The not-so-secret life of James Thurber

Why We Wrote This

Humorist James Thurber is often associated with New York, but his formative years in Columbus, Ohio, helped shape his approach to writing and drawing. How does the region in which an author grows up influence a life and an art?

Tessa Berg/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
James Thurber’s family lived in this house from 1913 to 1917, while he was a student at Ohio State. It's now a literary arts center and museum.

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Author and cartoonist James Thurber grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where the antics of his mother, “Mame,” inspired his own sense of humor. The house where his family lived from 1913 to 1917 has been turned into a literary shrine. Thurber House, as it’s now known, doubles as a literary arts center and museum. 

This year Thurber House serves as ground zero for the Year of Thurber, a celebration that commemorates the 125th year since his birth. The celebration involves citywide events such as exhibits and readings, and on Aug. 24 the Columbus Museum of Art opens a major exhibition, “A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber.” 

“He never forgot where he was from, and in fact, never really left there in his imagination,” says David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, the magazine where Thurber earned international fame. Although Thurber lived the balance of his life on the East Coast, he tapped into his memories of living in Columbus for many of the stories he wrote. 

The three-story Victorian-style house at 77 Jefferson Avenue nestles among ordinary-looking homes in this Midwestern city. It’s handsome but not grand; yet to many in Columbus, the building is hallowed literary ground. 

From 1913 to 1917 future writer and cartoonist James Thurber, then an undergraduate at Ohio State University, and his family were renters here. For the past 35 years, Thurber House, as it is now known, has been decorated to suggest its appearance during the era of its most notable tenant, doubling as a literary arts center and museum. 

Inside, the house is no less ordinary: Its cramped bedrooms and too-narrow hallways are enhanced only by the knowledge that Thurber once roamed them, a fact visitors are reminded of throughout the residence, which is decked out with Thurber-related artifacts and memorabilia.

Tessa Berg/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
James Thurber’s typewriter sits on a desk in his bedroom. His house on 77 Jefferson Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, is now open to the public.

“He never forgot where he was from, and in fact, never really left there in his imagination,” says David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, the magazine where Thurber earned international fame. 

Scholars say that Thurber benefited from his middle-of-the-road background. In his day and ours, Columbus has been considered a bellwether city: Products are routinely test-marketed here, and the halls of government are home to both a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor. 

“Columbus is so typical,” says James Tootle, a Thurber expert. “The fact that it’s so mainstream, it’s so common. The experiences that he had, anyone could’ve had them. And, therefore, that keeps his writing fresh.”

This year Thurber House serves as ground zero for the Year of Thurber, a celebration that commemorates the 125th year since his birth. The celebration involves citywide events such as exhibits and readings, and on August 24 the Columbus Museum of Art opens a major exhibition, “A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber.” 

Thurber’s work, including stories and cartoons gathered in such noted collections as “My World – and Welcome to It,” often centers on the dashed dreams and frustrations of average people. For example, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” one of his signature stories that was adapted for film, asks us to accompany its protagonist on his often preposterous adventures. 

“It reminds me of the ‘Seinfeld’ TV show in a way, that it’s just everyday things,” Mr. Tootle says of Thurber’s work, pointing to the chapter “The Car We Had to Push” in Thurber’s Columbus-centric memoir, “My Life and Hard Times.” “Well, everybody’s car breaks down at one time or another. We’ve all had that, but he makes a story out of it.”

James Thurber for The New Yorker

Born in Columbus in 1894, James was the middle son of Charles and Mary Thurber. His father was an official in the Republican Party, but his mother, who was also called “Mame,” provided him with his most significant inheritance: a sense of humor.

“Mame Thurber was an absolute character,” says Michael Rosen, the founding literary director of Thurber House and curator of the upcoming show at the art museum, who describes her as an inveterate practical joker. “She would put on costumes,” he says. “She [did] voices.”

Thurber, who did not leave Ohio State University with a degree, took a stab at straightforward journalism as a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch but eventually decamped for New York, where he caught on as a writer at The New Yorker in 1927. Mr. Remnick credits Thurber and E.B. White with setting a style for the magazine in its early days. “They establish this voice that is a combination of wonderment and the opposite of wised-up sophistication,” Mr. Remnick says. “But, at the same time, there is a certain assurance to the voice.” 

Today Thurber is at least as well-recognized for his loose, sketchy, not particularly well-proportioned cartoons. “I remember him saying that he could whistle while he drew,” says Rosemary Thurber, his daughter from his first marriage to Althea Adams. “He drew so quickly and freely, much easier than his writing process of refining and polishing until he had just the right words, just the way he wanted them.”

In fact, Thurber’s metamorphosis from amateur doodler to respected cartoonist came about by happenstance. “He would go to other people’s offices and fill their pads,” says Mr. Rosen, adding that White first took note of the charm of the drawings. “E.B. White gathered them up. They brought them to the publisher, spread them out on the floor,” he says.

Mild-mannered dogs were a frequent subject. “The presence of a dog – unlike a presence of a crazy-looking lamp or a misshapen sofa – does represent a kind of calm in this shaken-up environment,” Mr. Rosen says. Yet some drawings would be called sexist today: The humorist tended to draw women as bullies and men as milquetoasts. “We sort of look at some of the men and women and think, ‘Well, that’s a little chauvinistic,’” says Mr. Rosen, who considers both genders to be “confused” in Thurber’s drawings. “I think, in general, they look like they’re survivors, that the men and women are mostly startled by the contemporary time they find themselves in.”

Thurber, who died in 1961, was an East Coast resident for the balance of his life, but he remained tethered to Columbus through his family, and he continued tapping the town for inspiration. 

Thurber was known for taking pen and ink to the places in which he lived. At The New Yorker, he marked up a wall at the magazine, which has been saved. “They chiseled two of the images off the walls to preserve them in a museum-like way,” Mr. Remnick says. “One is a self-portrait, and one is of a kind of football scene.” And actor Sam Waterston, the current owner of Thurber’s final house in West Cornwall, Connecticut, remembers remodeling the pantry when he made a startling discovery: “When we were taking out the cabinets, we found a Thurber dog drawing on that yellow scratch paper that everybody had.”

Tessa Berg/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The walls of James Thurber’s bedroom closet bear the signatures of notable visitors, in keeping with the humorist’s own habit of drawing on the walls of homes he lived in.

Yet it is Thurber House that best serves as a memorial to him. Each summer a writer-in-residence occupies a space on the third floor. Cleveland novelist Kevin Keating remembers his first night there last August. The scene could be something out of “The Night the Ghost Got In” from “My Life and Hard Times.” “A big picture hanging on the wall beside my bed came crashing down on top of me,” Mr. Keating says. “I thought, ‘There’s my introduction to Thurber.’” 

Of course, the master would have probably embellished a few details. Says Mr. Keating: “I think Thurber would probably have it where I run screaming from the house and then manage to lock myself out."

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