"The black, memorable year 1929":
JAMES THURBER AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Robert D. Amer
The first ten years of James Thurber’s career coincide almost exactly with the decade that historians have generally agreed to call the Great Depression, 1929–1939. Although Thurber had been working for and contributing to the New Yorker since March of 1927,1 his first book, a collaboration with E. B. White entitled Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do, did not appear until November 7, 1929, about two weeks after Black Thursday.2 Other collections of casuals and cartoons followed in quick succession: The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), My Life and Hard Times (1933), The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and Let Your Mind Alone! (1937). Thurber’s final book of that despairing decade, The Last Flower (1939), appeared shortly after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and, in its haunting, poignant parable in pictures about the collapse of civilization before the brutal onslaught of war, it clearly reflects the success of Hitler’s blitzkrieg and most of the other anxieties of the modern age as well. Together with the pieces that Thurber eventually gathered into "Fables for Our Time" in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and that had already begun to appear in the New Yorker in 1939, The Last Flower reveals, among other things, that the humorist could no longer afford to shut his ears "to the ominous rumblings of the dynasties of the world moving toward a cloudier chaos than ever before."3 As early as 1933, in "Preface to a Life," Thurber had indicated an awareness that playful humor was to be a casualty of the Depression, political collectivization, and fascism—abroad and at home. But this awareness accelerated during the decade.
If Thurber’s attentiveness to the world at large had changed during the decade on matters like "the menaces of empire" (TC, 174), on one issue it seems to have remained the same. In the middle 1950s, he was to tell George Plimpton and Max Steele of the Paris Review that the Depression had had a permanent impact on American humor, "Much worse than Hitler and the war,"4 but in the writings and cartoons that actually appeared during that time there are at most a scant half dozen direct references to the Depression itself as a woeful fact of American life, and all of these are very brief, with the exception of an uncollected piece entitled "Mr. Hoover or Mr. Coolidge" (1932), which spoofs the Republican effort to comprehend the true nature of the economic issues
at stake in the upcoming Presidential election. Perhaps his most important acknowledgment of the plight of the nation while the Depression was still the main problem of Americans is the opening line of "Pythagoras and the Ladder" in Let Your Mind Alone! from which I have taken part of the title of this paper. "It was in none other than the black, memorable year 1929," Thurber writes, that the indefatigable Professor Walter B. Pitkin rose up with the announcement that "for the first time in the career of mankind happiness is coming within reach of millions of people."6
Thurber’s irony, it seems to me, aims not only at the disjunction between the historical moment and the glad tidings proclaimed by an accomplished American huckster of happiness, but also at the American’s preoccupation with being happy, with happiness as the goal of life, as if in perverse misapplication of the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence. Unhappiness is un-American, we seem to believe, and becoming happy is something in the nature of a patriotic duty for all of us. Thurber’s remark also takes in, I believe, most of the politicians of the period, from men like Herbert Hoover, who offered only genial assurances that prosperity was just around the corner, to men like Franklin Roosevelt, whose plan of action Thurber seems generally to have approved but who came to power at the Democratic Convention of 1931 with the premature announcement that happy days were here again. It is not hard to hear in such assertions, at any rate, the familiar ring of an authentically American confidence game.
Thurber’s most extended comments on the Depression appear in a piece that could be termed a retrospective, since it was written and published more than a year after Pearl Harbor. Entitled "The Secret Life of James Thurber"(1943), this casual takes off from the high price of Salvador Dali’s The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, which reminds Thurber that his own "autobiography," My Life and Hard Times, had gone for just $1.75 back in 1933. "The publishers explained," says Thurber, that the price was a closely approximated vertical, prefigured on the basis of profitable ceiling, which in turn was arrived at by taking into consideration the effect of diminishing returns of the horizontal factor. (TC, 30)
"In those days," Thurber explicates this explanation, "all heads of business firms adopted a guarded kind of double talk . . . because nobody knew what was going to happen and nobody understood what had. . . . [O]ur civilization was in greater danger of being turned off than of gradually crumbling away" (TC, 31). But now, he says, "with the world in ten times as serious condition as it was in 1933" (TC, 31), Dali’s
publishers want six dollars for his life story. His own mistake, Thurber concludes, lay in not baring enough facts of his secret life to justify a higher price.
