Over a month ago I began running the first episodes of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 7 continues my discussion of the his “Mr. and Mrs. Monroe short stories from his second book, The Owl in the Attic.
“Mr. Monroe Holds the Fort” is another noises in the night story, Mr. Monroe pretending to be an expert on guns (a theme that Thurber would, again, handle brilliantly in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Mr. Monroe, left alone, arms himself in response to a “flitting, clothes-closety sound” from upstairs. Attempts to describe strange, slightly ominous, indescribable sounds, attempts that sometimes bend and stretch the language in onomatopoetic fashion, are common in Thurber. The story ends with Mr. Monroe, pretending to be brave, heading off to pick up his wife at the train station. He has the gun with him, and there’s an almost subconscious suggestion that he would like to shoot his wife with it, something that didn’t belong in the story but which Thurber perhaps did not feel like taking out.
“The Middle Years” is solely about Mr. Monroe. At a party, a young lady—perhaps the same young blonde we met before, perhaps not—makes a play for him. He is rather startled to realize that he could have this young woman—maybe—and he recalls how, ten years before, the prospect would have driven him into a frenzy of longing, body and soul on fire. But now, would it be worth it, after all? Then, he had no choice in the matter. Be it agony or be it ecstasy, he was for it. But now, one needs to examine things. He picks up a copy of The Golden Bowl, not usually considered a goad to an assignation, and reads several pages. It’s better to think about these things a bit, and think, and think, until that little spark, which was probably nothing in the first place, goes out, and the prospect of the wild longing of youth fades away. Besides, if you think about things long enough, there won’t be time to act, and so you will be spared the necessity of making a decision in the first place. And so poor Mr. Monroe emasculates himself, with no assistance needed from either Mrs. Monroe or the working class.
Who were Thurber’s models? I don’t know. His dry, direct, style, observing everyone from the outside, except Mr. Monroe, whose thought processes we are privy to, owes nothing to James.1 Thurber’s other favorite author was Joseph Conrad, who surely taught him something, and he was apparently fascinated by Ohio boy O. Henry, though nothing could be further from O. Henry’s trick endings than Thurber’s spare sketches. An American who did write short, spare, merciless stories was Ring Lardner, who Thurber greatly admired and whose epistolary novel, You Know Me Al (1916), was once immensely famous.2 Lardner was a close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his alcoholic despair and early death formed a sort of template for Fitzgerald’s later career.
The second part of The Owl in the Attic is “The Pet Department,” a wonderfully funny series Thurber ran in the New Yorker, featuring idiot questions from supposed readers—“We have a fish with ears and wonder if it is valuable”—along with deadpan responses and deadpan drawings that show Thurber’s fascinating “third-rate” technique at three-quarters strength. (It was E.B. White who insisted, over and over again, that Thurber’s drawings deserved to be published (which, in the case of Is Sex Necessary?, they scarcely did, significantly increasing Thurber’s debt to him). The rest of the book is taken up with another series, “Ladies and Gentleman’s Guide to Modern English Usage,” which Thurber tells us is inspired by W. H. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Fowler’s Dictionary, first published in 1926, was famously Harold Ross’s bible, although in fact he doesn’t seem to have used it quite as scrupulously as is often supposed.3
Thurber’s “Guide” is sometimes described as a parody of Fowler, but in fact it isn’t. Thurber makes reference to Fowler on occasion, but rarely in any detail. In all the pieces, Thurber seizes on a classic example of a grammatical quibble—“who” or “whom,” or whether one should ever split an infinitive—and then goes off on a detour and frolic having nothing to do with grammar. Usually, being Thurber, he gets away with it.
Thurber denies that it is always wrong to split an infinitive: “This is of a piece with the sentimental and outworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady.” This leads to a reminiscence about a “charming lady who [was] overcome by the unaccountable desire, at formal dinners with red and white wines, to crawl up on the table and lie down.” After some experimentation, her companions learned to make her keep her seat by “fetching her a sharp downward blow on the head. She would then sit quietly through the rest of the dinner, smiling dreamily and nodding at people, and looking altogether charming.”
Such adroit roughhousing should know its limits: “A man who does not know his own strength could, of course, all too easily overshoot the mark, and, instead of producing the delightful languor to which I have alluded, knock his companion completely under the table, an awkward situation which should be avoided at all costs, because it would leave two men seated next each other.” Thurber then rambles on for another page, describing how quickly dinner parties can go downhill, with men throwing salad plates, the affair further disrupted by “the cries of ‘Whammy!’ and ‘Whoops!’ , with which most men accompany the act of hurling plates.” It’s all delicious, but it has nothing to do with Fowler, just an example of Thurber’s remarkable capacity for seemingly effortless fun.