This Day In Writing History
On December 8th, 1894, the legendary writer James Thurber was born. He was born in Columbus, Ohio. His father was a clerk and minor politician with dreams of being a lawyer or an actor. His mother was a fun-loving practical joker whom he described as "a born comedienne... one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known."
James Thurber had two brothers. When he was a boy, his brother William accidentally shot him in the eye with an arrow during a game of William Tell. Medical technology was primitive at the time, so James lost his eye. Since the injury prevented him from participating in sports and other recreational activties, Thurber channeled his energy into creative endeavors, taking up writing and drawing.
Thurber attended Ohio State University, but never graduated because his poor eyesight disqualified him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. He would be awarded a degree posthumously, in 1995. After leaving university in 1918, near the close of World War 1, James worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C., then in Paris, a position he would hold until 1920.
After leaving his job as code clerk, Thurber moved back home to Columbus, where he began his writing career, first as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. In addition to reporting, he wrote book, film, and play reviews in a weekly column called Credos and Curios. He moved back to Paris for a time and wrote for several major newspapers as a freelancer. Then, in 1925, he moved to New York City's Greenwich Village, taking a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post.
Two years later, James Thurber became an editor for the New Yorker magazine, with help from his friend, writer E.B. White. In 1930, White found some of Thurber's drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication. As a result, Thurber became both a writer and cartoonist for the New Yorker for the next thirty years. In 1935, he married his second wife, Helen, just one month after his divorce from his first wife was finalized. His marriage to Helen would be a happy one and the couple would remain together until Thurber's death. They had no children, but Thurber's first wife, Althea, had bore him a daughter, Rosemary.
Although James Thurber's first published book, co-written with E.B. White, was a parody of sexual psychology manuals titled Is Sex Necessary, or Why You Feel The Way You Do, Thurber was best known for his short story collections, wherein he established himself as one of the masters of the form. While dark tales such as The Whip-Poor-Will, The Dog Who Bit People, and The Night The Bed Fell are among his most famous works, his best known and most popular story was a poignant comic gem titled The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.
Walter Mitty (modeled after Thurber's father) is a mild-mannered nebbish en route to do his weekly shopping with his wife, who has an appointment at the beauty parlor. During this trip, Mitty escapes from his extremely mundane world (and his overbearing wife) through a series of fantastic daydreams in which he becomes the pilot of a Navy seaplane caught in a storm, a brilliant surgeon performing a revolutionary medical procedure, a cool assassin on trial, and a daring RAF pilot on a secret suicide mission during World War 1. The theme of the story is summed up in the sentence "Success is a journey, not a destination."
In 1947, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty was adapted as a feature film starring Danny Kaye in the title role. Though he served as script consultant, all of Thurber's suggestions were ignored by producer Samuel Goldwyn. The movie bore little resemblance to Thurber's story, and in a letter written to Life magazine, Thurber expressed his deep hatred of the film. Despite this, Goldwyn insisted that Thurber approved of the project.
Throughout his prolific literary career, James Thurber wrote numerous short stories which were published in dozens of collections. Among these were over 75 fables, the most famous being The Unicorn In The Garden. In this humorous modern fable, a mild mannered husband sees a unicorn in his garden. When he tells his wife about it, she ridicules him and reminds him that "the unicorn is a mythical beast." He persists, maintaining that the animal is real, so she threatens to have him committed. He doesn't believe her, but she makes good on her threat.
When the authorities arrive, the wife tells them that her husband saw a unicorn in the garden, so they force her into a straightjacket! When they ask her husband if he told her that he'd seen a unicorn in the garden, he says no, because "the unicorn is a mythical beast." So, they take the wife away to the asylum and "the husband lived happily ever after."
Thurber's other writings include numerous nonfiction articles and essays, including humorous essays on the English language and a five-part 1947-48 series for the New Yorker on the popularity of radio soap operas. In the late 1930s, he co-wrote the hit Broadway play The Male Animal with his college friend, actor-director-writer Elliot Nugent. It would be adapted as a feature film in 1942 that starred Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.
As a cartoonist, Thurber was known for his surreal, satirical drawings. With his eyesight failing, the last cartoon he drew was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which appeared on the cover of the July 9th, 1951 issue of Time magazine.
Although he worked in other genres and mediums, James Thurber was best known as a master of the short story. He died on November 2nd, 1961, of complications from pneumonia, following a stroke. He was 66 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"Don't get it right, just get it written." - James Thurber
Today's video features the classic 1953 UPA cartoon adaptation of James Thurber's fable, The Unicorn In The Garden. Enjoy!