Thurber’s chief mode of participating in the Depression was his running battle with leftist writers and critics. Given the infrequency and brevity of Thurber’s comments on the Depression, together with the New Yorker’s unmistakable ambience of affluence with its ads for Packard and Pierce-Arrow, Brooks Brothers and Bonwit Teller, it is small wonder that leftists viewed his writing with distrust and dismay. Thurber’s assessment of the complaint against New Yorker writers in general, that "we don’t attack communism but we don’t go for it, head over heels" (Bernstein, 229), greatly understates the true animosity involved in this particular literary controversy. Certainly it oversimplifies the issues. Like most other modernists, Thurber maintained throughout that he was simply defending art from contamination by life. Art was inescapably autobiographical, to be sure, as he told Malcolm Cowley: "[O]ur own lives must always by the subject for our writings, come what may" (Bernstein, 230). But the achievement of art required distance from life, as he wrote to Max Eastman at about the same time. "Humor," he said, "is a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect."7 In this version of Wordsworth’s dictum, calm and quiet are clearly needed to transmute the raw materials of experience into art. The mistake of the leftists, in Thurber’s opinion, was that they were at once too conscious of being literary people and too involved in politics to practice the patience that art requires. This first point he made, once again, in a letter to Cowley, condemning the contributors to Granville Hick’s Proletarian Literature in the United States as "a bunch of writers" who speak to each other and not to the worker in a language workers can understand:
Those writers really want to be writers, making money, laying lovely women and handsome men. . . . [T]hey don’t really want to be out suffering with the worker (after all, they remember Waldo Frank and his broken head and that it wasn’t the police or the strike-breaker who broke it). (Bernstein, 235)
In a more comic vein, Thurber tried to make his point about the leftists’ use of a language alien to their intended audience in a piece entitled "What Are the Leftists Saying" (1937), in which he "defines" for the uninitiated the meaning of terms like "escapism" and the practice of unmasking ideologies. His second point, that the leftists try to live their lives as though life were literature, is the main theme of "How to Write a Long Autobiography" (1937), in which Thurber produces the following sentence from Joseph Freeman’s An American Testament: "It was my idealistic, religious, artistic bias which made me blind to pragmatism" (LYMA, 219). "That is the topic sentence of a letter which somehow
does not sound like a letter to a friend at all," writes Thurber. "It sounds more like an essay written to save in a file and someday print in a book"
Communist intellectuals are the most facile and articulate of all writers, and words come out of most of them like water from a faucet, so I can’t say for sure the letters were rewritten; I just say they sound rewritten. (LYMA, 220)
Thurber also wrote another piece, "Notes for a Proletarian Novel" (1934), in which he laments the fact that he has no deep knowledge of the plight of the worker and so cannot hope to produce writing that will please critics like Granville Hicks.8
The leftists, for their part, countered Thurber’s laughter with the charge of triviality and detachment from life that has stuck with Thurber ever since.9 Reviewing a book by Franklin P. Adams in the New Masses in 1934, Robert Forsythe (the pen name of Kyle Crichton) found Adams’s "mild jousting at minor evils," insignificant though it was, a relief when compared with the work of "such other humorists as James Thurber, Frank Sullivan, E. B. White, and S. J. Perelman."
They are so resolutely turned away from anything in life that what they write has the quality of a fantasy, something written on and about the island of Atlantis. At first glance it seems a mystery how they maintain their seclusion from contemporary ideas, but it is not so much that they fail to know things are happening as that they feel any upsurge of emotion is not quite civilized. Obviously what one must have to be a success with the New Yorker is an ability to make even the most transcendental event trivial. The trick is never to raise the voice, never to become excited in the face of disaster, always to drink the old-fashioned to the last orange peel despite the revolution without.10
Thurber and his colleagues, Crichton concluded, were but the "court jesters for their decaying betters," displaying all the prejudices of "young men who are at last accepted on Park Avenue" (24).
Although he found himself in distinguished company on Crichton’s list, Thurber took strong exception to these remarks. They were in fact, the proximate cause of his review of Hicks’s anthology of proletarian writing, in which Thurber stated: "[W]hat some of these proletarian writers need to learn is simply how to write, not only with intensity, but with conviction, not only with a feeling for the worker but a feeling for literary effects." But he was not content to criticize them only in such direct ways. To demonstrate what he meant about a lack of feeling for literary effect, for example, he wrote "Bateman Comes Home" (1936), a parody of Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell’s work appeared with some regularity in the New Masses, and Thurber obviously took him as the prototype of the proletarian writer who confuses life with art. "Bateman Comes Home"
consists of three pages of insane dialogue in grotesquely rendered dialect capped by a single sentence: "If you keep on long enough it turns into a novel" (TC, 99). So much for Caldwell’s sense of form and the leftists’ claim that their writing represents reality unmediated by art. Insofar as it draws the reader’s attention to the conventions of literary discourse, parody is a doubly effective weapon for combatting the proletarians’ contention that what they write is taken directly from life rather than from literary tradition. It neutralizes what Thurber called their "added advantage of writing sloppily and mushily just because whatever they have to say is so significant it doesn’t make any difference how they say it. . ." (Bernstein, 231).
