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The secret life of James Thurber

The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber, Edited by Harrison Kinney with Rosemary Thurber, Simon & Schuster: 798 pp., $40

August 10, 2003|Christopher Buckley | Christopher Buckley is the author, most recently, of "No Way to Treat a First Lady."

"It is 104 here today," James Thurber wrote to a friend from Hollywood in 1939, "but the papers in this godawful hellhole proclaim 'Angelenos Suffer no Discomfort.' That would be too bad. I hope the sons of bitches burn up."

What could be more refreshing than a Great East Coast Literary Figure draining his spleen beneath the remunerative palms? There are a number of delicious L.A. moments in this door-stopper collection of Thurber's letters. My favorite: "Jack Warner wanted to know yesterday if I was any relation to Edna Ferber -- was I her husband? I spelled my name and then pronounced it. Zane Ferber? he said. Any relation to Zane Grey?"

A few years later, Thurber was back in town, as a consultant so that he could watch from the sidelines as the Goldwyn studio ruined his classic short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." After the ordeal was over, Thurber wrote, "My defeat was complete." Years later he wrote to Fred Allen that the legendary Harold Ross, who had hired Thurber to work at the New Yorker, "shared Sam Goldwyn's belief that Wuthering Heights was something that wuthers."

Thurber was born in 1894 and died in 1961. He left some 24 books, notably "A Thurber Carnival," a multitude of drawings of soulful dogs, improbable seals and formidable wives lurking like gargoyles on top of dressers and of course a passel of New Yorker cartoons that are still quoted every day. ("It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption.")

He was prolific up to the end, heroically so, beset by various medical afflictions, not the least of which was near-total blindness from the early 1940s onward. One of his last projects was a series of articles about Ross for the Atlantic Monthly that was eventually published in book form as "The Years With Ross," still in print and for my money still the book to read about the New Yorker founder. Those articles eventually ruined his decades-long friendship with Katherine and E.B. White; he credits the latter in several of these letters as having been his literary mentor. (And not only literary: "Andy White once came upon me trying to shade in a drawing and said, 'Don't do that. If you ever became good, you would be mediocre.' ")

Amid all this output, Thurber also wrote letters, a thousand or more a year, and here they practically all are, an epistolary autobiography. At the age of 26, he wrote in jest to his chum Elliott Nugent, with whom he eventually wrote the successful play "The Male Animal": "If anyone should ever wish to compile my letters after I am famously dead ... I fear you would have to censor and expurgate with a free wrist movement."

Nothing appears to have been left out. This makes for some painful reading in parts, especially as Thurber suffers through unhappy love affairs with various women. ("Please don't be mad at me, Eve, and like me more than a little bit. Please, please, please, please, Eve.")

Oh dear. Thurber's first book -- written with E.B. White -- was "Is Sex Necessary?" One wonders now, upon reading these excruciating letters, was this necessary? His daughter Rosemary -- upon whom he dotes here in dozens of charming, affectionate letters -- is co-editor of this collection, with Harrison Kinney. Her father is long dead, but one looks up from the pages a dozen times in embarrassment for the poor man. I guess the moral is: Burn your old love letters if you don't want them published.

One other quibble: This volume, which rightly aspires to be the definitive "Thurber Letters," is inadequately edited. The first footnote doesn't appear until Page 24. The next one is on Page 94. Half the time you don't know the context of a letter or what is going on. Subsequent editions really ought to redress this. Each time I came across an unfamiliar name, I heard the echo of Ross' famous query scribbled in the margin of New Yorker galleys: "Who he?"

Complaints aside, this is a stupendous and splendid collection of letters by the preeminent American humorist of the 20th century. "Humorist" diminishes him; Thurber was much larger than that. As his fan T.S. Eliot once wrote about him, "Unlike so much humor, it is not merely a criticism of manners -- that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment -- but something more profound."

Thurber was a great prose stylist. Take this paragraph, from a letter written at the Algonquin Hotel in the sweltering summer of 1934, a few floors up from the famous Round Table (at which he himself sat only once or twice):

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