James Thurber published some two dozen books of stories, essays, and cartoons during his lifetime, but in the years since his death in 1961, he’s been known mostly as the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a slender tale that’s only six pages long. Millions of people know the story—or think they know it—even if they’ve never read it.
First published in 1939, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” follows the title character, a henpecked husband, as he daydreams more dramatic versions of himself, either as a military pilot, star surgeon, or defendant in a murder trial.
Hollywood has adapted the story twice, getting it wrong each time. The 1947 version starring Danny Kaye includes a subplot in which the real-life Mitty tangles with jewel thieves—a revision that, in juicing up Walter’s humdrum existence, destroys the interior logic of Thurber’s source material. Ben Stiller’s 2013 portrayal of Walter Mitty veers from Thurber even more, as the repressed hero decides to give up daydreaming to search out adventures worthy of Indiana Jones. What we get is an overblown homily on the virtues of self-actualization—James Thurber by way of Dale Carnegie.
The movie treatments really miss the magic of the original, which hints that Mitty is up to something more than mere escapism in his fantasies. His daydreams are works of art in themselves—self-contained worlds that become, in their vivid detail and gripping dialog, miniature masterpieces of the mind. Thurber seemed quite deliberate in referring to the secret life of Walter Mitty. The alternate universe that Mitty constructs is every bit as real to him—and to the reader—as the blander one where Mitty keeps a physical address. Mitty is not just a dawdler; he’s a creative genius.
What Thurber seems to say is that imagination can be the highest form of grace, the stuff of story that makes life resonate with meaning. In this way, “Mitty” is a kind of touchstone for understanding Thurber, whose fanciful mind allowed him to see a fabulist world in his modest Ohio childhood and to transcend the grim hardships of his later years by making lyrical stories and pictures.
Read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and you get a thumbnail index of the qualities that made Thurber so memorable in his many other writings.
First and foremost, the story showcases Thurber’s skills as a parodist. Mitty’s daydreams take their cues from radio and matinee melodramas, and they’re convincing because Thurber had such a flawless ear for the conventions of commercial storytelling. Here’s how he opens “Mitty”:
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!”
Notice how persuasively Thurber crafts language that sounds like the scene directions in a potboiler film script. The nonsensical technical asides—“Full strength in No. 3 turret!”—could have been lifted from an episode of Flash Gordon.
Little wonder that movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was so hell-bent on making “Mitty” into a movie; the story’s parody just might have struck Goldwyn, without a trace of irony, as an expert rendering of the Tinseltown formula.
Thurber was an expert literary mimic, as one is reminded in the pages of James Thurber: Writings & Drawings, a Library of America collection of some of his best work. In a good bit of the book, Thurber adjusts his writer’s voice, with exacting modulation, to mirror someone else’s.
Is Sex Necessary?, a 1929 book that he coauthored with New Yorker colleague E. B. White, was meant as a parody of the period’s sex manuals. Since it spoofs a sensibility no longer afoot in the popular culture, Is Sex Necessary? does not withstand the test of time, but it’s a mildly interesting artifact, underscoring Thurber’s early interest in lampooning experts.
He takes a similar tack in “The Pet Department,” a takeoff of newspaper advice columns that’s included in his 1931 book, The Owl in the Attic. In a typical passage, a long-suffering correspondent poses her problem: “Our cat, who is thirty-five, spends all of her time in bed. She follows every move I make, and this is beginning to get to me. She never seems sleepy nor particularly happy. Is there anything I could give her?”
In its matter-of-fact prescriptions and casual air of omniscience, Thurber’s answer evokes the confident authority of corporate journalism: “There are no medicines which can safely be given to induce felicity in a cat, but you might try lettuce, which is a soporific, for the wakefulness. I would have to see the cat watching you to tell whether anything could be done to divert her attention.”
The dream element in “Mitty” also figures in much of Thurber’s other work. His scenes often skirt the boundary between real and surreal, as in an iconic Thurber cartoon, “The Seal in the Bedroom,” in which a scowling woman and her husband lie in bed as she angrily exclaims, “All right, have it your way—you heard a seal bark!” The beleaguered husband turns away from her in doleful bewilderment, as a large seal above their field of vision perches atop the headboard. Has the husband been vindicated, or are we imagining the creature, too?