Thurber’s remarks about the sloppiness of proletarian writing were not aimed at Caldwell, however. His chief target was William Saroyan, whose short story "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" and subsequent collection of stories under the same title were hailed by leftist critics as a major literary event of 1934. Both the story and Saroyan’s writing in general appalled Thurber. "I have been working for weeks on a Saroyan parody," he told Cowley. "I get so mad I spoil it and have to let it dry."
It seems to me significant that this man, who can not write and in admitting it really boasts that he can, should have caught whatever fancy it is that he has caught. Is he a proof and sign of the fact that if your writing deals with poor people out of work, etc. it is now bound to sell, no matter how bad it is?
Saroyan, Thurber concluded, "writes a whole lot like Jack Johnson would write if he could" (Bernstein, 230). Apparently Thurber never cooled down sufficiently to complete his Saroyan parody. The writing of parody requires at least some measure of sympathy with the intended target. Thurber had none for Saroyan. Thurber took his revenge in the title of his next collection of New Yorker pieces, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), which acknowledges Saroyan’s presence on the literary landscape only to reject in the volume every major leftist premise about the forms, themes, and proper subjects of literature. The title illustration shows an awkward, obviously out-of-place fellow, pince nez perched precariously on his nose, who has let go of his trapeze prematurely only to discover with some astonishment that the woman on whom he had counted to catch him has no intention of doing so. She is suspended supinely in the classic pose of sexual receptivity but faces the wrong way and wears an enigmatic smile. What foolishness about the proper role of males could have tempted Thurber’s male up there in the first place? The drawing ironically makes use of the rhythmical surge and swing of the trapeze as a metaphor for sexual intercourse, in this case coitus interruptus, and spoofs the Freudian symbolism of flight.
Possibly for autobiographical reasons—his marriage to Althea Adams ended in divorce on May 24, 1935 (Bernstein, 246)—this is perhaps Thurber’s bleakest book, though also one of his best; but the central theme of miserable marriages nonetheless works well with the title as a critique of Saroyan-style realism even as it also underscores Thurber’s simultaneous criticism of the middle-class illusion of romantic love.
For Depression-weary Americans, Thurber’s title would also have summoned up two other social myths besides Saroyan’s, both of them somewhere near the conservative end of the political spectrum. One of these myths recalls post-Civil War America and the small town and rural society which Thurber had already treated comically in My Life and Hard Times and would later celebrate in Thurber Country (1952). This is the world in which the song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" originated in the first place, a world where, as Thurber described it in "Return of the Native" (1950), "There was a lot of picnicking and canoeing and cycling, and going for hikes in the woods on Sundays in spring, the men in boaters and bright blazers, and the women in shirtwaists and skirts."12 Its virtues were self-sufficiency, contentment, modest economic competence, and a kind of wide-eyed innocence before the outside world. There are, Thurber suggests, no daring young men any more, only worn out and ludicrous middle-aged ones who make themselves look even more foolish by placing themselves in situations into which only daring young men should enter. But there are, alas, plenty of P. T. Barnums left in Depression-ridden America, and there are still more suckers born every minute.
The second social myth entangled in Thurber’s allusive title is, like the first one, a myth of a better, communal world. The song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" was, as it happens, very popular in 1935, owing entirely to its resurrection in It Happened One Night, a movie that had won four Academy Awards the previous year. The film was directed by Frank Capra, whose overriding purpose in this and other films has been described by historian Robert Sklar as a "desire to revitalize the nation’s old communal myths."13 Capra’s film starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and handily defeated for best movie of the year such competitors as King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, a film that focused Marxist social philosophy and nostalgia for the rural past upon the problems of contemporary America. It Happened One Night is noteworthy for its portrait of some American capitalists as phony stuffed shirts whose effete nature has caused all the trouble in the nation, while others are fatherly, kindly, and understanding men like Colbert’s father.
