James Thurber. What a wonderful legacy he left to us in his writings
and his cartoons.
Burton Bernstein has written a biography of the man in 528 pages . . .
and boy! by the end are we tired of him. Imagine–being tired of Thurber.
The book starts out in a sunny fashion with quotes from Thurber displaying
his humorous side. In talking about his elementary school education in
Columbus, Ohio–the fourth grade, he wrote:
In that grade you first encountered fractions and long division, and many
pupils lodged there for years, like logs in a brook.” (accounting for some
of the 4th graders being stars in the baseball teams) . . . “Some of the more
able baseball players had been in the fourth grade for seven or eight years.”
The most important event that occurred in his childhood was in his
own back yard when he was playing with his two brothers. They were
playing ‘William Tell’ and his older brother accidentally missed his shot and
hit James’ eye. His parents didn’t take him to the doctor for days, and by
the time they did, his other eye was beginning to go blind, too, as a result
of the injury to the first eye. From that time on Thurber was nearly blind–
for the rest of his life.
He fell in love, was turned down and then married a very tall woman,
Althea Adams. They were happiest in their visit to Nice, but were broke and
returned to New York.
Shortly thereafter, through E.B.White, Thurber was introduced to Harold
Ross of the New Yorker—and the rest is history.
He and White became good friends and visited the Algonquin often–the
bar and restaurant–but never enjoyed the crowd at the “Round Table.”
He was, however, friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and
He started doing well with his short bits and his cartoons at the New Yorker.
Dorothy Parker claimed his cartoons looked like ‘unbaked cookies’. But
he was still financially unsound and said that “checks were bouncing like
He wrote “Walter Mitty” in 1939, and the play The Male Animal –they were
a turning point in making Thurber rich and famous.
Althea produced a baby daughter—Rosemary. But despite the addition of
little Rosemary, the marriage was nearing an end. Thurber married again to
a woman who was part of the New Yorker gang. Helen was right for him at
this phase of his life. He had nearly become alcoholic, friends were
shying away from him and insecurities were plaguing him.
Helen takes him in her charge, straightens out the finances and tries to
straighten out his life for him, too. But as time goes on, anything we are told
about Thurber by the biographer isn’t news we want to hear.
Bernstein was given free rein of Thurber’s letters, and spoke with his
relatives and had the full support of Helen. Yet in the end, Helen’s review
of the book is critical, saying that Bernstein put too much emphasis on the
dark side of Thurber.
And my opinion of the book pretty much sides with Helen’s. James Thurber
has always been such a literary hero to me, it was sad to be disappointed in the
negative slant of the book.
I am going to give it two buttons (three for the content, but two for the book’s
presentation in general.)