Thursday, March 20, 2003

[3/20/2011] Thurber Tonight: Part 1 of "Gentleman from Indiana" -- Thurber's recollection of his father (continued)


According to the back-cover copy of this paperback edition, here's how the author described The Thurber Album (published in 1952) to his publisher:
I started work on The Thurber Album four years ago as a kind of summer exercise in personal memory, but before long I began writing letters to people, or calling them up, to verify a name or a date, and in the end I had research material weighing as much as a young St. Bernard. The book deals with my family, friends, teachers and colleagues in Columbus, Ohio, the lovely and colorful people of whom I am especially fond.

"My father had expected to meet a man immune to commonplace exacerbation, humble in his high mission, perhaps a little exalted by the nobility of his cause. Instead he met a candidate in a petulant mood."
-- Thurber, in "Gentleman from Indiana," on the 1912
Ohio visit of vice presidential candidate Hiram Johnson


We're not going to go into it at length tonight, but as I've been noting, when "Gentleman from Indiana" appeared in The New Yorker, to Thurber's surprise it produced an uproar in Columbus, apparently initiated by his younger brother, Robert, who felt that the piece made a laughingstock of their father, and apparently persuaded their still-living mother of it.

That's why, without making this an exercise in textual scholarship, I've tried to flag conspicuous differences between the magazine and book versions of "Gentleman from Indiana," italicizing notable additions to the book text and bracketing and striking through notable deletions. Of course there could have been all sorts of reasons for changes -- including, for example, simple acquisition of additional information, like details of his career including the previously vague knowledge of the job in which the 20-year-old Charley Thurber worked with future Major League Baseball czar Kenesaw Mountain Landis. At the same time, some of the changes certainly seem to represent Thurber's stated plan to "fix" the family objections in the book version of the piece.

Gentleman from Indiana
Part 1

ONE DAY IN THE SUMMER OF 1900, my father was riding a lemon-yellow bicycle that went to pieces in a gleaming and tangled moment, its crossbar falling, the seat sagging, the handle bars buckling, the front wheel hitting a curb and twisting the tire from the rim. He had to carry the wreck home amidst laughter and cries of "Get a horse!" He was a good rider, and the first president of the Columbus Bicycle Club, but he was always mightily plagued by the mechanical. He was also plagued by the manufactured, which takes in a great deal more ground. Knobs froze at his touch, doors stuck, lines fouled, the detachable would not detach, the adjustable would not adjust. He could rarely get the top off anything, and he was forever trying to unlock something with the key to something else. In 1908, trying to fix the snap lock of the door to his sons' rabbit pen, he succeeded only after getting inside the cage, where he was imprisoned for three hours with six Belgian hares and thirteen guinea pigs. He had to squat through this ordeal, a posture he elected to endure after attempting to rise and bashing his derby against the chicken wire across the top of the pen.

I am not sure that my father's long, thin face, with its aquiline nose, was right for a derby at any age, but he began wearing one in hard-hat weather when he was only twenty, and he didn't give up the comic, unequal struggle, for the comfort of a felt hat, until the middle nineteen twenties, when he was in his fifties. His daily journeys to the cellar in the winter to stoke the furnace when his three sons were small became a ritual we learned to await with alarm and excitement. He always wore his derby into the cellar, often when he was in bathrobe and slippers, and he always crushed it against one of the furnace pipes, and he always said, "Damn that thing!," or nearly always. Perhaps half a dozen times in his life, when the tortured hat was knocked to the floor and rolled in the coal dust, he used "Oh, well, then, goddarn that thing!," the blackest oath he was capable of. The derby got dented in horse cabs when he climbed in or out, and later against the roof of automobiles. Since my father was just under six feet, the hat was readily cuffed off by maliciously low doorways and the iron framework of open awnings. At least three times, in my fascinated view, sudden, impish winds at the corner of Broad and High blew the derby off his head and sent it bockflopping across the busy and noisy intersection, my father pursuing it slowly, partly crouched, his arms spread out as if he were shooing a flock of mischievous and unpredictable chicks. My mother has fortunately preserved a photograph of him wearing one of his derbies, taken about the time of the Spanish-American War. It shows him sitting in a park, surrounded by his wife and infant sons, looking haunted and harassed in a derby with an unusually large and blocky crown. In this study he somehow suggests Sherlock Holmes trying to disguise himself as a cabman and being instantly recognized by the far from astute Dr. Watson, rounding a corner and crying, "Great heavens, Holmes, you've muffed it, old fellow! You look precisely like yourself in an enormous bowler."