Thurber’s controversies with the literary leftists of the l930s left him
with deep scars. Thurber never did live down the charge of triviality first leveled against him in the New Masses. Though he bitterly assailed the Communist-hunting activities of Senator McCarthy and his cohorts in the late forties and early fifties,14 he never quite forgave such former friends as Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker. As late as 1960 when he wrote "The Case of Comedy," they were very much on his mind. The leftists, he said, are continuing their "concerted attack on humor as antisocial, antiracial, antilabor, [and] antiproletarian. . . . [T]hey have left no stereotype unused in their attack, from ‘no time for comedy’ to the grim warnings that humor is a sickness, a sign of inferiority complex, a shield and not a weapon."15 Those final metaphors belong to Dorothy Parker, and they originally appeared in the New Masses during a debate already nearly a quarter century old when Thurber penned his.16
Had the Depression inspired only such pieces as "How to Write a Long Autobiography," "What Are the Leftists Saying?," and the parodies of Caldwell and a few other writers, that would indeed have seemed to justify Kyle Crichton’s claim that politics for Thurber was largely a matter of personal preference and class prejudice and that he wrote in a social vacuum. But there are, in fact, numerous other pieces not so purposefully or narrowly political which show Thurber as an acute observer of his times; these works clearly grow out of the Depression broadly considered as a psychological if not an economic and political phenomenon. Perhaps the most cynical story Thurber ever wrote, for example, "The Greatest Man in the World" (1931), belongs equally in time and temperament to the Depression era, when disillusionment with the American dream was rampant. The extravagance of the title tells us that this is a story about the carny hype and hoopla of the popular press, which affixed such hyperbolic labels to the latest hero as a mere matter of course. The term carries no historical force; it is unabashedly superlative because it does not really intend to invite comparison with other great men but simply to promote the most recent and, therefore, the "greatest" one. It belongs to the world of P. T. Barnum, to circus showmanship and spectacle, and is not something with which responsible journalism would have anything to do.
But, Thurber implies, in the 1930s no journalism was responsible. It is one measure of the depth of his cynicism that the story is told from the perspective of 1950, as if only in the future could Americans hope to gain a clear view of events supposedly taking place in 1937 but actually being written and read about in 1931. The effect of this tactic is ultimately ironic in the extreme, for in the context of the story the narrator’s claim
that Lindbergh and Byrd were true heroes cannot be given credence. It is impossible to reveal the "true" story about one hero without in some measure calling into question the pedigree of all heroes, Lindbergh and Byrd included. Perhaps, after all, these men were only more pliable than Jackie "Pal" Smurch, more malleable beneath the pressure of the press and the wishes of the President.17 The future stretches far beyond 1950, at any rate, and tomorrow or tomorrow or tomorrow may bring new facts to light about the "real" Byrd and Lindbergh. Moreover, a story in which newspapermen distort facts both to sensationalize them and then to cover up a murder, in effect rewriting the life and death of Jackie Smurch, inescapably raises questions about the motives of this anonymous reporter who reports the facts from the future. What purposes of the "present" does this view of the "past" serve? What does the narrator expect to get out of telling the story? The net effect of Thurber’s "futuristic" strategy—that is, of publishing a story in 1931 about events in 1937 told about by a narrator in 1950—is to highlight the theme of fiction at the expense of historical fact. There is, perhaps, no ascertainable truth inherent in any moment of history; there are only the stories that men see fit to tell.
