James Thurber

James Thurber

It’s been fifty-three years since James Thurber died, but his work is still very much with us, as attested to by the recent remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” featuring Ben Stiller. Thurber, one of our best twentieth century American humorists, was born on December 8, 1894 in Columbus, Ohio. His family life there and experiences in the city and at Ohio State would be important material for his later writings. Although he would leave the city and spend much of his life in New York, he always loved his native state and wrote that he was “never very far away from Ohio in my thoughts, and that the clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.” When the capitol was recognized as an “All-American City” in 1959, Thurber wrote a letter to the mayor detailing his affection for “Good Old Columbus Town.”

Thurber attended Ohio State off and on from 1913 to 1918, never taking a degree but contributing to both the campus paper The Lantern as well as The Sun-Dial, which was the university’s literary magazine. Thurber served for a time as a code clerk at the State Department in Washington. He later worked on newspapers in Columbus and Paris and contributed to a variety of other publications before making his way to the New York Evening Post. In 1927 he began his long-standing association with The New Yorker. During the next few decades, Thurber issued a steady stream of humorous essays, stories, articles, and plays.

Thurber as a young man.

Thurber as a young man. (Photo courtesy of “Short North Gazette.”

Thurber lost his vision in one eye during a childhood accident and developed problems in his other eye later in life, eventually becoming legally blind. The volume of work he created despite this physical impairment is remarkable. His works include more than thirty books. In addition to being a brilliant writer, he also had a gift for creating simple but distinctive cartoons. His works also include fables and children’s books. Thurber’s career is a reminder that humor is serious business. He explored important themes and took a hard look at human nature. For example, Thurber often explored the embattled relationships between men and women. In addition, Thurber did serious reporting, one time doing an in-depth piece on the phenomenon of the radio soap opera. He also wrote a retrospective piece for The New Yorker entitled “A Sort of Genius” on the infamous Hall-Mills murder case of the 1920s. This article appeared under a pseudonym, but was later reprinted in Thurber’s 1942 collection My World-and Welcome To It and was recently republished in the Library of America’s True Crime: An American Anthology (2008).

A well-known example of one of Thurber's cartoons.

A well-known example of one of Thurber’s cartoons.

One well known work of Thurber’s is a play called The Male Animal that he co-authored with his friend Elliott Nugent. It was later made into a movie with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Probably the best known adaptation of one of Thurber’s stories is the 1947 film of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starring Danny Kaye. Thurber was not pleased with the film. However, not long before his death, Thurber had the pleasure of appearing on stage as himself in a revue called A Thurber Carnival (there is a book of the same name published in 1945). Not long after this experience Thurber died of complications of pneumonia on November 2, 1961.

Thurber with actresses Peggy Cass, left, and Joan Anderson from "A Thurber Carnival."

Thurber with actresses Peggy Cass, left, and Joan Anderson from “A Thurber Carnival.”

The family home in Columbus where Thurber lived during his Ohio State years is now an important literary arts center. Visitors can see exhibits about the life of Thurber and his family, and each year there are several writers-in-residence. Thurber House also has speakers, readings, writing classes and other literary events on a regular basis, including programs for children. The Thurber House is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio.

Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio.

I plan on visiting Thurber House sometime in the upcoming winter or early spring and will share information about the visit here at Buckeyemuse. Here’s a link to Thurber House: http://thurberhouse.org/


Patrick Kerin



Ohio Authors and Their Books 1796-1950. Edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.

Wikipedia entry on James Thurber.

Thurber House biographical material on James Thurber.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1991.