Go to Chapter One Section

James Thurber
His Life and Times
By Harrison Kinney

Chapter One: Those Clocks of Columbus

In the early years of the nineteenth century, Columbus won out, as state capital, by only one vote over Lancaster, and ever since then has had the hallucination that it is being followed, a curious municipal state of mind which affects, in some way or other, all those who live there. Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen and in which almost everything has.-from "More Alarms at Night"

In the period of Mccarthyism, America's political nightmare of the 1950s, Donald Ogden Stewart, actor, playwright, screenplay writer, and satirist, found himself being chased through the ideological badlands by congressional posses in hot pursuit of un-American Americans. His career and livelihood in danger of being lynched at home, he moved abroad. He was from Columbus, Ohio, and writes: "When I first came to live in London, I was amazed at the number of Englishmen who said, `Oh, yes, Columbus, of course. I know it very well, from Thurber's books, you know.'"

Stewart's observation is seconded by a Columbus Citizen-Journal radio-television editor who once interviewed the English actor Charles Laughton over long distance telephone: "So you're plugged in from Columbus, eh?" Laughton remarked. "The home of James Thurber. He is a good friend of mine and the greatest living master of the English language."

Irrepressibly disposed as he was to autobiography both playful and serious, Thurber would have made any small city of early twentieth-century America seem meant for him and he for it. But Columbus, Ohio, it was. And although over the decades the state capital has nurtured other durable authors and artists, as well as memorable sports figures, war heroes, and American presidents, it is Thurber's name that is most prominently associated with Columbus. He knew the city as child, student, and newspaperman. He began his first marriage there. His most popular and admired book, My Life and Hard Times, was about Columbus and life there with his family.

To the end, he remained uncertain of his feelings towards the city and its university, but by making them his literary playground he immortalized both. He was slow to develop his intellectual and political opposition to the conservative culture of his hometown, its newspapers, politics, and university, and when he did he was too sentimental to hold grudges. He refused an honorary degree from Ohio State University at a time when he felt that it was knuckling under to McCarthyism (it had imposed a ban on lecturers suspected of Marxist leanings from speaking on campus). But he forgave, accepting all other local honors paid him, and would undoubtedly have had a change of heart about the degree had his "reformed" alma mater offered it to him a second time.

In 1959, he wrote: "Such readers as I have collected through the years are all aware of where I was born and brought up and they know that half of my books could not have been written if it had not been for the city of my birth."

The occasion for Thurber's extravagance here was Columbus's selection as "All-America City" by the National Municipal League, an award cosponsored by Look magazine as a promotion stunt by that financially troubled publication. Thurber was not being taken in; the city had made an official and giddy response of approval to the designation, and asked Thurber to contribute to the event. He not only enjoyed publicizing parts of his life, he had caused some resentment in Columbus and saw this as a chance to make a peace offering.

The testimonial imprecise Thurber. Of his thirty books, only two deal directly with his life in Columbus, with a small percentage of Columbus-related pieces scattered throughout a few of his others. If the statement suggests--as perhaps it should--that the very wellsprings of his creativity were significantly flavored by the nearly thirty years he lived in Columbus, then he has shortchanged the city of his birth by 50 percent.

Some consider the environment of Thurber's origins to be very bit as unlikely as that of Mark Twain. And like the hometown of anyone who spent an undistinguished youth there and left to achieve fame elsewhere, Columbus only gradually grasped Thurber's importance to it. It knew from the start, however, that it was being written about. Unlike the towns of Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Sinclair Lewis, Columbus is called by its true name throughout its bard's writing. If Thurber was granted instant forgiveness for satirizing his hometown, and Wolfe, Faulkner, and Lewis were not, it was because Thurber's truth was softened with a rich comedy too enjoyable to offend. He could always go home again--and to a red-carpet treatment, at that.

In another sense, he never left home. In "A Note at the End" of My Life and Hard Times, he says he has been moved to thoughts

of spending the rest of my days wandering aimlessly around the South Seas, like a character out of Conrad, silent and inscrutable. But the necessity of frequent visits to my oculist and dentist has prevented this. . . . And a wanderer who isn't inscrutable might just as well be back at Broad and High Streets in Columbus sitting in the Baltimore Dairy Lunch. Nobody from Columbus has ever made a first-rate wanderer in the Conradean tradition. Some of them have been fairly good at disappearing for a few days to turn up in a hotel in Louisville with a bad headache and no recollection of how they got there, but they always scurry back.

Some of Thurber's finer literary moments are those tailored to special occasions or friends in Columbus. In 1953, when the Ohioana Sesquicentennial Medal was awarded him by the Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, Thurber thanked Columbus all over again, in a speech read for him in his absence by George Smallsreed, the editor of the Columbus Dispatch: "I am never very far away from Ohio in my thoughts, and . . . the clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus. They have never struck, and never will strike, a finer hour for me than this one."

Columbus continues to repay Thurber for is role in bringing it to the world's attention. An uptown street near the Ohio State University campus has been named Thurber Drive. A ten-story apartment building is called Thurber Towers. There are Thurber Club Apartments and Thurber Square Apartments. In 1962, Helen Thurber traveled to Columbus to unveil a bronze memorial plaque at the opening of the Thurber Village Shopping Center. Helen, who know how to play the public-relations game as well as anyone, had got the consent of Thurber's brothers, Robert and William, and she accepted the proffered honor with: "It is especially good that his name is connected with something that's growing--that is what he would appreciate more than anything else." But later, having toured the mall, which contained the Thurber Village Barber Shop, the Thurber Village Cleaning Center, and the Thurber Village Pharmacy, she sighed and remarked to Robert, "I hope it's what he would have wanted."

Nobody could be certain where Thurber wished to be buried; he collapsed from a blood clot on the brain in October 1961, in New York, remained nearly comatose for a month after an operation, and died without regaining full consciousness. Helen carried his cremated remains back to Columbus, where they were buried in the Fisher family area Green Lawn Cemetery, near his parents and maternal grandparents. ("His family was so angry with me for having him cremated that I didn't dare do anything else with the ashes," Helen says.)

His Columbus associations were unique to Thurber, and Helen, even after twenty-six years of marriage, never felt a part of them. When Helen died in inherited the Thurber estate, including Helen's ashes. Says Rosemary: "The only instruction ever gave me was `not in Columbus.' There are those, I am sure, who think I should have buried her [there], but I honored Helen's [request] as best I could."

Biographers sifting the soil of their subjects' beginnings are never fully certain whether to attribute the marvels of a creative personality to childhood environment, genetic inheritance, the mysterious coincidences of serendipity, or the whimsy of the gods. Thurber's New Yorker colleague, E. B. White, felt that one factor too frequently overlooked in explaining success and fame is luck. "Every man should be lucky," he once said when asked how he accounted for his own literary achievements.

It was clearly good luck that Thurber, still unknown at age thirty-two, happened to connect with founding editor, Harold Ross, and White at the New Yorker, a magazine whose unrealized potential at the time summoned forth the inspired best of each. But his luck began before that--in being born and raised in Columbus.

© 1995 by Harrison Kinney

Back to the top