Still, there are both benign and sinister fictions. So far as the reader can tell, the entity entitled "The Greatest Man in the World" falls into the first category, while the reconstruction of the events of Smurch’s life and death within the story falls into the second. The murder of Smurch is motivated by yet another fiction, the myth of the American hero, which is believed most by those most responsible for creating it. Not the smallest irony in a story of many ironies is that Smurch’s accomplishment is actually substantial, just as the circumstances of his humble, Western origins could be made to fit the outlines of an approved American myth if only he would cooperate. A tinkerer and mechanic by trade, like the Wright Brothers or like Lindbergh himself, Smurch represents not so much a parody as a reduction to the lowest common denominator of the "heroic" American virtues of individualism, initiative, resourcefulness, and self-reliance. He has all of these but nothing more, and in his vulgarity he reveals that such "virtues" are in reality only other names for antisocial acquisitiveness, egotism, and simple greed. He unmasks the myth of the American hero, just as his intractable behavior will at last unmask American officialdom. Smurch has at least the saving grace of understanding and admitting that there is money to be made by becoming a celebrity, but the myth denies such motivation and attempts to ground American heroism instead on rural innocence and altruism. In this regard, I think it likely that "The Greatest Man in the World" was written, at least in part, to satirize
through Jackie Smurch the simplistic view of Will Rogers, whom Thurber actively disliked (Bernstein, 237), that aviation would provide America with her next generation of heroes and restore society to those frontier values now deeply buried beneath consumerism and bureau "bunk."18 Thurber would have agreed with the diagnosis, but the man who wrote in 1929 that aviation and sex had been greatly overemphasized by our civilization would have viewed the popular infatuation with flight, which the popularity of Will Rogers did much to promote, as just another form of bunk.19
In many ways, "The Greatest Man in the World" hearkens back to the Roaring Twenties, the decade that invented public relations and mass consumption to begin with and that perfected hero worship as a fine and essential American art. It is the decade that gave America the public symbol of Silent Cal and the rural boyhood of Herbert Hoover so wonderfully satirized in Grant Wood’s painting, "The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover." Thurber’s story also constitutes a critique of the hypocrisy of prohibition, which offered Americans the heavy drinking Warren Harding as the candidate of the "dries" and defined the average American as a criminal if he or she drank while largely ignoring the evidence of corruption that finally became public as the Teapot Dome scandal. The mass adulation of Lindbergh, Thurber sensed, arose in large part out of the moral morass that American government had become and continued to be. Americans ascribed to the aviator precisely those virtues from which they most feared they had departed, thereby re-assuring themselves that they still valued what they did not. Thurber’s story comprehends as well the notion that hero worship in the twenties and the thirties measured the failure of the average American’s life, his or her fall into mere statistical existence and anonymity at the hands of mass marketeers. In the exploits of Lindbergh or Ruth or even Al Capone, Americans could vicariously experience the success that had eluded them, the celebrity that they would never share.
As Americans during the Depression sought to relieve the dullness and dreariness of their lives, they turned to movies for their heroes and for escape. One promotional blurb for a major studio put the matter perfectly, attempting to obscure the profit motive of film production behind the genial guise of public service: "There’s a Paramount picture probably around the corner. See it and you’ll be out of yourself, living someone else’s life.20 In this context, I think it is significant that two of Thurber’s major fictions, "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl"(1930)
and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939), literary fantasies of escape, practically enclose the decade of the Depression and abound in images drawn from the popular media, including not only movies but also adventure fiction and tabloid journalism. In these stories, I believe, Thurber touches the mentality of the Great Depression most intimately.
"The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" perhaps lacks the historical resonance of "The Greatest Man in the World," but as Thurber’s earliest excursion into the world of fantasy it commands our attention for its handling of a theme that was to become increasingly important to Thurber over the years. Its frame of reference, as allusions within the story make clear, is to be found in books like Al Capone and 10,000 Public Enemies and in movies like Alibi (1929), reminding us that in 1931 "Hollywood stars and Chicago mobsters topped the list of best-known personalities on the American scene; as a life choice, stardom and grand-scale crime loomed equally out of reach for the average man,"21 who nevertheless would gladly have exchanged his banal existence for a moment of glory. One of the major surprise hit movies of 1935, The Whole Town’s Talking, worked this fantasy to perfection, Edward G. Robinson plays both a notorious gangster and an accountant whose one distinction is that he looks exactly like the gangster. Encouraged by the police to play a part to entrap the public enemy, the accountant begins to take on aspects of the gangster’s assertive identity and to learn the argot of the underworld. The point of the movie, according to one historian of American crime movies, is that "in every milquetoast there beats the secret heart of a mobster" (Carlens, 141).
But Thurber got there first. His character, Samuel O. Bruhl (the acronym of Bruhl’s initials perhaps hints equally at an identity buried deep beneath Bruhl’s conventional self and at the pathos of Bruhl’s life), is "just an ordinary-looking citizen, like you and me, except for a curious, shoe-shaped scar on his left cheek, which he got when he fell against a wagon-tongue in his youth" (TC, 143). So far Bruhl’s biography is explicable. That scar, however, marks him out for a strange destiny, for it completes an otherwise vague resemblance to George "Shoescar" Clinigan, a notorious gangster. When a gang war erupts and Clinigan is severely wounded, Bruhl begins to fear for his own life. He begins to slink around and to dodge imaginary enemies, although on this point the narrator seems to wish us to understand that someone may may actually have begun to follow Bruhl. Gradually, Bruhl’s personality changes. His wife discovers books about gangsters hidden in the recesses of his closet, an analogue for the inaccessible spaces of his mind, and soon he starts lounging about the house in red pajamas, like Al Capone, and speaking in hardboiled "gangsterese." Eventually, he is assassinated
at a small inn in the Catskills, but, true to the code of omerte he refuses to describe who has shot him. "They never talk," says the New York City Police Commissioner who has been brought to the scene to question him, and Mr. Bruhl, hearing this, "smiled, a pleased smile, and closed his eyes" (TC, 148).
