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James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 26


INTRODUCTION

This is the 26th 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 26 continues discussion of Thurber’s five-part series on radio soap operas, “Soapland”.

PART 1

PART 25

In “Soapland,” Thurber chronicles with obvious though restrained fascination the lives of entrepreneurial writers who start out writing five scripts a day for nothing and continue that pace for years while their salaries mount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He describes in some detail how the oppressed writers of radio eventually organized, in approved thirties fashion, to obtain better working conditions, better pay, and more control over their own work. The unspoken subtext—which Thurber finally discussed a decade later in his The Years With Ross—is that this did not happen at the New Yorker. By the time Thurber was writing the “Soapland” pieces, it was clear that the New Yorker was 1) quite prosperous, and 2) that it had been that way ever since the early or mid-thirties, when Ross was telling its writers and cartoonists that he was sorry but he just couldn’t afford to pay them as much as he wanted to.

What frustrated Thurber, and most if not all of those who worked with Ross back in the day, is that Ross could get away with stiffing them because they wanted to publish in the New Yorker, wanted to write for the smart set in Manhattan rather than the old lady in Dubuque, and were willing to put up with Ross’s high-handed editing and miserly pay because he made them feel important in ways that other, more mainstream publications did not.1 The New Yorker had cachet, and Ross knew it, and he exploited it.

“Soapland” has some of the flavor of George Orwell’s essays on popular culture, but Thurber lacked both Orwell’s political awareness (which was not always valid) and Orwell’s sympathetic fascination with the topics he discussed. Thurber does note the amusing slow pace of the radio soaps—a haircut could last a week2—and the basic “small town good/big city bad” morality of most of the shows, but he doesn’t quite throw himself into the content with quite the vigor that one would like. But he definitely leaves you wishing for more, and regretting that he didn’t do similar studies in the fifties.3

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” finally made it to the screen in 1947, but Thurber found little pleasure in it. He had worked conscientiously to help make the film a success, dutifully supplying new fantasies for Mr. Mitty, none of which could provide what Hollywood, and Sam Goldwyn, really wanted: a happy ending. The film, as it finally emerged, turned Mr. Mitty from a pathetic little middle-aged man into Danny Kaye, a wide-eyed innocent trembling on the verge of manhood and requiring the strong arm of Virginia Mayo to pull him over the threshold after an elaborate series of real-life adventures. Thurber got into a public dispute over the film with Goldwyn, Goldwyn playing the Hollywood vulgarian, and Thurber the classy writer, to perfection.4

In his private life Thurber was not so classy. Illness and impending blindness, combined with old age, made him increasingly likely to take out his frustrations on those around him, particularly women. E.B. White stopped seeing him socially because of Thurber’s constant habit of baiting his wife Katherine. Thurber had a compulsive need for company, but also a compulsive need to offend. In the late forties, while having a conversation with Mark Van Doren, Thurber suddenly burst into tears, saying that he was a horrible person, that he was always tearing people down instead of being kind to them.

Unfortunately, insight never led to repentance. All of his life Thurber had a streak of frat boy malice in his soul. He loved playing the same phone joke on his friends, calling them up and pretending to be a black laundress who had previously worked for the friend and now had fallen on hard times. A great many black women supported themselves as laundresses in the twenties, thirties, and forties, and Thurber was a remarkably gifted mimic. He would ply his friends with hard-luck stories replete with racist clichés—crap games, straight razors, cheating boyfriends, etc.—and his friends, hamstrung by liberal guilt, would let him ramble on and on until he finally collapsed with laughter. His behavior at parties was similar—goading people with outrageous behavior, knowing that they would be reluctant to be “rude” and spoil things, and particularly reluctant to talk back to the great James Thurber.


  1. Ross was unsurprisingly eccentric about money, both his and other people’s. He liked money, and had plenty of it, not to mention the extensive freebies that come to influential people in Manhattan, but he could have had a lot more if he had paid attention to it. He was casual about money, and expected other people to be too, even though most people didn’t have his resources. 