Whether it’s Mitty’s mental reveries or a seal who might or might not be there, Thurber often asks us to consider how our minds are shaping our views of reality. It might be one reason he was a big fan of Henry James, a writer who otherwise seemed to have nothing in common with Thurber. While James’s prose style is serpentine and ornate, Thurber’s is gracefully simple, open, and declarative, touched by the directness of his Midwestern origins.
James Grover Thurber was born December 8, 1894, in Columbus, Ohio, the second of Mary Agnes and Charles Thurber’s three sons. Charles was smart and ambitious, interested in both theater and law, but with a widowed mother, he was unable to complete his formal education. Instead, he worked primarily as an aide for various Ohio politicians. James Thurber’s father was also clever with words, and he had a talent for solving newspaper puzzles. Mary Agnes, known as “Mame,” loved telling stories and staging practical jokes. “Among other escapades,” writes Thurber biographer Neil A. Grauer, “she once attended a faith healer’s revival in a wheelchair, pretending to be (paralyzed), then jumped up to howl hosannas and proclaim herself cured.”
Another formative influence was William Fisher, Thurber’s pugnacious and eccentric grandfather, who later became a farcical star of Thurber’s zany childhood narrative, My Life and Hard Times. Published in 1933, and drawn from material first published in the New Yorker, the book is sidesplittingly funny, but its humor involves comic monologs that achieve their effect over slowly building plots rather than punchy one-liners. The chapters anticipate Garrison Keillor—who’s a big Thurber fan—and David Sedaris in the way that they spin odd domestic happenings into convulsive comedy. In the opening story, “The Night the Bed Fell,” a small mishap with an army cot throws the entire Thurber household into four-alarm disarray, as misunderstandings pile upon each other like skidding Keystone Kops. But no single sentence does the episode justice; the effect of Thurber’s comedy is cumulative, so that one must read his stories whole to fully grasp their absurdity.
Since Thurber’s literary genius can’t be written in shorthand—as with, say, Mark Twain, whose bon mots seem to fill half of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—his popularity has depended on cult loyalty, the willingness of fans to press his books into the hands of friends and then quietly insist, “Read this.”
Another complication in summarizing Thurber’s appeal arises from his inconvenient insistence on defying easy categorization. Is My Life and Hard Times a memoir, fiction, or some sublime blend of the two?
“Though Thurber often made comic use of himself in most of his writing, he rarely intended it as literal autobiography,” Thurber biographer Harrison Kinney has observed. “Like any good humorist, he skillfully and effectively employed exaggeration and cheerful . . . self-deprecation, as much for his own entertainment as that of the reader.”
Thurber’s most obvious fictional flourish in My Life and Hard Times is his depiction of his grandfather as a dotty old goat who’s mentally stuck in the Civil War. William Fisher could be combative, and he claimed Ulysses S. Grant as a hero, but he bore only a passing resemblance to the loopy patriarch of Thurber’s tales.
The reader doesn’t feel deceived by these embellishments, since Thurber’s anecdotes hint, with a wink and a nudge, that our leg is sometimes being pulled.
But when Thurber writes of his Aunt Gracie Shoaf, who stockpiles shoes near her bed as weapons against burglars, or his grandmother, who fears that electricity is slowly leaking from the household sockets, we sense that the stories could be true, perhaps because they evoke the strange birds in our own family trees.
As a lighthearted look at his youth, My Life and Hard Times necessarily avoids referring to the biggest tragedy of Thurber’s life. When Thurber was six, his older brother, William, accidentally shot an arrow into Thurber’s left eye. Thurber’s father was away, and his mother consulted a general practitioner who didn’t recommend removing the damaged eye. Meanwhile, Thurber’s right eye began to swell because of sympathetic opthalmia, a condition in which an undamaged eye can react to an injured one because of the body’s immune response. A specialist eventually removed Thurber’s injured eye, but his right eye was permanently weakened, and by 1937 he was going blind.
Because of his poor eyesight, Thurber was sometimes unsure of what he was seeing in his later years, and this fuzziness of perception underscored his sense that the line between fantasy and reality could be tenuous—a feeling that rests at the heart of his stories and cartoons.
The years of Thurber’s early manhood also have a dreamy quality to them. His life as a young adult seemed like an exercise in free association, a mix of professional and personal ambitions that lacked clear direction. An indifferent student at Ohio State University, he failed to get a degree. Unable to enlist as a soldier in World War I because of his vision, he trained as a code clerk and nabbed an assignment in Paris, but he arrived in Europe just as the war was ending. When he returned to the States, Thurber joined the staff of the Columbus Dispatch and excelled as a cub reporter, but he was too restless to stay, opting instead to try freelancing, then novel writing. Nothing seemed to catch fire. Thurber’s first marriage to Althea Adams, an Ohio State student, also failed, although it produced a daughter, Rosemary, who was close to Thurber throughout his life.