So far as the historical placement of this story within the general emotional milieu of the Depression is concerned, the most important elements of Thurber’s portrait of Mr. Bruhl are set before us in the opening paragraph. Samuel O. Bruhl, we are told, "had a good job as treasurer for a syrup-and-fondant concern, a large, devout wife, two tractable daughters, and a nice home in Brooklyn."
He worked from nine to five, took in a show occasionally, played a bad, complacent game of golf, and was usually in bed by nine o’clock. The Bruhls had a dog named Burt, a small circle of friends, and an old sedan. They had made a comfortable, if unexciting, adjustment to life. (TC, 143)
If bordeom is indeed the absolutely indispensable precondition for fantasy and the fantastic that critics have claimed it,22 then Mr. Bruhl has clearly been set up for a total reversal of the plot line of his life. Possessed already of the outward signs of the American dream, or at least the minimal middle-class version of it, Bruhl lacks any inner substance; he is, in fact, a void, a mere "case" (the pun lurks in Thurber’s title, of course), and the identity of Shoescar Clinigan easily moves into the vacuum within. Up to a point, we are not witnessing a fantasy at all but a genuine psychosis of a kind reported fairly frequently in psychoanalytical literature: Mr. Bruhl has become the thing he most fears.
But not entirely so. It is not Clinigan whom he fears after all, but rather the gangsters and police who have sworn to get Clinigan. Thus he has objectified his existence as a victim of bureaucratic manipulation by transforming himself into the subject of a massive police manhunt, even as he has given expression to an unstated wish to be somebody else, someone exciting, by becoming a desperado. What remains fantastic in the story is not Bruhl’s transference of identity but rather his ability to make his inner world visible upon the page, to summon up before our eyes the gangsters who shoot him down. Their rigorously maintained silence as they ritualistically assemble their guns links them at once and simultaneously with the inner, silent world of Bruhl’s fantasies—the narrator is incapable of invading Bruhl’s consciousness—and the external world of gangster lore, in which they seem, however, like Hemingway’s gangsters in "The Killers," both themselves and caricatures or parodies, that is, literary versions, of themselves—and creatures of Mr. Bruhl’s cliché-ridden imagination.
It is this familiarity of the gangsters’ bearing and being that links them most closely to the world of the uncanny. How strange yet how predictable are the truths of personality that may lie beneath conventional existence? This theme is driven home by Thurber’s relentless use of clichéd expressions to register the narrator’s inability and unwillingness to penetrate into Mr. Bruhl’s interior. When we think about it, what untranslatable worlds of mystery beyond our comprehension are simultaneously held at bay and yet acknowledged by our word "coincidence" and by such commonplace expressions as "oddly enough" and "quite by accident" or by subjunctive structures. These are the structures and transitions that move Thurber’s story forward, the small change of daily speech revealed at last as a language that admits the fantastic and uncanny into life. In the silence beyond such phrases Thurber’s story really happens.
