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James Thurber

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James Thurber

James Thurber
James Thurber in 1954
Born James Grover Thurber
(1894-12-08)December 8, 1894
Columbus, Ohio, U.S.
Died November 2, 1961(1961-11-02) (aged 66)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Resting place
Occupation Humorist
Nationality American
Period 1929–1961
Genre short stories, cartoons, essays
Subject humor, language
Notable works My Life and Hard Times,
My World and Welcome to It

James Grover Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961) was an American cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit. Thurber was best known for his cartoons and short stories, published mainly in The New Yorker magazine and collected in his numerous books. One of the most popular humorists of his time, Thurber celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people. In collaboration with his college friend, Elliott Nugent, he wrote the Broadway comedy, The Male Animal, later adapted into a film, which starred Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.


Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes "Mame" (née Fisher) Thurber on December 8, 1894. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His father, a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor, is said to have been the inspiration for the small, timid protagonist typical of many of his stories. Thurber described his mother as a "born comedian" and "one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known." She was a practical joker, on one occasion pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.[1]

Thurber had two brothers, William and Robert. Once, while playing a game of William Tell, his brother shot James in the eye with an arrow, and Thurber lost that eye. This injury would later cause him to become almost entirely blind. Unable in his childhood to partake in sports and other activities because of his injury, he elaborated a creative mind which he then used to express himself in writings.[1] Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran suggests Thurber's imagination may be partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition that causes complex visual hallucinations in otherwise mentally healthy people who have suffered some level of visual loss.[2]

From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended The Ohio State University, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He never graduated from the university because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course.[3] In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.[4]

Thurber's house in Columbus

From 1918 to 1920, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the Embassy of the United States, Paris, France. On returning to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed current books, films, and plays in a weekly column called "Credos and Curios", a title that later would be given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber returned to Paris during this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.[4]

Move to New York

In 1925, Thurber moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E.B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of Thurber's drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication; White inked-in some of these earlier drawings to make them reproduce better for the magazine, and years later expressed deep regret that he had done such a thing. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.

Marriage and family

Thurber was married twice. In 1922, Thurber married Althea Adams. The marriage was troubled and ended in divorce in May 1935.[1] They had a daughter Rosemary together, and lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. He remarried in June 1935 to Helen Wismer (1902-1986).


Thurber was stricken with a blood clot on the brain on October 4, 1961, and underwent emergency surgery. The operation was successful, but he died, aged 66, due to complications from pneumonia which set in. His last words, aside from the repeated word "God," were "God bless... God damn", according to his wife, Helen.[5]

Legacy and honors


Uniquely among major American literary figures, he became equally well-known for his simple, surrealistic drawings and cartoons. Both his skills were helped along by the support of, and collaboration with, fellow New Yorker staff member E. B. White, who insisted that Thurber's sketches could stand on their own as artistic expressions. Thurber drew six covers and numerous classic illustrations for The New Yorker.


Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life, but he also wrote darker material, such as "The Whip-Poor-Will", a story of madness and murder. His best-known short stories are "The Dog That Bit People" and "The Night the Bed Fell"; they can be found in My Life and Hard Times, which was his "break-out" book. Among his other classics are The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Catbird Seat, A Couple of Hamburgers, The Greatest Man in the World, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox. The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze has several short stories with a tense undercurrent of marital discord. The book was published the year of his divorce and remarriage. His 1941 story "You Could Look It Up",[6] about a three-foot adult being brought in to take a walk in a baseball game, is said to have inspired Bill Veeck's stunt with Eddie Gaedel with the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Veeck claimed an older provenance for the stunt, but was certainly aware of the Thurber story.[7]

In addition to his other fiction, Thurber wrote over seventy-five fables, some of which were first published in "The New Yorker" (1939), then collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). These were short, featured anthropomorphic animals (e.g. The Little Girl and the Wolf, his version of Little Red Riding Hood) as main characters, and ended with a moral as a tagline. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, The Unicorn in the Garden, which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn, which doesn't speak. Thurber's fables were satirical, and the morals served as punchlines as well as advice to the reader, demonstrating "the complexity of life by depicting the world as an uncertain, precarious place, where few reliable guidelines exist."[8]

His stories also included several book-length fairy tales, such as The White Deer (1945), The 13 Clocks (1950) and The Wonderful O (1957). The latter was one of several of Thurber's works illustrated by Marc Simont. Thurber's prose for The New Yorker and other venues included numerous humorous essays. A favorite subject, especially toward the end of his life, was the English language. Pieces on this subject included "The Spreading 'You Know'," which decried the overuse of that pair of words in conversation, "The New Vocabularianism", "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?", and many others. His short pieces – whether stories, essays or something in between – were referred to as "casuals" by Thurber and the staff of The New Yorker.[9]

Thurber wrote a biographical memoir about the founder/publisher of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, entitled The Years with Ross (1958). He wrote a five-part New Yorker series, between 1947 and 1948, examining in depth the radio soap opera phenomenon, based on near-constant listening and researching over the same period. Leaving nearly no element of these programs unexamined, including their writers, producers, sponsors, performers, and listeners alike, Thurber republished the series in his anthology, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), under the section title "Soapland." The series was one of the first to examine such a pop-culture phenomenon in depth. Thurber's wit made it more than a sober piece of what would later be called investigative reporting.


