The years with Thurber

I have a long-dead great uncle who left behind a small and interesting library. I read most of it too early to understand anything. I regret it now because it is going to take a super-human effort to read the Russians again since they depressed me when I was 12. A word of advice: If you know any ten year olds who think they want to read War and Peace, distract them with 'Look, birdie!' and hide the bloody book.

Credos and Curios, by James Thurber was one of the few books that intrigued me right from the beginning and draws me back year after year.  I was still in school when I first read it and was blown away by the elegance and style that I could see dimly through eyes more accustomed to juicy murder mysteries. Credos is a post-humous collection of his essays and considerably darker than the rest of his work, though Thurber is frequently disturbing. I put it back in the shelf and promptly forgot him.

A few years later I was doing Macbeth in college and our pleasantly absent-minded teacher (who could not remember the name of the king in Oedipus Rex and told us that Oedipus killed his mother and married his father) read the Macbeth Murder mystery to us. Since we had been drinking the play line by line for two months, not a single woman in that class of 60 failed to see how brilliant that piece was. We sighed with satisfaction when she finished.

Not being a Lit student I had a lot of time to read in college and began hunting for more Thurber. Another member of the English department was something of a Thurber expert and lent me Fables For Our Time. I posted one of those stories here a while ago. Its quite easy to get hooked on Thurber, the way I did. As someone who wrote alongside E B White (of Elements of Style) one would expect that the mechanics of his writing is impeccable and his erudition casual.  Not something you can say about his drawing abilities. Dorothy Parker can't be blamed for comparing his cartoons to half-baked  cookies because they all look like hopeless doodles. (Thurber on the subject: "Some people thought my drawings were done under water; others that they were done by moonlight. But mothers thought that I was a little child or that my drawings were done by my granddaughter. So they sent in their own children's drawings to The New Yorker, and I was told to write these ladies, and I would write them all the same letter: 'Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn't been through as much.")

The gestalt effect of Thurber's work is not glibly defined. Often it is eerie and disquieting without any perceptible reason. There is a surreal quality to his cartoons that makes you stare for far longer than one would imagine. Thurber is the kind of writer you want to inflict on people because you want to see other people with the same half-smiling half-worried expression. So every now and then I ask people, 'Do you like James Thurber?' and hope for the best. I asked MP who has forgotten more books than I can hope to read. MP's response tickled me as much as it tickled her in each telling. While she was living in Vermont she went to the Thurber house in Columbus, Ohio. She was thrilled to bits to see the stone statues of the famous Thurber dogs in the garden and the statue of the unicorn nearby. She then spoke to the care-taker of the house who revealed herself to be a descendent of Emily Dickenson.

More recently I have been reading My Years with Ross which is a phenomenal work of literary history. Thurber's biography of Harold Ross the founder of the The New Yorker does not get into 'the David Copperfield crap' that Holden despised.  Instead you get stories about hundreds of writers who worked for Ross alongside Thurber, the smell and sound of eccentricity, whimsy and genius. You get the story of the pell-mell growth of the The New Yorker and the literary scene in early 20th century United States. This is the world of  Dorothy Parker,  Ogden Nash,  Truman Capote, SJ Perelman, The Marx Brothers, James Cain and of course Shirley Jackson. (Jackson's story The Lottery is supposed to have resulted in the an avalanche of mail, a good number cancelling their New Yorker subscriptions.)

You get bizarre lists, notes on editorial policy and rejection slips and everybody's preoccupation with grammar , what was permissible to print, (Adultery was ok, homosexuality dubious) and most importantly what was really witty.  Actually, it seems less preoccupation than fascinated obsession with the fiddly sub-processes of writing and publishing. Not a book to read at one stretch but lovely to dip into. And an excellent time-machine.


Newer Post Older Post Home