Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (Paperback)
by Neil A. Grauer
I'm just back from a cheap P&O cruise (PS. if you buy a cheap ticket, your cabin is probably near a noisy exit-door, like ours was), and I read two books from the ship's library: this one, and Bill Bryson's memoirs of his childhood. Both terrific (and both about men brought up in the American mid-west).
Grauer, a former newspaper cartoonist and reporter, has given us an anecdotal, easy-to-read biography of Thurber - the sharpest humorist/cartoonist of his era.
Thurber (1894-1961), mostly had his bittersweet cartoons and stories published in The New Yorker. He had a wry sense of humor, but was a somewhat sad and tormented man, given to fits of depression (what's new among humorists?). His sometimes-friend Peter de Vries wrote of him: 'If in his art he told the truth, in his life he told it off.' In his later life he got angrier - alienating former friends and sometimes throwing things against the wall (like his eyeglasses or wine-glasses). He was a mysoginist, a misanthropist, and sometimes a racist. Two of his core beliefs were that animals are superior to humans, and technology is awful. His blindness was devastating to him, but he showed great courage in adversity.
Here's one reviewer's helpful summary (from Amazon.com):
'American humorist James Thurber brought us Walter Mitty, and now freelance journalist Neil Grauer brings us James Thurber in all his comic and caustic complexity.
A native of Ohio and graduate of Ohio State University, Thurber began as a code clerk in the Department of State. After working as a journalist in Paris, he began a life-long association with New Yorker magazine, whose pages were brightened with Thurber's short stories and classic cartoons in which his misanthropy is often present as animals ape the behavior of humans and vice vera.
Always aware of the frailties and pratfalls of human beings as they faced life's predicaments, Thurber penned among others, "The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze" and "The Thurber Carnival." In 1940 he joined Eliot Nugent to write a drama of college life, "The Male Animal," which, along with other Thurber works, was made into a motion picture.
This funny man's last years were relentlessly bleak. Unable to cope with the loss of his sight, Thurber alienated many of his former colleagues with boring boasts of his past successes.
Grauer does not gloss over the humorist's flaws, instead presents a concise human portrait of one who brought laughter to the lives of many.'
Thurber could scribble a cartoon in seconds - like this one:
or his most famous one (The Seal in the Bedroom):
'All right, have it your way - you heard a seal bark!'