I asked a younger colleague the other day, “Do you know who James Thurber is?”
“Yes, of course,” he quickly replied, but I nevertheless eyed him skeptically.
One of the false assumptions I harbor is that people who are younger than I do not know much about things that I do. They do not know, for example, about Thurber, the late humorist who was a newspaperman and press agent before he made a name for himself as a writer and cartoonist at The New Yorker and collaborated with E.B. White on a book titled “Is Sex Necessary?”
I’ve been thinking about Thurber lately because his collection, “The Thurber Carnival,” recently was exhumed from somewhere at home and placed within my reach. We’ve been sorting through boxes and shelves of books and deciding which will stay and which will be put out on the sidewalk for a sale in early June.
I wouldn’t dream of parting with anything by Thurber, whose essays, short stories and simple but sophisticated cartoons are as absurdly funny today as when they were created 80 or more years ago.
My first taste of Thurber came in school when we read the short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Thereafter, a mentor gave me a copy of “The Thurber Carnival,” and I became a devotée of the man from Ohio with the failing eyesight, unhappy marriages, weakness for alcohol and uncanny ability to make me laugh out loud.
In Thurber’s world, men are meek and vulnerable, women are dominant and predatory, and dogs are silent observers of the human condition.
Much of his humor relied on outrageous events in ordinary settings.
In one of his cartoons, a couple has answered the door and a young woman is saying, “Have you people got any .38 cartridges?” She is holding a pistol.
In another, a large woman is peering down at a small boy and demanding, “Are you the young man that bit my daughter?”
One more — and this one doesn’t need a picture: “And this is Tom Weatherby, an old beau of your mother’s. He never got to first base.”
One can speculate on how Thurber’s skewed view of men and women came to be. His mother was said to be strong and a great practical joker who once startled her guests by confessing that ordinarily she was kept locked in the attic because of her love of the postman.
More of Thurber’s home life can be found in his 1933 autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” in which he writes of a grandfather who is convinced the Civil War is still raging and a house maid who is constantly afraid she will be hypnotized.
James Grover Thurber died in 1961, just short of his 67th birthday, of complications from pneumonia.
A prize bearing his name recognizes excellence among contemporary humorists.
One of the recipients is a two-time winner, Ian Frazier, author of the book “Gone to New York: Adventures in the City” and of the “Cursing Mommy” columns in The New Yorker. The latter are satirical rants by a frequently inebriated woman whose targets include her husband, her children, her elderly father’s girlfriend and health care providers.
Thurber would approve.
Irv Dean is the Gazette’s city editor. Reach him by email to [email protected].