Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thurber Tonight: "The Letters of James Thurber"


I always have to rummage around the Thurber books to find "The Letters of James Thurber," a piece of which I'm extremely fond. [UPDATE: That said, for seven months I've been attributing it to the wrong book. It's not in Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, it's in My World -- And Welcome to It.] It first appeared in The New Yorker of Oct. 8, 1938, not long after Jim and Helen Thurber returned from more than a year abroad -- the trip that included the sojourn on the French riviera which produced "A Ride With Olympy" and its unintended sequel, "Joyeux Noël, Mr. Durning," the fallout when the Thurbers' Cap d'Antibes cook and chauffeur, Maria and Olympy, innocently sent them a bottle of liqueur as a Christmas present.

Since "The Letters of James Thurber" is relatively short, I thought it might be interesting to have a sample of the letters of James Thurber that actually were eventually published, and have plucked out a chunk of one written during the time abroad, earlier the same years as "The Letters of James Thurber." -- Ken

The Letters
of James Thurber

Adams was a letter writer of the type that is now almost extinct . . . his circle of friends was larger perhaps and more distinguished than that of any other American of his generation. -- H. S. Commager on "Letters of Henry Adams"

JAMES THURBER WAS A LETTER WRITER of the type that is now completely extinct. His circle of correspondents was perhaps no larger but it was easily more bewildered than that of any other American of his generation. Thurber laid the foundation for his voluminous correspondence during his Formative Period. In those years he wrote to many distinguished persons, none of whom ever replied, among them Admiral Schley, Young Barbarian, Senator Atlee Pomerene, June Caprice, and a man named Unglaub who played first base for the Washington Senators at the turn of the century. Unglaub, in Thurber's estimation, stood head and shoulders above all the rest of his correspondents and, indeed, he said so in his letter to McKinley. Thurber did not write as many letters as Henry Adams or John Jay Chapman or some of the other boys whose correspondence has been published lately, but that is because he never set pen to paper after his forty-third year.

The effect of Thurber's letters on his generation was about the same as the effect of anybody's letters on any generation; that is to say, nil. It is only when a man's letters are published after his death that they have any effect and this effect is usually only on literary critics. Nobody else ever reads a volume of letters and anybody who says he does is a liar. A person may pick up a volume of correspondence now and then and read a letter here and there, but he never gets any connected idea of what the man is trying to say and soon abandons the book for the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. This is largely because every man whose letters have ever been published was in the habit of writing every third one to a Mrs. Cameron or a Mrs. Winslow or a Miss Betch, the confidante of a lifetime, with whom he shared any number of gaily obscure little secrets. These letters all read like this: "Dear Puttums: I love what you say about Mooey! It's so devastatingly true! B----- dropped in yesterday (Icky was out at the time) and gave some sort of report on Neddy but I am afraid I didn't listen (ut ediendam aut debendo!). He and Liddy are in Venice, I think I gathered, or Newport. What in the world do you suppose came over Buppa that Great Night? ? ? You, of course, were as splendidly consequent as ever (in loco sporenti abadabba est) -- but I was deeply disappointed in Sig's reaction. All he can think of, poor fellow, is Margery's 'flight.' Remind me to tell you some day what Pet said about the Ordeal." These particular letters are sometimes further obscured by a series of explanatory editorial footnotes, such as "Probably Harry Boynton or his brother Norton," "A neighbor at Bar Harbor," "The late Edward J. Belcher," "Also sometimes lovingly referred to as Butty, a niece-in-law by his first marriage." In the end, as I say, one lays the book aside for "Snow-Bound" in order to get a feeling of reality before going to bed.

Thurber's letters from Europe during his long stay there in 1937 and 1938 (the European Phase) are perhaps the least interesting of all those he, or anybody else, ever wrote. He seems to have had at no time any idea at all, either clear or vague, as to what was going on. A certain groping, to be sure, is discernible, but it doesn't appear to be toward anything. All this may have been due in great part to the fact that he took his automobile to Europe with him and spent most of his time worrying about running out of gas. The gasoline gauge of his car had got out of order and sometimes registered "empty" when the tank was half full and "full" when it contained only two or three gallons. A stronger character would have had the gauge fixed or carried a five-gallon can of essence in the back of the car, thus releasing the mind for more mature and significant preoccupations, but not Thurber.

I have been unable to find any one of Thurber's many correspondents who saved any of his letters (Thurber himself kept carbons, although this is not generally known or cared about). "We threw them out when we moved," people would tell me, or "We gave them to the janitor's little boy." Thurber gradually became aware of this on his return to America (the Final Phase) because of the embarrassed silence that always greeted him when, at his friends' homes, he would say, "Why don't we get out my letters to you and read them aloud?" After a painful pause the subject was quickly changed, usually by putting up the ping-pong table.

In his last years the once voluminous letter writer ceased writing letters altogether, and such communication as he maintained with the great figures of his time was over the telephone and consisted of getting prominent persons on the phone, making a deplorable sound with his lips, and hanging up. His continual but vain attempts to reach the former Barbara Hutton by phone clouded the last years of his lfie but at the same time gave him something to do. His last words, to his wife, at the fag end of the Final Phase, were "Before they put up the ping-pong table, tell them I am not running out of gas." He was as wrong, and as mixed up, in this particular instance as he was in most others. I am not sure that we should not judge him too harshly." -- ANON

§ § §

From an actual Thurber letter: On New York City life among "our horrible bunch"

Wolcott Gibbs (1902-1958), one of the New Yorker editors and writers (in 1928 he succeeded our friend Robert Benchley as theater critic) for whom Thurber had the greatest regard, began an item in the "Notes & Comment" section for Jan. 8, 1938: "One of the housewives in our horrible little bunch woke up the other morning to find that the clock attached to her thermostat had stopped, so she wound it up and set it and went back to her deep dreams of peace." Thurber noticed.

