Uncle Thurber Tells A Story
July 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
I have read a few short stories by James Thurber as a kid. A couple were autobiographical in style, and documented his experiences growing up in a chaotic family with loud incompetent uncles, eccentric sleepwalking cousins and long-suffering aunts. One was about a man, his wife and a unicorn in the garden. Another reimagined the historic meeting between the Generals Lee and Grant at Appomattox.
Of these, only the last named features in this large 500+ page tome, which consists of four collections of Thurber’s pieces – some short stories but mainly essays. The most powerful ones were about marriage, which Thurber mostly projects as unhappy but entertaining chess games between mean husbands and bitter wives, or vice versa. His portrayal of between-wars America is infinitely more vivid than anything a history book could accomplish, and he has an uncanny ability to take a small, commonplace situation and riff off a rambling stream-of-consciousness string of funny thoughts.
For instance, surveying the 1930’s Manhattan skyline, James Thurber sees between 8th street and 6th avenue, amongst the indistinguishable roofs, a sign for an upholstery shop, that said, in four-foot long neon letters, “O Charles Meyer”. Thurber promptly dashes off a brilliant essay, speculating, among other things, about O Charles Meyer’s personality, his business, his offspring: their number, gender and names (youngest son O Henry Meyer, if you please) and about what would happen if he himself were to attempt to meet Mr. Meyer.
I do not, of course, know O Charles Meyer in the flesh, but I have a certainty of what he is like, large heavy man, elderly and kindly, with the peering eyes of a person who has spent his life puttering with the upholstery of chairs of sofas. In the old chairs and sofas that have been brought to him for reupholstering he has found scissors and penknives and necklaces and unopened letters and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills which little old women have hidden away. If this is not true, I don’t want to be told so.
Well, I have developed a certainty of what Thurber must have been like: thin, neurotic, baldish, nervous-looking, jumpy, with permanently etched worry-creases on his forehead and eyebrows raised in doubt and skepticism, talking nonstop out of the side of his mouth, to nobody in particular, complete nonsense of course, but brilliant nonsense, with a very straight face, ignored by most people except those who find everything he says hilarious. Maybe I am thinking of a distant uncle at a family reunion long ago. Hold on – surely I am thinking of Woody Allen. Equally, maybe Woody Allen is thinking of James Thurber when he is being Woody Allen. But if my description of Thurber is not true, I don’t want to be told so.
Thurber is an American legend who has probably influenced generations of humorists and brought a smile to millions of readers around the world. But the truth is, 92 funny stories written in the same style, one after another, can be a bit of a drag, and I recommend Thurber in small doses, possibly sandwiched refreshingly for best effect between chapters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka. (Actually, this could also be a recommendation for how to read Dostoyevsky and Kafka)