Copyright © 2003 Robert G. Ferrell

The Case for Thurber

I spent what an old bread commercial used to refer to as my "formative years" in a small town called Iowa Park, a few miles west of the city of Wichita Falls in north central Texas. It was a fairly sleepy little hamlet, with no real alarms or brouhahas that I can recall (other than one bizarre phantom racial contretemps, but I'll save that for another time). To be sure, there were diversions such as the annual water hose fight, where competing teams of volunteer firemen tried to push a bucket suspended from a wire stretched between two buildings over their opponent's goal line with streams of water. The occasional carnival would also stop in the A&P Grocery parking lot for a few days on its way from Lubbock to Fort Worth.

I remember an exhibit in the side show of one such traveling amusement park. It featured an extremely waxen figure of a man in a box made up to look like an iron lung (complete with excessively wheezy electrically-operated bellows), except that the transparent lid gave the effect of a man lying under a glass-topped coffee table. The figure was supposed to represent a victim of syphilis, of which disease I had never heard at the time. The impression I came away with indelibly etched on my consciousness was that syphilis made your skin look like wax. The cautionary horror of the contrived iron lung was completely lost on me.

One of the principal attractions in Iowa Park, from my point of view, was the public library. It was only five or six blocks down Cash street from my house, easily within walking or biking range. I had to pass the funeral home on the way, which was a bit disturbing, but whenever possible I used the sidewalk on the other side of the street and thus slipped by outside the range of the majority of whatever sinister forces might be lurking there. There was an old hotel, the tallest building in town, next to the funeral home, and I used to think it must be the tallest building in the world. It was about 8 or 9 stories, which seemed impossibly altitudinous to me.

The library was in the same building with city hall, the police station, and the volunteer fire department. I think there might have been a church in there somewhere, as well. The entire building couldn't have been more than 2,000 square feet, looking back on it, but it seemed large and complex to a seven year old. I would wander up and down the dozen or so rows of bookshelves, marveling that there could be so many books in one place. While I might peruse widely though the collection, I always ended up in the humor stacks. This was where I felt truly at home.

I no longer recall the title of every book in this section, although I could have rattled them off without effort when I was younger and more mentally acute. The books that stick out in my mind to this day, and through whose pages I crawled literally dozens of times during my childhood, are such tomes as This Simian World and Life with Father by Clarence Day, Inside Benchley and My Ten Years in a Quandry by Robert Benchley, Lost in the Horse Latitudes by H. Allen Smith, and, most importantly, Lanterns and Lances, My World and Welcome To It, Alarms and Diversions, and The Middle Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze by James Thurber. These are the men who, more than any others, lent form and substance to my childhood, and sparked in me a lifelong interest in setting pen to paper (or, these days, fingers to keyboard).

Thurber, especially, seized hold of my imagination with such an iron grip that I have not loosened it yet, nor would I wish to. I grew up thinking that life as an adult would be spent in hotel lobbies and bars, drinking brandy or scotch (which are my two favorite libations, incidentally) or having dinner at the Algonquin, whatever that was. I thought the norm was spending three months out of the year in Bermuda, or at some resort such as The Hot Springs. I expected to be dealing with publishers and editors and linotypists in my professional life, and trading witty comments with other writers at innumerable cocktail parties.

I didn't realize at the time that Thurber's life was neither typical nor, truth be told, reproducible in the turbulent post-Vietnam era. His was a simpler time, with more easily identifiable villains and heroes, and he was at home in circles that were so far removed from the public library in Iowa Park, Texas that they might as well have been in another galaxy.

Not only did I decide at an early age to be a writer, I wasn't really aware there were any other careers available. Sure, I saw the firemen and accountants and doctors and auto mechanics around me, but they all seemed somehow less real than the people in my books. In Thurber I found not only peace, charm, wit, and grammatical competence, but a way of thinking about and looking at the world that seemed much saner than the ones I saw around me. Jim was at peace with the contradictions of this mortal existence, and wasn't afraid to write about them in glowing terms that set my little head spinning on numerous occasions. He never went in for the gag, the pratfall, or the whopper; the laughter he engendered was not the loud and boisterous expulsion that died away as quickly as it had come up, but rather the prolonged recurrent chuckle that washed over me time and time again, often reawakening hours or days later, apropos of nothing at all. Thurber got into my brain cells so deeply I could never dislodge him, even if I were unwise enough to desire such a thoroughly execrable exorcism.

Thurber's writings seem quaint and archaic to the modern reader, conspicuously lacking as they are in shallow word-play, italics, extended episodes of capitalization, or thinly veiled (if veiled at all) references to sex. Thurber's literate (in the traditional sense), classically educated characters are as far removed from our current crop of vocational school graduates as the Medieval battlefields were from the polite drawing rooms of Victorian England. Education in Thurber's time meant not only learning skills with which to earn one's livelihood, but garnering an appreciation of society and the arts necessary to live a gracious and full life, conscious not only of what may lie down the path, but of what has gone before.

Today college is about learning a trade, and nothing else. History, art, music, literature, and even political science are relegated to sparse electives, or even ignored altogether on the grounds that they are ‘irrelevant' to the degree plan. Life today is far too hectic to devote the time to reading, absorbing, and reflecting that true literature demands. As a result, we have a generation whose average member probably couldn't even finish one of Thurber's books, let alone get any meaning out of it. If it isn't available as a "Flash" presentation on a Web page or on DVD, it won't get any exposure in our thirty-second attention span species. We are a society of the moment, living as it were constantly on the edge of the future, unaware and contemptuous of the past. We are a nation of semi-literates, a significant proportion of whom can't even find our own country on a globe. Is it any wonder we fall prey to politicians and other self-serving officials who seek to mislead us about the threats posed by foreign governments or rogue organizations?

Ronald Reagan, for example, managed to capitalize on this ignorance when during the Iran-Contra scandal he argued that Nicaragua was somehow an imminent threat to the United States, despite the fact that it lies nearly a thousand miles south of the nearest U.S. border. As I write this, soldiers and civilians from not only our own country but numerous others are dying daily, pointlessly in pursuit of a poorly conceptualized and badly miscalculated goal of instilling the American form of "democracy" in a country which had been ruling itself successfully for millennia before our grand experiment in government of the poor by and for the rich began.

Thurber celebrated the little man even as he ridiculed him. He elevated the trials and tribulations of an uncertain life to the status of social mythology for the common people. Not for Jim the terrifying demons of sudden mortality, the violent conflict, the grave injustice, but rather the mischievous imps of too cryptic technology and interpersonal fumblery. He genuinely cared about events that were not at all newsworthy, in the commercial sense–events that characterize 99% of our lives. What effrontery.

In doing so, he allowed us to laugh at our species and at the absurd situations in which we daily find ourselves enmeshed as living testament to the sense of humor of the Almighty. I can only hope that history shall not judge Thurber, or us, too harshly.