Like quite a few odd geniuses who couldn’t fit in elsewhere, Thurber found salvation in the offices of the New Yorker, then a fledgling magazine with an eye for unconventional talent. Thurber was living in New York, but considering a return to Ohio because of his dim prospects, when he met E. B. White, a New Yorker writer who introduced him to the magazine’s irascible founding editor, Harold Ross. Ross hired Thurber as an editor, but Thurber quickly shucked his administrative duties in favor of writing. “Thurber and White shared a small office where White, intrigued by Thurber’s ‘doodling,’ recognized and promoted Thurber’s talent as an artist,” Kinney writes.
Thurber’s spare line drawings have the look of something scribbled on the back of a napkin, and part of their charm is their air of offhand familiarity, like an office gag shared at the water cooler. In a typical example of his style, Thurber pictures a man and a woman in what looks like a hotel lobby, captioned, “You wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.”
“I’m not an artist,” he told an interviewer in 1939. “I’m a painstaking writer who doodles for relaxation.” Thurber’s legacy as a cartoonist is also colored by his world-weary view of marital relationships. The men in his cartoons almost invariably look weak, and the women usually come across as variations on Mitty’s domineering wife. Thurber wed his second wife, Helen Wismer, in 1935, and the marriage lasted until his death, but his drinking and depression frayed his family life at times. Frustrated by his blindness, Thurber habitually aimed his anger at women so much so that he alienated White after insulting White’s wife, Katherine, a powerful New Yorker editor.
Thurber offered his own disclaimer about expecting personal warmth from a humor writer. “The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue,” he told readers. “They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature.”
Kinney points to Thurber’s sometimes abrasive energy as a defining element of his character:
Pictures of him rarely prepared one for Thurber in person. He was tall, reedy, with an exploded head of hair, and wearing what must have been the thickest glasses known to optometry. Even while seated in the New Yorker’s gloomy art-meeting room, he seemed in full motion, his clothes atwitch with nervous shiftings of arm and leg, his head jerking toward his interviewer as he asked a question or made a point. The quaver in his voice gradually took on a melodious rise and fall; his hand, holding one cigarette after another, shook slightly as he talked. His gaze, directed at my voice, disavowed the fact that he could only tell light from dark.
That restlessness helped fuel Thurber’s productivity, even when his eyesight failed. To see his drawing page, Thurber resorted to a loupe, a head-mounted magnifier used in defense plants. No longer able to easily write words on a page, he composed essays and stories whole in his head, relying on a phenomenal memory to mentally record them before they were dictated for publication. “Occasionally, he still would try to write with a pencil,” Grauer notes. “Helen would see him sitting in his study, making meaningless scrawls on copy paper. The urge to engage in the physical act of writing never left him.”
Despite his physical challenges, Thurber wrote more books after his blindness than before he lost his sight, churning out essays, stories, children’s books, and The Years with Ross, a controversial memoir of his New Yorker years that caused hard feelings among several colleagues, including the Whites, who found it inaccurate.
Thurber died November 8, 1961, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. In the decades since his death, some of his work has grown dated. Few would be interested in his humorous take on 1948 presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, for example, and his depiction of a West Indian villager with stereotypical Mammy features defies all contemporary notions of political correctness.
But his gift for language is timeless, and the stories of his Ohio boyhood seem as fresh today as when they were written.
“Thurber left a formidable legacy to the generation that followed him,” Lillian Ross, a longtime New Yorker staffer, observed some years after his death. “The spectacularly original work of Calvin Trillin or Mark Singer or Ian Frazier or Hendrik Hertzberg reveals the influence of Thurber. . . . The reader can find Thurber lurking on National Public Radio or on the Internet or even, without much of a stretch, in the New York Times columns of the great Maureen Dowd.”
Despite his differences with Thurber, White offered what’s perhaps the best summation of his legacy. “The whole world knows what a funny man he was,” White wrote after Thurber’s death, “but you had to sit next to him day after day to understand the extravagance of his clowning, the wildness and subtlety of his thinking, and the intensity of his interest in others and his sympathy for their dilemmas—dilemmas he instantly enlarged . . . just as he enlarged and made immortal the strange goings on in the Ohio home of his boyhood.”