James Thurber is not just the most famous author from my hometown, Columbus, Ohio. He’s also largely responsible for the intelligent but not snobbish satirical humor typical of mid-20th Century New Yorker cartoons and essays. This article profiles James Thurber, the American essayist, cartoonist and short story author.
James Thurber was born on December 8, 1894 in Columbus, Ohio, where he would live on and off for the rest of his life. Thurber’s father worked a government job as a civil clerk, and his mother, Mame, had an odd personality that provided much fodder for Thurber’s stories. One of the most incredible stories of Thurber’s youth – and one that evidence indicates is actually true – concerns Thurber’s loss of sight in one eye. While playing “William Tell” with his two brothers, an arrow hit James’ eye, eventually causing him to lose that eye’s sight entirely. This injury prevented Thurber from completing a required ROTC course at Ohio State, which kept him from receiving a diploma. Following college, Thurber worked a series of journalism jobs both in Columbus and abroad, until finally settling in to regular work at the New Yorker. Before long, Thurber was on his way to publishing essays regularly (as well as nearly 40 books).
Thurber is at his best when his work is most free and creative, such as is the case in his famous story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In this story, Thurber paints a portrait of Walter Mitty, whose dreams and self-imagined heroism provided inspirational humor for the likes of Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman.
Probably the best book to introduce new readers to Thurber is The Thurber Carnival, a compendium of some of Thurber’s most entertaining stories, essays and cartoons. Especially enjoyable are Thurber’s modern day fairy tales, which, though sometimes darkly satirical, involve good natured laughs as often as painful cringes. Thurber’s cartoons provide a good insight into his playfulness, and they help readers capture Thurber’s tone as they get to know his prose.
Contributions to the Artistry of the Short Story
Thurber’s prime contribution to the art of the short story is his development of understated satire. Thurber poked fun at contemporary society’s fascination with technology and advancement, even when such advancement came at the expense of morality and social warmth. But Thurber’s satire never turned to pure bitterness, and he remains one of American’s most beloved writers.