One key allusion in the "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" brings home the boredom of Bruhl’s daily life while at the same time relating it to the inexplicable. A man of "colorless comings and goings" whose dreams are of "small stature" (TC, 143) indeed, Bruhl reminds the narrator of "the sort of average citizen that observer of Judd Gray thought Judd Gray was" (TC, 143). Readers in 1930 would have no difficulty remembering the murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Judd Gray, in 1927 and the sensational Snyder-Gray murder trial of the same year, with all its strange disclosures about secret personalities, its journalistic hoopla, and its bizarre fascination for the American public. Villains to hiss and boo, it seems, are just as necessary to people uncertain of their own morality as are heroes to a populace losing individual identity amidst increasing throngs of the faceless, and Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in turning so entirely on each other and trying to blame each other for plotting and carrying out the murder, played the role of villain to perfection. Gray was unmanly, the papers said, in not protecting his former lover even under such circumstances and in trying to save himself by accusing her; Ruth Snyder was the "Clytemnestra of Long Island," as Elmer Davis of the New Yorker saw things, and Gray was but a featureless Aegisthus.23 To John Kabler, looking back on the crime ten years later, Gray was "the Caspar Milquetoast who never quite rates the better high-school secret societies" and his murder of Albert Snyder symbolized "the frenzy of the little man . . . renouncing his littleness, avenging a lifetime of inferiority and frustration."24 The key to it all, Kabler implicitly agreed with Thurber, was that the American Dream had become a nightmare of meaninglessness and pointlessness, even for Albert Snyder and his wife before Gray ever entered the picture:
They came to Queens, that dead-level Canaan of the white collar worker, where addresses run dizzily into five digits and uniform clap board houses jammed cheek by jowl, row upon row and block after block, stretch into limitless monotony; where a radio enlivens every other home and existence is placid, routine, inexpensive—until revolt against tedium explodes without warning. (9)
Although Thurber thought highly enough of his story to include it in two major anthologies, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze and that showcase of the very best of Thurber, The Thurber Carnival, critics have had very little to say about it except that Bruhi, like Walter Mitty, demonstrates the self-destructive powers of fantasy. Perhaps so. But Thurber’s placement of the story next to "The Luck of Jad Peters" in The Thurber Carnival, an autobiographical reminiscence which is also concerned with the strange coincidences by which Fate rides men down, indicates that both this theme and the historical character of Judd Gray held a special fascination for Thurber. The mode of "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl" is somber, hardly comic at all, unless we define comedy very broadly as aiming at some clarification of the mystery of our lives—a definition that will also do for tragedy as well. Next to this piece, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," though disquieting, seems almost lighthearted.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is so well known and has been discussed so frequently in criticism that I want to add at this point only a caution to those who see Mitty as a version of Thurber—and their numbers are legion25—that this piece, too, is best viewed in a cultural context that includes the Depression and the mounting crisis in Europe. There are oblique allusions to heroic films like Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol(1930), as Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill have pointed out,26 and the world of Perry Mason does not lie far away, but the only important historical allusion is to the Waterbury trial of 1938, which Mitty, typically, gets all wrong. The newsboy’s shouting about the trial precipitates Mitty into a fantasy in which he is on trial for murder, but the actual Waterbury trial involved large scale and high level graft and corruption. Thurber uses the allusion to add a subtle touch to his characterization of Mitty and to enlarge the frame of reference of his story to include other characters who, like Mitty, have led secret and prohibited lives. It may also be worth remarking that the same year in which Walter Mitty was invented saw the debut of Superman, a character who is able to solve apparently unsolvable problems and whose secret life is lived as a Walter Mitty-ish fellow named Clark Kent. The disjunction between his real and his imaginary self reverses the comic split in Walter Mitty, but it is worth pondering if this at first unlikely pairing of Mitty and Superman does not lead to the same point
at the end: in every Superman there lurks unrecognized a man like Walter Mitty, inadequate to history and inept at personal relationships both with bosses and with women. The widespread popularity of both Walter Mitty and Superman throughout the 1940’s suggests that they spoke to something in American experience, and I suggest that that something is identical for each.
This overview of Thurber in the thirties has necessarily scanted or ignored entirely important aspects of his writing in order to concentrate on those works most closely tied to the Depression or to states of mind engendered by the Depression. Thurber’s last attempt at fantasy before turning to the fairy tale in the middle l940s came in "The Lady on 142" in 1943, a piece which clearly demarcates the dream from the reality by enclosing the fantasy—a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers and The Maltese Falcon—within a framework of reality. If Thurber, somewhat paradoxically, found more freedom for his imagination in the bound motifs and preformed literary material of the fairy tale and the fable, the reason, I believe, has something to do with an altering national mood. If this paper has demonstrated anything, however, it is that the standard approaches to Thurber that emphasize the war between men and women, the essential sameness of the Thurber male and female, or even the theme of melancholy as the key to Thurber’s humor, are inadequate to explain his fiction and cartoons. Despite the recent appearance of a new study,27 we badly need a re-reading of his work. Such a reappraisal would emphasize Thurber’s themes and forms in relation to particular historical moments, popular culture, and the like. Only then, I believe, will we fully appreciate the wisdom of T. S. Eliot’s assessment of Thurber’s comic genius. "Unlike so much humor," Eliot said of Thurber’s work,
it is not merely a criticism of manners . . . but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to.28
As we have seen, Thurber’s work does indeed document the Depression years, and I believe that his humor in general will finally be recognized as documenting the age in which it was written.
