James Thurber: It's His World, and Welcome to It
A centennial appreciation of Thurber meticulously profiles the complex master of comic confession and improbable characters
JAMES THURBER: HIS LIFE AND TIMES
By Harrison Kinney
Henry Holt and Company
1,238 pp., $40
Laugh-out-loud biographies are not exactly the order of the day. So I don't mind dandling on my knee a year-late centennial monument to James Thurber that recalls the weight of our first child.
The laughs come from Thurber the talker and letter-writer as well as the meticulous author whose henpecked dreamer-hero Walter Mitty became part of the language. When a translator tells Thurber his books read better in French, he replies: ''They tend to lose something in the original.''
Even Thurber's mother, Mame, was funny, bending the twig that would grow into America's leading humorist after Mark Twain - not to mention a cartoonist whose eloquent simple line was compared to and admired by Matisse. Writing to Mame, Thurber's father-to-be tried to be funny, too: ''... as the burglar said, 'we must take things as we find them.' ''
When the family dog bit people, Mame would send chocolates. Biographer Harrison Kinney sees a similarity in Thurber's endless apologies to people he offended.
Through massive accumulation of such details, along with the graver ones of Thurber's deteriorating eyesight and stressful personal relationships, an elusive, complex image emerges: how the man saw himself and how others saw him. A man capable of generosity to young wannabes; of misogyny and friendships with women; of cyni#cal fables and the poignant hope of ''The Last Flower''; of black comedy and enchanting fairy tales; of dialect jokes and what fellow New Yorker writer E.B. White called the funniest, most haunting picture caption he ever read: ''If I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?''
Kinney's easy-to-take prose flashes back and forward to link life and work beyond straight chronology. A student of Thurber for several decades, he sometimes challenges previously accepted tales, such as a scandalous account attributed to Truman Capote from his days as a New Yorker office boy.
He adds to others, such as the Thurber anecdote in which President Roosevelt waggishly told Mrs. Winston Churchill that the brussels sprout was America's favorite vegetable. He ordered a pamphlet of recipes for her, and Thurber designed the cover, including a Thurber dog with a paw reaching for a sprout.
''Humor is a gentle thing,'' Thurber said when I interviewed him a couple of years before his passing in 1961. ''That's why# it is so necessary if our species is to survive.''
Thurber's humor could be tinged with horror. And humor is ''part and parcel of sadness,'' he says in a letter Kinney quotes. He bewails ''the forces of thoughtlessness that would create a fragmentation of tragicomedy.''
Tragicomedy appeared in the novels of his younger friend Peter De Vries, a fellow New Yorker humorist. Now Thurber can be seen as a transitional figure to the mixtures of comedy and other things in writers such as Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and J.D. Salinger.
For sheer inclusiveness, sometimes to the point of redundancy, this biography overtakes its predecessors from 1964 to 1994. It offers various points of view to avoid the negative thrust that Thurber's widow disliked in Burton Bernstein's major ''authorized, if not approved'' biography of 1975. The latter is half as long as the present volume, but the basic information is there, and it quotes some Thurber letters at greater length.
In one of these - to Elliott Nuge#nt, with whom he would write ''The Male Animal'' - the twenty-something Thurber refers to this newspaper. He needs money to get married and is encouraged by prospects for writing from Columbus, Ohio, for ''the justly great Christian Science Monitor.... It means a lot in possible prestige and not a little in money since they pay the wonderful rate of 37 and one half cents the inch, or about 8 to 10 dollars a column, and since they use much academic, literary and educational stuff I plot many articles of length.''
After Thurber went to The New Yorker, Kinney raises the possibility that editor Harold Ross teased Thurber into ''believing he was the unsophisticated backwoods rube he probably suspected Thurber thought him to be.'' See Thurber's version of Ross in ''The Years with Ross,'' which caused controversy among New Yorker colleagues.
Referring to his Monitor experience, Thurber wrote that Ross complained Thurber will ''always write journalese.'' Thurber added in our interview that one of the reasons# he became a humorist was that his checks came in the name Jane Thurber, and the Monitor replied to his complaint with a courteous letter beginning ''Dear Miss Thurber.''
Puns and confusion of words were a staple in his humor along with men, women, dogs, and recycled Ohio family lore. Overheard on The New Yorker's elevator: Thurber: ''It was scary enough to make your blood stand on end.'' White: ''Or make your hair run cold.''
While Thurber does hilarious riffs on Fowler's ''Modern English Usage,'' he would be as dismayed as Fowler when this book uses a ''than'' for a ''then'' and says the notorious Sen. Joseph McCarthy was ''hailing'' (instead of ''haling'') writers before his committee.
Gazing beyond the threats he saw to democracy and everything else, Thurber said in the last book published in his lifetime, ''... let's not look back in anger, or forward in fear, but around in awareness.''
At his best, that is what his humor did, justifying a sheet-anchor book about him but refusing to stay tied down.