James Thurber's Humorous Heart

Saturday, May 12, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

When James Thurber died in November 1961, I had just turned 22 years old, and I felt as if a large part of my world had gone with him. Probably it's difficult for readers today to understand just how much Thurber meant to readers then, even though many of his books are still in print and enjoy respectable sales. Thurber in my youth wasn't something you went to the bookstore for -- though of course you could -- but something that came in the mail almost every week, as regular and reliable as the clocks of Columbus, Ohio, which he wrote about in the pages of the New Yorker.

Today the New Yorker still comes in the mail, but it isn't the same magazine. It's less a writer's magazine now than a reporter's, and except for its cartoons and an occasional light piece, it isn't a humor magazine anymore. The humorous touch brought to it by Thurber and his fellow immortal E.B. White -- not to mention S.J. Perelman and Wolcott Gibbs and Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash and Robert Benchley and Phyllis McGinley and . . . well, how much time have you got? -- hasn't entirely vanished, but it's no longer the magazine's chief characteristic.

For the first quarter-century of its existence -- it was founded in 1925 -- the New Yorker's editor was Harold Ross, but Thurber and White were its public face. No one could imagine it without them. In time we'll get to White in this series of reconsiderations, but today it's Thurber's turn, and what a pleasure that is. Picking one of his books at first didn't seem exactly easy -- how could I omit "Lanterns and Lances," or "Thurber's Dogs," or "Thurber Country," or "My World -- and Welcome to It," or "The Owl in the Attic"? -- but actually it was easy indeed. If you can have only one book by James Thurber, then it has to be "My Life and Hard Times," the memoir of his youth in Columbus that is, as Russell Baker writes in a column reprinted as an afterword to my HarperPerennial edition, "possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever written."

"My Life and Hard Times" was published in book form in 1933, when Thurber was one year shy of his 40th birthday. He had firmly established himself as a writer "of light pieces running from a thousand to two thousand words," and firmly denied that "such persons are gay of heart and carefree." No, he said: "They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out."

Thurber then proceeded to disprove every syllable of that by writing a book that, though barely over 20,000 words, comes far closer to Literature and Life than all but a handful of other American memoirs, and into the bargain has something that no other memoirist can offer: drawings, in abundance, by James Thurber. He still had limited eyesight when he wrote this book -- he went blind in 1951, the same year that Harold Ross died -- and was at the peak of his idiosyncratic but uniquely effective drawing style. The drawings of citizens of Columbus "in full flight" from an imagined dam break, or of the Thurber family in "a tremendous to-do" when it was learned that grandfather had taken the car out for a spin, or of Thurber's botany professor at Ohio State "beginning to quiver all over like Lionel Barrymore" -- they alone are worth the very modest price of admission, yet they're merely lagniappe.

One does indeed turn to Thurber for the drawings, but the great glory is his prose. Whether he was the funniest of all American writers can be debated to the end of time, but he was much more than funny. Like his friend White he was wise, and there was a soft spot to him. As John K. Hutchens writes in his introduction to this book: "He loathes cruelty. His sympathy for the out-of-luck man is as intense as his contempt for the pretentious and stupid one. He sees that children, being closer to the natural world than their elders are, have more true wisdom than adults. He finds the family life of dogs to be more rational than that of humans, and their courage and loyalty generally superior."

Certainly there was precious little rationality to the family life of the Thurbers of Columbus. They were forever caught up in "those bewildering involvements for which my family had, I am afraid, a kind of unhappy genius." In the Thurber household things went bump in the night as a matter of routine, always -- at least as revised and re-imagined by Thurber as an adult -- to hilarious effect. With the very first paragraph of the famous first chapter, he sets the tone:

"I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. It makes a better recitation (unless, as some friends of mine have said, one has heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors, and bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude to what is admittedly a somewhat incredible tale. Still, it did take place."

Well, it did and it didn't. The night that father retreated to the old bed in the attic, the bed never actually fell on him. Instead the teenaged James, sleeping on a rickety Army cot, found himself suddenly under the cot when it took a flip. The noise woke his mother, "who came to the immediate conclusion that her worst dread was realized: the big wooden bed upstairs had fallen on father. She therefore screamed, 'Let's go to your poor father!' " This set off a chaotic chain reaction involving James, his brother Roy, their dog Rex and "a nervous first cousin of mine named Briggs Beall, who believed that he was likely to cease breathing when he was asleep."

If you're reading this, chances aren't bad that you already know by heart "The Night the Bed Fell." It is an American classic. I have no recollection of when I first read it, but it may well have been read to me by one of my parents, who adored Thurber and passed that passion along to me. Over the years I have read it dozens of times, heard it read onstage by Tom Ewell in the early 1960s on Broadway in "The Thurber Carnival," and listened to it dozens of times on the wonderful recording of that show, which for some unknown reason is no longer available.

But wonderful though "The Night the Bed Fell" most certainly is, it is but one among the nine brief chapters of "My Life and Hard Times," each of which is a gem. Some have to do with alarms at night (the phrase, in fact, is the title of one), which seem to have befallen the Thurbers with remarkable frequency. There was the night the ghost got into the house, which "caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman." There was the time when Thurber himself had been trying for hours to think of the name Perth Amboy:

"I fell to repeating the word 'Jersey' over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of time, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into. I got to thinking that there was nobody else in the world but me, and various other wild imaginings of that nature. Eventually, lying there thinking these outlandish thoughts, I grew slightly alarmed. I began to suspect that one might lose one's mind over some such trivial mental tic as a futile search for terra firma Piggly Wiggly Gorgonzola Prester John Arc de Triomphe Holy Moses Lares and Penates. I began to feel the imperative necessity of human contact."

So he got out of bed and woke his father, and said: "Don't bother about dressing. Just name some towns in New Jersey." The elder Thurber, thinking his son had gone round the bend, got out of the room and called out to the rest of the household, which in a jiffy was in precisely the sort of turmoil in which it specialized.

It was a family of eccentrics to whom eccentric things happened. Thurber's boyhood in the early years of the 20th century was close enough to the Civil War so that people still remembered it -- his grandfather occasionally complained "that the federal Union was run by a passel of blockheads and that the Army of the Potomac didn't have any more chance than a fiddler's bitch" -- and coincided with the arrival of the automobile. Both proximities inspired some of the funniest stories Thurber tells.

But "My Life and Hard Times" is more than a collection of laughs. It is also a book about the ties of family, about the connections between people and places ("Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen and in which almost everything has"), about the ways in which dogs insinuate themselves into families, even Muggs, "the worst of all my dogs." Though Thurber does not dwell on it, the mood of the book is thoroughly Midwestern, i.e., bedrock American. Thurber never got over his love of Ohio and the Midwest, the points of his compass that directed his entire life. He's as genuinely American a writer as any we have, and a true national treasure.

"My Life and Hard Times" is available in a HarperPerennial paperback ($11).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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