James Thurber

James Grover Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961) was an American cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist, playwright, children's book author, and celebrated wit. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine, such as "The Catbird Seat", and collected in his numerous books. He was one of the most popular humorists of his time, as he celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people. He wrote the Broadway comedy The Male Animal in collaboration with his college friend Elliott Nugent; it was later adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. His short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has been adapted for film twice, once in 1947 and again in 2013.

James Thurber
James Thurber in 1954
BornJames Grover Thurber
(1894-12-08)December 8, 1894
Columbus, Ohio, U.S.
DiedNovember 2, 1961(1961-11-02) (aged 66)
New York City, U.S.
Resting placeGreen Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio, U.S.
Genreshort stories, cartoons, essays
Subjecthumor, language
Notable works
Notable awardsTony Award for "A Thurber Carnival" (1960)
Althea Addams Thurber (m. 19251935)
Helen Wismer Thurber (m. 19351961)


Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes "Mame" (née Fisher) Thurber on December 8, 1894. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His father was a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor. Thurber described his mother as a "born comedian" and "one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known." She was a practical joker and, on one occasion, pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.[1]

When Thurber was seven years old, he and one of his brothers were playing a game of William Tell, when his brother shot James in the eye with an arrow.[2] He lost that eye, and the injury later caused him to become almost entirely blind. He was unable to participate in sports and other activities in his childhood because of this injury, but he developed a creative mind which he used to express himself in writings.[1] Neurologist V .S. Ramachandran suggests that Thurber's imagination may be partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition which causes complex visual hallucinations in people who have suffered some level of visual loss.[3] (This was the basis for the piece "The Admiral on the Wheel".)

From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended Ohio State University where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. It was during this time he rented the house on 77 Jefferson Avenue, which became Thurber House in 1984. He never graduated from the university because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) course.[4] In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.[5]

From 1918 to 1920, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the United States Department of State, first in Washington, D.C. and then at the embassy in Paris. On returning to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed books, films, and plays in a weekly column called "Credos and Curios", a title that was given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber returned to Paris during this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.[5]

Move to New York

In 1925, Thurber moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E.B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of Thurber's drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication; White inked-in some of these earlier drawings to make them reproduce better for the magazine, and years later expressed deep regret that he had done such a thing. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.

Marriage and family

Thurber married Althea Adams in 1922, but the marriage, as he later wrote to a friend, devolved into “a relationship charming, fine, and hurting.”[6] The marriage ended in divorce in May 1935.[1] They lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut, with their daughter Rosemary (b. 1931).[7] He married Helen Wismer (1902–1986) in June 1935.[8]


Thurber's behavior became erratic and unpredictable in his last year. At a party hosted by Noël Coward, Thurber was taken back to the Algonquin Hotel at six in the morning. Thurber was stricken with a blood clot on the brain on October 4, 1961, and underwent emergency surgery, drifting in and out of consciousness. The operation was initially successful, but Thurber died a few weeks later, on November 2, aged 66, due to complications from pneumonia. The doctors said his brain was senescent from several small strokes and hardening of the arteries. His last words, aside from the repeated word "God", were "God bless... God damn", according to his wife, Helen.[9]

Legacy and honors


Uniquely among major American literary figures, he became equally well known for his simple, surrealistic drawings and cartoons. Both his skills were helped along by the support of, and collaboration with, fellow New Yorker staff member E. B. White, who insisted that Thurber's sketches could stand on their own as artistic expressions. Thurber drew six covers and numerous classic illustrations for The New Yorker.[14]


The last twenty years of Thurber's life were filled with material and professional success in spite of his blindness. He published at least fourteen more books, including The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and the extremely popular account of the life of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, The Years with Ross (1959). A number of his short stories were made into movies, including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life, but he also wrote darker material, such as "The Whip-Poor-Will", a story of madness and murder. His best-known short stories are "The Dog That Bit People" and "The Night the Bed Fell"; they can be found in My Life and Hard Times, which was his "break-out" book. Among his other classics are The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Catbird Seat, A Couple of Hamburgers, The Greatest Man in the World, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox. The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze has several short stories with a tense undercurrent of marital discord. The book was published the year of his divorce and remarriage. His 1941 story "You Could Look It Up",[15] about a three-foot adult being brought in to take a walk in a baseball game, is said to have inspired Bill Veeck's stunt with Eddie Gaedel with the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Veeck claimed an older provenance for the stunt, but was certainly aware of the Thurber story.[16]

