A poignant look at a literary giant

October 24, 1994|By John Goodspeed

REMEMBER LAUGHTER: A LIFE OF JAMES THURBER. By Neil A. Grauer. University of Nebraska Press. Illustrated. Index. 204 pages. $20.

SOME OF the very best American prose is the work of humorists who began as their careers as journalists -- the best, of course, is Mark Twain. Second or third on the list would have to be James Thurber, the subject of this exemplary little biography by Baltimore writer, Neil Grauer.

Even devoted Thurber lovers who have read other biographies of him (the last one was published nearly 20 years ago) will find more details about the bittersweet life of a writer who kept us laughing through some of our darkest hours.

Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894 and died in New York City in 1961. He may be best known for his ingeniously naive but profoundly sophisticated cartoons of wise dogs, perplexed men and domineering women. His prose, though, is fully as witty -- loaded with "jewels of English writing" as has been noted by columnist Russell Baker, himself a master humorist; sly, incisive, sometimes pointedly bittersweet or haunting, as noted in this book by Mr. Grauer, himself a good cartoonist and author of another admirable book about a whole pantheon of humorists -- "Wits and Sages" (1984).

Thirty books, most of them still in print, carry Thurber's name. The first is "Is Sex Necessary" (1929, co-authored with E. B. White). The last is "Thurber and Company" (1966, one of two of his works published posthumously). Some of the best known are "My Life and Hard Times" (1933), "The Male Animal" (1940, a play co-authored with Elliott Nugent), "Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated" (1940), "My World and Welcome to It" (1942), "The Thurber Carnival" (1945), "The White Deer" (1945) and "The Years with Ross" (1959).

Most of Thurber's pieces are brief, as befits the soul of wit. Most of them appeared first in The New Yorker -- then, as perhaps even now -- the wittiest of all American publications. Thurber joined the staff there in 1927 after working as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, the New York Evening Post and (in Europe) the Chicago Tribune. With E. B. White he wrote a lot of The New Yorker's most celebrated "Talk of the Town" essays; On his own, he produced some of its funniest and canniest profiles and satires. One of his best-known short stories, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," was first published in 1939 and later was made into a movie.

And he drew a number of The New Yorker's most famous cartoons -- e.g., the one of the seal sticking its head up behind a couple's bed as the wife says to the husband: "All right, have it your way -- you heard a seal bark!" "Remember Laughter" incorporates 12 Thurber cartoons, each one probably immortal, despite the fact that they appear to be the work of a child and were drawn by a man who was almost totally blind.

Problems with his vision dated from a childhood accident when his older brother shot an arrow into the 6-year-old Thurber's left eye while playing a game called "William Tell." His eccentric mother and perplexed father failed to get him properly treated. ,, Eventually, the ruined eye was removed too late to prevent sympathetic damage in the other eye. Thurber could barely see with it using a thick lens. He drew his cartoons with crayons on very large sheets of paper under brilliant lighting and wrote prose by hand, two or three words per page that were assembled and typed by a secretary. Five operations in the early 1940s failed to improve his sight, and he was completely blind for the last 10 years of his life. He drew his last cartoon in 1951 to illustrate a cover story about him in Time.

Thurber drew on his phenomenal memory and listening skills in the last years of his life to produce his only controversial book, "The Years with Ross," his version of working with Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, considered by many the greatest American magazine editor in history. Thurber apparently admired Ross, but his book also made it clear that the great editor was also somewhat ignorant, poorly read and illogical. E. B. White was apparently offended by that, and his long-time friendship with Thurber was never the same again.

Thurber was not entirely lovable himself. He had a terrible temper, made worse by his considerable drinking and, perhaps understandably, by his blindness, and he often raged at his friends and family. He never invited the brother who blinded him into his house (and who bragged about his own keen eyesight!), but he did send him money. He also helped support his other brother, his perplexed father (a minor bureaucrat) and his eccentric mother (who championed astrology and "flirted" with Christian Science). Thurber also philandered a lot. He was married twice and had a daughter by his first wife.

Did Thurber deserve a Nobel Prize for literature? He never got one, but in his later, bitter years, he apparently thought he should have.

Neil Grauer doesn't say whether or not he thinks so, but I'll say whether or not I do: Yes! If Sinclair Lewis deserved a Nobel, Thurber does. If William Faulkner does, James Thurber certainly does. His "The Unicorn in the Garden" and "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" tell us a lot more about ourselves in many, many fewer words, than "Main Street" or "The Sound and the Fury."

Thurber, by the way, hated the movie version of "Walter Mitty." I did too.

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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