My World – and Welcome to It (1942) by James Thurber: A perceptive comic showcase

This collection by the New Yorker writer includes a standout turn by Walter Mitty

Noted writer and  cartoonist  James Thurber sits in a chair lighting a cigarette in New York, New York, 1954. Photograph: Fred Palumbo/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Noted writer and cartoonist James Thurber sits in a chair lighting a cigarette in New York, New York, 1954. Photograph: Fred Palumbo/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

 

James Thurber, who worked for the New Yorker, was an enormously popular comic writer and cartoonist, and this representative collection is one of his best. It comprises two parts: the first, by far the stronger, features short stories and essays, illustrated with charmingly eccentric cartoons; the second takes the form of travel pieces, mainly about France, written as a comic memoir.

Here I’d like to refer to my three favourite short stories. The Macbeth Murder Mystery treats the Shakespearean play like an Agatha Christie whodunit (Macbeth isn’t the murderer – it’s never the obvious one). 

Interview with a Lemming is a discussion between a scientist and a lemming, where the latter mostly berates, in a string of alliterative adjectives, the human race for its vices. The one thing the scientist doesn’t understand, the scientist tells his interlocutor, is “why you lemmings all rush down to the sea and drown yourselves”, to which the lemming replies: “The one thing I don’t understand is why you human beings don’t.”

The stand-out story is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is such a classic that the protagonist’s name has passed into the language to describe all fantasists. In Mitty’s mind, the real world is constantly colliding with the world of fantasy. He imagines himself as a heroic naval commander in a terrible sea storm, a brilliant surgeon conducting a life-saving operation, a crack shot accused of murder, and a fearless army officer whose dugout is under intense fire, only to be drawn back to mundane reality by his overbearing wife’s voice. 

Perhaps Mitty’s marriage mirrored Thurber’s own first marriage, which he said developed into “a relationship charming, fine, and hurting”. As Prof Augustine Martin perceptively remarked about the story many years ago, “for all its apparent slightness, it has a good deal to say about the tragicomic predicament of 20th-century man, reduced to insignificance by urban civilisation yet living in his imagination a life of heroic action”.

“Sadly comic” is probably a more accurate description of Mitty’s predicament. Who among us hasn’t identified with that, at least to some extent, at some stages during our lives?

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