In addition to his other fiction, Thurber wrote over seventy-five fables, some of which were first published in "The New Yorker" (1939), then collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). These were short stories that featured anthropomorphic animals (e.g. The Little Girl and the Wolf, his version of Little Red Riding Hood) as main characters, and ended with a moral as a tagline. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, The Unicorn in the Garden, which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn, which doesn't speak. Thurber's fables were satirical, and the morals served as punchlines as well as advice to the reader, demonstrating "the complexity of life by depicting the world as an uncertain, precarious place, where few reliable guidelines exist."[17]

His stories also included several book-length fairy tales, such as The White Deer (1945), The 13 Clocks (1950) and The Wonderful O (1957). The latter was one of several of Thurber's works illustrated by Marc Simont. Thurber's prose for The New Yorker and other venues included numerous humorous essays. A favorite subject, especially toward the end of his life, was the English language. Pieces on this subject included "The Spreading 'You Know'," which decried the overuse of that pair of words in conversation, "The New Vocabularianism", "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?", and many others. His short pieces – whether stories, essays or something in between – were referred to as "casuals" by Thurber and the staff of The New Yorker.[18]

Thurber wrote a biographical memoir about the founder/publisher of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, entitled The Years with Ross (1958). He wrote a five-part New Yorker series, between 1947 and 1948, examining in depth the radio soap opera phenomenon, based on near-constant listening and researching over the same period. Leaving nearly no element of these programs unexamined, including their writers, producers, sponsors, performers, and listeners alike, Thurber republished the series in his anthology, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), under the section title "Soapland." The series was one of the first to examine such a pop-culture phenomenon in depth.


While Thurber drew his cartoons in the usual fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, his failing eyesight later required changes. He drew them on very large sheets of paper using a thick black crayon (or on black paper using white chalk, from which they were photographed and the colors reversed for publication). Regardless of method, his cartoons became as noted as his writings; they possessed an eerie, wobbly feel that seems to mirror his idiosyncratic view on life. He once wrote that people said it looked like he drew them under water. Dorothy Parker, a contemporary and friend of Thurber, referred to his cartoons as having the "semblance of unbaked cookies". The last drawing Thurber completed was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which was featured as the cover of Time magazine on July 9, 1951.[19] The same drawing was used for the dust jacket of The Thurber Album (1952).


  • Beginning during his own father's terminal illness, television broadcaster Keith Olbermann read excerpts from Thurber's short stories during the closing segment of his MSNBC program Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Fridays, which he called "Fridays with Thurber."[24]
  • On an episode of Norm Macdonald's video podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, Norm tells a story in which comedian Larry Miller acknowledges that his biggest influence in comedy was Thurber.



  • Is Sex Necessary? or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, (1929 with E. B. White), 75th anniv. edition (2004) with foreword by John Updike, ISBN 0-06-073314-4
  • The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, 1931
  • The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, 1932
  • My Life and Hard Times, 1933 ISBN 0-06-093308-9
  • The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1935
  • Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More Or Less Inspirational Pieces, 1937
  • The Last Flower, 1939, reissued 2007 ISBN 978-1-58729-620-8
  • Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, 1940 ISBN 0-06-090999-4
  • My World—And Welcome to It, 1942 ISBN 0-15-662344-7
  • Men, Women and Dogs, 1943
  • The Thurber Carnival (anthology), 1945, ISBN 0-06-093287-2, ISBN 0-394-60085-1 (Modern Library Edition)
  • The Beast in Me and Other Animals, 1948 ISBN 0-15-610850-X
  • The Thurber Album, 1952
  • Thurber Country, 1953
  • Thurber's Dogs, 1955
  • Further Fables for Our Time, 1956
  • Alarms and Diversions (anthology), 1957
  • The Years with Ross, 1959 ISBN 0-06-095971-1
  • Lanterns and Lances, 1961

Children's books


Posthumous books

  • Credos and Curios, 1962 (ed. Helen W. Thurber)
  • Thurber & Company, 1966 (ed. Helen W. Thurber)
  • Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1981 (ed. Helen W. Thurber & Edward Weeks) ISBN 978-0-316844-44-4
  • Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, 1989 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • Thurber on Crime, 1991 (ed. Robert Lopresti) ISBN 978-0-892964-50-5
  • People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber, 1994 (ed. Michael J. Rosen) ISBN 978-0-151000-94-4
  • James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (anthology), 1996, (ed. Garrison Keillor), Library of America, ISBN 978-1-883011-22-2
  • The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, 2001 (ed. Michael J. Rosen) ISBN 978-0-060196-56-1
  • The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber, 2002 (ed. Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber) ISBN 978-0-743223-43-0
  • Collected Fables, 2019 (ed. Michael J. Rosen), ISBN
  • A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber, 2019 (ed. Michael J. Rosen) ISBN 978-0814255339

Short stories

  • "The Man Who Hated Moonbaum"
  • "The Black Magic of Barney Haller"
  • "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
  • "The Night the Bed Fell"
  • "The Unicorn in the Garden"
  • "The Moth and the Star"
  • "The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble"
  • "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", 1937 (printed in The New Yorker)
  • "You Could Look It Up", 1941
  • "The Catbird Seat", 1942
  • "The Secret Life of James Thurber", 1943
  • "The Breaking up of the Winships", 1945
  • "A Couple of Hamburgers"
  • "The Greatest Man in the World"
  • "The Cane in the Corridor"
  • "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox"
  • "The Bear Who Let It Alone"
  • "The Princess and the Tin Box"
  • "The Dog That Bit People"
  • "The Lady on 142"
  • "The Remarkable Case of Mr.Bruhl"
  • "The Scotty Who Knew Too Much"
  • "The Night the Ghost Got In"
  • "The Car We Had to Push"
  • "The Day the Dam Broke"
  • "More Alarms at Night"
  • "A Sequence of Servants"
  • "University Days"
  • "Draft Board Nights"
  • "The Wood Duck"
  • "The Tiger Who Was to Be King"
  • "The Owl Who Was God"
  • "The Peacelike Mongoose"
  • "File and Forget"[25]
  • "The Whip-Poor-Will"
  • "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife"
  • "The Evening's at Seven"

See also


  1. Liukkonen, Petri. "James Thurber". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on August 19, 2006.
  2. Kelly, John (April 7, 2018). "Perspective | Why is there a street in Falls Church, Va., named after James Thurber?". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  3. V.S. Ramachandran; Sandra Blakeslee (1988). Phantoms in the Brain. HarperCollins. pp. 85–7.
  4. Thurber House. "James Thurber". Archived from the original on October 12, 2007. Retrieved October 14, 2007.
  5. Thurber House. "James Thurber: His Life & Times". Archived from the original on January 14, 2006. Retrieved October 14, 2007.
  6. "Is Sex Necessary?". The Attic. Retrieved September 8, 2018.
  7. A Window Into Thurber's Secret Life, The New York Times, 12 March 1975
  8. "Helen Thurber Is Dead at 84; Edited Writings of Husband". The New York Times. December 26, 1986. Retrieved January 11, 2016.
  9. Bernstein, Burton (1975). Thurber. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. p. 501. ISBN 978-0-396-07027-6.
  10. Grossberg, Michael (October 5, 2009). "Frazier first to win Thurber Prize twice". The Columbus Dispatch.
  11. "True Crime: An American Anthology". Library of America.
  12. "CONNECTICUT - Fairfield County". National Register of Historic Places.
  13. "OHIO - Franklin County". National Register of Historic Places.
  14. "Dec. 8, 2015: birthday: James Thurber". The Writer’s Almanac.
  15. "You Could Look It Up", The Saturday Evening Post, April 5, 1941, pp. 9–11, 114, 116
  16. Veeck, Bill; Ed Linn (1962). "A Can of Beer, a Slice of Cake—and Thou, Eddie Gaedel", from Veeck – As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 11–23. ISBN 978-0-226-85218-8.
  17. "The Modern Fable: James Thurber's Social Criticisms", by Ruth A. Maharg, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 1984, pp. 72-73.
  18. Sorel, Edward (November 5, 1989). "The Business of Being Funny". The New York Times. Time Inc. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  19. "Time Magazine Cover: James Thurber – July 9, 1951". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. Time Inc. July 9, 1951. Retrieved January 31, 2007.
  20. "Priceless Gift of Laughter". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. Time Inc. July 9, 1951. Retrieved January 31, 2007.
  21. "The Unicorn in the Garden". The Big Cartoon Database. Retrieved January 31, 2007.
  22. Bernstein, Burton (1975). Thurber. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. p. 477. ISBN 978-0-396-07027-6.
  23. "A Thurber Carnival". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved March 1, 2008.
  24. "Olbermann signs off msnbc - Entertainment - Television - TODAY.com". Today.msnbc.msn.com. Archived from the original on January 23, 2011. Retrieved May 6, 2012.
  25. Thurber, James (January 8, 1949). "File and Forget". The New Yorker. 24 (46): 24–48.

Further reading

Biographies of Thurber

  • Bernstein, Burton. 1975. Thurber. William Morrow & Co. ISBN 9780396070276
  • Fensch, Thomas. 2001. The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber. ISBN 9780738840833
  • Grauer, Neil A. 1994. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9780803221550
  • Kinney, Harrison. 1995. James Thurber: His Life and Times. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 9780805039665

Literature review

  • Holmes, Charles S. 1972. The Clocks Of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber Atheneum. ISBN 9780689705748
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