James Grover Thurber (December 8, 1894 November 2, 1961) was an American humor writer and cartoonist. Among his well-known works are the short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and the children's fantasy novels The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O.
A Columbus, Ohio native, Thurber graduated from Ohio State University, after which he worked as a code clerk for the U.S. State Department in Washington and then at the U.S. Embassy in Paris during World War I. Following the war, he worked as a reporter for the The Columbus Dispatch before turning to fiction.
In his own time Thurber's writing and art were often associated with The New Yorker magazine, where many of his short stories first appeared. Many of Thurber's fictions, such as "Walter Mitty," "A Couple of Hamburgers," and "The War Between Men and Women," deal with the fundamental conflict between men and women, and the romantic vs. practical mindset represented by each, respectively. His works are also colored by his liberal individualist views, in a time when creeping nationalism was threatening personal freedom in many parts of the world — some not entirely remote — and are also characterized by a deep sympathy for animals, particularly dogs.
Thurber was legally blind due to a childhood accident with a bow and arrow (a William Telling stunt Gone Horribly Wrong), but that didn't stop him from having success as a cartoonist for The New Yorker. He was famously self-deprecating about his lumpy art style, noting with amusement that parents who saw his cartoons would submit their children's drawings to be published, thinking they were equally good. He would reply, "Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasnt been through as much."
A personal favorite writer of one Keith Olbermann, who single-handedly sparked enough popular demand to put Thurber's anthologies back into print in the late '00s, when he revealed that he would read from a book of Thurber's stories to his terminally-ill father, who suggested he read some of them on his TV show.
Works by James Thurber with their own trope pages include:
Works inspired by James Thurber with their own trope pages include:
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
- "The Unicorn in the Garden"
Other works by James Thurber provide examples of:
- Affectionate Parody:
- Fables for Our Times parodies Aesop's Fables-type moral stories.
- "The Scotty Who Knew Too Much" parodies the Hardboiled Detective story.
- Attractive Bent Species: Clode has trouble with this in The White Deer.
- Bad is Good and Good is Bad: In one story, a character bids another "Bad bye!"
- Baleful Polymorph: A central dilemma of The White Deer is whether the deer maiden is an example of this or of benevolent polymorph.
- Beast Fable: Quite a few of the Fables For Our Times
- Canine Companion: Thurber was definitely a dog person, and the lumpy "Thurber Dog" features prominently in stories and cartoons.
- Cassandra Truth:
- In "The Unicorn in the Garden", a Henpecked Husband finds a unicorn in the garden, but his wife doesn't believe him, telling him firmly that there's no such thing as unicorns, and calls for him to be taken away to a mental asylum. The tables are turned when the officials from the asylum arrive; when she tells them her husband saw a unicorn in the garden, he meekly says that there's no such thing as unicorns, leaving her looking like the unbalanced one.
- "The Catbird Seat" is about a man who plots to get rid of an incredibly obnoxious woman who works at his office; she's driven away most of his colleagues and is about to talk his superior into cutting out the man's department. The man, a clean-living, sober type who wouldn't hurt a fly, visits her apartment one night, at which point he drinks whiskey, smokes a cigar and discusses his plan to kill his boss using very harsh language. The next day, the woman tries to warn their boss of the man's plan... and is fired when the boss thinks she's having a breakdown.
- Comically Missing the Point: In the short story "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife", Mr. Preble is planning to murder his wife so he can run off with his secretary. She is suspicious when he asks her to go down to the cellar with him, and he blurts out the truth almost immediately — and ends up in an argument about the selfish and inconsiderate way he's chosen to go about it (she's in the middle of a book and doesn't feel like going down to the cellar to be murdered just now; it's cold down there, and he's picked out a lousy murder weapon and makes her wait while he goes to find another one... and so on).
- Criminal Doppelgänger: "The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl"
- Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: What the Big Bad in The Wonderful O threatens Littlejohn's parrot with: "I'll squck its thrug till all it can whupple is geep!" He later carries out the threat:"Geep," whuppled the parrot.
- Disaster Dominoes:
- In "The Night the Bed Fell", Thurber crashing down from his army cot in the middle of the night causes his family to get more and more hysterical about what they think is happening.
- In "The Day the Dam Broke", for no apparent reason a rumor spreads that the dam has broke, resulting in most of the town running away from an imaginary threat.
- Engagement Challenge: In The White Deer.
- Finishing Each Other's Sentences: "The Curb in the Sky," where the trope has harrowing consequences.
- Fractured Fairy Tale: Many, particularly The White Deer, The Great Quillow, and Fables For Our Times.
- Gaslighting: "The Unicorn In The Garden", "The Catbird Seat", "The Great Quillow"
- Hell Is That Noise: In "The Whip-Poor-Will" the song of a whippoorwill which will just not shut up drives the main character insane, leading him to kill his wife, the servants and finally himself.
