December 8th – James Thurber

“Don’t get it right, just get it written.”

James Thurber, Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing And Writers, Humor and Himself

James Grover Thurber was born December 8th, 1894, in Columbus, Ohio. When he was seven years old, his brother accidentally shot him in the eye with an arrow. His parents took him to a local doctor, but the eye grew worse. They consulted an esteemed eye surgeon in Washington, Swan Burnett (husband of author Frances Hodgson Burnett), who was forced to remove the damaged eye. His undamaged eye then became inflamed, a common effect of ‘sympathetic ophthalmia’ and continued to bother him throughout his life. 

In 1913 Thurber attended Ohio State University, although he never graduated because his poor eyesight kept him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. In 1995 the University posthumously awarded him a degree. 

In 1922 he married Althea Adams, and they had a daughter Rosemary in 1931. They later divorced in 1935, and the same year he married Helen Wismer. 

After working for a time as a code dispatcher for the government, he went to work as a reporter, first for The Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924, then the Chicago Tribune. In 1925 he moved to New York and became a reporter for the New York Evening Post, then an editor for The New Yorker. At The New Yorker, Thurber became friends with fellow contributor E.B. White, who found some of Thurber’s discarded cartoons and submitted them for publication. Beginning in 1930, Thurber wrote and drew for The New Yorker until the 1950s. He drew six covers and multiple classic illustrations for the magazine.

Thurber partnered with White for his first book, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way you Do (1929, with a 75th-anniversary edition published in 2004 with a foreword by John Updike). 

In 1933 Thurber published an autobiography, My Life and Hard Times (1933), considered his breakout book. His most famous short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was first published in The New Yorker in 1939, then collected in My World and Welcome to it (1942).

In the 1940s, he went through multiple surgeries to correct a cataract in his right eye and went mostly blind. He spiraled into depression, trying to lift himself out of it with humor and alcohol. 

He died in New York City, on November 2nd, 1961, of pneumonia, following surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain. He was 66. From the late 1920s until his death, he was one of America’s most popular humorists.  

Lesson from Thurber:

Thurber was nearly blind and still wrote and drew. He used humor to persist in his own life and bring joy to others, stating, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” Isn’t that such a gift for an artist? 

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