The Great American Road Trip
Book: The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber
Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen and in which almost everything has. James Thurber
I lived a few blocks away from the Columbus Ohio house which humorist James Thurber lived while he attended The Ohio State University. At different times. (Thurber was born in 1894, and despite what my teen aged grand-daughter thinks, both she and I were born in the twentieth century.) The Thurber House now serves as a writer’s center and museum.
The neighborhoods off east Broad Street near Ohio Avenue (and now near a huge freeway that did not exist in Thurber’s day OR my day) consist of the solid brick houses built by the middle managers of the many Ohio beer companies in the early 19th century. ‘My’ side of Broad Street fell into disrepair and many houses were destroyed by drug labs and police raids in later years, but the neighborhood, just west of Franklin Park, is staging a comeback. (All the place names in Thurber’s writings are accurate.)
By the time I went to The Ohio State University, my family had moved away from the Ohio Avenue neighborhood. But as long as I can remember, James Thurber‘s books lived with us, wherever we went. Our family was so familiar with his stories that all you had to do was recite a title to get a laugh. “That sounds like The Night the Bed Fell.” “The Bear Who Let it Alone.” “The Unicorn in the Garden.”
James Thurber got his start on the Columbus Dispatch but soon moved on to live in Greenwich Village and then Connecticut, while he wrote and drew cartoons for the New Yorker. Although his humorous tales were rooted in Ohio, his wry, myopic view of the world seems much more suited to the sophisticated readers of the New Yorker than to the newspaper of a town then considered a “cow town.”
My ties to Thurber deepened when I was cast in the play The Male Animal at Ohio State’s Stadium Theater one summer. The play,written with Elliot Nugent, added to the list of various styles he wrote in–memoir, children’s fantasy, articles, novels, short stories, fables, essays, and one-liner captions for his inimitable cartoons.The cartoons, particularly, dwelt on the war between the sexes, with large looming women and timid little men who daydream.
In one cartoon, an exasperated woman asks:
Well if it is a wrong number, why did you answer?
His intimidating women, shy men, and lovable dogs did not exactly flow out of his pen. Since Thurber had very poor eyesight, and eventually went blind, the simple line style was as much a function of what he could see as a genius for capturing emotions with a tiny line.
I write about James Thurber because of my long history with him and because his writing is so inextricably linked with Columbus Ohio. My choice was verified when I checked out a library book and discovered that
a) The library’s computer catalog listed him as James Thurbert;
b) The young man who checked me out had never hear of James Thurber.
In case you fall in category b, I advise you to start with My Life and Hard Times, in which Thurber reveals the anxiety of middle-class, middle-aged, mid-Westerners. My own personal favorite, however, is Fables for Our Times. When Red Riding Hood whips out a pistol and shoots the Wolf, the moral becomes:
It isn’t as easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.
You will learn why it is wise to agree with your husband if he sees a unicorn in the garden. You will learn why it might not be so smart to be “early to rise.” Several warnings against dictators and war appear in this book written in 1940.
And by the way, if you think you don’t know anything at all about James Thurber, let me just suggest that you may have met Walter Mitty? And if not, rush right to the nearest source and read a classic of American Literature: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Thurber reportedly hated the film starring Danny Kaye because it departs wildly from his story.)
Enjoy your stopover in Ohio on the road trip, and for your listening pleasure, take a look at the Ohio River Valley music that Kerry Dexter introduces at Music Road. Please let us know if you have visited Ohio, and if any writers from Ohio have influenced you?
Keith Olbermann reads from Thurber ever Friday evening on MSNBC. Here is a link to his reading of two Thurber fables. (I would have embedded it, but it seemed to be very slow loading, so you’re on your own to browse through his programs by following this link.)