Charles L. Thurber -- the initial was for Leander, a name that somehow enchanted his mother, but dismayed his bride, and he later changed it to Lincoln -- was born in Indiana, a state known principally today, I suppose, as the birthplace of Cole Porter and the late Wendell Wilkie. To my father, looking fondly westward from Columbus, Ohio, where he spent most of his life, it was the romantic land of the moonlit Wabash, the new-mown hay and the sycamores, the house of the thousand candles, and the Lockerbie Street of James Whitcomb Riley. He grew up in Indianapolis and more than once saw Riley plain. I don't know how much truth there was in the rumors of the poet's dissipation, but my father worried about it, and when he was eighteen, he wrote to a friend, "Poor James Whitcomb Riley! He is, it seems, on the down track. It is a pitiful thing for so bright and lovable a man as he to become such a slave to drink. This is his home, you know, and he is loved here by everyone. He is our Hoosier Burns. [I hope he will brace up and be a man.]" It was a matter of early awe to me that my father knew most of the Riley poems by heart and could actually recite all of "An Old Sweetheart of Mine." Riley's celebration of the man of small worldly fortune, symbolized by the hollyhock as against the fancy roses that grow in the gardens of the rich, must have had its appeal for a youth who had gone to work while still in short pants to support a mother early widowed and always in uncertain health. My father's father is a dim figure in the annals of the family, a gentleman of retiring nature and private thought, who was thrown from a horse on a lonely ride and killed in the year 1867, when his only child was a few months old, leaving his widow to teach school for a living until frailty condemned her to a life of rocking-chair contemplation. Her son began by selling morning newspapers in Indianapolis, often getting up while the moon was still over the town. He had no other relatives to turn to. The Thurbers of his father's generation had originated in Boston and Providence, but most of them set out for the West when they were young, ending up in a dozen different states. My grandfather, on his way to hunt for gold in California, had fallen in love with Indiana and settled there.

Charley Thurber had wanted to be a lawyer, but he didn't have the time or money to go to law school. When he was not yet twenty-one he was appointed to the staff of an Indiana governor. One of his colleagues was an ambitious man with the unusual name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Many years later, my father ran into him at a ballpark, and they shook hands and talked briefly and vaguely of the good old days. Before the practice of law had attracted my father, he had toyed with the idea of a stage career, partly because his closest friend, a youngster named Alvah Currie, wanted to go on the stage, and finally did. Once, when they were both twelve, they waited at the stage door of an Indianapolis theatre to see the great Joseph Jefferson in person. The vigil proved too much for the restless Alvah, but his companion held on for three hours and was rewarded at last by a handshake from the Master, who later sent him a signed photograph and a letter of advice and caution that ran to at least two hundred words. My father kept the letter in mint condition until it was burned up, circa 1930, in one of the fires we were always having. As late as 1890, he still wanted to go on the stage. In a letter to my mother, written that year, he told her he was going to play the part of Mark Tapley at the "Dickens Social on Valentine's night," and he said he was reading "Martin Chuzzlewit" to be "prepared for the ordeal." To this he added, "I am also reading 'Hamlet' and the daily papers." A few years later, he prudently abandoned his dream of a theatrical career, but he may have had a nostalgic pang or two the night in 1907 when he took me to see his old friend Alvah in "York State Folks." We had the front box on the right downstairs to ourselves, and my first big thrill in the theatre was when Mr. Currie, in the second act, crossed to a mantelpiece down left, fiddled with something on it, and said out of the corner of his mouth, "Hello, Cholly." That's all I remember about the old play.

What my father turned to, finally, was politics. Presidential campaigns, in the rough-and-tumble years after the Civil War, fascinated him at an early age. A great-aunt of mine once told me that in 1884 Charley had marched most of the night in a rowdy procession on behalf of James G. Blaine, coming home early in the morning resplendent with Blaine badges and hoarse from shouting defiance of Cleveland. She said he slept lightly after he got to bed, and now and then mumbled in his dreams, and once cheered aloud without waking up. He was only seventeen that year. Three days before the big parade, he had written his sweetheart a love letter in which he said, "Politics is here, as in Columbus, and I guess everywhere else, the main and almost only topic discussed. When you answer this, Blaine will be the President-elect, unless you are prompt. Remember this and see how good a prophet I am." His sweetheart was a Columbus girl, and when he married her and moved there in 1892, he found himself plump in the middle of the loudest and toughest kind of American political activity. He ran for Clerk of the Courts in 1900, and once or twice for State Representative but, although he wasn't an organization candidate, he was defeated each time by only a narrow margin. Ohio is a state notorious for its political machines and its "slates" made up of gentlemen of pull and promise who know how to play ball. My father was not a machine man. He wasn't even a politician, and it's kind of hard to explain why he stayed in politics, but, as they say in the theatre of a part in a bad play, it was a job. It was, in fact, a lot of jobs. He was on the staff of two Ohio governors in the eighteen-nineties; he was secretary to a Columbus mayor, who gave him an enormous brass key to the city, which I envied; around the turn of the century he went to West Point with a Congressional committee that was investigating the death of a plebe whose hazing had consisted of drinking the entire contents of a bottle of tabasco sauce. He was secretary to the commission to recodify federal statutes during the first two years Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House; and he was state organizer for the Bull Moose Party in Ohio during the flamboyant Presidential campaign of 1912. The governors, and the other executives he worked for, depended on his ability to write effective speeches and tactful letters and to deal with difficult men.

