Who’s Afraid of Walter Mitty? Liam Heneghan on Dealing With the "Thurber Man"

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James Thurber




Who’s Afraid of Walter Mitty? Liam Heneghan on Dealing With the "Thurber Man" by Liam Heneghan

February 26th, 2014 reset - +

IN THOSE DAYS, over 30 years past, when it was not unusual in Dublin bookshops for patrons to discuss books with each other, a youth not very much older than I was at the time told me that James Thurber's writing was “total shite.” I glowered, bought My World and Welcome to It (1942), and shuffled out onto Nassau Street with the book stuffed into a paper bag. I was mainly interested in the pictures anyway.

By that time I was already fairly progressed in my reading of Thurber, who was a favorite of my father’s and consequently whose books, some of them at least, were strewn about the house. My mother claimed that Thurber was the only writer that made had her laugh out loud on a Dublin bus. Thurber’s best known story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which had first appeared in The New Yorker in 1939, was assigned reading for Ireland’s intermediate certificate English course (the “intercourse” as we called it), the national curriculum for students aged 12 to 15 years old. The story was therefore known to most Irish youth.

I have been rereading Thurber in recent months, more than 35 years after I first encountered him, partly in anticipation of the release of Ben Stiller’s film version of the Walter Mitty story, and partly because I had picked up a copy of the excellent compilation of Thurber’s Writings and Drawings (1996) in the Library of America series. In the intervening years since my early reading of Thurber I lived for a long time in the United States, first in New York, then a brief stint in Georgia, and now in Chicago where it snows a lot. Having more familiarity with locations and situations that once seemed exotic and urbane to me, at least when viewed from Dublin in the 1970s, I can now assess Thurber’s work with more culturally attuned eyes and significantly older ones.

I am not the only reader to have harbored a concern that Thurber would not “hold up”; a suspicion that he was perhaps slight, merely whimsical, and ultimately forgettable and that what we had laughed at then would be simply laughable now. If this were the case, Stiller’s revamping of a classic Thurber story would be welcome, breathing new life into played-out plots and themes. Reviewers on Amazon or Goodreads are certainly fraternally inclined to warn that the contemporary reader will find Thurber now, alas, “a little dated.” In reviewing the selection of Thurber’s work made by Garrison Keillor for The Library of America collection, Sanford Pinsker, sharing such concerns, wrote: “[T]he decision to lavish more than a thousand pages of attention on James Thurber's short stories, ‘casuals,’ and whimsical line-drawings may seem to some excessive.” But Pinsker believed that “when socially committed writers were understandably the rage, Thurber kept the humorous faith and worried about the shape and the ring of his sentences.” Indeed, even Thurber recognized that “writers of light pieces,” writers like himself, are assumed to be “gay of heart and carefree.” This, he wrote in Preface to a Life (from My Life and Hard Times, [1933]), is “curiously untrue.” To call such writers “humorists” is insufficient as their writing, and his writing one supposes, is “a manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hands of melancholy.”

While Thurber was known for being generous in his praise of his colleagues and not an especially competitive writer, he nonetheless took umbrage at his work being slighted. A few years after the publication of My Life and Hard Times, Thomas Wolfe spent an inebriated night at the Thurbers’ Fifth Avenue apartment and told Thurber that his pieces in The New Yorker did not qualify him as a writer. Thurber subsequently lashed out repeatedly with cartoons depicting small “Thurber Men” upbraiding hulking Thomas Wolfes. The most famous of these was a mural at Tim Costello’s Third Avenue saloon. There is no doubting that Thurber regarded his work as being that of a real writer, and despite their seeming lightheartedness, his themes were grand.

To the Irish reader that I was in the 1970s, Columbus, Ohio — Thurber’s hometown where the short biographical note on the dust jacket of his books reported “so many awful things happened to him” — sounded reasonably exotic. I am now told that this is not actually the case. Thurber was foreign undoubtedly, but the delight he took in the eccentricities of his family, the subject of My Life and Hard Times (1933), appealed to an Irish sensibility. As an American writer Thurber’s world seemed somehow glossier than ours, and yet to many of us his concerns were at the same time attractively parochial.

