James Thurber was the major humorist – a term he derides as “loose-fitting and ugly” – of mid-20th century America.
He also wrote for The New Yorker for many years. Ever since Tina Brown degraded the institution by politicizing it in the early 1990s, I have found most New Yorker writers either condescending or too precious by half. And wordy. Not so with Thurber, who got in and out earlier.
My last brush with Thurber was back in prep school, where we mounted a play based on his short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about his mock-heroic daydreams while accompanying his wife on shopping and beauty parlor forays in Waterbury, Connecticut.
I waited too long to rediscover him, not only as a humorist but as a serious and talented writer.
My Life and Hard Times is arguably the most concise and brilliant American memoir. In it Thurber’s home town of Columbus, Ohio receives the most loving and gimlet-eyed treatment, where the cast of characters (mostly Thurber’s immediately family) are fondly and humorously drawn through the refracting lens of a decade or two.
The nine vignettes, covering fewer than 90 pages in my edition, amplify an age of innocence, not only the author’s but also the country’s. Focused on family tales and those of his community, the memoir ends just before America’s crash into Europe’s War to End All Wars. As Thurber advises in A Note at the End,
The hard times of my middle years I pass over, leaving the ringing bells of 1918, with all their false promise, to mark the end of a special sequence. [p.85]
And hard middle years they were, in which the writer went blind. As he records:
At forty my faculties may have closed up like flowers at evening, leaving me unable to write my memoirs with a fitting and discreet inaccuracy… [p.xix]
In his preface, Thurber bemoans his decline in literal terms:
…my legs are beginning to go, things blur before my eyes, and the faces of the rose-lipped maids I knew in my twenties are misty as dreams. [p.xix]
Despite this hint of prurient interest in rose lips, when speaking of himself Thurber exudes a common-man decency long since gone:
Such a writer moves about restlessly wherever he goes, ready to get the hell out at the drop of a pie-pan or the lift of a skirt. [p.xx]
There is a certain nebbish and world-weary tone to his self-portrait. Which is appropriate, as his family members are both lovingly and comically portrayed, rich in human foibles.
The first story in the “sequence” is titled The Night the Bed Fell, which begins brightly, immediately establishing tone, style, and narrator voice:
I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. [p.3]
In the most brilliant of first paragraphs, Thurber begins More Alarms at Night with:
One of the incidents that I always think of first when I cast back over my youth is what happened the night that my father “threatened to get Buck.” This, as you will see, is not precisely a fair or accurate description of what actually occurred, but it is the way in which I and the other members of my family invariably allude to the occasion. [p.40]
He immediately expands out to the house, address, and city of such troubling events, ending the first paragraph with understated aplomb:
Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen and in which almost everything has. [p.40]
The theme to many stories is how induced chaos, mostly of the familial kind, is resolved through group huddles and the sum of distorted individual lenses. As dryly commented at the end of The Night the Bed Fell, Thurber is relieved when
The situation was finally put together like a gigantic jig-saw puzzle. [p.10]
The filter of memory – and personality – can deceive but also clarify.
Indeed, Thurber pioneers a kind of American magic realism in his homage to A Sequence of Servants, in which a maid shoots at a male visitor. Again, in one of Thurber’s immortal first paragraphs which immediately suck you in:
There was, among the mortals, Dora Gedd, a quiet, mousy girl of thirty-two who one night shot at a man in her room, throwing our household into an uproar that was equaled perhaps only by the goings-on the night that the ghost got in…. When he got to the second floor he rushed into my father’s room. It was this entrance, and not the shot or the shouting, that aroused father, a deep sleeper always. ‘Get me out of here!’ shouted the victim. This situation rapidly developed, from then on, into one of those bewildering involvements for which my family had, I am afraid, a kind of unhappy genius. [p.46]
The nostalgia, the rose-tinted charms of one’s family eccentricities, are mellowed with time and age. Thurber is quoted in the introduction as admitting that “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility,” [p.xv] in which a kind of literary alchemy takes place.
We learn in his brief biography that Thurber was an animated story-teller at dinner parties – mostly in cosmopolitan New York we should add – where his stories were refined over years of practiced re-telling. (There is a 15 year lapse between the 1918 bells and the 1933 publishing.)
In such a transformative process, that of storytelling, the memories gained significance and weight and import. When Thurber refers to how the family “finally put together like a gigantic jig-saw puzzle” the events of The Night the Bed Fell, he is touching not only on a collective, family memory-making (some would say family myth-making), but also on the writing process, of piecing together the highlights of a thousand discreet memories into a coherent whole.
It is a wonderfully self-contained world, Columbus, Ohio of the early 20th century. It is such an innocent one that police responding to the gun-wielding maid don’t even get angry when she takes a few shots at them. Human foibles are human foibles, and somehow we all understand.
But the cumulative impact, according to the narrator, is not so benign. Take a “situation” late in the sequence, a wild roller-coaster ride on the brand new Scarlet Tornado instigated by the manager who had no idea how to run the thing.
“I didn’t know you could run this thing!” I bawled at my companion, as we catapulted up a sixty-degree arch and looped headlong into space. “I didn’t either!” [p.83]
Such is the human condition, one has to conclude, yet the effects on Thurber’s sensitive soul are not short-lived:
It is the reason I shout in my sleep, refuse to ride on the elevated, keep jerking the emergency brake in cars other people are driving, have the sensation of flying like a bird when I first lie down, and in certain months can’t keep anything in my stomach. [p.83]
James Thurber went fearlessly where few mortals dare to tread – to the convoluted, chaotic memories of one family in a small mid-western city in the early 20th century – and came up with roses.
James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times, 1933, HarperPerennial, 1999, New York