UNIVERSITY OF CINNCINNATI
1There are two
biographies of Thurber, both excellent in their own way. Burton Bernstein’s Thurber:
A Biography (New York: Dodd Mead, 1975) is written by an author who is
himself affiliated with the New Yorker and provides insights into Thurber’s
career from a professional point of view. Bernstein’s account of Thurber’s
first meeting with Harold Ross and his arrival at the New Yorker appears
on pp. 158–159. The other biography, Charles S. Holmes’ The Clocks
of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber (New York: Atheneum, 1972)
is the work of an academic critic and contains some of the soundest critical
judgments of Thurber’s work that I have encountered. Holmes recounts Thurber’s
hiring by Ross on p. 87.
2For the publication date of is Sex Necessary? see Edwin T. Bowden, James Thurber: A Bibliography (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968), p. 8. Although I have cited Bowden’s book only once in the notes to this paper, his work is indispensable for any serious student of Thurber.
3"Preface to a Life," My Life and Hard Times (l933), in The Thurber Carnival (New York: Harper& Row, 1945), p. 174. Hereinafter, The Thurber Carnival will be cited in parentheses as TC.
4"The Art Of Fiction," The Paris Review, 10 (Fall, 1955), 47.
5New Yorker, (Jan. 30, 1932), 13.
6Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces (New York: Harper & Row, 1937), p. 3. Hereinafter cited parenthetically as LYMA.
7Max Eastman, Enjoyment of Laughter (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), p. 342.
8New Yorker, 10 (June 9, 1934), 15–16.
91n "James Thurber: A Critical Study," Discovery, Number 5 (January 1955), 158–192, Otto Friedrich revived the accusation, though his treatment of Thurber otherwise is mainly sympathetic. Thurber responded by trying to demolish Friedrich in "The Tyranny of Trivia," New Yorker, 31 (Dec. 17, 1955), 30–35, a piece later included in Lanterns and Lances (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), pp. 75–89. See also Robert Morsberger’s James Thurber (Boston: Twayne, 1964), p. 197 for the concluding assessment that "a fair portion of Thurber’s work is trivia—entertaining, but of no lasting interest."
10"Aged Bard Takes His Stand," New Masses (September 4, 1934), p. 24. Further references to this piece by Crichton will appear in the text by page number only.
11"Voices of Revolution," New Republic, 86 (March 25, 1936), 200.
12"Return of the Native," Credos and Curios (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 57–58.
13Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 205. Sklar’s book is an excellent aid to recovering information about films that influenced Thurber’s writing.
14For Thurber’s stand against McCarthy, see, as a representative piece, "Look Out for the Thing," Bermudian, 21 (October, 1950), 18; reprinted in Credos and Curios, pp.74–77.
15"The Case for Comedy," Lanterns and Lances, p. 142.
16Thurber’s letter to E. B. White (April 24, 1951) in Selected Letters of James Thurber, ed. Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981) p. 235.
17The press, at any rate, regarded Lindbergh as its own invention; reporters were much disturbed when he complained about the lack of privacy and publicly called him ungrateful. See Peter Rollins, "Will Rogers on Aviation: A Means of Fostering Frontier Values in an Age of Machines and Bunk?" Journal of American Culture, 7 (Spring/Summer 1984), 87.
19"Foreword," is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do (New York: Harper & Row, 1929), p. xix.
20Quoted in Mary Beth Norton, et a!., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 710. The chapter on "The Shaken Dream" provides a good, Succinct discussion of the period of the Depression.
21Carlos Clarens, Crime Movies: From Griffith to the Godfather and Beyond (New York: Norton, 1980), p. 141.
22Erjc S. Rabkin, The
Fantastic in Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), p. 42.
23"Clytemnestra: Long Island Style," New Yorker, 3 (May 7, 1927), 32-36.
24John Kabler, ed., The Trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (Garden City: Doubleday, 1938), pp. 2, 29.
25Most recently, for example, Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill claimed in America’s Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), p. 441, that of all the New Yorker Writers who took the "little man" for their antihero "Thurber probably came closest to a description of himself."
26Blair and Hill, p. 456.
27This is Catherine McGehee Kenney’s Thurber’s Anatomy of Confusion (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984). Kenney’s chapter on "The Language of Confusion" represents perhaps the best criticism on Thurber yet included in any book, but overall this study, like Morsberger’s James Thurber (see n. 9, above), Richard C. Tobias’ The Art of James Thurber (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press. 1969). and Stephen A. Black’s James Thurber: His Masquerades (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), fails to engage the texts and contexts on Thurber’s fiction and interposes abstractions and generalized ideas between the reader and the text, reducing everything to mere signification at last.
28Quoted in Holmes, p. 289.