Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Book Review: The Thurber Carnival

Title: The Thurber Carnival

Author: James Thurber

Date: 1957

Publisher: Random House (Modern Library)

ISBN: none

Length: 369 pages

Illustrations: drawings by James Thurber

Quote: “Thurber’s life baffles and irritates the biographer because of its lack of design. One has the disturbing feeling that the man contrived to be some place without actually having gone there. His drawings, for example, sometimes seem to have reached completion by some other route than the common one of intent.”

That’s what Thurber, age 62, wrote about himself by way of an introduction to a collection of reprints of short early pieces, including drawings.

About his drawings the most obvious thing to be said was always something like what Thurber said, also in the preface to this book: “[H]e saw, not two of everything, but one and a half. Thus, a four-wheeled wagon would not have eight wheels for him, but six. How he succeeded in preventing these two extra wheels from getting into his work, I have no way of knowing.” Thurber was not “legally blind” but always had very poor eyesight. He sketched the outlines of things as he knew them to be more than as they looked to him. That the facial expressions of the people and animals in his drawings sometimes looked hilariously appropriate, to other people, may well have been the only way Thurber learned anything about facial expressions. Often they look inappropriate—in the way that it’s not always altogether clear to which species the animals are meant to belong—and that’s part of their comic effect. For someone who actually saw so little of the world around him, who knew he’d sketched something well because other people told him so, Thurber is remembered for a remarkable number of insightful-looking drawings.

He is, of course, remembered mostly for insightful and funny short stories. Everyone of my generation, at least, remembers “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Night the Bed Fell,” and possibly “Doc Marlowe.” Those three stories are in The Thurber Carnival with about fifty others, but although Thurber claimed to be looking forward to retirement when this book was published, some of his best work remained ahead of him. Any serious collector of American Humorous Literature will want Alarms and Diversions, Lanterns and Lances, Many Moons, The Thirteen Clocksand The Wonderful O, none of which is in this collection, and all of Let Your MindAlone, only about a third of which is in this collection.

If there is something about Thurber that a reasonable person with a reasonable sense of humor might not like, it’s his “colored” characters. Thurber drew Black faces about as badly as he drew White ones, and noticed Black people primarily as people who spoke a different dialect of English that intrigued his word-loving ear. He didn’t hate, dislike, or despise Black people. He was, however, most likely to notice them as uneducated low-paid employees, his own or someone else’s. His intention when he wrote about somebody like Della, whose use of a word that sounded like “reeves” bemused him so that he hardly even seemed to care that she meant “wreaths,” was not to create or build stereotypes—Della’s “reeves” obviously bemused Thurber because he’d never heard anyone else say that word that way—but if he ever thought of Della as anything more than an employee who talked in a funny way, he didn’t write about it. 

Well, he was about the age of my grandfather, and he wrote for his own generation; what made Thurber special was that readers from the next two generations (in my family) or three (in the U.S. demographic scheme, generally) enjoyed so much of what he wrote, too. He generally skimmed lightly around news and political issues, although there are plenty of oblique references to those in his writing, and focussed on the funnier aspects of words and of people. This means that, if you’re willing to place a few observations about other races and nationalities, and a lot of Thurber’s observations about women, in their historical context, young people will probably laugh at Thurber’s jokes, too.

About Thurber’s remarks about women…I think the thing that redeems those is that, in real life, Thurber was a husband, father, grandfather. He lived in and wrote about a period when people seem to have been trying very hard to believe things about men and women that made it almost impossible for men and women to live happily together. Some people chose to avoid marriage for this reason; many married and were unhappy; a blessed few, like at least one pair of my own personal grandparents, had enough economic independence and/or enough social support in their churches to observe that the drivel they were hearing about “femininity” had nothing to do with their own actual observations of feminine persons in real life or in the Bible. (In fact the drivel was of French Socialist origin, but little seems to have been said or written about that.)

So Thurber observed things that inspired his short stories about couples who hated each other and were trying to get each other declared insane, his drawings of the beleaguered little man feeling that his house and wife were one big devouring monster lying in wait for him, or the man whose first wife was either lurking with obvious evil intentions or dead and stuffed on the shelf above him and his present wife. He was aware of a Problem. He didn’t preach that the solution to this Problem  involved individual family love; he was not a preacher. He did, occasionally and when he could do it to humorous effect, write about listening to the cook (if only to write about the funny way she talked), and listening to little girls (even if their own mothers leaped in to stifle the little girls’ creative whimsy), and the mysterious way Saralinda, even when she wasn’t appreciated or treated as well as she deserved, turned November into June. Thurber was not even a proto-feminist but I always got the feeling, reading his work, that he was less burdensome to feminists than most men of his age.

So it’s indisputable that Thurber is easier to read now than Will Rogers or E.B. White, and I’d guess that others will agree with me that he’s less annoying to read now than Richard Armour or Max Shulman. Read his work and tell me what you think, why not?

The Thurber Carnival is available as a Fair Trade Book. Prices vary from day to day, depending on the quality of copies available, but I can probably afford to send you a copy for the usual $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. You could fit a few books by living authors into the package for $5, so please feel free to scroll down and look for a Fair Trade Book to add.