James (Grover) Thurber (1894-1961)

American writer and cartoonist, whose best known characters are perhaps Walter Mitty, his snarling wife, and silently observing animals. Turber's prime interest was in the small events of human life, dealing withthe frustrations of modern world. His stories have influenced later writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller. Thurber is generally acknowledged as the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain (1835-1910).

James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, as the son of Charles Leander (later surnamed Lincoln), aminor politician and Mary Thurber, a formidable eccentric and practical joker, whom her son depicted in his autobiographical stories MY LIFE AND HARD TIMES (1933). Partially blinded by a childhood accident - his brother William shot an arrow at him. When he was unable to participate in games and sports with other children, he developed a rich fantasy life, which would serve to inspire his later fiction. Thurber did not service in the WW I, but studied between 1913 and 1918 at Ohio State University. He worked then as a code clerc in Washington, DC, and at the US embassy in Paris. In the early 1920s he worked as a journalist for several newspapers, and also lived in Paris writing for Chicago Tribune and trying to further his writing career.

In 1926 Thurber went to New York City, where he was a reporter for the Evening Post. Next year he joined Harold Ross's newly established The New Yorker, where he found his clear, concise prose style and where fifteen of his books first appeared. His gift of wry humor sent his reputation soaring like a rocket. Later Thurber published his memoirs from this period under the title THE YEARS WITH ROSS (1959).

Thurber's first book, IS SEX NECESSARY?, appeared in 1929. It was jointly written with fellow New Yorker staffer E.B. White. The book made fun of contemporary theorists who had been attempting ro reduce sex to a scientifically understandable level and European psychoanalysis, among others Freud's theories. The book presented Thurber's drawings on the subject, and instantly established him as a true comedic talent.

In the 1950s Thurber published modern fairy tales for children, THE 13 CLOCKS (1950), and THE WONDERFUL O (1957), which both gained huge success. Thurber's children's tales display a cynical undercurrent, and show at times a great deal of bitterness. The New Yorker staff Thurber left alredy in 1933, but remained still its contributor. His eyesight become worse in the 1940s, and by the 1950s his blindness was nearly total. He received a Litt.D. in 1950 from Kenyon College, one from Yale in 1953 and an L.H.D. (honorary) from Williams College in 1951.

Thurber was married twice, and had one daughter. In later years Thurber lived with his wife Helen Wismer at West Cornwall, Connecticut. Her devoted nursing enabled him to maintain his literary production and humour to the end. Thurber died of pneumonia on November 2, 1961, in New York.

During his career Thurber experimented many typer of writing. His poor eyesight gave several times basis for headlong flight into fantastic missapprehensions, where common objectt became like things from the Wonderland. Thurber also was inspired by confusion with language as in the story 'The Black Magic of Barney Haller' (1935), where his handyman Haller's gibberish leads Thurber into a linguistic fantasy. On the other hand Thurber's theme of war between men and women have not been swallowed by his feminist readers.

Thurber's 1947 story 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' was taken up by psychologist and 'Walter Mitty Syndrome' was put forward in a British medical journal as a clinical condition, which manifested itself in compulsive fantasising. The title cgaracter is a meek, mild-mannered, henpecked husband who escapes his everyday existence to heroic fantasies.

In addition to his fame as writer, Thurber was a highly respected artist and cartoonist as well. His surreal, minimalist sketches were regular feature of the New Yorker, where they became prototypes of the sophisticated cartoons.

For further reading: James Thurber by R.E. Morsberger (1964); The Art of James Thurber by R.C. Tobias (1969); The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber by C.S. Holmes (1972); Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Charles S. Holmes (1974); Thurber: A Biography by Burton Bernstein (1975); Thurber's Anatomy of Confusion by C.M. Kenney (1984); Conversations with James Thurber, ed by Thomas Fensch (1989); Remember Laughter by Nell A. Grauer (1994); James Thurber: His Life and Times by Harrison Kinney (1995) - Note: Young Truman Capote worked also at the New Yorker, but according to his reminiscences he was a general dogsbody who helped Thurber to and from meetings, or escorted Thurber to his trysts with one of the magazine's secretaries.

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