This is the 22th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 22 continues the discussion of Thurber’s 1942 collection, My World and Welcome to It.
My World and Welcome to It has two of Thurber’s darkest stories, “A Friend to Alexander” and “The Whip-poor-will,” which especially reflect the agony he endured during his eye operations. Both stories deal with dream worlds, dreams that grow darker and darker and ultimately invade the real one. “A Friend to Alexander” reflects Thurber’s wide reading in American history—getting “behind” the textbook tales of American greatness that his generation grew up on. It’s a long, carefully wrought story about “Andrews,” a man who finds himself dreaming obsessively about Aaron Burr. He associates the story of Burr and Alexander Hamilton with his own life, with the death of his brother, killed by a “drunkard,” a story that makes him so angry that his wife has never been able to understand what actually happened. In his dreams, Andrews sees Burr kill Hamilton in their famous duel, but the dreams don’t end there. Burr insults him in his dreams, and Andrews begins to prepare himself for a final confrontation. He seizes on opportunities for pistol practice, and his bizarre behavior when he has his hands on a gun naturally frightens those around him.
Thurber adds curious touches linking himself with Andrews. When Andrews is happy he sings Thurber’s favorite song “Bye Bye, Blackbird,” also sung by “Kirk” in “One Is a Wanderer.” Andrews mentions a grave in one of the cemeteries in lower Manhattan that Thurber wrote about in a New Yorker casual a decade before. Beyond that, the story doesn’t do much more than assert the power of the irrational over the rational. Andrews will die, of course, “mysteriously,” as though shot through the heart, the forefinger of his right hand crooked as though pulling a trigger. If this wasn’t an episode from The Twilight Zone, it should have been.
“The Whip-poor-will” ups the ante considerably, pushing almost into EC Comics territory, although Thurber is chaste in his description of the carnage he delivers us. “The Whip-poor-will” is the story of Mr. Kinstrey and his wife Madge, previously known to us as Mr. and Mrs. Monroe, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, and others. For Mr. Kinstrey, like so many Thurber men, the onset of night and darkness brings not sleep but, strange, soft, mysterious noises, noises that never cease, sounds that seem to speak, that send the mind chasing down corridors in search of a meaning that always eludes their grasp, lost in a darkness where words themselves, instead of separating and defining reality, run together and destroy it. Mr. Kinstrey lies awake listening to the call of the whip-poor-will, chanting its call over and over. “Its lungs must be built like a pelican’s pouch, or a puffin or a penguin or a pemmican or a paladin.”
All of his life, it seems, Thurber would lie awake at night stringing long lists of words together in an aimless yet compulsive manner, searching for a meaning that would not emerge from the chatter, a search that inevitably led him further and further away from meaning, and from sanity, the longer he pursued it. Kinstrey shares this problem, and so did Mr. Mitty himself, who struggles to recall the shopping list his wife gave him: “Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative, and referendum?”
Mrs. Kinstrey, of course, is never troubled in her sleep.1 She sleeps alone in her “canopied four-poster” in perfect ease while Mr. Kinstrey twists in sweated, sleepless sheets. He complains bitterly about the whip-poor-will who, of course, bothers no one but him, not his wife and not the two black servants, who of course inform him that the sound of the whip-poor-will means death.2
Kinstrey is a typical Thurber man, flinching and agonizing over noises that only he can hear. Unlike everyone else, he can’t put things out of his mind. Everyone else is stolidly and absolutely “normal.” He alone is prey to the bizarre mysteries of the night, mysteries that, every night, grow fiercer and more implacable, mysteries that amount to nothing more than the mating call of a tiny bird.
“Who do you do first?” asks Kinstrey, holding a carving knife in the middle of the night. He begins with the servants, proceeds to his wife, and finishes with himself. Thurber naturally spares us all the bloodshed, but it all still seems a bit overwhelming, the leap from insomnia to slaughter too large, perhaps, for the compass of a short story. We, or at least I, feel that Thurber has forced his ending, wanting to give vent to helpless rage he apparently often felt, but failing to grasp the correct objective correlative.
The whip-poor-will’s3 cry obviously had meaning for Thurber, fascinated as he was by words and by dreams—a night bird’s call that almost seems to be the night itself speaking to us, but in a word that takes us away from the rationality and order that language ought to impose on life instead of towards it, taking us, ultimately and irresistibly, to madness, to the bitter recognition that life is without meaning, without order, and, in particular, without moral order, which to Thurber, cursed not only with “the Thurbs,” but with constant pain and impending blindness, seemed in his dark moments to be both the ugliest and most necessary truth that could be known.