"[New York] has to be seen now and again, visited, lived in for short periods, but I swear that all the laws of nature and of the constitution of man make it imperative not to live there. Not, at least, in our horrible bunch."
-- Thurber, in a January 1938 letter to E. B. White

For Thurber, reading the January 8, 1938, New Yorker in Paris, that phrase "our horrible little bunch" not only went a long way toward identifying Gibbs as the author of the item ("Comment" pieces ran unsigned in those days) but, as he makes clear in this except from a really long letter to E. B. White, lingered in his mind. At the time, White was engaged in a "year off" of his own -- from his desk job at The New Yorker. He was experiencing grave anxieties about what he had accomplished during his time off, and now his wife, Katharine White, was leaving her job as fiction editor to join him living year-round in what had been just a summer home in Maine.

By yet another coincidence, as Thurber notes, New Yorker writer Robert Coates and his family were engaged in the reverse odyssey, returning from country to city life. Thurber was horrified at the Coates' intention to sell their country home. -- Ken

It was funny to get your letter and one from the Coates in the same mail, you talking about giving up your town house and moving to the country, they talking about selling their country place and moving to the city; both of you uncertain as to whether you can, or ought to. You two families ought to get together and compare notes. We are all against their selling their country place. They have got to the city after too long a time at a stretch in the country and have fallen under the city's spell -- a pretty strong one at first -- but in a year or so they would be exactly where you are, only they wouldn't have a home they own to go to. I think you should firmly argue them out of selling the country place. I am going to scream against it. The New York life will get them sooner or later, probably sooner, as it gets everybody.

I don't mean "city life," I mean New York City life, two different things. There is nothing else in all the countries of the world like New York City life. It does more to people, it socks them harder, than life in Paris, London, or Rome, say, possibly could. Just why this is I have been very interested in pondering over here. I know it is a fact, but I am not sure just why it is. Perhaps Gibbs gets close to it in the comment of January 8th when he speaks, rather more easily and naturally than bitterly, of "our horrible bunch." He means, of course, their horrible life. And God knows it sometimes is. People have to run away from it, broken or screaming, at the loveliest times of year, on fete days, just before parties, on Christmas Eve. It has been interesting to see the perfect picture drawn in a few sentences in each letter we get, of New York life. "There has been a steady traffic to Foord's and back among the Gibbs McKelway and unstrung group." If I got out my letters from everybody else and put all such sentences together it would be an amazingly vivid and accurate picture of that city and its life. It rather scares me. I know I never want to live in it again for long at a time, just run down for a visit now and then.

God knows it got me. I was the leader of those it got. This seems remarkable to me, now, from here. I can see that tall, wild-eyed son of a bitch, with hair in his eyes, and a glass in his hand, screaming and vilifying, and it's hard for me to recognize him. I know that I will never let him get on the loose again. I also know that a steady life in New York would do it. . . .

New York is nothing but a peaceable Verdun, with music and the theatre -- the only things that keep people as sane as they are. Liquor, of course, tends to keep people away from music and the theatre. Bleeck's, when you analyze it, is very much like a front line dug-out -- the noise, the dogged courage of the men holding on till zero hour, the fits of hysteria, the sitting around in sullen gloom. The women are like the shattered trees of Verdun or the shells whistling overhead. A Place like Bleeck's would be impossible, l think, in Paris, Rome, London, Vienna. To see Villa Borghese, Berkeley Square, the Bois du Boulogne, is to realize that Central Park with its grim mall, its brave trees, its iron and cement closing in on all sides, is merely an extension of Bleeck's offering no liquor.

A person can admire New York and so on, and all that, but I feel it is absolutely impossible to love the place. One more or less holds on there. It is an achievement to have lived there, not a pleasure to do so. It has to be seen now and again, visited, lived in for short periods, but I swear that all the laws of nature and of the constitution of man make it imperative not to live there. Not, at least, in our horrible bunch.

Something, I suppose, could be done about the dreary, fatiguing, and maniac parties, although it is a little late. They could be given up completely for a while. Why is it that people go on the wagon instead of giving up all intercourse? It may be the intercourse rather than the liquor, although I think it is both. The cocktail parties at which it is obviously impossible to have any fun at all look very strange and wonderful from here. I keep telling people about them; nobody believes me. They no longer sound real to me as I tell them: everybody slugged or sick at a quarter to seven, holding on without dinner until 10:45, going home to sleep in a draught with one's hat on and a cold corner hamburger sandwich in one hand, rousing up at twelve to vomit and call somebody up and say you're sorry and to hear him shout at his wife to shut up, it's just Bert calling back. I say nobody believes it, and I am beginning to doubt it myself. And then back to bed, without quite getting your pants off, and the bell rings and it's Harry and Ella, he sick all over his Christmas scarf, she wanting to go on to Harlem. And wonderful stories of how Louise let everything burn or get cold so she and Jack didn't get any dinner at all, and how they left Merton asleep under the piano, and the whole crowd went over to Spitty's on Third Avenue for steaks but didn't eat them when they were brought. And Mike finally got Bill told off about his wife and she screamed that she loved Mike and Bill just sat down and cried, only on the overturned chair, so Mike stayed on and Greta made scrambled eggs for all three of them.


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