Derek Parker on James Thurber, Slightly Foxed Issue 16


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Not too many years ago, it would have been unnecessary to explain who James Thurber was. His short story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in 1947 in the New Yorker (where most of his writing first appeared), soon found an international audience, and despite the best efforts of Danny Kaye to kill it off in a truly appalling film, it remains one of the most adept pieces of comic writing of its time, with most of the classic Thurber trademarks, including his delight in inventing words: among them the pseudomedical terms ‘obstreosis of the ductal tract’ and ‘streptothricosis’, and the information that ‘Coreopsis has set in’.

Thurber was a country boy, born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894. When I went there in the 1970s nobody had heard of him; now there is a statue, and 77 Jefferson Avenue is Thurber House, irresistible to any admirer who wants to see where his extraordinary family lived – the family he made famous for its eccentricity.

He had two brothers, and ill-advisedly volunteered to play William Tell with them. Missing the apple, an arrow shot out an eye. Among the results seems to have been his failure to take Ohio State University seriously, and instead to join the Columbus Dispatch in 1920 as a young reporter. Seven years later a friend, the author E. B. White, got him a job as editor on the famous New Yorker magazine (similar to Punch, but smarter and brighter and funnier). Within a few months he was writing for it. He set up home in New York, and apart from regular visits to Europe, never again left the city.

One of the most difficult things in the world is to describe a humourist to someone who hasn’t read him. Thurber’s view was personal: English humour, he thought, treated the commonplace as if
it were remarkable, American humour treated the remarkable as if it were commonplace. Another of his theories was that the best humour reflects ‘emotional chaos remembered in tranqu

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About the contributor

Derek Parker was born in Cornwall, where he started life as a junior reporter on The Cornishman. After working in London for forty years in radio and TV and writing over 40 books (many in collaboration with his wife Julia) he now lives in Sydney. His latest book, Outback, tells the story of the European explorers who opened up the vast interior of Australia.

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