James Thurber was one of the great American humorists of the 20th century. From his first appearance in the fledgling New Yorker in 1927 until his death in 1961, he was known for his unique reflections in prose and pictures on what he called "human confusion, American-style." These laugh-out-loud critiques of love, marriage, sex, literature and history made him a favorite with readers. As the largest single collection of his correspondence, The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber reveals that his life and his art were, for the most part, separate. Harrison Kinney, author of the definitive 1995 Thurber biography James Thurber: His Life and Times, edits the collection with Rosemary A. Thurber, Thurber's only child. As Kinney writes, "Very little of his personal life . . . can be surmised from what he wrote for publication. It is his letters . . . that comprise a reliable and fascinating portrait of Thurber, the man and artist, and offer a vivid understanding of what largely motivated his remarkable prose and art." This fascinating volume includes letters to his family in Ohio and to his wide circle of literary friends, including his New Yorker colleagues. Among the latter, the most memorable letters include his missives to Harold Ross, the legendary editor with whom Thurber had a decades-long ambivalent relationship. A wonderful example is an undated letter in which Thurber strongly objects to changes made in his copy. "Since I never write, for publication, a single word or phrase that I have not consciously examined, sometimes numerous times, I should like to have the queriers on my pieces realize that there is no possibility of catching me on an overlooked sloppiness." There are many letters to Thurber's good friends E.B. and Katharine White, and letters to Rosemary that reveal him to be a devoted parent. Some of the most entertaining items are Thurber's responses to students and other people he does not know who have written to him for advice.
The letters appear chronologically, so we can trace Thurber's development from a 23-year-old code clerk in Washington and Paris in 1918 through several years as a newspaper reporter and columnist and his eventual employment by Ross in 1927 as managing editor of The New Yorker. From his perspective, we learn of his sticky relationship with the magazine, primarily with regard to proper payment for his work and the rejection of numerous submissions he made to it. His adventures as an author of books and co-author of The Male Animal, a successful comedy on Broadway, are also included.
From the earliest letters to the last, Thurber impresses us with his gift for language and his sheer joy in writing. He can be chatty, as in letters to his family; focused on concerns at the magazine, as he was with Ross and many others; opinionated, as when writing to Malcolm Cowley in the 1930s about his dislike of "literary communists"; or witty, as in his response to an invitation to appear on the radio program "This I Believe" in 1953: "my belief changes from time to time and might even change during a brief broadcast." Whatever the occasion, Thurber never fails to write in such a way that readers are caught up in what he has to say.
Anyone interested in Thurber's life and work or who would like an insider's view on the workings of a great American magazine should enjoy this collection immensely. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a regular contributor to BookPage.