I contrasted Thurber very favorably to Gibbs, saying that he was the one New Yorker writer who wrote it right instead of writing it long. Writing the Gibbs piece made me think more about Thurber, and slowly goaded me into buying the Library of America’s compendium, simply called “Thurber,” which is not bad, as compendia go, but not quite enough for someone who’s read Thurber the way I have. To round things out, I tracked down The Owl in the Attic, which had a series of comic essays on grammar that I remembered fondly, as well as The Beast in Me, which had a five-part series on radio soap operas that had always stuck in my mind. I also consulted my own copy of Thurber Country, which I got either for Christmas or my birthday in the late Fifties, along with The Years With Ross, Thurber’s informal biography of Harold Ross, as well as Men, Women, and Dogs, one of Thurber’s big cartoon collections, and checked The Thurber Album out of the library—a collection of essays Thurber wrote about relatives, college professors, and other people he knew or knew about before he left his home town of Columbus, Ohio for the big city—essays that I never read when I was young because they weren’t funny. With Burton Bernstein’s 1975 biography of Thurber to provide context, and another library volume, *Collecting Myself * (uncollected Thurber) I was all set for a serious confrontation with America’s greatest humorist since Mark Twain.
Well, so I thought. The more I started reading, and re-reading, Thurber, the more I wanted to read him. More rounding was required, so I rounded and rounded, until I ended up with almost everything “adult” that Thurber ever wrote, picking up The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, Let Your Mind Alone, and My World and Welcome To It, as well as Lanterns and Lances, his last collection, and Credos and Curios, a posthumous collection put together by Helen Thurber, his widow, just to see what there was to see. As it turns out, the Library of America’s compendium was not nearly compendious enough. In addition, Bernstein’s 700-page biography wasn’t enough either. I had to resort to Harrison Kinney’s 1,100-pager, published twenty years after Bernstein’s work.1
Overall, Thurber holds up extremely well. He deserves to be read more or less in toto, certainly well beyond any “best of” collection. Most of the content of Lanterns and Lances is not worth reading, but two of the essays can stand with anything Thurber ever wrote. I can’t say that Thurber never wrote a padded piece, or an overcute one, because he did. There reaches a point, even for a near-addict like me, that you don’t want to get to know yet another Thurber man, incompetent mechanically and bedeviled by small, clothes-closety noises, nor do you want to read yet another self-parodying, self-referential riff on New Yorker literati, or another account of another Thurberian word game, but Thurber when is at his best—and he’s often at his best—he doesn’t make mistakes. His circle may be small, but within it he moves with perfect freedom.
Like Mark Twain, Thurber delved into his childhood for some of his greatest work, and, during his lifetime, at least, Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times did almost as much for Columbus, Ohio as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn did for Hannibal, Missouri. Thurber made the eccentricities of his family legendary, but what were eccentricities for his readers were often nightmares for him. His parents, Mary and Charles, courted for eight years before marrying, and their marriage, it would seem, did not suffer from an excess of passion. Both had dreamed of going on the stage, and, like their three sons, never seemed too comfortable in the real world.
Charles Thurber worked as a patronage drudge for the Ohio Republican Party, his passive nature ensuring that he received the very least of the spoils even on those rare occasions when his candidate won. His real passion was entering contests, Thurber tells us, in his sketch from the Thurber Album—“He was addicted to contests, contests of any kind. Although he couldn’t draw very well, I remember his drawing the Pear’s Soap Baby, fifty years ago [now more than a hundred], in a contest for the best pen-and-ink reproduction of the infant in the famous advertisement. He would estimate the number of beans in an enormous jar, write essays, make up slogans, find the hidden figures in trick drawings, write the last line of an unfinished jingle or limerick, praise a product in twenty-five words or fewer, get thousands of words out a trade name, such as, for recent example, Planters Peanuts. But it was on proverb contests, and book and play-title contests, run by newspapers, that he would work the hardest.”2
Charles Thurber was a proud but not terribly practical man. If a job worthy of his talents did not present itself, he preferred not to work, concentrating instead on his beloved contests. Sometimes the Thurber family would be forced to live with Mary Fisher Thurber’s wealthy parents, which could not have been pleasant.
If you feel compelled to read a doorstop biography of Thurber, I confess that the Kinney book is the way to go. The only real fault I can find with it is his reluctance to acknowledge the value of Bernstein’s work. ↩
My father described his father, Allan Vanneman, as a “Walter Mitty character.” Like Charles Thurber, he was a Republican Party functionary. They both idolized Teddy Roosevelt, who surely did all that either dreamed of doing. My grandfather worked on a far more circumscribed stage than Charles Thurber. While Charles Thurber lived in the capital of the most important swing state in the country, my grandfather’s grandest position was postmaster of Port Deposit, Md., a “town” that consisted of two streets—one of them, “High Street,” only two blocks long. Instead of entering contests, my grandfather read through endless magazines. searching for his “million-dollar idea,” which never materialized. He would take my grandmother, my father, and my uncle on Sunday drives and, in his mind, carry on silent political disputes with an imaginary Democrat. When he felt he had delivered a decisive thrust, he would slap his knee and exclaim “Got him that time!” ↩