The following is an excerpt from a letter written Jan. 20, 1938, to E. B. White while James Thurber and his wife were in Cap d'Antibes, France. First published in this month's issue of The Atlantic Monthly, it is reprinted here by permission .
I had worried a lot about being away a year, came close to abandoning the idea as being impossible, and then saw that because of, as well as in spite of, my fussing about it, I'd have to go. You got to get away where you can see yourself and everybody else. I really beieve you got to do that. Quick trips to Maine, a month on the wagon, are no good. Of course, I haven't got my child with me, and when I do have I'll be tied down by school, too. And on looking back on my own childish school years and realizing how really awful and useless they were, how much more a child gets out of his life outside the school and how almost nothing inside it, it seems a great pity that school has to tie down both child and parents, to say nothing of a lot of teachers who ought to be raising families of their own. Like every other system now in vogue, it is top-heavy, over-elaborated, and fine-sounding, and it does not work very well. The school system is slowly stagnating and the parents are sinking into the marsh. The simple way out would be to let the brighter children, from 6 to 15, run things, but nothing will ever be done about that.
The basic trouble, of course, is the astounding fact that the offspring of man have not developed the ability to become self-sustaining until their parents are practically worn down and in the grave. The guinea pig is on his own the second he is born -- even has his eyes open, leaps from the womb to the nearest carrot or lettuce leaf. Dogs are raising families of their own before the first anniversary of their birth; and so it goes among all the known species of animal except man, whose young are practically no good at all until they have wobbled around the house for almost a quarter of a century!
This is perhaps the most fantastic, fact about human life, and I imagine the other animals never get over their astonishment at it. Have you never caught your dog giving you that straight long, puzzled look -- friendly, of course, pitying too, but puzzled? What the godddamn hell, he seems to say? A man marries the nearest eligible female, or the one next to her, gets a job within walking distance of his home, raises children that will be underfoot until his arteries begin to harden, and devotes his life to the opening of envelopes containing pieces of paper with numbers written on them. That is the second most fantastic fact about human life. Our everyday lives become, right after college, as unworkable as a Ford in a vat of molasses, but nobody is giving this frightful problem any thought. Everybody is monkeying with the superstrcture of economics, politics, distribution, etc., which stick up out of the vat also covered with molasses. I know damn well, of course, that nobody will ever get the superstructure cleaned off, let alone the Ford out of the vat.
A world in which there are millions of people, hundreds of millions, can have no possible chance of working. If you get more than six people together in a room, it won't work. More than twenty is a loud, idiotic shambles. Nobody has really got anywhere in the study of that either: I can tell by simply reading the titles of books bordering on the subject, and the names of their authors. But there is a whole wide field of psychology, sociology, and philosophy that lies practically virgin in the fact that a person alone is a different entity from a person in groups of three, eleven, forty, four thousand, sixty thousand, and so on up. Wars could not possibly be fought in a series of single combats. Whenever that has been tried, as in the case of the Arthurian knights and the aviators during the war, the practice degenerated into something not far remobed from love and kisses. They did not hate, they did not really want to kill; the knights of old embraced and bound up each other's wounds, the winning aviators risked their lives to drop wreaths on the spot where they brought their man down.
All the studies I know about dealing with mass psychology in its relation to individual psychology, and vice versa, grow out of that academic stuffiness that invariably falls upon the men who devote themselves to such things, and it either has the stodginess of a ships manifest or the cloudiness of a piece by the late William Bolitho. The things demands imagination, uncluttered up by book learning, it demands a certain amount of that high courage known as humor, and it demands knowing personally people like the grocer's boy, hundreds of children around the age of six and eight, and very few, if any, professors. But all these things are in the hands of stuffed shirts, bloat-faces, blue-noses, highbrow, dustdrys, and others of the same ilk and kidney. I think that maybe if women and children were in charge we would get somewhere.