People of my generation were first exposed to the twisted wit of James Thurber by a reading assignment. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was assigned to my junior high school literature class. Our teacher regarded the short story as one of America’s all-time greatest. Regardless of Thurber’s reputation, “Walter Mitty” became one of my favorite characters.
James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 9, 1894 to Charles and Agnes Thurber. The family soon moved to Virginia, where the father was employed by a congressman. One day, while playing “William Tell” with his older brother, James was accidently shot in his left eye by an arrow. The injury left him permanently blind in that eye. Following the electoral defeat of his father’s employer, the family returned to Ohio.
James attended public schools and graduated, with honors, from high school in 1913. Thurber attended classes at Ohio State University but dropped out before graduation because of difficulties with his vision. After leaving college, he worked several years at the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio.
In 1926, Thurber moved to New York City. The following year, he befriended writer E.B. White. The same year, he was hired as a staffer at the New Yorker magazine. In 1929, he collaborated with White on the book Is Sex Necessary? In 1930, White noticed some of Thurber’s sketches and cartoons in a trash can. White took the drawings out, then slightly altered them enough to make them publication worthy, then had the cartoons published.
Those first cartoons became a hit with the New Yorker readers. His rudimentary sketches of peculiar tigers, sea lions, seals, assertive women, and passive men became popular across the United States. The most famous characterizations of all were Thurber’s dogs. His dog cartoons appeared in a series of books.
Two more Thurber books were published in the early 1930s: The Seal in the Bedroom and My Life and Hard Times. In the mid 1930s Thurber produced The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Let Your Mind Alone. The latter book was such a hit that Thurber was able to leave the New Yorker to pursue his dreams for overseas travel and to become a freelance writer.
In 1939, Thurber once again collaborated with White, this time on the stage play, The Male Animal. When it opened in 1940, the play was a major success. That same year, Thurber needed a series of eye operations for cataracts and trachoma. The serious conditions continuously deteriorated the vision in his only useful eye. By 1951, his sight was so poor that he drew his last cartoons that year.
Even though Thurber was blind, the last two decades witnessed further professional success through several more books that he dictated. They included Thurber Country and the very popular book about New Yorker editor Harold Ross, The Years with Ross.
In October of 1961, the 66-year-old Thurber suffered a stroke. Then, on November 2nd, Thurber died of pneumonia. He left us a legacy of clever cartoons and eccentric humor. His works are worth the time it takes to search for them.