Seinfeld, and other TV Guide cover models. Thurber's colleagues from the glory days of American humor (unphotogenic types such as Benchley, Parker, and Perelman) are gone, but Thurber and his drawings of meek husbands and sympathetic bloodhounds still occupy a few lonely inches of shelf space. Luckily, he's getting some new attention this month, the 100th anniversary of his birth, with the publication of James Thurber: His Life and Times, a massive biography by Harrison Kinney.

Much of Thurber's best work came in the form of a New Yorker invention called the casual -- a short essay or story written in the tone of a friendly letter, albeit with the full force of that magazine's grammarians and fact-checkers behind it. Thurber and other writers of the late 1920s were part of the shift toward the vernacular in American humor, in contrast to Mark Twain and other late-19th-century writers who used dialects as a comic device, which was a reaction to the baroque language of English humorists. (Since then, humor pieces written in anything other than the author's natural voice have been about as common as Latin mass after the Vatican II conference.) But few have approached the graceful chaos of Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, an extremely unreliable autobiography and possibly the finest book of American humor written in this century.

My Life and Hard Times isn't a great source of one-liners. The humor generally builds through misunderstandings that are layered on top of each other, or through absurd repetitions. In the chapter called "Draft Board Nights," Thurber is caught in a bureaucratic loop: he is repeatedly ordered to report for military service, but he's rejected as physically unfit over and over again by the same doctors. Once, he picks up a stethoscope and begins examining the recruits himself. ("That, of course, was before I took my clothes off; I might have managed it naked, but I doubt it. . . . I began by making each of them hold his breath and then say `mi, mi, mi, mi,' until I noticed [Dr.] Ridgeway looking at me curiously.")

In "The Dog That Bit People," Thurber's mother hosts a dinner party while coping with an epidemic of mice and an Airedale determined to sink his teeth into anything on two legs:

[S]he put down a lot of little dishes with food in them on the pantry floor so that the mice would be satisfied with that and wouldn't come into the dining room. Muggs stayed out in the pantry with the mice, lying on the floor, growling to himself -- not at the mice, but about all the people in the next room that he would have liked to get at . . . It made her so mad to see Muggs lying there, oblivious of the mice -- they came running up to her -- that she slapped him and he slashed at her, but didn't make it. He was sorry immediately, mother said. He was always sorry, she said, after he bit someone, but we could not understand how she figured this out. He didn't act sorry.
The style of writing may be casual, but it's not easy. Even the punctuation is perfect; it's impossible to read Thurber without falling into the inflections and pauses that he intended.

Today's most popular humorists may work in the vernacular, but they share little else with Thurber. Bestsellers by Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, and Ellen DeGeneres retain the staccato style of their stage performances. The publishers of these books could help us out by sprinkling throughout the text little battery-operated laugh tracks (just like those electronic greeting cards that sing "Happy Birthday" when you press a button). And though most of these comics echo Thurber's "little man" persona, trying to cope with bull-headed authority figures or the baffling behavior of the opposite sex, we still sense the confidence of people able to bare their souls in public and not hide behind the printed word.

Even humor writers who didn't start out on the stage now adopt the ironic distance of a Letterman or Leno. Dave Barry constantly winks at the reader in the same way David Letterman smirks and plays with his tie to get a laugh when a joke falls flat. For instance, Barry likes to insist, sarcastically, that he is "not making this up" in particularly fanciful columns. Thurber invented half the stuff about his family in My Life and Hard Times, but he had the sense not to go on about it in print.

There are a few current writers who match Thurber in some respects. Garrison Keillor's short stories effectively chronicle the war between men and women in the era of the sensitive male. Calvin Trillin manages shrewd topical observations that somehow never become dated. Veronica Geng shares Thurber's skill at reporting events that never happened. (Thurber's best-known entry in this genre is "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox"; Geng has Lyndon Johnson besting George Bernard Shaw in a battle of wits.)

But the writer I'd most like to see with his own version of My Life and Hard Times is David Sedaris, the gay apartment cleaner and National Public Radio commentator from New York. So far, he has only a handful of personal essays in print, in Barrel Fever (Little, Brown, 1994). They display Thurber's patience in setting a mood without resorting to quick gags, as in this piece about his mother's smoking habits:

She smoked in the bathtub, where we'd find her drowned butts lined up in a neat row beside the shampoo bottle. She smoked through meals, and often used her half-empty plate as an ashtray. Mom's theory was that if you cooked the meal and did the dishes, you were allowed to use your plate however you liked. It made sense to us.
Thurber and Sedaris also have the ability to create characters with the conviction of their impossible fantasies. In Thurber's most popular story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a henpecked husband escapes a shopping trip by imagining himself as a surgeon, "the greatest pistol shot in the world," and a Navy pilot ("The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa--pocketa."). The fantasies in Sedaris's tales, such as having sex with Mike Tyson and Charlton Heston, are hardly what you'd find in Thurber, but times are changing.

The task of figuring out what to believe in Thurber's own writings -- published and personal -- is one reason for the length of James Thurber: His Life and Times. "Many stories associated with Thurber he later claimed to be apocryphal, not adding that he had begun most of them," writes Kinney before describing one such non-event in the offices of the New Yorker, in which Thurber "tipped over [a] phone booth, glass doors up, powdered his face to look corpselike, and stretched out in it."