  2. One of the most popular soaps was the entirely forgotten “Just Plain Bill,” about a lovable small-town barber. 

  3. The soaps were perhaps best handled by radio satirists Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, who transformed “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife” (Mary was the wife of a Broadway star Larry Noble) into “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife” and turned “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” into “Jack Strongarm, All-Boy American.” 

  4. Along with the happy ending, Thurber objected to the “git-gat-gittle” songs written for Danny by his wife Sylvia Fine. As in the case of The Male Animal, Thurber’s name did not appear on the movie posters for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The War Lovers

From 1929 to 1989, Americans lived in a state of almost perpetual crisis—the Great Depression, World War II, and then forty-four long years of contention with international communism. When the U.S.S.R. finally fell apart, the resulting silence was, it seems, more than America could bear.

George H.W. Bush and his gang of “realists” conducted wars of choice to entertain the masses and, not so incidentally, burnish the Republican brand. Bill Clinton reined in the dogs of war but aggressively pursued NATO expansion in Eastern Europe—guilt-tripping liberals seeking absolution for the sins of Yalta1—plus endless sanctions in the Middle East, intending to prove that liberals could be just as tough as conservatives.

The 9/11 attacks let the “regime change” genie out of the bottle with a vengeance. For a few brief, heady years George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld sought to construct a new-fangled American empire that would span the globe. In a slow and less than certain process, President Obama has worked, most of the time, to walk back this hubris, despite engaging in his own low-budget regime change in Libya, which left a sour taste in his mouth and discouraged him from trying the same stunt in Syria, despite paying lip service to the idea.

But now, with Vladimir Putin playing the bad boy in Ukraine, and ISIS swaggering in the Middle East, the president has essentially surrendered to the war lovers. It is a sad commentary on the state of the American people that two brutal murders can convince a nation of 300 million that it is in mortal danger. There is no elected official in Washington with any stature who is willing to talk sense to this nonsense. We have gone through three regime changes, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and they have all failed, and yet the consensus is that now we must have a fourth. We have to have a war. Peace is just too goddamn scary.

Afterwords
Fortunately, there are a few discordant voices out in the hinterlands. Stephen Walt gives a quick but useful overview of post-Cold War, pre-9/11 America, when the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to allow for a boundless expansion of American righteousness. Andrew Sullivan counts the multitudinous falsities hidden in Obama’s claims for the necessity of American intervention in Iraq and Syria. Steve Chapman explains why Obama’s new war won’t work any better than any of the old ones.


  1. FDR’s real sin at Yalta was not in agreeing to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, which was unavoidable, but in believing that Stalin would prove in any way manageable once the threats of German and Japanese aggression had been removed. 

Pseudo New Yorker


Legal humor here. All cartoons here. and here

“Oh, honey, haven’t you heard? It’s how you play the game. And I play it all out!”

“Yeah, it fucks with my feet. But it fucks with their concentration even more.”

“No, my feet aren’t killing me. What’s killing me is figuring out how many wheelbarrows I’m going to need to haul away the cash I’m getting from Blahniks.”

“I think we need better signals. I can’t be changing my damn shoes every time we need a suicide squeeze.”

“Homo night just brings out the beast in me.”

“I’m a pitcher, all right, but I’m a pitcher who cares.”

“I just have days, you know? Some days I’m Pete Rose. Today, Christian Louboutin. Go figure.”

“No, they’re suede d’Orsay. Why do you ask?”

“Because open toes are for girls, that’s why.”

“Flats after six? What am I, a farmer?”

BAM on the Circle

Books-A-Million on Dupont Circle is a fascinating throw-back to the days when people bought books in a store and actually read magazines. Located in the basement of an office building right on the Circle, the store is a collection of incongruities, the most striking of which is that it actually manages to stay in business.

BAM doesn’t open on the week days until 11 AM, which is just about the time that Circle folks’ eyes start to focus. BAM features surely the least hip coffee bar in DC, “Joe Muggs,” part of the BAM franchise. I’ve never had any Joe Muggs coffee, which you can buy both by the cup and by the bag, but, well, it’s there.

