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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | BIOGRAPHY

JAMES THURBER His Life and Times By Harrison Kinney; Henry Holt: 1,238 pp., $40

December 29, 1996|BILL BARICH

Harrison Kinney wrote a college thesis on Thurber, tracked down his hero at the New Yorker, landed a job there as a reporter and spent more than 40 years compiling the material that forms the substance of his exhaustive but ultimately winning book. James Thurber comes across as a gifted, troubled and often disagreeable man. Thurber suffered a childhood mishap that marked him for life when an older brother accidentally blinded him in one eye.

He idealized [women] in the fashion of Henry James and remained a virgin until 25. His sexual initiation seems to have been traumatic and induced in him a form of nervous breakdown. Thurber embarked on "mockery of the female sex, developing a prejudice he would keep for a lifetime."

Thurber had a knack for beautifully written light humor. He soon understood what [editor] Ross at the New Yorker wanted--short, sharp features done in the chatty tone of a personal letter--and he was hired as a staffer in February 1927 with the help of E.B. White.

Kinney interviewed virtually every important staff writer of [Thurber's] era and provides a fresh look at the inner workings of the magazine.

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