The Enduring New Yorker Writer: Unexpected, Necessary Thurber

The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber , edited by Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber. Simon & Schuster, 798 pages, $40.

Judging from his continuing and healthy presence in bookstores, James Thurber is alive and well, as funny and relevant to readers today as he was in the 1940’s and 50’s. While many of his New Yorker contemporaries and colleagues have either dropped out of print completely or struggle to find a home on store shelves (Brendan Gill, Hamilton Basso, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, S.J. Perelman and Peter De Vries, to name a few), Thurber has not only thrived post-Ross, post-Shawn, but has even enjoyed something of a renaissance. New hardcover and paperback editions of his books have recently been issued by HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster (two of his several original publishers); his boyhood home in Columbus, Ohio, the scene of some of his greatest autobiographical stories (that family!), has been transformed into Thurber House, a literary center and tourist attraction; the Library of America has issued a one-volume edition of his selected work, an honor conferred on only a handful of 20th-century writers, including Eudora Welty, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, Paul Bowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck; and a yearly book prize for humor has been established in his name. Now, six years after Harrison Kinney’s massive 1,238-page biography-which one had assumed would be the very last word possible, or bearable, on the subject-comes a huge volume of Thurber’s letters. This bulging new addition to the Thurber canon was edited by Mr. Kinney (who, like historian Robert A. Caro, has spent decades meticulously researching the life and work of one man); it begins in 1918, when the 23-year-old Thurber worked in Washington as a State Department code-clerk trainee, and ends in 1961, just a few weeks before his death.

An 800-page collection of letters by any writer is a daunting item-and this volume is no exception. The pre– New Yorker years (called here “The Emerging Years”), when Thurber was struggling to become a paid journalist, are full of raccoon-coat, fraternity-house humor and seem of interest principally to diehard fans hungry for every crumb of biographical information. Once we reach 1927, however, 100 pages into the book, the casual reader begins to hit paydirt: Thurber gets hired at the fledgling New Yorker . His first job at the magazine was as a so-called Miracle Man, a nebulous and workaholic post that editor Harold Ross tried fruitlessly to fill (until, at last, he found William Shawn) for which Thurber was completely and almost laughably unsuited. Eventually, of course, Thurber established himself as house cartoonist and author of hundreds of humorous pieces and stories.

Here is Thurber on his drawings; on his painful love affairs (“no woman has ever felt, I blush to say, a definite and authentic passion for me”) and on sex (“About 3:30 in the afternoon, Sex begins to creep in …. Instead of thinking back on women I have ‘been with,’ as my mother says, I think forward on women I want to be with; thus the whole thing comes under the general heading of ‘Planning’ rather than of ‘Reminiscing'”); on writers he liked (Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Wilson, John O’Hara and, above all and always, his friend, advocate and colleague, E.B. White). Here is Thurber on his increasing blindness, on his difficult relationship with his Ohio family, on his publisher’s flap copy (“seems flat, uninviting, and written by somebody who didn’t really get the point of the book …. There is a kind of genius in missing things so widely as this”), on words he disliked (“update” and “downgrade”), on the impossibility of a nearly blind man trying to draw Brussels sprouts, on his discovery that Groucho Marx loved the works of Henry James, on being chased by a pack of dogs belonging to the family of William F. Buckley Jr.

Thurber had a genius for capturing offhand comments and moments, which he would drop deadpan into letters to friends. Here are a few of the gems scattered liberally throughout this volume:

Mortimer Adler telling of a visit by Gertrude Stein: “After 5 hrs. of conversation, mostly by Gertrude, and during which [Alice] Toklas just sat listening, the ladies arose to go and Alice said to Adler: Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her ten years to understand.”

Thomas Wolfe showing up as a guest at a party Thurber threw in the 1930’s: “About 4 a.m., everybody else having left, except our house guest, who was ill, Wolfe told my wife and me that we didn’t know what it was to be a writer. ‘My husband is a writer,’ said Mrs. Thurber. ‘I didn’t know that,’ said Wolfe, ‘all I see of his is in The New Yorker .'”

Harold Ross to The New Yorker ‘s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, when she was awarded the Legion of Honor: “I have little respect for that decoration. They give it to men who invent stuff to kill potato bugs.” (Thurber also reports that “After his daughter was born [Ross] said to me, irritably, ‘I think of a woman as having daughters and a man as having sons.'”)

Charlie Chaplin eagerly meeting Thurber and saying that “he was a great admirer of my work, particularly of one thing I wrote-and far as he was concerned that was all I had to write. This one thing turned out to be [E.B. White’s] description in Max Eastman’s book of why he became a writer of humorous pieces …. I just stood there grinning and silent.”

Of particular interest, of course, is Thurber on his decades-long home, The New Yorker . His relationship with founding editor Harold Ross was profound, and many letters here testify to the depth of their involvement, even as they fought over Ross’ pay schedule and the magazine’s rejections of his drawings and stories over many years. Thurber never warmed to William Shawn, and his relationship with his eventual editor, William Maxwell, was, at least as described here, chilly at best. Over time, Thurber felt more and more distanced from the magazine, as is painfully evident in a letter from the late 1950’s to his longtime editor and close friend, Katharine White (“you have developed a certain sense of false infallibility …. I would appreciate it greatly if you saw to it that the editors do not bother me … it is this that makes our relationship seem new and distant and difficult”). He was preoccupied by his rewarding and turbulent life as a writer, and in these letters he charts, articulately and emotionally, the antics of his creative muse, his struggles for recognition and his helplessness in the face of illness.

Grateful as I am for the many random and unexpected pleasures of this collection, I do have one complaint: There’s a regrettable lack of supplementary information. Perhaps Mr. Kinney assumes that we’ve all read his biography, that we’ll recognize everyone mentioned in the letters and remember perfectly even minor incidents in Thurber’s life. For whatever reason, very little context is provided.

That said, I’m glad the letters are available and presented so handsomely. Here’s one more happy surprise: the occasional letter underlining Thurber’s defiance of political intolerance, his refusal to knuckle under to the prevailing conservative winds of post–World War II America. Dropping the mask of humor, he courageously and aggressively attacked administrators and politicians who used the banner of patriotism to undermine our most cherished freedoms. He’s just the kind of writer we need right now.

André Bernard is vice president and publisher of Harcourt.