BAM has lots of things that are hard to find elsewhere, like My Little Pony Monopoly sets (because who ever wanted to be an iron?), but my favorite section is way in the back and way in the corner, where they keep the philosophy books. There are Penguin editions of Kant’s mighty critique right next to a slender, obscure pamphlet by Kierkegaard, The Present Age (not good, according to Søren). A thick collection of Aristotle (“il maestro di color che sanno”—“the master of those who know!” raves Dante) is cheek by jowl with 10 minute guides to happiness, Buddhism for Dummies, the autobiography of the Dalai Lama, The Philosophy of the Walking Dead (and, of course, Star Trek and Doctor Who), Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, the collected works of Thomas Paine, and many others, but the king of philosophy at BAM is unquestionably Sun Tzu. Half a dozen versions of The Art of War are available, including a deluxe slipcase edition that includes complementary text from von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and Frederick the Great. Know yourself and know your enemy and you will win a hundred battles? Hey, it seems to be working for BAM on the Circle.

Afterwords
BAM is a national chain, with more than a dozen stores in the DC area, but the Dupont Circle location is the only one in DC proper. Kramer Books, a fancy restaurant cum bookstore is just north of the circle, while Second Story, an old-fashioned second-hand book store, is hanging on just to the west. Long, long gone is the Left-Wing Bookstore, once just south of the circle, which carried my all-time favorite record album (though I never listened to it), Barbara Dane’s I Hate the Capitalist System.

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 25


INTRODUCTION

*This is the 25th 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 25 continues discussion of Thurber’s collection *The Beast in Me.

PART 1

PART 24

The Beast in Me also contains “The Waters of the Moon,” the prototype of a story that Thurber would write frequently in his later years, written in the first person with himself as a character, using a deliberately affected style (“I had broken away from an undulant discussion of kinetic dimensionalism”) that would fail to make up for a lack of invention. Illness and age and blindness were having their effect on Thurber. He was beginning to retreat obsessively into word play for its own sake, or, rather, to make this long-running private obsession the subject matter of his work, and this sort of self-reflection tends to exhaust itself in a hurry.

These tendencies are on display in “The Beast in the Dingle,” Thurber’s “definitive” parody of late Henry James. I reread some of The Ambassadors in connection with this piece, and reading real late Henry James irritated me so much that the mere thought of reading faux late Henry broke my spirit entirely. If you enjoy late Henry James, be my guest. You’re probably in for a treat.

But Thurber’s self-absorption wasn’t all bad. “The Lady on the Bookcase,” a discussion of his own cartoons, is a delight. Usually, “Writers on Writing,” not to mention “Writers on Their Own Writing,” is dreadful, but here, as on other occasions, Thurber’s light touch—one of the very lightest in the business—carries it off.

Thurber has another attractive piece, “Look Homeward, Jeannie,” about a dog that was not so lovable or heroic, one who was kind of a bitch, actually. Jeannie was Thurber and Althea’s first dog—the one whose disappearance caused him to delay returning to New York, the “act of a sis” that earned Ross’s great contempt—and, in her own cunning way, perhaps the “worst” dog Thurber ever owned. She didn’t bite people, like Muggs, but she was, most shockingly and undoglike, not “loyal.” She took first the birth of the Thurber’s daughter and then the acquisition of a second dog (the much mourned Medve) as proof that the Thurbers no longer loved her. Well, if the ones you’re with don’t love you, you find someone who does, right? When the Thurbers were summering somewhere—Martha’s Vineyard, or some such—Jeannie took to disappearing during the day, returning each night. Thurber, curious as to her behavior, followed her, and discovered that she was running around to the other cottages and “begging.” She could sit up and beg—her “one talent,” Thurber tells us, ungenerously. Maybe Jeannie was right to leave.

