Our book group is having a short story July, concentrating on two authors renowned for their wit: Saki and Thurber. I’m working my way through Saki, so I’ll deal with him in another post; here I’ll talk about my first experience of reading James Thurber.
My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber
James Thurber (1894-1961), was one of America’s foremost cartoonists and humorists, most of his work being published for the New Yorker, and then collected into books.
My Life and Hard Times, which was published in 1933, is the closest thing to a memoir that he wrote. A short selection of autobiographical stories from his youth, about growing up in the Thurber household in Columbus, Ohio, together with his unique cartoons. In my edition, the eighty-odd pages of memoir, is sandwiched by an introduction, which puts the book into context, a Preface by Thurber himself, and at the end, Notes by Thurber, an Afterword praising the book’s brevity and jewel-like quality, and finally a brief biography of the man.
I enjoyed Thurber’s preface very much, in which he muses self-deprecatingly about reaching the age of forty and the nature of his type of writing …
I have known writers reaching this dangerous and tricky age to phone their homes from their offices, or their offices from their homes, ask for themselves in a low tone, and then, having fortunately discovered that they were “out,” to collapse in hard-breathing relief. This is particularly true of writers of light pieces running from a thousand to tow thousand words.
The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbours, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.
That made me chuckle. So, on to the stories themselves of which there are just nine. Each has an evocative title, the three stand-out ones being: The Night the Bed Fell, The Day the Dam Broke, and The Night the Ghost Got In.
Most of the stories share an escalating sense of farce, which reels in more and more characters before reaching a critical mass, exploding, and then everyone wonders what had actually happened.
In The Night the Bed Fell, the Thurbers have visitors staying, including Aunt Melissa who was paranoid about burglars, and each night kept a pile of shoes outside her bedroom to throw at them (left). Odd noises lead to waking up and silly things happening – if I told you more, you wouldn’t need to read the story.
The Day the Dam Broke is like a game of Chinese whispers where a message gets passed on wrongly. The Night the Ghost Got In is, in a way, and even sillier version of the first involving things that go bump in the night.
Some readers think these comic vignettes are the funniest things ever. I’m afraid I remain to be convinced. I found the tales just mildly amusing, although I loved his preface. The stories, although full of slapstick, are gentle; I’m certainly used to more robust humour.
Then the cartoons. There are very few smiling faces, nearly every person is in profile, and many look very cross indeed. The captions are very matter of fact. However, if you google ‘Thurber cartoons’, there are loads of funny taglines to other drawings, you can buy greetings cards with them on.
I’d like to reserve judgement until I’ve read more Thurber – some of his columns and stories from the New Yorker perhaps, and definitely The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, (which I’d always mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, but that’s probably Danny Kaye’s fault!). It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of our book group think.
Have you read Thurber?
What do you think of his cartoon style?
What other humorist’s writing would you recommend?
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber