Thurber’s Daily Grind



Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
In the case of James Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961), one of the most famous writers for the iconic New Yorker magazine from 1927 to the early 1950s, he tackled writing in a rather unorthodox way. He had no strict schedule but wrote everywhere and anywhere. He was often found scribbling in a notebook right in the middle of the cocktail parties and literary soirées that he was in fact writing about.
His eyesight was terrible, partly as a result of an accident he incurred as a boy when his brother shot him in the eye with an arrow, and partly as a result of the other eye straining to do the work of two. He was the author of possibly one of the most famous short stories in western literature, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Most of us have of course seen the movie in which Danny Kaye stars as the hapless nincompoop who daydreams his way through life as a famous composer, a military hero and skilled surgeon, and can hardly tie his shoelaces in the real world. It came as a shock to me years later, when I eventually got round to reading the story, and found that it was only about five or six pages long.
Thurber was not a member of the Algonquin Club, which made its name for the startling and hilarious repartee which was the common currency among the eclectic group of writers, playwrights, composers, and actors. In fact, he was a critic of the “Vicious Circle,” as Dorothy Parker had named it, and kept to his own coterie of friends. Nevertheless he was just as popular in his own circle and made a name for himself at social functions as a storyteller. Tall, gaunt, stooping, and looking slightly fey with his thick glasses and mop of gray hair combed back from his cliff-like forehead, he cut a singular figure among the bon vivants and debutants of New York’s party scene. In particular, he had a photographic memory of sorts and could remember the birthdays of everyone who had ever told him when their birthday was – at his reckoning, over two hundred people. He was a marvelous verbal storyteller and had an encyclopedic general knowledge on everything from the history of the bloodhound to the history of the American people.
But when he wrote a story for the magazine, he was an obsessive reviser. “For me it’s mostly a question of rewriting. It’s part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I’ve been working on —“The Train on Track Six,” it’s called—was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can’t be more than twenty- thousand words.” (The Paris Review, Fall 1955)

James Thurber was probably one of the most skillful exponents of the art of writing humor in American literary history. He has left a legacy that few modern humor writers can match, regardless of the chaos and mayhem of his writing practices.

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