Kinney has been a Thurber scholar for nearly half a century, since he chose, in 1948, to write the first known graduate dissertation on the author. He won over his skeptical faculty adviser by bringing out parallels between Thurber and James Joyce, then a more respected literary figure. (If you've been defeated by Ulysses but haven't yet tried Thurber, ignore the previous sentence.) Kinney was himself a reporter for the New Yorker from 1949 to 1954, which explains why the sections of this book dealing with that magazine are the most vivid. Since then, he has written children's books and spent 20 years as a business writer at IBM.

James Thurber: His Life and Times is clearly the achievement of Kinney's lifetime -- cleanly written, exhaustively researched, and well-indexed. Kinney personally interviewed Thurber and dozens of his contemporaries; and Thurber's daughter, Rosemary, gave him access to private letters and other material in the Thurber estate. It is an essentially forgiving book. Thurber's bouts of drunken boorishness, for example, are mostly chalked up to artistic temperament. ("A volatile person like Thurber operates at a manic high others have to drink to reach. Alcohol sent Thurber into outer space.") And much of Thurber's intermittent bitterness is traced to the childhood accident that cost him one eye and was a possible cause of his near-total blindness later in life.

Kinney is probably toughest on Thurber as a writer, and he often cites weaker stories and essays ("embarrassingly derivative"), all the better to point out when the author hit his mark. Also included are long excerpts from Thurber's letters, many of them maudlin and self-centered, to the various women in his life. ("Do you think it is a simple matter to give one's whole heart away?," he writes to Eva Prout, a woman he pursued from the seventh grade until he was almost 40. "Shouldn't I naturally, despite myself, want to hurt you if you never care for me?")

Thurber's attitudes toward women are prominent in any serious study of him as a writer. His most frequent entry in dictionaries of quotations is the remark that "Word has somehow got around that the split infinitive is always wrong. That is of a piece with the shopworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady." Kinney describes the Thurber Woman of stories and cartoons as "predatory," "menacing," and "hateful." But he largely absolves the twice-married Thurber of genuine misogyny -- unless that affliction can be defined as holding women to higher standards. "Foolish and empty-headed talk from a woman made him feel more let down than that sort of talk from a man," daughter Rosemary explains.

Thurber claimed his writing was more popular among women, and that he had "feminine" qualities himself -- which, to his continued chagrin, meant that women often pursued him as a friend rather than as a lover. And in contrast to characters in contemporary novels and films, the Thurber Woman is never a victim. Even in the story "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife," when the Thurber Man informs his spouse he intends to kill her with a shovel, Mrs. Preble takes command of the situation: "Do you want to leave a great big clue right here? . . . Go out in the street and find some piece of iron or something -- something that doesn't belong to you."

Kinney also touches on Thurber's politics, stage fright, and relations with his family (his two emotionally stunted brothers invite comparisons to cartoonist R. Crumb's family). All this may be too much for casual Thurber fans, especially because James Thurber: His Life and Times is slow going for the first few hundred pages. A good alternative is a 1994 book, Neil A. Grauer's bare-bones Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press, 204 pages, $20). Grauer offers a nice summation of Thurber's work and glides over much of what is disputed about the author's personal life. It's a good way to get the essentials fixed in your mind before plunging into Kinney's work.

As Thurber grew older, and his sight worsened, his emphasis on fantasy increased, and he even began writing children's stories. But strange fears and desires were always central to his work. Plenty of Thurber's characters become convinced of the impossible in the course of a short story, but almost no one is ever talked out of anything. In "The Day the Dam Broke," the entire citizenry of the East Side of Columbus flees from a non-existent tidal wave. When militiamen drive through town with megaphones announcing "The dam has not broken," Thurber writes, "many stampeders thought the soldiers were bellowing `The dam has now broken!,' thus setting an official seal of authentication on the calamity."

Thurber the writer may seem to be mocking these characters, but Thurber the illustrator makes clear where his sympathies lie. He tells of his grandmother's "groundless fears," including "the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house," but there it is on the next page: a drawing of an elderly woman staring up at a chandelier that's missing a light bulb -- and little lightning bolts are falling from it like snow. In one of his best-known New Yorker cartoons, a couple are in bed, and the irritated wife (there's rarely any other kind with Thurber) snaps, "All right, Have It Your Way -- You Heard a Seal Bark!" You can figure out what's peering over the headboard.

And in case things aren't perfectly clear, Thurber includes in Fables for Our Time a parable called "The Moth and the Star," in which a moth spends each night trying to fly to a star he thinks is "just caught in the top branches of an elm." His father ridicules him: "All your brothers have been badly burned flying around street lamps . . . get out of here and get yourself scorched!" The moth never makes it to the star, but he outlives everyone in his family.

Unfortunately, most humorists prefer hanging around the street lamps -- producing observations about everyday life ("Did you ever notice . . . ?") and references to popular culture that have no resonance after a few years. That's why Thurber, having made it to 100, has a fighting chance of outlasting the Top 10 lists and Truly Tasteless Jokes all around him.

Robert David Sullivan is supplements editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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