- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

THURBER COUNTRY: A COLLECTION OF PIECES ABOUT MALES AND FEMALES, MAINLY OF OUR OWN SPECIES

By James Thurber

Simon & Schuster, $25, 277 pages



THE THURBER LETTERS: THE WIT, WISDOM, AND SURPRISING LIFE OF JAMES THURBER

Edited by Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber

Simon & Schuster, $40, 798 pages

REVIEWED BY BART MCDOWELL

Few readers believed James Thurber when he wrote that one of his relatives died of Dutch elm disease. Now, the humorist’s own death, certified officially in 1961, seems just as implausible. James Thurber lives on, hilariously, in these books of his essays, letters, and drawings.

The funny thing is that he is still funny. Humor often goes stale — consider the Shakespeare puns. And in some details, Thurber’s references seem anachronistic. A hostess empties ash trays, closes a steamer trunk, or “dismisses the servants.” (In the last half-century, so many of us gentlefolk have reduced the size of our staff.) But his major themes still ring true — and truly absurd.

Where better than in bureaucratic Washington can one appreciate Thurber’s negotiations with the “labyrinthine process of officialdom.” Always there is, as he notes, “the Little Man, the bewildered man, the nervous, beaten, wife-crossed man.” Thurber wrote about strife between the sexes long before Venus and Mars. He romps and cavorts with the English language — and collapses into pratfall French. His drawings, so wisely naive, so stingy with ink and line, are a circus of human foible. And always, always, there are dogs: perplexed. besieged, best friend of that other beset species, humankind.

But for all his fantastic whimsy, James Thurber was a man well grounded in his own Midwest. He was born in Columbus, Ohio. “He had a powerful mother and a Walter Mitty kind of dreaming father,” writes Lillian Ross, who was a colleague of Thurber at the New Yorker. Her introduction to the reissue of the 1949 “Thurber Country” traces her friend’s life, from the boyhood accident that cost him an eye, to his old age, “walking uncertainly, feeling his way … when he was having severe visual difficulties.”

His vision was keen when he worked as a reporter, and his news beats were legendary — among them, an exclusive interview with Thomas Alva Edison on his 79th birthday. Thurber never was a member of the Algonquin Round Table set; he left the repartee to colleagues like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and other thirsty friends. He was not “interested in being gossiped about as “fabled.” He worked hard and wrote with great care. As a result, his essays move with effortless ease.

In a letter to New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Thurber scolds his boss for a comma inserted into his manuscript.: “that comma is the only change ever made in a MS of mine without my knowledge about it … but if youse guys want to go around sticking in commas you know where you can stick them.”

The newly collected “The Thurber Letters” edited by Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber begins with early schoolboy notes and his letters home to his parents. His close friend and fraternity brother at Ohio State University was Elliott Nugent, later a successful actor and Thurber’s collaborator as a playwright. Their correspondence shows Thurber growing up — gradually, gradually — from a boyish striver and lovelorn naif, to a wide-eyed trainee as a code clerk with the State Department in Washington, “this lovely languorous war capital,” as he called it. He bravely tries out some scaffold humor about the influenza epidemic: “All one sees here is nurses and hearses and all one hears is curses and worse.”

Then he is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Paris where “a history of cafe nights would fill a monograph … Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything.” He writes an enormously long letter to three Red Cross girls being sent to Rumania. (In 1918, one could call these young women girls.) He notes that “a train taking an American Red Cross girl to Bucharest is carrying a good thing too far.”

By the time Thurber was sent home to Columbus, Ohio, he had already decided that “the old road of life can mean only on thing, writing … I have … no assurance of success, even of ability.” But “I am not the ineffectual boy of Washington days.”

When he starts as a reporter on the Columbus Dispatch his letters grow shorter, then he is working for the New York Post and finally he is hired by the New Yorker. He counts sundry sweethearts by letter, cultivates and quarrels with friends and relatives.

His letters sprawl as he travels and finds whole new situations for satire, fun and bafflement. Here is the adoring father of his daughter Rosemary, and here the man of courage facing blindness — defending himself with humor. (“I once tried to feed a nut to a faucet thinking it was a squirrel … Sometimes I can’t read anything smaller than a quarantine sign.” His letters grow longer and more discursive after he starts dictating them to his secretary.

Unselfconsciously he reveals his work habits. “First drafts of my pieces sound twelve years old and only get going on the fourth rewrite… . The New Yorker’s trained addiction to formal punctuation would make this story a mess of fly specks.” The collection is, as editor Harrison Kinney notes, “an entertaining, informal form of autobiography.”

The best fun comes in “Thurber Country” and the undiluted, spare prose that Thurber drafted — four times over — and polished himself. Such is his art that it seems more spontaneous than letters dashed off in the heat of emotion.

Dipping into his memories from childhood — creative and caricatured memories — Thurber produces people like Aunt Wilma, who “had black agate eyes that moved restlessly and scrutinized everybody with bright suspicion.” She was easily confused by what she called figgerin’. “She would go over and over a column of numbers, her glasses far down on her nose, her lips moving soundlessly. To her, rapid calculation … was tainted with a kind of godlessness.” Aunt Wilma confronts the grocer over change for her one-dollar bill, and Thurber keeps the confusion going for a dozen funny pages.

In a piece entitled “My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage” the author concludes by saying “I have, indeed, left a number of loose ends here and there.” Along with some giddy anthropology.

In “The Interview,” a newsman tries to extract a story from a dotty, alcoholic author who boozily contemplates whether “life is worse living.” The defeated newsman leaves, throws away his notes. And then his pencil.

His sketch “File and Forget” is told in letters to and from a publisher. Another deals with correspondence to and from the Bureau of Customs. It is curious to compare these fourth-draft letters with those Thurber dashed off to friends, as published in the collected “Letters.” Some of them seem unfair to the man and his careful craft.

The reader will be grateful that no laundry lists are included. Almost everything else is. And the index has been as reverently compiled as Bible concordance. Now that at least one university has a Professor of Thurber Studies, it seems that academics are trying to kidnap James Thurber and his every quip. (“This joke is funny for the following eleven reasons.”) What a wonderful cartoon he could have made of that.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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