Friday, April 3, 2015
April 3, 2015: April Fools: James Thurber
[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On three unique ways the talented humorist captured the human condition.
Any analysis of James Thurber’s legacy has to start with “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939); not the almost entirely unrelated films with Danny Kaye (1947) and Ben Stiller (2013), but the pitch-perfect New Yorker short story that started it all. “Mitty” is very funny and well done, capturing both the different genres and worlds of the fantasy sequences and the realities of Walter’s life and marriage with equal humor and success. But I know of few literary works that engage more thoughtfully or meaningfully with the question of the role that fantasy—and works of art that produce it—plays in our internal and external identities and lives, nor many that portray such questions ambiguously enough that it’s equally possible to make the case that they render our protagonist a fool or a hero, an escapist idiot or a man doing what he needs to do to navigate his day and life. Thurber’s story could certainly be fairer to Mrs. Mitty, but, as Thurber himself knew well, nobody’s perfect!
Thurber produced many, many more stories, cartoons, and other works in the course of his long and prolific career (most of them also first published in The New Yorker), but I would highlight a couple specific categories of works through which he framed his central interests in identity and society in particularly unique ways. First, there are the nearly 100 short “fables” that he collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). The idea of adopting the Aesop’s fables method and form for our modern society and culture seems perhaps obvious or even clichéd, but I don’t know of any other author who has produced a similar body of such modern fables, much less ones that are as successful (both at capturing the classic Aesop’s vibe and at reflecting elements of 20th century life) as Thurber’s. All of these elements are exemplified by the most famous fable, “The Unicorn in the Garden” (1939); although “Unicorn” employs human characters, whereas Thurber’s other fables (like Aesop’s) use anthropomorphic animals, it nonetheless offers a great starting point for exploring Thurber’s funny and pointed work in the genre.
One of the few longer (and non-New Yorker-based) works in Thurber’s career was his 1939 stage play The Male Animal, co-written with Thurber’s college classmate Elliott Nugent; the play was a hit and was adapted as a 1942 film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Set on a college campus, the comic but socially pointed play centers both on the rocky marriage of its protagonists (further threatened by the return of a former football star/love interest of the wife) and on the unexpected political controversy in which the husband (a professor) finds himself when his plan to read Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s sentencing statement to a class is discovered by the college’s conservative administration. The play (and film) navigate these different layers of identity—the personal and political, the romantic and professional—with all the wit and observational clarity we would expect from Thurber, but adapted very successfully to this new medium. For an author and artist of Thurber’s talents, every stage of his career and work reveals just another level of his comic, biting, and deeply human themes and effects.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time, and I’m dead serious here: Funny favorites you’d share for that weekend post?