A significant pleasure of Thurber’s autobiographical pieces is that he did not, as he mentions in the famous preface to My Life and Hard Times, attempt to write the life of his times. Rather, he wrote of his personal life where “what happens to his digestion, the rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationship with six or eight persons […] is of greater importance than what goes on in the nation or the universe.” And a great deal happens to bowels, automobiles, and family, in the stories. Using his family life as a foil, Thurber supposed the reader would feel that she has “a pretty sensible and peaceful life, by comparison.” It is probably the case that Irish readers, for whom family eccentricity is a commonplace, used Thurber’s world more as a mirror than a foil, a chance to illuminate and magnify their own lives. After all, when I count them now, there lived 33 children in the five terraced houses between our own and the end of the row. Throw in parents, grannies and granddads, dogs, rabbits, goldfish, cats, and budgerigars, perhaps you had the highest density of living flesh compared to any other part of the Western World. Idiosyncrasy was merely a statistical byproduct of enormous Irish fecundity. Many of the parents, and at least some of the children, were merely a doctor’s signature away from a committal.

Thurber’s tales of family are, however, hard to match even for ordinary, albeit unhinged, Irish mortals. This is partly, of course, because the accounts of Thurber’s family were considerably fictionalized. One of my favorites sketches remains the note in a story called "The Car We Had to Push" on a Great Uncle Zenas who left the United States for South America when the Civil War broke out. When Zenas returned he “caught the same disease that was killing off the chestnut trees in those days, and passed away.” Another enduring tale is that of Muggs the Airedale terrier. "The Dog That Bit People" describes the life of the “big, burly, choleric dog.” Muggs has the redeeming quality that “he didn’t bite the family as often as he bit strangers.” But he bites enough people that Thurber’s mother “used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedale bit.” The drawing of the cross-looking dog propped up on his elbow above the caption “Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with him” remains a treasure.

Though the stories in the collection are, on the surface at least, affectionate and light, they nonetheless express many of the concerns that characterize Thurber’s work in subsequent decades. Some of these themes are far from whimsical. In "The Night The Bed Fell," the cot bed in which a young Thurber sleeps collapses and the family is roused. Briggs Beall, “a nervous first cousin” sleeping in the room with Thurber concludes that he, Briggs, is suffocating pours a bottle of camphor over his own head to revive himself. Thurber’s mother assumes that the bed has fallen on the Thurber father, who had that night chosen to sleep there (“to be away where he could think”). Thurber’s younger brother, yells; Rex, their bull terrier, barks. Thurber himself dreams groggily he’s been entombed in a mine. His father, slow to wake, decides the house is on fire. Thus the family members in that moment of emergency retreat into their particular neuroses and false assessments of the situation. A small event, often at night, isolates a character in the private retreat of his own imagination, fantasy, or madness; this is a recurring theme in Thurber’s later work.

In the 1942 story "The Whip-Poor-Will," for example, the call of that bird at night intrudes upon the dreams of our hero, Kinstrey, and drives him, as surely as might any Raven, to insanity. He murders his family, servants, and himself. In a later interview with The Paris Review, when Thurber was asked about the somber tone of the story, he conceded that there was in that story an element of anger. After all, he wrote it shortly after undergoing five, largely unsuccessful, eye operations. Thurber had lost an eye in a childhood accident and was to become increasingly blind in later life. Though the anger was a new element in the writing, occasioned by his desperation about his failing eyesight, the existential angst of an isolated figure was not.

More than anything else, the occasion for anxiety in Thurber’s work is concern over technology. In The Car "We Had to Push," he remarks that his grandmother in her later years harbored the “horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping all over the house.” She was also afraid of doorbells. Cars themselves are source of consternation. Knowing that Charles Thurber, his father, had “always expected the car to explode,” one of Thurber’s brothers rigs the car with a canvas bag full of kitchen utensils swung under the vehicle, as a practical joke. To their father’s horror, makes it appear that the engine has fallen out when the contraption is released. Thurber himself had an unhappy lifetime with cars, enough so that in Harrison Kinney’s authoritative biography of Thurber, James Thurber: His Life and Times (1995), unique entries on the topic of “Thurber, James: driving of” are so numerous that they are spread over two lines in the index. His diminishing eyesight did not help, of course. In a later essay “I Break Everything I Touch” (1941), Thurber wrote “I was born with an aversion to tools.” The car — a special but commonplace species of tool — retained a special place in the roster of Thurber’s life of mechanical misfortunes. The most embarrassing was when, fearing that his car had overheated — the gauge read 152 — he sought advice in a garage where the mechanic reported that the “gauge” was actually the radio.

From my perspective in Dublin in the 1970s, part of the appeal of Thurber was, as I mentioned, the tales of family peculiarities. But there was more to it than that. The jitteriness of characters in Thurber’s stories and cartoons, mapped onto my own insecurities. I didn’t have the language for it then, but felt acute uneasiness with my body, with my involvement with others, and with my general engagement with the things of the world. As a teen I became preoccupied with the thought that the ground was always a little further away than my footfall expected, as if the Earth spun a little faster and recoiled from me as I walked. I was, besides, pimply, ungainly, nonathletic, and awkward around girls. I was a little Thurber Man.

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Over the decades, Thurber wrote a comprehensive natural history of a species of his own creation: the Thurber Man. Thurber Men share a charismatic ineptitude. The motif of these ineffective men draws, according to some of his biographers, on the life Charles Thurber, Thurber’s father. Charles was mild-mannered, hen-pecked by his wife, and harried by his sons and the household servants. Although Thurber’s brothers were offended by Thurber’s seemingly unfair depiction of their father, there seems to be no getting around Charles’ haplessness. He once, for example, got trapped in a rabbit hutch and had to wait quite a while to be set free by family members.

In addition to their maladroitness, Thurber Men are given to belligerence, and to occasional flights of bravura. This was Thurber’s own peculiarity. Though his friends defended him against accusations of alcoholism, he was certainly a frequent and querulous drunk who got into boisterous arguments with friends. Harrison Kinney, Thurber’s biographer, assessed that Thurber’s bellicosity covered up his insecurities and fears, perhaps legitimate ones, that he inherited too many of his father’s characteristics.

The most disquieting manifestation of this twinning of insecurity and pugnacity is found in the story Teacher’s Pet (1949). Willber Kelby, a 50-year-old man, unsettled by reading a magazine article on “the fears and neurotic disturbances of the human male in middle age,” broods over a memory of being bullied as a child by a boy “who had the brains of a pole vaulter.” Kelby was hated by his tormentor “for his intelligence, his name, his frail body, and his inability […] to do anything but study.” He was hated, that is, for being a Thurber Man in the making. A couple of days after reviving these unsettling memories, Kelby witnesses an incident of bullying. He sends the bully packing, then turns to the sniffling bullied child, shakes him, and slaps his face. “‘You little crybaby!’ sobbed Kelby. ‘You goddam little coward.’”

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In 1967 an Irish politician, Oliver J. Flanagan, claimed on television that there was “no sex in Ireland before television.” Just highly productive furtive couplings, I suppose. Though my parents were tolerant sorts, they shared the national squeamishness about matters of the flesh. When they had concerns that a steamy scene might pop up on late-night television, they would barricade the living room door with the couch. Occasionally, my father would wrap his reading material in brown paper, which served to alert me to their potentially saucy content — an Arthur Hailey novel, for example, where every second chapter or so would conclude with something titillating. One took what one could get back then. There was nothing, of course, overtly salacious about Thurber stories or cartoons. After all, Harold Ross, the founder and editor-in-chief of The New Yorker where so much of Thurber’s work originally appeared, vowed, according to Thurber in The Years with Ross (1958), “I am going to keep sex out of this office — sex is an incident.” Nonetheless, a central theme of Thurber’s work was sex and the situation that prevailed between men and women, a topic in which I was deeply interested, though not especially schooled.

The Thurber Man is a “quare beast,” as they say in Ireland, in his own right, but he cannot be fully appreciated without his Thurber Woman. The essence of the relationship between Thurber Men and Women is best depicted in his cartoons. Thurber famously did not regard the cartoons as his real achievement, though some of his friends, E.B. “Andy” White, for example, did. In “The Lady on the Bookcase” (1948) Thurber recalled that once a rejected artist questioned Howard Ross, “Why do you reject drawings of mine and print stuff by that fifth-rate artist Thurber?” “Third-rate,” Ross retorted. Third-rate or not, the cartoons depict, with a terseness proportionate to their impact, the plight of the Thurber Man in relation to women.

For example, in a cartoon from the collection Men, Women, and Dogs (1943), a gaunt women looms over of a startled Thurber Man and inquires “I love the idea of there being two sexes, don’t you?” The images is reiterated in perhaps Thurber’s best known cartoon in the same collection: the building-sized face and upper torso of a woman looms from behind a house and scowls at a minute, taken-aback, man who is approaching the front porch. This image of Thurber Men recoiling from their Thurber Women recurs in many later cartoons.

There are times, however, when it seems that all a Thurber Man wants is for his wife to concede a point. A seal peers over the headboard, the husband looks around, and his wife is testily conceding, “All Right, Have it Your Way — You Heard a Seal Bark.” (This is from the 1932 collection The Seal in the Bedroom). But as often as not, the Thurber Man has a lingering feeling that his wife is probably right, no matter how seemingly alarming her claims may be. In an outdoor scene (a rarity in Thurber’s cartoons) a man (again in a derby) follows after a crestfallen woman saying “You and your premonitions.” Above them, unseen by both, an angry god dives towards them from the skies.

Thurber Men are not, of course, always passive recipients of female ferocity. A man lowers his newspaper and sharply asks his reclining wife: “Well who made the magic go out of our marriage — you or me?” In another, a drunk, propping himself up on column in a saloon, turns to a group of women and yells, “You gah dam pussy cats!” The Thurber Man has his bellicose side.

Anxiety about women, so characteristic of Thurber Men and indeed of Thurber himself, tips over at times into a more snarling misogyny in his work. In one cartoon, a man and woman stand over an upended table, the man’s hands are grasped around the woman’s neck. A second man, a waiter perhaps, is running into the scene yelling: “Here! Here! There’s a place for that, sir!”

More violent still are some of the stories. In the Catbird Seat (1942) Mr. Martin, a mild-mannered manager at “F&S” decides to “rub out” Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, a newly appointed special adviser to the president of the company. Among her offenses is her use of some colloquialism coined by hokey sports commentators (“Are you tearing up the pea patch?” and “Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”). One day, Mrs. Barrow queries Martin, “Do you really need all of these filing cabinets?” A couple of weeks later Martin formulates his response: “Mr. Martin stood up in his living room, still holding his milk glass. ‘Gentlemen of the jury,’ he said to himself, ‘I demand the death penalty for this horrible person.’”

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"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is not only James Thurber’s most famous story, but it also serves as a distillation of Thurber’s main themes since the 1920s: the timid introspective Thurber Man, the stronger Thurber Woman, and male ineptitude. We see the oppositional gestures of a timid man to a dominant woman (he is not especially bellicose in the Mitty story), his anxiety concerning technology — his car being particularly problematic for him — and his weary retreat into the glorious privacy of the imagination.

The surface events of the story are spare: obsequious Mitty drives his wife to her hair appointment in Waterbury, Connecticut, (ineptly) parks the car, picks up overshoes from a store, buys “puppy biscuits,” rejoins his wife in a hotel lobby, leaves with her, and then as he waits in the sleet while his wife drops into a drugstore, he lights a cigarette. The physical events in the story are but the scaffolding; the masonry of the story is built from Mitty’s mental life. There are at least two mental functions of Mitty’s that Thurber gives us access to. Mitty’s memory, which is fallible (he can’t recall the name of “some biscuit for a small dog”), and his daydreams, which, in contrast, are magnificent.

Mitty pictures himself as a naval officer in a hurricane, a world famous surgeon, and a sharp-shooter up on murder charges for which he finally faces a firing squad “with that faint fleeting smile playing about his lips.” A soundtrack to the daydreams is the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” of machinery throbbing in the background. Mitty masters machines, though only in his reveries.

In the past week I performed an informal survey of friends in a variety of Chicago public houses which revealed that the recently released movie version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), directed by and starring Ben Stiller, is already the more common first introduction to this story than is Thurber’s original. Thus the story, if it is read at all, will now serve as a supplement to the movie that is for many people the primary experience. This more recent movie version of Mitty (the previous film version was directed by Norman Z. McLeod in 1947 and starred Danny Kaye) serves as an interesting point of comparison with the original story. Some have remarked that, other than both Mitty’s being dreamy types, there are no similarities between the film and story. But it’s more interesting than that, I think: the film is almost an exact inversion of Thurber’s story. And it may be that this inversion says interesting things about the times we live in.

