James Thurber - The Thurber Carnival

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The literary equivalent of a good steak and potatoes dinner.

Jul 18, 2003 (Updated Jun 4, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Superb essays and stories from James Thurber.

Cons:PC types may find some humor offensive.

The Bottom Line: The Bottom Line, Inscrutable to the last.


It is a sign of the sad state of neglect that the great James Thurber has fallen into that no one has yet reviewed this superb anthology of his greatest writings. Well I have set about with the purpose of correcting that injustice and maybe educating a few misguided souls in the process. We shall see.

For those who are unaware of who James Thurber was or may be familiar with at least some of the man's works, yet don't recall the name, here is the background info. Thurber was born in 1894 in Columbus Ohio and developed his sense of humor at a young age. In 1927, he met up with fellow great writer EB White and soon became a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, which he remained associated with for much of his life. It was for the New Yorker that he wrote most of the pieces that appear in the 425-page Thurber Carnival.

The book contains stories, essays and various humorous pieces as well as all of Thurber's humorous autobiography My Life And Hard Times. In addition, there are also many drawings by the man that show that Thurber was as good an illustrator as he was a writer. And the various pieces show that Thurber was the closest the 20th Century came to a rival to Mark Twain.

Like Twain, many of the stories and essays that Thurber wrote reflect the period they were written in, yet also show universal concerns that make them still timely today. For instance, "Recollections Of The Gas Buggy" is a very funny essay that pokes fun at the then emerging automobile. Thurber writes about people who don't know how to drive: yet think they can and talks about the annoyances of trying to change a tire. He wraps up the piece by writing "If the gas engine is really on the way out, it will be no dire blow for me. I will move within roller skating distance of a grocery, a drugstore, a church, a library and a movie house. If worst comes to worse, I can even walk".

One particularly common theme in Thurber stories is the never-ending battle of the sexes. Case in point, the traveling husband and wife in "A Couple Of Hamburgers" are shown as two people stuck together even though they can't really stand each other. The husband is the type who likes to eat in diners and uses words like "Dog Wagon". His wife hates that. He also likes to sing macho type songs and his wife hates that too. She on the other hand likes to point out past mistakes that the man has made as well as mistakes that she thinks he will make.

Likewise "The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery" shows how a case of miscommunication between a man and a woman leads to the man winding up on the side of a road on all fours barking like a dog. Actually, that's a very simplified description of the story and the best way to appreciate said story is to actually read it.

Other great stories include "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" which manages to effectively parody both Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in one fell swoop and "Bateman Comes Home" which satirizes Southern Novels. "If Grant Had Been Drinking At Appomattox" was undoubtedly a huge influence on Harry Turtledove.

Of course, no Thurber anthology would be complete without the most famous Thurber story of all, that being "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty". Most people are familiar with this story of an ordinary man who daydreams of being extraordinary so I won't dwell on it too much. Just to note that with an upcoming new movie version of it on the burner with Jim Carrey in the lead role, it is now time to revive interest in the original (the story as well as the 1940s film version with Danny Kaye).

In addition to the stories and essays, the Thurber Carnival also contains many of the drawings that Thurber did. While they aren't elaborate, they do tell the story very effectively and make the case for Thurber as a great cartoonist as well as a great writer of humorous prose.

Humorous is what the main focus of this book is on. Thus some people may complain about certain things being left out (IE: Nothing from his memoir of working at the New Yorker or any of his children's stories (aside from a few of the humorous fables)). Yet what is here does make the case for Thurber as one of the leading humorists of all time. I highly recommend The Thurber Carnival for all those wanting to read great humorous prose as well to all of those looking to learn how to write great humorous prose.


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