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Books: World on All Fours

6 minute read

MY WORLD—AND WELCOME TO IT— James Thurber — Harcourt, Brace ($2.50).

In his latest collection of stories, essays, profiles, Humorist James Thurber gives us another glimpse into the weird Thurberian world—that closed circle within which the male animal plods foolishly round & round, hopefully, “cutting down elm trees to put up institutions for people driven insane by the cutting down of elm trees.” Thurber’s colored maid Delia has figured out the mind of this foiled, circuitous wanderer. Thurber, she explains, “used to work in an office like anybody else, but he had to be sent to an institution; he got well enough to come home from the institution, but he is still not well enough to go back to the office.” Author Thurber’s implied rejoinder is that readers who enjoy the spectacle of strait-jacketed Author Thurber should look to their own jackets. “Man,” says Thurber, “would seem to be slowly slipping back to all fours, in spite of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford and Robert Frost.”

Practically all characters in My World are mentally on all fours. Those who struggle into an erect position are mercilessly beaten over the head by a pixillated fate until they squat. Within the prison of life, says Thurber, are “smaller prisons” erected by bureaucrats. In them, man is caught “like a mouse in a trap in Sing Sing.”

Chief trappers are experts and bureaucrats, says Thurber, and gives some examples. Once he tried his hand at sailing and a Bermuda lady-expert promptly asked: “Do you reef in your gaff-topsails when you are close-hauled or do you let go the mizzentop-bowlines and crossjack-braces?” Author Thurber did not know, partly because he just sailed for the hell of it, partly because the lady was so nautical that what she really said was: “Do you reef in your gassles when you are cold or do you let go the mittens and crabapples?”

Author Thurber sought refuge in France just before the downfall. (He made his first mistake by giving “a book on government by M. Léon Blum [former Socialist Premier now imprisoned at Portalet Fortress in the Pyrenees] … to a French steward on the Ile de France, who turned out to be a Royalist.”) He also made the mistake of getting a phrase book to use in France. “Each page has a list of English expressions [with] French translations . . . alongside.” Author Thurber learned to say: “I have left my glasses (my watch) (a ring) in the lavatory.” In moments of crisis he knew the right expressions: “Can I help you?” “Excuse me.” “Carry on.” “Look here!” “Look down there!” “Look up there!” “Why, how?” “When, where?” “Because.” “That’s it!” So Author Thurber left France.

But back in the U.S. things were just as baffling. At the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco the keepers tried to force a mate on Bill, the polar bear. “She would fiddle with doilies, empty ash trays, wash out his briar pipe with soap and water. . . . When she started hanging his ties on a patented, nickel-plated cedarwood tie rack [with] an automatic clip-shift tie release,” Bill murdered her. Author Thurber loves Bill.

Thurberish loves, hates, sideswipes, amiable cosmic crankiness reach a climax of whimsical futility in the book’s most brilliant story, You Could Look it Up, in which a ball-club manager sends out a midget to pinch-hit in a big-league game. Pitcher’s problem: How to throw a fair ball to a midget? Midget’s problem: How to make first base with a maximum speed of “ninety foot an hour.”

Author Thurber makes it clear that the world is going to pot with a brave new tempo, but readers still have time to enjoy this choice collection “before the indescribable boundaries . . . close in on us, smothering, without malice or favor, gold-star mothers, collectors of internal revenue, and little laughing girls on their way to school.”

Spare, rangy (6 ft. 2) James Grover Thurber was six years old when an arrow shot by his eldest brother put out his left eye. For 40 years Thurber’s right eye has done double duty; in code clerking in the U.S. Embassy in Paris during World War I, in newspaper reporting and copyreading (for the Columbus Dispatch, the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, the New York Evening Post), in writing and drawing for The New Yorker. In 1940 the overburdened eye began to give out.

Thurber underwent five highly complicated operations in eight months. In the first operation surgeons expected to work on the eye 15 minutes. Instead they worked one hour and 20 minutes. Acute inflammation of the iris followed. Humorist Thurber lay pain-racked on his bed. Overseas, he was told, London was staggering under the worst moments of the blitz. Said Thurber: “This is bad, but think of the poor bastards in London now, just coming out of cataract operations.”

Surgeons vetoed further operating until the inflammation cleared up. Thurber could just manage to tell night from day, no more. In the two years of 99% blackout that followed, Humorist Thurber:

> Wrote the script for 20th Century-Fox’s musical comedy Rise and Shine.

> Conducted a weekly humorous column for Manhattan’s PM.

> Did 25 drawings and twelve stories for The New Yorker.

>Wrote and assembled stories for two books (My World—And Welcome to It; Many Moons, a juvenile to be published a year from next Christmas).

> Started a violent literary controversy with his New Republic review attacking John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down for being too optimistic and theatrical (TIME, June 22).

To write, Thurber used a soft pencil, forming big letters on yellow paper (30 words to a page). These pencilings (invisible to Thurber) were typed out by Mrs. Thurber, read aloud to her husband for corrections. So that Thurber could draw, The New Yorker rigged up a monster easel. Artist Thurber scrawled massive, life-size figures on the paper. Reduced, these figures often appeared in The New Yorker no larger than a postage stamp. Thurber has never taken his lot meekly. Whoever and whatever does not please him has been promptly and roundly cussed out. “I’m certainly glad,” a friend once remarked, “that you haven’t turned the other cheek. If you’d gone Milton on us, I’d have cut you off my list.” Said Thurber: “I suppose I should have been more saintly—but then, I don’t saint very easily.”

This summer Thurber announced delightedly that he could read again. With a telescopic spectacle lens, thick as a bottle bottom, he had managed painfully to scan a short sentence in a novel.

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