- Henpecked Husband: Lots of them. One example is the title character in "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife", who attempts to murder his wife so that he can run off with his secretary. He's so spineless that she stops him just by complaining... and then she starts listing his mistakes and insisting he do it properly.
- Hope Sprouts Eternal: "The Last Flower"
- Inspired by...: In The '50s, writer-director Melville Shavelson came up with a TV series concept based around Thurber's work, with the recurring Thurber character John Monroe turned into a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Thurber himself. Thurber's stories would be incorporated as Monroe's daydreams and other flights of fancy, depicted with animation based on Thurber's drawings. After two failed pilots in 1959 and 1961, NBC picked up the show, now titled My World...and Welcome to It, for the 1969-70 season. Despite great reviews, it was placed in the same timeslot as Gunsmoke and struggled in the ratings, before finally getting canceled after one season. However, it ended up winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, with William Windom winning Best Actor as John Monroe, cementing it as one of American television's all-time great Acclaimed Flops. In 1972, Shavelson and My World showrunner Danny Arnold (future creator of Barney Miller) made the similarly-styled film The War Between Men and Women, with Jack Lemmon as the Thurber stand-in, Peter Wilson. The film interestingly incorporates Thurber's vision problems as a subplot for Lemmon's character.
- Little Red Fighting Hood: In "The Little Girl and the Wolf", a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood", the little girl kills the wolf with a handgun she happens to be carrying in her basket.
- Mars-and-Venus Gender Contrast: An incessantly recurring theme throughout Thurber's stories.
- The Marvelous Deer: The White Deer is all about what a deer really is.
- Massive Multiplayer Scam: "The Great Quillow" involves some townspeople who pull one of these on a giant to get him to leave their village alone.
- Oh Wait, This Is My Grocery List: In the children's book Many Moons, the king's three advisors carry lists of all of the matters they have been consulted on. As each one reads out his list, all have added grocery items their wives wanted the advisors to pick up that day.
- The Owl-Knowing One: Subverted in "The Owl Who Was God", in Fables For Our Time, where the Owl is just a Seemingly Profound Fool.
- Pirate Parrot: The pirate Littlejohn in The Wonderful O has a parrot that annoys the book's Big Bad (by using words containing the letter "O").
- Plato Is a Moron: "Something to Say" is built around Eliot Vereker, a supposedly great author whose reputation is based entirely on disparaging really great authors, e.g., "Santayana has weight: he's a ton of feathers. Proust was sick. If Voltaire did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent him, etc., etc."
- Put Me In, Coach!: The short story "You Could Look It Up" features a baseball team in a slump putting a midget in as a pinch hitter to walk in the tying run. After verifying that yes, his contract is valid and no, there Ain't No Rule that says he can't play, he's allowed to bat... and promptly hits the ball and is thrown out at first, losing the game. In a Double Subversion, however, the incident is so ridiculous that it snaps the team out of their slump and they go on to win the pennant.
- Rhymes on a Dime: The woods wizards in The White Deer
- Sdrawkcab Name: The villain of The White Deer is named Nagrom Yaf.
- Seemingly Profound Fool: Fables for our Time has "The Owl Who Was God", where a bunch of forest animals make an owl their leader when this trope makes them think he's The Owl-Knowing One, with the result that most of them (including the owl) get killed by being run over by a truck.
- Shoehorned First Letter: "The State of Bontana" in which characters, challenged to think of a state beginning with B (there isn't one), guess "Bontana", "Butah", and "Bassachusetts", among others. The payoff is when the next challenge is to name a bird, and one of them says "Beagle!"
- Sommelier Speak: A well-known Thurber cartoon has a man telling his dinner party guests, "It's a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."
- Spoof Aesop: Common in Fables For Our Time.
- Tar and Feathers: "What Happened To Charles", one of the Fables For Our Time, ends with a duck named Eva being tarred and unfeathered as a result of her habit of spreading sensational and inaccurate gossip.
- 20 Bear Asses: The quests in The White Deer, most notably the quest to obtain a drop of blood from the finger of 1000 kings, which was calculated to be unachievable in one lifetime.
- Unicorn: "The Unicorn in the Garden"
- Windmill Crusader: "The Day the Dam Broke" revolves around everyone in the town running from what they think is a broken dam but turns out to be absolutely nothing.
- World War Whatever: "The Last Flower" begins with World War XII.
- Worthless Treasure Twist: In The Wonderful O, the island's treasure turns out to be the word "freedom". At least in this case the islanders did their best to make it clear from the outset that there were no real jewels.
- Youngest Child Wins: The White Deer features three brothers, of which the older two are brawny insensitive types, and the youngest a gentle romantic. The book surprisingly gives all three a fair amount of attention but still makes it clear the youngest is meant to be the most admirable.