Thurber Out of Focus

Selected Letters of James Thurber Edited by Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks Atlantic-Little Brown, 269 pp., $15.00

"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 abandons the book for the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier." --James Thurber (from "The Letters of James Thurber." The New Yorker)

JAMES THURBER'S own letters have been published now, and his mock introduction to an imaginary volume of his own correspondence--which the collection's editors have reprinted as a preface--is as fitting an epitaph as any. Thurber knew better than anyone--better, certainly, than his wife and his editor at The Atlantic, the reverent preservers of his letters--that writing for publication and writing mail are two different things. One of them does not produce crisp polished prose.

What is does produce, in Thurber's case, is the most tedious sort of ramblings about his travels, his finances, and--in elaborate, unsparing detail--his failing eyesight. The editors identify "the Thurber Circle" as Wolcott Gibbs, Frank Sullivan Kenneth Tynan, and a few other literary buddies, but the letters make it clear that the circle that preoccupied Thurber was his right retina. An entire section of the book is devoted to Thurber's correspondence with his opthalmologist, in which he generally has this kind of thing to say:

The old eye is the same as ever for distance but I'll be goddam if I can read--except--and this is funny--under a big umbrella outdoors in a bright sun: under those conditions I seem to read even newspaper type exactly as well without my glasses as with my distance ones (not reading ones--or anyway, almost the same.) If I use my right lens as a magnifying glass and pull it away. I can see as clearly for a fifth of a second as I did in 1896.

In his printed pieces, Thurber was a master of turning a homely personal detail--his troubles with his housekeepers, say, or the night his bed collapsed--into an affecting, hilarious story. Thurber's character Walter Mitty, reduced to a life of fantasy in an otherwise banal existence, remains the quintessential twentieth-century nebbish.


But the details that Thurber glorified in his writings are just plain boring in his correspondence. Ironically, the letters themselves reveal the crucial element they lack--a good editing. "I sold The New Yorker [a piece] on which I spent a week of days and nights," he writes his friend E.B. White. To Herman Miller, another intimate, he writes. "I am enclosing [my pastiche] on Henry James. I spend four months on it two winters ago, but found on going back to it that it need trimming and changes...During the four months I worked on it day and night."

Most telling of all is a line from a letter to Joel Sayre, his one-time colleague at The New Yorker: "First drafts of my pieces sound twelve years old and only get going on the fourth rewrite."

CERTAIN OF THURBER'S LETTERS serve one useful--if unintentional--function: They provide a glimpse at an aspect of Thurber's personality that never emerges in his published writings. Here the self-effacement and congeniality that inform Thurber's prose are stripped back to reveal their dark side: an undercurrent of self-absorption and crankiness.

For instance, in a letter to an editor at Horizon magazine, apparently responding to a request to sit for a photograph, Thurber writes:

Having been photographed and interviewed fifty times in fourteen months. I have lost weight, sleep badly, and hate photographers, especially the artistic ones who take 200 shots of their subjects.... There are now eleven million photographs of me in this country and abroad, taken by Cartier-Bresson. Cecil Beaton, Avedon. Douglas Glass, Halsman, and on and on. I know when I have had enough.

The book's only example of a response from Thurber to fan-mail is no kinder:

You will have to ask my readers why they read what I write. I hope they read it because it has something to say. You can also say that writers could get more written if they didn't have to answer so many questions about why they write.

In the end, though, the best criticism of The Selected Letters James Thurber is Thurber's own. It comes in "The Letters of James Thurber." by far the best piece of writing in the book, and it shows that when he gave something the "week of days and nights" treatment. Thurber was always a step ahead of the sheriff:

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.... I am not sure that we should not judge [Thurber] too harshly.   Michael W. Miller

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