In celebration of Thurber

September 08, 1994|By Neil Grauer

BAD NEWS about the U.S. Postal Service seems to be the only thing regarding it that travels fast these days.

Baltimore's mail delivery is dismal; millions of letters go undelivered for months even in the nation's capital; little more than half of Man hattan's mail arrives on time; Chicago, a communications hub, has been a sink-hole of inefficiency; electronic competitors from faxes to e-mail appear to be rendering letters obsolete.

Well, not quite.

The Postal Service has figures showing that the volume of "consumer-to-consumer" mail actually has gone up, growing from 7.1 billion pieces in 1988 to an estimated 7.3 billion pieces this year.

Stationers and pen manufacturers peg their advertisements on the concept that with all the electronic substitutes now available, personal letters are assuming increased importance both as private and business communications.

If, indeed, a resurgence in letter-writing is evident and the cachet of personal correspondence is being renewed, it is perhaps more appropriate than the Postal Service imagines for it to be issuing a stamp this Saturday celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of James Thurber.

Although renowned as one of the greatest American humorists of the 20th century, Thurber was far more than just the creator of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Fables for Our Time," and hundreds of hilarious cartoons. He was also a prodigious user of postage stamps, a tireless letter-writer who maintained a voluminous correspondence despite a heavy workload and other handicaps.

Those who are reluctant letter-writers today may complain that a multitude of impediments prevents them from corresponding by mail. Thurber overcame the most formidable obstacle imaginable: for the last 20 years of his life he was blind.

Imprisoned in a milky mist of diffuse light, Thurber demonstrated extraordinary tenacity, as well as an impressive memory, by composing letters, stories and even books in his head, revising them mentally, and then dictating them to his wife or secretaries. Ultimately, he wrote more books after he went blind than he had before losing his sight. And he faithfully kept up his correspondence with friends, fans and even those whose letters to him were annoying.

As a cartoonist whose drawings were as curiously primitive as they were sophisticated, Thurber was used to having the artistic merits of his creations questioned. He even questioned them himself.

But when the proud mother of a small boy sent him examples of her child's doodles, saying they were every bit as good as Thurber's cartoons, he replied: "Your son certainly can draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn't been through as much."

At least one letter Thurber wrote had a profound impact on modern American literature. In 1944 or 1945, a young fan then aged 13 or 14 wrote him to say how much he enjoyed Thurber's books.

One volume in particular, "Men, Women and Dogs," published in 1943, was especially influential, the young fan recalled years later. It spoke to the youngster "of New York, of sophistication, of amusing adult misery, of carefree creativity [I could see that Thurber had a lot of trouble fitting his furniture around his people but hadn't let it bother him], of nervous squiggles given permanence and celebrity by the intervening miracle of printer's ink. This struck me as a super way to live, to be behind such a book."

Thurber responded to that teenage fan by sending him a drawing. The youngster, inspired to become a writer, framed that treasure and has taken it with him everywhere since. Today it is not 10 feet from his writing desk.

And it is at this writing desk that John Updike continues producing the books, essays and poems that make him one of today's finest literary craftsmen.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and author of "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber," to be published this fall by the University of Nebraska Press.

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