The Beast in Me has the longest example of Thurber’s work as a reporter, “Soapland,” an exploration of the world of radio soap operas that ran as a five-part series in the New Yorker. This was the first serious look at popular culture that I had ever read, stumbling across it as a teenager on Thanksgiving Day in 1960.1 Radio was a bit like the Internet when it first appeared. It had an insatiable appetite for “content,” and there were people who, as now, were willing to work for nothing simply for the opportunity to get their stuff on the air. In the brief heyday of network radio, running somewhere from the late twenties to the late forties, successful writers churned out enormous quantities of copy and, sometimes, earned enormous sums of money, both topics of great interest to old-fashioned print folks like Thurber.

Writers had significantly more clout in radio than in the movies. Aside from the actors themselves, they were, practically, the whole show, and radio actors rarely achieved the fame of movie stars. The cast of the most famous show on radio, “Amos and Andy,” once immensely “controversial” and now just about forgotten, consisted of two white guys who did the voices for a dozen “lovable” black characters. Although the two—Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll—obviously commanded excellent salaries, they could not achieve the personal fame of movie stars.

In “Soapland,” Thurber chronicles with obvious though restrained fascination the lives of entrepreneurial writers who start out writing five scripts a day for nothing and continue that pace for years while their salaries mount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He describes in some detail how the oppressed writers of radio eventually organized, in approved thirties fashion, to obtain better working conditions, better pay, and more control over their own work. The unspoken subtext—which Thurber finally discussed a decade later in his The Years With Ross—is that this did not happen at the New Yorker. By the time Thurber was writing the “Soapland” pieces, it was clear that the New Yorker was 1) quite prosperous, and 2) that it had been that way ever since the early or mid-thirties, when Ross was telling its writers and cartoonists that he was sorry but he just couldn’t afford to pay them as much as he wanted to.


  1. I can give the precise date because the day after I read the series I tuned in to listen to a soap opera, on November 25, 1960, the exact day the radio networks canceled their all their soap operas. Amazingly, this was done without warning to their listeners. You can read all about it, if you like, in Jim Cox’s Say Good Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio. 

President Obama makes Lynne Cheney look like a [insert opprobrious sexual reference here]

“We need a war!” famously exclaimed Lynne Cheney1 back in the reign of Bill Clinton. President Obama’s motto seems to be “We need another war!” Mainstream Democrats remain terrified of pissing off the Pentagon and the CIA, who will have their toys, and their budgets. This will be a cheap war, of course, but since we are “at war,” it will help stifle any hippie shit about, you know, actually cutting our grotesquely swollen defense budget. And, as any general will tell you, that’s the main thing.

Afterwords
Nick Gillespie explains here why the new existential threat of ISIS is neither new nor existential. Daniel Larison provides running commentary on the endless lies of the interventionist mainstream. Politico national editor Michael Hirsch charmingly blows his stack at the fact that people in DC still think Dick Cheney knows what the fuck he’s talking about.


  1. I’ve never seen video of Lynne saying this, so if she wants to deny it, I won’t object. But I’ve never seen video of her denying it either. 

Pseudo New Yorker


Legal humor here. All cartoons here. and here

“The A train just left.”

“Yeah, you want to speak to a streetcar named Desire. I hope the ghost of Tennessee Williams visits you tonight and fucks you hard in the ass.”

“No, the 2 train don’t stop here any more. You know, they’re ‘Brooklyn’. I hate that shit.”

“Honey, this is a Redbird bar. You’re looking for stainless, you’re looking in the wrong place.”

“Well, someone was fucking with you. Wednesday is tugboat night.”

“Boss, they’re tippin’ in tokens. Isn’t that illegal?”

“Well, check the other switch. Business is way off tonight.”

“Boss, these days chicks want more than a ride home. They want air conditioning. I know you grew up with these guys, but if we don’t lose them we close. I’m selling like one cosmo a night. This isn’t a wake it’s an interment.”

“Three shots of Captain Morgan and they think they own the place.”

“The thing is, the thing I hear about Uber is they know how to tip, which is something I like.”