This is the 27th 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 27 contains discussion of Thurber Country, Thurber’s collection of reminiscences, and the bitter short story “Teacher’s Pet.”
Life was made even more unpleasant for Thurber by the Great Red Scare that was taking shape in the U.S. after World War II. American fear of communism had been building ever since the end of the war left the USSR dominant in Eastern Europe, but it exploded in 1949, when the Soviets successfully tested their first atomic bomb. In addition to the loss of the U.S. atomic monopoly, Americans had to face the communist triumph in China and the revelations of espionage of highly placed New Dealers like Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White.
Thurber was very far indeed from a communist, but he had always detested the Ed Kellers of the world and he was fiercely loyal to his left-wing friends. The fact that they had implicitly and often explicitly endorsed Soviet tyranny and romanticized bloodthirsty terrorists meant nothing to Thurber. They were his friends, and that was the only thing that counted.
To a large extent he retreated from the current day to write memoirs of his youth in Columbus, writing about his relatives and other people he had known and admired as a young man, before he had moved to the big city, pieces that were collected in The Thurber Album, published in 1952. Perhaps the most important is “Daguerreotype of a Lady,” a portrait of his Aunt Margery, whom he had written about before, using different names, as both “Aunt Ida” and “Mrs. Willoughby.” Aunt Margery ran a boarding house with her daughter, and Thurber was sent there when he didn’t seem to be fitting in with the rest of the family, in particular when the Thurbers were staying with Mrs. Thurber’s parents because Mr. Thurber didn’t seem to have much interest in getting a job.
In this memoir, Thurber remembers the house as “a wonderful place”—it was here that he sat on the floor watching the lightning and the snow—but to his friends he would sometimes claim that he was exiled to Aunt Margery’s because his parents didn’t love him. Yet in one late letter Thurber claims that, when ill, he ran from his parent’s house to be with Aunt Margery, to be in the one place where he knew he would be safe. Was the boarding house a haven or a humiliation? Thurber seemed to remember it both ways.
In many of the other memoirs, the richness of the detail that Thurber gives us seems too rich. Was everything really that cozy in Columbus? If so, how did Thurber manage to store up enough bitterness and gall to last him several lifetimes?
In addition to writing about his family, Thurber discussed two of his major influences, including Robert O. Ryder, a famous Ohio journalist noted for his “paragraphing,” which produced such gems as this: “A woman is either hearing burglars or smelling something burning.” According to Burton Bernstein, “it was a line that could have been written by the adult Thurber.” In fact, the adult Thurber pilfered it. “A Preface to Dogs” (appearing in The Middle-Aged Man) begins “As soon as a woman presents her husband with a child, her capacity for worry becomes acuter; she hears more burglars; she smells more things burning ….”
Thurber also had high praise for Billy Ireland, cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch. Thurber recalled a drawing Ireland did commemorating the destruction of the 680-foot airship USS Shenandoah, which was torn apart in a storm over Ohio in 1925. Ireland drew a tiny airship hiding in its hanger like a mouse while a malevolent cloud (“Mother Nature”) glowered at it from above. Anyone who has seen Thurber’s famous cartoon of the little man returning home to a house whose rear has been transformed into a large, menacing woman can guess the source.
Judging from Thurber’s portraits of Ryder and Ireland, one could not guess that either ever drew an unquiet breath. Much the same could be said of Thurber’s portraits of his parents. Though he knew that life in pre-war (pre World War I) Columbus was not the Eden his was painting, Thurber chose to stick with the sort of “Reader’s Digest” glow that the New Yorker supposedly disdained.
The bile that Thurber kept out of The Thurber Album appeared in several stories that appeared in his next book, Thurber Country (1953). In “Teacher’s Pet,” all the ressentiment and fury that was left out of The Male Animal comes boiling to the surface. Thurber sets forth a Thurber man, Willber Kelby—remarkably, not that much of a drinker this time—trapped at a cocktail party and wishing he could go home to read “du Noüy”1. Kelby is a shy scholar who has been unmanned by a magazine article claiming that men over fifty are essentially kaput and Kelby of course finds himself at that age.
Kelby is watching with great disapproval as his wife drink her second martini and, more or less to spite her, he has his second as well, which proves to be his downfall. As he drinks, he recalls the great humiliation of his life, from which he has never recovered—a taunting and a beating he took as a thirteen-year-old boy for being the teacher’s pet. His teacher, Mss Lemmert, addressed him as “Willber, dear,” for which he was hideously ridiculed. Kelby stares bitterly at his wife, whom he thinks is drinking too much, as usual, when a woman asks him what he is thinking about. The article and the alcohol goad him into telling the truth: he is thinking about the time he was beaten up and humiliated by a bully when he was thirteen years old. Unfortunately, the woman has a son Elbert who is a teacher’s pet as well and who in fact is bullied by their host’s son. The son, Bob Stevenson, soon presents himself, and Kelby is confronted by his nemesis reborn, a swaggering thirteen-year-old who is utterly a stranger to fear and doubt, the healthy animal that Kelby never was and always longed to be.
Kelby manages to escape from the party without making an obvious scene, though his wife can scent his distress without understanding it. A few days later, however, he comes across Bob bullying Elbert. He forces Bob to back off, but then, confronted by an Elbert who, even when “saved,” can do nothing but whine and blubber, loses his self control entirely, beating the pathetic Elbert for holding up the mirror of his own weakness. “You goddamn little coward!”