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“HUMOR IS emotional chaos remembered in tranquility,” said James Thurber, one of America’s greatest authorities on humor.
From the Preface of The Thurber Carnival: “Thurber’s life baffles and irritates the biographer because of its lack of design…. His drawings, for example, sometimes seem to have reached completion by some other route than the common one of intent.”
The author of that critique was none other than Thurber himself.
James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio. After attending The Ohio State University, he worked as a code clerk for the Department of State from 1918 to 1920, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Returning to Columbus, Thurber was a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.
There, responding to his editor’s desire for punchy leads, Thurber came up with the following: “Dead. That’s what the man was whom police found last night in the alley….”
In 1927, Thurber moved to New York City where he joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker. His career thrived there, with the help of friend and fellow editor E.B. White.
Thurber credits White for encouraging his cartoon work. “It was, to be sure, E.B. White… who first began to look at my drawings critically. Like the discovery of San Salvador and the discovery of pomme soufflé, the discovery of my art was an accident.”
His humor reflected life’s chaos, but also its vicissitudes, for instance, the dissolution of his first marriage in 1935.
Thurber wrote of his art: “Category No. 1, then, which may be called the Unconscious or Stream of Nervousness category, is represented by… the drawing entitled, with simple dignity, ‘Home.’ ”
“Category No. 2,” Thurber continues, “brings us to Freud and another of those disturbingly large spaces, namely, the space between the Concept of the Purely Accidental and the Theory of Haphazard Determination.”
On recreating a discarded cartoon depicting a seal, Thurber confessed, “The seal on top of the bed started out to be a seal on a rock.”
Other times, there’s willful confusion in the art.
Thurber described another famous cartoon: “The hippopotamus in ‘What have you done with Dr Millmoss?’ was drawn to amuse my small daughter…. Incidentally, my daughter, who was 2 years old at the time, identified the beast immediately….
“The New Yorker was not so smart. They described the drawing for their files as ‘Woman with strange animal.’ The New Yorker was nine years old at the time.”
Thurber’s wit also functions sans drawings. In a short story, a wife discusses a husband’s old flame: “You remember—the one with the thighs who couldn’t read.”
From The Thurber Carnival, “Let me be the first to admit that the naked truth about me is to the naked truth about Salvador Dali as an old ukulele in the attic is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts.”
There’s a wonderful exchange in The 13 Clocks, a Thurber fairy tale complete with maiden Saralinda, Prince Zorn and the evil Duke of Coffin Castle:
“They’ve got him,” squealed the Duke. “Eleven men to one!”
“You may have heard of Galahad,” said Hark, “whose strength was the strength of ten.”
“That leaves one man to get him,” cried the Duke. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014