The Not-So-Secret Life of James Thurber
A fat new collection of letters continues the steady fascination in one of America’s foremost humorists.
The Thurber Letters: The wit, wisdom and surprising life of James Thurber
Harrison Kinney, Editor, with Rosemary A. Thurber
Simon & Schuster
“In all the reviews of the recent books I’ve read, nobody seems to be having a good solid happy time, or even a fair to middling contented time, but to be moosing and smurzing and skulking through life, got down by something or somebody.”
In the spirit of these words of James Thurber, one of America’s best known humorists, cartoonists, and dreamers, I summon to the ears of the reader the lush sound of Stephan Grappelli’s 1930s jazz fiddle recordings; hopefully, in this way, moosing will be kept to a minimum. For some reason, the sweet, melancholic wandering of Grappelli’s fiddle seems the perfect background for the carnival rhythm and loving wit-music of Thurber’s pen. Listening to this music was the only way I could effuse a review of The Thurber Letters, a new volume of Thurber’s lifelong correspondence. But truth be told, you needn’t even like the fiddle to “have a good solid happy time” with the collection.
The Thurber Letters beautifully shows the arc of the life of a man through his correspondence with some of the most important cultural figures of his time (the volume includes letters to Robert Benchley, Rudy Vallee, Robert Sherwood, Peter DeVries, Groucho Marx, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, as well as hundreds to E.B. and Katharine White) and with his family and close friends. We see a clueless Thurber in his undergraduate days, naively yet confidently writing to a friend, “As to plans, I don’t yet know, I am certain that very soon I will start out…on the old road of life, which in my case can mean but one thing, writing.” We follow him to Paris (which he calls his “post-graduate course in Everything”) and his first sexual experience, see him somewhat arbitrarily gain a job at The New Yorker, where his friendship with White leads to his first book. In the early 1930s he’s broke, lovesick, and the life of the party, rubbing elbows with elite literati at the Algonquin Round Table. He has a baby, eye operations, and a breakdown. He gains fame, goes blind. Finally we see his descent into a lonely and eccentric old age, realizing the imminence of death and writing sadly to a friend: “Our generation is melting away like snow in the sun.”
The new volume of letters, edited by Thurber biographer Harrison Kinney with the assistance of Thurber’s daughter Rosemary, is the ultimate exhaustive source of personal information on Thurber. At over 800 pages, it is nearly three times the length of 1984’s Selected Letters of James Thurber. Rosemary and her daughter both tracked down and proofread many of the letters. Kinney presents the letters chronologically, grouping them into five sections: The Emerging Years, The Wandering Years, The Triumphant Years, The Challenging Years, and The Twilight Years. He also writes a helpful introduction to Thurber’s life and occasionally inserts short expository comments before letters. He also includes a few rare photographs and cartoons.
Though most of the content is entertaining, parts of the book are real slogs, and readers are forewarned that the earlier letters are far from the strongest. Thurber’s cutesy letters home to college buddy Elliott Nugent, penned in Washington D.C. and Paris, are packed with rasping sillinesses and tedious descriptions of overcharged adolescent love affairs. Consider the opening line of his first letter to Nugent: “Time has not yet served to efface your blonde handsomeness from my retentive memory, old keed. I have been in the capitol of our lil’ old nation just one week today, and every now and then I spare a moment for reminiscence on the college days etc.” Then again, it was 1918 and Victorian inanity hadn’t yet worn itself out. The letters get more honest and readable when Thurber calms his posing and delivers his playfulness in a more sophisticated voice. Furthermore, some of the letters to publishers and editorial staff can become tiresome. Many of Thurber’s more amusing turns, however, are minute and buried within paragraphs of folderol, so a careless read is a mistake.
The first really fascinating correspondence appears in Thurber’s letters to Ann Honeycutt, a woman he became romantically obsessed with (after being introduced to her by E.B. White) but who, in the end, snubbed him. This series is at once charming and heartbreaking. In one extremely touching, not-to-be-missed letter, Thurber draws Honeycutt a cartoon diagram of his heart and its contents. After Thurber realizes his love is unrequited and that his current marriage is falling apart, he writes to Honeycutt: “Heartsick is a flower that grows in Connecticut. I have a bed of heartsick, fever-sore, megrims, falling arches, baby’s yell, love-in-a-slip, vagina, Cancerbury bells, hangovers, pain-in-the-ass, and varicose.” Together with the letters to White and to daughter Rosemary, the Honeycutt letters are the highlight of the book.
Other interesting exchanges include Thurber’s periodic letters to Malcolm Cowley, then editor of The New Republic, in which he expresses his great dislike for “literary communists,” authors whom he felt were just showing off their intellect and writing ability rather than fighting for a political cause. In closing one letter, Thurber makes this acid remark, regarding Cowley’s fondness for the proletariat: “Love and kisses to you and / the wife and the baby, and / if they were only starving / wouldn’t that be realer and / better?”
For readers who come to the book with an interest in the development and culture of the New Yorker magazine, Letters also provides some excellent material. Thurber was among the first hired when the magazine was formed, sharing an office with White, who became his close lifelong friend and literary mentor. His letters to Harold Ross and others on The New Yorker staff give real insight into the personal politics of the magazine and the changes that took place when “the new set” was hired. Thurber felt increasingly upset, irate, and alienated by this new regime of editors. Also, some of his scathing shorter letters to low-ranking New Yorker checkers and copyeditors, are wickedly hilarious and rank among the collection’s best.
On a more meditative level, the Letters provide a worthwhile glimpse into Thurber’s thoughts on and feelings toward comic writing; his observations on humor in general and on how his work fits within the genre are both extremely valuable. In these reflections, Thurber stresses that nearly all humor contains pathos; that it is moral and at times extremely serious in its message. His interest in the moral dimensions of humor manifested itself in his fables, a series of fabricated tales with subversive twists. Thurber maintains that his is a fundamentally serious viewpoint of life and is disappointed that no critic seemed to be able to grasp this. He mourns what he calls humor’s “decent into farce, a generally over-strident effort to entertain mindlessly.” He calls confusion about the human condition “the figure in the carpet of my kind of comedy.” Thurber continually strove to blend humor and tragedy in his work, and his letters are constructed with the same unassailable formula.
Even for newcomers to Thurber’s work, Letters is an entertaining, though lengthy, read. For the most part the letters are contextualized effectively with biographical remarks by the editor, though occasionally a few more comments about the identity of some of Thurber’s recipients, and about his references to early 20th century pop culture, would have been helpful. This, however, is a small failure. On the whole, the editing is competent and pleasantly non-invasive, allowing Thurber’s brilliance to shine and providing the reader with far more than just “a fair to middling contented time.”
Art by Jim Fingal