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One of America’s all-time favorite authors, James Thurber epitomized the comic spirit of his country. He was fundamentally optimistic, but always aware of underlying human absurdities, and could find mirth in domestic situations. His comic stories and drawings have won him a permanent place in American letters.
Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1894, the second of three sons of Mary and Charles Thurber, James never lost his sense of identity as on Ohioan. He was educated in the Columbus public schools and attended Ohio State University from 1913 to 1917. To Thurber, Columbus was a place of unlimited variety, and it supplied him with material for his writing throughout his career. Ohio was in his heart, and he said, “the clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.”
Thurber began his life as a writer at the Columbus Dispatch, where he worked from 1921 to 1924. His column, “Credos and Curios” covered current events, books and the arts. But his rise to fame as a writer would not come until he went to work for the then-fledgling New Yorker in 1927.
Poor vision kept him out of military service during World War I, though he contributed to the war effort as a code clerk for the State Department in Washington, and later in Paris. He married OSU sophomore Althea Adams in 1922, and the couple moved to Paris to be a part of the budding literary scene. Thurber found work with the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.
Between 1918 and 1938, Thurber lived in Paris for three extended periods of time. Scholars of his work say that his experience living abroad helped him to shake off his provincial attitudes and unleash his comic nature. The marriage to Althea ended in 1935. One month after his divorce Thurber married Helen Wismer, a magazine editor, whom he credited for being his best and most honest critic.
Thurber’s comedic talent found outlets in a wide variety of genres beyond the short stories for which he is best known. He also wrote plays, essays, autobiography, children’s books and fables. The dramatic conflicts in his stories are vivid and concise. His most anthologized and highly polished “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was even made into a feature film starring Danny Kaye and Boris Karloff.
Thurber partnered with longtime college buddy Elliot Nugent in writing “The Male Animal,” (1940), a play set around a homecoming football game against Michigan at a midwestern university based on Ohio State. The production enjoyed enormous success on Broadway, and was even adapted to film. Two decades later, Thurber wrote and frequently starred as himself in the 1960 play, “A Thurber Carnival,” which also had a successful run on Broadway.
As a child, Thurber was fond of drawing pictures, though he never considered himself an artist. He once told Alistair Cooke that his technique hadn’t changed since he was seven years old. Thurber was hired at the New Yorker as a managing editor; his work as a cartoonist came to light when friend and colleague E. B. White rescued some of his discarded doodlings from the wastebasket and showed them to the magazine’s art editor, who accepted them for publication. These early cartoons, with their pared-down drawings in which all the men are bald, all the women are not bald, and all the animals are observant, became the prototypes for the magazine’s later cartoons. Experts have since judged that the early short pieces and drawings done for the New Yorker contain his best work.
During the 1940’s Thurber turned to writing fables, a play and children’s books. In “The Last Flower,” (1940), he created a futuristic picture book fable for adults, telling a tale of World War XII and what survived: a man, a woman, and a single flower. From these three items, love emerges in the wasteland. This book was viewed as Thurber’s message of despair—his satirical look at the human condition plagued by war and incapable of learning how to avoid it.
Thurber had his dark side; not everything he wrote or drew is funny. In the serious vein, he was strong enough in his political beliefs to decline the offer of an honorary degree from Ohio State University on the grounds that his alma mater was too comfortable with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s un-American activities witch hunt.
He did not wish to be mistaken for a male chauvinist, though there are some memorable nagging wives in his cast of characters. The battle of the sexes, often his theme, led him to clarify that women are not the central target of domestic satire. He wrote, “If I have sometimes seemed to make fun of woman, I assure you it has only been for the purpose of egging her on.” Women’s impatience with sleazy politics and war, he mused, might be our only salvation after all.
In the end, his 40-plus years of writing did what the best and most memorable writing can do, and that is to make people think and let them enjoy. Thurber died in New York on November 2, 1961. His ashes are buried in Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus.