James Thurber

Happy Birthday, James Thurber!

Tomorrow, December 8, marks the anniversary of James Thurber’s birth.  As you may have guessed, Thurber is one of my literary heroes. I consider Thurber’s autobiography “My Life and Hard Times” to contain some of greatest humor by an American writer in the 20th century. There are many more examples of his brilliance, including such pieces as the wildly popular Walter Mitty story, “The Catbird Seat,” “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” his great memoir piece titled “Doc Marlow” and, of course, I could go on.

Thurber once defined humor as “emotional chaos remembered in tranquility”; we’re fortunate he found enough tranquil moments in his life to do so much writing. In my opinion, when it came to writing humor, Thurber was a genius.

He was also a cartoonist. Chief editor of The New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, soon recognized this other skill and began publishing Thurber’s cartoons. This prompted one of their regular cartoonists to complain. He asked him how dare Ross publish work by that fifth-rate cartoonist Thurber instead of his cartoons. The editor rose to Thurber’s defense and replied, “Thurber’s not a fifth-rate cartoonist, he’s third-rate.”

As a humorist, whether through his words or drawings, James Thurber was and remains first-rate. Here’s a sketch I drew of Thurber. I’m posting it in honor of his birthday.

QT_ThurberCartoon

“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber

The Real List of Adrian Messenger (if he had a sense of humor)

Here are a few–well, fifty–of my favorite writers who traffic in the craft of humor, in alphabetical order by first name: Alan Bennett, Andrew Bergman, Andy Borowitz, Art Buchwald, Billy Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman, Calvin Trillin, Carl Hiaasen, Charles Portis, Craig Wright, Dave Barry, David Ives, David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss, Elaine May, Elmore Leonard, Flannery O’Connor, George Carlin, H.L. Mencken, Ian Frazier, James Thurber, Jean Shepherd, Ken Ludwig, Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Caroll, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, Mark Twain, Mel Brooks, Michael Frayn, Moliere, Molly Ivins, Neil Simon, Nora Ephron, O. Henry, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, Roy Blount Jr., S.J. Perelman, Stanley Elkin, Stephen Leacock, Steve Martin, T.C. Boyle, Theresa Rebeck, Walt Kelly, William Shakespeare, and Woody Allen.

What’s your list of humor writers look like?

 

 

Reflections in a Funhouse Mirror

In this post, I’d like to share examples of both exaggeration and understatement, used for comic effect. I consider the following Mencken generalization to be a thing of beauty in both simplicity and scope:

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. (from “Holy Writ” by H. L. Mencken)

As a city reporter, James Thurber was criticized for being too wordy. In response, he filed the following story about a homicide:

Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him. (James Thurber)

Here is an example that combines both exaggeration and understatement in the same passage:

 Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty. (from The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology by P.G. Wodehouse)

Charles Portis has a cult following and I’m one of those followers. Someone once referred to the author’s fans as “Portisheads.” If you’ve never read Portis, you might want to try his novels. One reviewer said Portis creates “Some of the funniest writing ever produced anywhere.” I agree.

He was an authority on history and literature and boasted of having solved mysteries in these fields that had baffled the greatest scholars of Europe. Through Golvscuvian analysis he had been able to make positive identification of the Third Murderer in Macbeth and of the Fourth Man in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. He had found the Lost Word of Freemasonry and had uttered it more than once, into the air, the Incommunicable Word of the Cabalists, the Verbum Ineffabile. The enigmatic quatrains of Nostradamus were an open book to him. He had a pretty good idea of what the Oracle of Ammon had told Alexander.  (from Masters of Atlantis  by Charles Portis)