While Thurber drew his cartoons in the usual fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, his failing eyesight later required changes. He drew them on very large sheets of paper using a thick black crayon (or on black paper using white chalk, from which they were photographed and the colors reversed for publication). Regardless of method, his cartoons became as noted as his writings; they possessed an eerie, wobbly feel that seems to mirror his idiosyncratic view on life. He once wrote that people said it looked like he drew them under water. Dorothy Parker, contemporary and friend of Thurber, referred to his cartoons as having the "semblance of unbaked cookies". The last drawing Thurber completed was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which was featured as the cover of the July 9, 1951, issue of Time.[10] The same drawing was used for the dust jacket of The Thurber Album (1952).


  • In 1960, Thurber fulfilled a long-standing desire to be on the professional stage and played himself in 88 performances of the revue [13] Thurber won a special Tony Award for the adapted script of the Carnival.[14]
  • In 1969-70, a full series based on Thurber's writings and life, entitled My World and Welcome to It, was broadcast on NBC. It starred William Windom as the Thurber figure. Featuring animated portions in addition to live actors, the show won a 1970 Emmy Award as the year's best comedy series. Windom won an Emmy as well. He went on to perform Thurber material in a one-man stage show.

Popular culture

  • On an episode of Norm Macdonald's video podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, Norm tells a story in which comedian Larry Miller admits that his biggest influence in comedy was Thurber.



Posthumous books

  • Credos and Curios, 1962 (ed. Helen W. Thurber)
  • Thurber & Company, 1966 (ed. Helen W. Thurber)
  • Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1981 (ed. Helen W. Thurber & Edward Weeks)
  • Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, 1989 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • Thurber On Crime, 1991 (ed. Robert Lopresti)
  • People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber, 1994 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (anthology), 1996, (ed. Garrison Keillor), Library of America, ISBN 978-1-883011-22-2
  • The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, 2001 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • The Thurber Letters, 2002 (ed. Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber)

Short stories

  • "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife"

See also


  1. ^ a b c "James (Grover) Thurber (1894–1961)". Authors' Calendar. 2004. Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  2. ^ Ramachandran, V.S.; Sandra Blakeslee (1988). Phantoms in the Brain. HarperCollins. pp. 85–7. 
  3. ^ Thurber House. "James Thurber". Archived from the original on 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2007-10-14. 
  4. ^ a b Thurber House. "James Thurber: His Life & Times". Retrieved 2007-10-14. 
  5. ^  
  6. ^ "You Could Look It Up", The Saturday Evening Post, April 5, 1941, pp. 9–11, 114, 116]
  7. ^  
  8. ^ "The Modern Fable: James Thurber's Social Criticisms", by Ruth A. Maharg, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 1984, pp. 72-73.
  9. ^ Sorel, Edward (1989-11-05). "The Business of Being Funny". The New York Times (Time Inc.). Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  10. ^ "Time Magazine Cover: James Thurber – July 9, 1951". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present (Time Inc.). 1951-07-09. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  11. ^ "Priceless Gift of Laughter". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present (Time Inc.). 1951-07-09. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  12. ^ "The Unicorn in the Garden". The Big Cartoon Database. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  13. ^  
  14. ^ "A Thurber Carnival". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved 2008-03-01. 
  15. ^ "Olbermann signs off msnbc - Entertainment - Television -". Retrieved 2012-05-06. 
  16. ^ Thurber, James (January 8, 1949). "File and Forget".  

Further reading

Biographies of Thurber

  • Bernstein, Burton. 1975. Thurber. William Morrow & Co.
  • Fensch, Thomas. 2001. The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber.
  • Grauer, Neil A. 1994. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. University of Nebraska Press.
  • Kinney, Harrison. 1995. James Thurber: His Life and Times. Henry Holt & Co.

Literature review

  • Holmes, Charles S. 1972. The Clocks Of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber Atheneum.

External links

  • InterviewParis ReviewThe
  • The Thurber House website
  • (Bergen County, NJ), December 17, 1995The Record"Thurber's World (and Welcome To it)" by Bill Ervolino,
  • Pathfinder: James Grover Thurber – Thurber links portal
  • – ballet after an idea by James Thurber; 1975The Last Flower
  • Origins of "the Thurber Dog"
  • Encyclopedia of World BiographyJames Thurber Biography,
  • magazine digital archiveNew Yorker—Abstracts of 1,758 Thurber short stories, poems, cartoons and commentaries
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