“Mitty I,” Thurber’s Mitty, is married as befits a Thurber Man; “Mitty II” (Ben Stiller’s) is a somewhat elderly youth, single and searching. Mitty I has all the usual Thurberian difficulties with technology: he can’t take the tire chains off the wheels of his car; he drives into the “Exit Only” lane of the parking lot. His inept handling of his eHarmony account aside, Mitty II has no such disability — he is a negative assets manager at Life magazine. Sure, his is not the swash-buckling life of photographer Sean O’Connell, Mitty II’s inspiration (played inscrutably by Sean Penn), who is capable of shooting the “Quintessence of Life.” Mitty II’s job is after all one of quite technical mastery, one ultimately appreciated and celebrated by O’Connell. Mitty II is also, get this, a longboard skateboarding wiz. I strongly encourage you to read Thurber’s story and imagine Mitty I on a skateboard in Iceland — a critical scene in the movie — just for the superb ridiculousness of conceiving the image. Mitty I is melancholic, but the damp hands of real melancholia have been lopped off in Stiller’s version.

Perhaps the most important contrast of all: Mitty I retreats into daydreams, considerably grandiose and mutedly violent as they are, as a way of dealing with the monstrous dullness of his life; Mitty II daydreams, of course, but by the end of the movie he is all but cured of his daydreaming. His life has become that darned fantastic.

I saw the movie recently with my 18-year-old son, Oisín. Our routine is to walk to the theater, watch a movie, and enunciate a critique on the return home. Now, Oisín enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty immensely; he found it inspirational and liked the soaring soundtrack. And I agreed for the most part — it’s hard to dislike a movie that uses Iceland as a backdrop. But I had more reservations than he did. It was not simply the ceaseless product placement that irritated me. Nor was it the irony of watching on film as photographer Sean O’Connell dreamily disinclines to snap a photo of a snow leopard because, you know, sometimes you just have to experience a moment without recording it. No, my greatest problem, I think, is the curious involutions involved in watching Ben Stiller’s own daydreams of leaping from helicopters into shark infested waters in the North Atlantic, of racing towards an erupting Icelandic volcano, and of trekking in the Himalayas, presented as a invitation to unmoor us from our own dreaminess. Wake up and live your life — here’s a reverie that might help you!

It may be, of course, that Mitty I’s daydreams are pathological. It does seem like Walter is having an especially bad day. He wife, solicitously, wishes he would see their doctor, and says she’ll take his temperature when they return home. And yet, though they may be aggravated, these little ecstatic moments serve a useful function for Mitty, just as our daydreams may do for us. But perhaps Stiller is right, daydreams may be becoming defunct. We live in a time when daydreams have been crowded out and we deal with the ordinary monstrousness of our lives by recourse to our smartphones and our game consoles and uplifting movies.

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In the days I spent ruminating upon Thurber’s work, a polar vortex descended upon Chicago and our furnace broke. I noticed this in the middle of a relatively sleepless night. I sprang into action doing what any Thurber Man might do: I woke my wife. Within an hour I was standing mutely beside the furnace guy, watching him go to work. But technology these days is not what it used to be. Even a furnace is a complicated contraption and though furnace guy got it going again, he did so by percussing a “module” with the base of a screwdriver in a rather hopeful way, and we listened as the machine erupted back to action. He admitted ruefully that he was not especially sure what the problem was. “They just do that sometimes,” he said as if discussing some feisty animal.

In a world divided between the competent and the incompetent, I side, because I must, with the latter. With technologically complicated as it is like never before, the world whirls away from us, mis-footing even the most adept, and thus making Thurber Men of us all.

When first I read Thurber in Ireland, all those years ago, I was separated from his world by an ocean, and by a large span of years. Thurber appealed to me then because he was amusing and disquieting in ways that entertained and tutored me. Now that I have lived in the United States for a long time, and am closer to the age at which Thurber wrote "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," returning to his writing I discover that he is, in fact, a diagnostician of the condition in which I now find myself: a middle-aged man just trying to find a little piece of mind. Those who are fully at ease with themselves, whose relationships are untroubled, who think the world is unblemished, and for whom the future looks bright, such men (and women) will have no need for Thurber. But if Thurber’s diagnosis of anxious men in a jittery age seems to apply to you, or to a man you care about, such men as we come, fortunately, with a handbook. James Thurber wrote it. Thurber was relevant last century and remains our contemporary. James Thurber’s work is not shite. It is not shite at all.

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Liam Heneghan is professor of environmental science and ecosystem ecology at DePaul University, Chicago. He blogs at 3quarksdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @DublinSoil.

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