I was familiar, even as a toddler, with Ohio political names, large and small -- Nash, Asa Bushnell, Boss Cox, Mark Hanna, McKinley, Charles Dewey Hilles, Gongwer, Gerrish, Foraker, Farquhar, Burba, and a hundred others. As I grew older, I marvelled at the coming of President Harding out of the nowhere into the here -- out of the smoke-filled room, out of the magician's hat of Harry Daugherty. Growing up in a state capital, you see all the peculiar characters who are born of struggle for office. There was Governor Willis, who hit the front pages after eating forty-eight chicken livers at a large picnic somewhere. There was the honest and colorful Vic Donahey, who said "protégé" for "progeny," roared that Bill Bryan had the guts of a grizzly bear, told a purist, "When I say 'ain't,' brother, I mean 'ain't,'" and once, in my presence, broke up a long stogie into four parts, stuffed it into his mouth, and chewed it. There was the late Randolph Walton, a hound-voiced spellbinder who up into his seventies took a snow bath in his yard once every winter, clad only in shorts. There was the honorable lieutenant governor of the state, who introduced the garterless sock into the State House and who wore a shirt equipped with gold collar buttons but no collar. There was the local Republican leader who, with a tactful eye on the feminine vote, always respectfully referred to prostitutes as "whore ladies."

I remember the politicans gathering for caucus or convention in the lobby of the old Neil House, where Charles Dickens used to stop a hundred years ago. They smoked cigars, chewed unlighted stogies, began all sentences with "Look," or "Listen," or "Let me tell you," tapped one another on the chest with argumentative index fingers, shook hands a lot, laughed easily and loudly. Now and then one of them would drop into a chair and slowly smoke a cigar, with the Ohio look in his eye -- the dreamy, faraway expression of a man richly meditating on cheeering audiences, landslides, and high office. My father would move among them not as an integral part of the noisy and smoky scene but as a keenly interested onlooker at a spectacle. He liked a good, hard campaign, since he had a keen love of competition, but usually at the end, whoever won, he was left exhausted and disillusioned of the hope he once had that the American Way was destined to produce a breed of men selflessly devoted to the ideal and practice of good government. He actually believed a metamorphosis might result from the florid Presidential campaign of Teddy Roosevelt nearly forty years ago.


Ohio headquarters of the Progressive Party in 1912 were high up in the Huntington Bank Building, and the front windows of my father's office gave a clear view of the State House, across the street, squatting in the middle of its comfortable acreage. One of the candidates for a state office used to drop in not so much to find out how things were shaping up as to sit in a chair spang in front of a window, stare at the State House, smoke a cigar, and dream for an hour or two of his coming election, with the Ohio look glowing in his eyes. In making speeches, this gentleman would double his right fist and strike it in into the palm of his left hand just at the moment when he assured his listeners that he was going to put an end to the dark double-dealings of the Republicans and Democrats by "cutting the umbilical cord," which, as I got it, was the lifeline that nurtured the unborn conspiracies of the two major parties. He pounded his hand and threatened to cut the umbilical cord all during the campaign. Now and then there appeared at headquarters a small man named John D. Fackler, a kind of Ohio LaGuardia, who was making things hum for Roosevelt in Cleveland and around the state generally. Walter F. Brown, who later became Postmaster General, after he was welcomed back into the Republican fold, was commander-in-chief of the Ohio forces at Armageddon, and his air of cold and quiet confidence balanced the genial ardor of the vigorous Fackler. My father, as in every campaign he got into, did most of the actual work.

At the height of the Battle for the Lord, Hiram Johnson, the Lord's candidate for Vice-President, came to Columbus. My father was assigned the task of seeing that the great man was made comfortable. Perhaps it was the weather, or indigestion, or the strain of travel. At any rate, Johnson was irritable. He snapped orders and voiced complaints. The toilet in the bathroom of his hotel room started to flush at one point and would not stop, diluting the force of his pronouncements. My father had expected to meet a man immune to commonplace exacerbation, humble in his high mission, perhaps a little exalted by the nobility of his cause. Instead he met a candidate in a petulant mood. When the last gun was silenced at Armageddon, the state organizer of the Bull Moose Party got six dozen yellow Mongol pencils, a few typewriter ribbons, and several boxes of stationery. Charles L. Thurber had come a long way in disillusionment since the night in 1884 when he cheered in his sleep for the white plume of Henry of Navarre.


Through his father, young James Thurber is introduced to "the highest development of the Ohio male I had yet encountered," the gentlemen of the press -- "of light reverence and sharp tongue" -- who covered the state legislature. And we learn how Charles Thurber, "a man of careful method and infinite patience," applied those qualities to his lifelong passion for contests and competitions.


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