The tragedy of James Thurber.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 18 2003 3:33 PM

Blind Wit

James Thurber's tragedy.

Book cover

At the age of 15 or so, I picked up The Thurber Carnival and realized that I'd found my Pied Piper; I wanted to be James Thurber. I would follow those sentences anywhere. But Thurber, The New Yorker writer and cartoonist (author, famously, of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), had just passed his peak and was already descending into the total blindness that would embitter him and impair his writing. So, The Thurber Carnival was the perfect place to start, and it still is: It contains Thurber's essence and the best work he did in his pre-blind years—his cartoons and fables and those deadly little "casuals" from The New Yorker in which husbands and wives drove each other absolutely, unconditionally crazy, while huge silent dogs looked on like Buddhas, patiently waiting for the human race to come to its senses, or not, as the case may be.

Now we have The Thurber Letters, collected by Harrison Kinney and Rosemary Thurber, to give us a fuller picture of the man. Most people would, I suppose, if faced with the grim choice, prefer to take their chances as blind writers rather than as deaf composers. Homer, the Cyclops of literature, did OK. And Milton got a great poem out of blindness. But Thurber's letters seem to me inexpressibly sad, perhaps because one can perceive the blindness setting in slowly—and, having seen the back of his biography, one also knows that there will be no great poems, so to speak, deriving from it.

Where did Thurber's genius come from? Well, for starters, from the 1920s. Thurber's world cannot remotely be understood without understanding Prohibition, or the locker-room version of it: a plot brewed up by women and Protestant ministers while our soldiers were overseas, in order to end America's men-only culture and bring the boys all the way home, not just as far as the nearest saloon. (Later, Thurber would draw a cartoon of a man returning to a house that had actually turned into his wife.)

But Thurber's letters demonstrate once and for all that he was no simple-minded misogynist. Like his boss at The New Yorker Harold Ross (who thought that women teachers were to blame for everything wrong with the country but who hired more brilliant women writers than any editor I know of), Thurber loved and respected women. But he also understood that a state of war existed between the sexes and that this could provide him with what every artist prays for: perfect subject matter that he didn't even have to leave the house for. Thurber's classic series of sketches called The War Between Men and Women turns out to be mostly a spoof of war itself, with its endless cross-purposes, empty heroics, and matching betrayals. In fact, it could have been called All Quiet on the Bedroom Front.

Thurber, like many enlisted men, had seen "Paree," and it had given all his pieces a lick of sophistication new to American humor. In effect, he and his whole generation had used Paris as a species of finishing school where country boys like Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway could major in sophistication before bringing some home with them. There was never any question of anyone going back to the farm, of course, and so in the mid-'20s a bunch of these boys decided to start a magazine right there—and not just any old magazine, but the most sophisticated damn magazine in the whole world: "Not for the old lady in Dubuque," as its first issue trumpeted sophomorically. The New Yorker did turn out to be the most sophisticated magazine in the world, and the British in particular went nuts trying to imitate it.

Presumably, the plan had been simply to plug the magazine into the Broadway-Algonquin nexus and let the famous wits of those worlds do the talking, but the distinctive voice that finally emerged from the magazine came instead from the Buckeye code clerk James Thurber, writing an eccentric small-town-type gossip column called "The Talk of the Town," and also from the reclusive E.B. White, who always seemed to be hiding behind two front initials and a colorless last name. (Ross could scarcely believe these guys himself. "Look at them," he is alleged to have said, "My two best writers, One can't see to cross the street and the other one is afraid to.")

But in any game of Survivor among the early New Yorker staff, White was the surest bet because to a crucial extent he invented James Thurber. But nobody could have invented Thurber's uncanny ear for the off-the-wall phrases and one-line captions that came to constitute the magazine's real trademark. The exact proportions of White's importance are hard to fix, because, unlike his partner, White seems to have avoided credit for everything. But at the very least he picked up Thurber's doodles of men and women one day and saw their value. The two men then did a book together called Is Sex Necessary?, and Thurber's double career, as writer and comic, was launched.

For one decade everything seemed to go right, and Thurber's letters from those years are wonderfully fluent and lighthearted, full of funny, made-up names and hilarious wordplay. The improbable success of his doodles had taken the heat off his writing, and the result was totally original and inimitable. It wasn't great writing as such or pictures that you could measure against anyone else's—it was a world that looked like one thing and sounded like another. It seemed as though Thurber's embattled little man had opened the wrong door and stumbled upon a modernist breakthrough. And it was the accidental nature of the breakthrough that would make it so hard for him to put it together again. Because as his second eye began to fail seriously in the early 1940s (he'd lost vision in the first eye in a childhood accident), he seemed suddenly unsure of what he had been doing right—and of whether he could continue to do it.

He allowed himself to get drunk on critical praise, as well as plain drunk, and unfortunately he was a lousy drunk in both senses: angry with alcohol and pompous from praise. By this time, he was Thurber the Great and had certain obligations, and some of his later letters begin to sound suspiciously like fair copies of last night's drunken rages: This, they proclaim, is what a great man like James Thurber should be thinking and saying.

His writing began to sound less and less like the blithe spirit of the great middle years. For a while, he could still do it the old way from memory, using stories and images he'd saved for a rainy day. Then it was gone. There's a chilling moment early on in the letters when, as his second eye fails, he says he can still read the typewriter keys but not the results on the page. Perhaps that was the turning point. Some writers really need to look at their prose as well as hear it.

Maybe Thurber's last years were not quite as bad as they seem on paper. Certainly his steady drumbeat of complaints in the letters seems fairly standard for a New Yorker writer of the period. Grumbling was the house style, and Ross saw to it that his people always had plenty to grumble about by paying shoe-pinching royalties and editing like one of his dreaded schoolmarms. Also he used to reject even his stars just often enough to maintain maximum jumpiness. Later, Thurber would talk about how well he and Ross had worked together, but I surmise that this was mainly because he'd been riding so high at the time and was awfully easy to be nice to. It would be Ross' successor, William Shawn, who would inherit the delicate task of taking Thurber down a peg or two without bruising his self-importance.

Theoretically at least, The New Yorker still needed him, because his name still sold magazines. But he didn't need it. He began to write more and more books and pieces for less fussy magazines—pieces in particular on the state of American humor, about which he had practically nothing to say except, in effect, "I'm unhappy." Talent can retrace its steps and tell you how it got there. Genius is just there or it isn't.

Nevertheless, for 10 great years, he had had an extraordinary gift by the tail, and the whole world knew it, and who's to say it wasn't worth it? And one pleasant surprise that the letters suggest is that the gift itself never quite died. It turns up occasionally in the last letters as good as new. Since Thurber seems to have written letters the way kids today make phone calls, Harrison Kinney has, I think wisely, carved out just a few categories, so that while whole bits of Thurber may be missing, we do get complete pictures of his relations to colleagues and kinfolk and at last some sense of his second life in Bermuda. (I'll pass over Thurber's love letters here with just two glancing points.) We also get samples of his care and his courtesy to strangers he corresponded with, one of whom would turn out to be Peter DeVries, later his great protégé and probably the truest friend he ever had.

So, I don't feel a fan's protective urge to warn you off the letters. In fact, I myself found that I liked him very much on some pages and couldn't stand him on others. In other words, it was like meeting a real person, who is getting through his own particular hell any way he can.

Wilfrid Sheed, novelist and essayist, is writing a book on the great American songwriters.