The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

Reviewed by Karen Langley

The title story of this collection of short pieces by James Thurber is probably his best-known work, thanks to the popular film adaptation starring Danny Kaye. Thurber has a reputation as a humourist and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty brings together a selection of his pieces from a previous collection called The Thurber Carnival. Recently reissued in a lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition, it’s the ideal way to get acquainted with this unexpected author. I say ‘unexpected’ for a good reason; Thurber is an author new to me and I somehow expected to be reading lightweight, witty pieces. However, I actually encountered something much more varied, quite dark in places and very pithy.

Thurber was something of a polymath; despite having problems with his sight for much of his life, he produced cartoons, journalism, short stories, plays and was known as a wit. His works were filmed and his plays appeared on Broadway. The pieces collected here are remarkably varied, reflecting his wide range, and there are some wonderfully funny stories. Many of the most humorous are (semi?) autobiographical tales of family life, the best of which I would say is The Night the Bed Fell, a tale of family chaos which had me laughing out loud.

I suppose the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. It makes a better recitation (unless, as some friends of mine have said, one has heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors and bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and versimilitude to what is admittedly a somewhat incredible tale. Still, it did take place.

The humour is often wry and bittersweet, such as The Secret Life of James Thurber, in which the author somewhat presents his own memoirs in contrast to those of the larger-than-life and frankly unbelievable recollections of Salvador Dali – which, despite their patent untruths, seem to have outsold the works of Thurber, a fact that obviously bothered the latter!

One does not have to skitter far before one comes upon some vignette which gives the full shape and flavour of the book: the youthful dreamer of dreams biting a sick bat or kissing a dead horse, the slender stripling going into man’s estate with the high hope and fond desire of one day eating a live but roasted turkey, the sighing lover covering himself with goat dung and aspic that he might give off the true and noble odour of the ram. In my flying trip through Dali I caught other glimpses of the great man: Salvador adoring a seed ball fallen from a plane tree, Salvador kicking a tiny playmate off a bridge, Salvador caressing a crutch, Salvador breaking the old family doctor’s glasses with a leather-thonged mattress-beater. There would appear to be only two things in the world that revolt him (and I don’t mean a long-dead hedgehog). He is squeamish about skeletons and grasshoppers. Oh, well, we all have our idiosyncracies.

But in stark contrast to the humour are Thurber’s vignettes of married life. His own first marriage was apparently troubled, so this may have influenced his view of the institution; nevertheless, several of these sharp little tales reflect a very cynical view of life a deux. The title story itself is a rather muted affair, with middle aged Mitty the ultimate henpecked husband, escaping into fantasy to avoid the reality of his tedious life and domineering wife; several of this type turn up in the stories. However, Thurber does not restrict his somewhat bitter viewpoint to women, as other tales (particularly A Couple of Hamburgers) dissect the tensions created by both partners in a relationship, as they snipe at each other, attempting to irritate and annoy. The tone of these stories actually brought Dorothy Parker to mind, and Thurber is just as merciless as she was in his portrayal of the dissension that occurs between men and women.

Perhaps the darkest piece in the collection is One is a Wanderer; narrated by a man living alone (it’s unclear whether he is divorced or has lost a partner), he struggles to fill his hours and cope with the intense loneliness. Maybe Thurber is saying that despite the inevitable problems of marriage, life with a partner is better than that without one. It’s certainly a powerful story that presents a bleak vision of solitude and proves that Thurber was not just a lightweight purveyor of witty bon mots.

However, running through most of these works is a dry wit and plenty of dark humour. Thurber certainly seems to know the human condition well, with all its foibles. His writings feature a number of dogs, too, and he displays a fondness for these creatures – well, they *are* known as man’s best friend! Two of the stories, autobiographical works, are illustrated with his line drawings; these add to the fun of reading and I found myself wishing that more had been included.

All in all this is a really satisfying collection to read. Because of the variety in the stories, there’s never a risk that they’re going to just blur into one. Instead, you’re treated to stories that make you laugh out loud, poignant reminiscences, wry reflections on family idiosyncrasies and pieces that capture the depths of human loneliness. Thurber was obviously a man of many talents, and this is a fabulous introduction to his work.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and spends too much of her time daydreaming her way through books (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)

James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Penguin 2016). 9780241282618, 112pp, paperback.

BUY The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from the Book Depository.

7 Comments

  1. Simon

    Karen: I read most of Thurber’s work in my younger years & loved most of it. He’s a sort of milder David Sedaris. I believe Secret Life was filmed again fairly recently.

  2. Pingback: … in which I make the acquaintance of James Thurber – on Shiny! :) | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

  3. Roger

    Thurber wrote a couple of children’s stories: The Thirteen Clocks & The Wonderful O. I don’t know if they’re still available, but there used to be a Puffin edition with illustrations by Ronald Searle.

  4. Is Thurber not widely read in the UK? He seems to be a very ‘American’ writer. Way back in my High School days he was required reading, I wonder if that’s still the case now.

    Those two children’s books mentioned in the above comment are back in print with New York Review Books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *