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Friday, October 8, 2010

James Thurber: “Nobody else ever reads a volume of letters and anybody who says he does is a liar”

In the October 8, 1938, issue of The New Yorker James Thurber finds inspiration in a passage by Henry Steele Commager on the Letters of Henry Adams:
Adams was a great letter writer of a type that is now almost extinct . . . his circle of friends was larger perhaps and more distinguished than that of any other American of his generation.
In the short spoof “The Letters of James Thurber,” Thurber ponders how his own letters might compare:
James Thurber was a letter writer of the type that is now completely extinct. His circle of correspondents was perhaps no larger but it was easily more bewildered than that of any other American of his generation.... The effect of Thurber’s letters on his generation was about the same as the effect of anybody’s letters on any generation; that is to say, nil. It is only when a man’s letters are published after his death that they have any effect and this effect is usually only on literary critics. Nobody else ever reads a volume of letters and anybody who says he does is a liar.
I have been unable to find any one of Thurber’s many correspondents who saved any of his letters.... “We threw out when we moved,” people would tell me, or “We gave them to the janitor’s little boy.” Thurber gradually became aware of this on his return to America (the Final Phase) because of the embarrassed silence that always greeted him when, at his friends’ homes, he would say, “Why don’t we get out my letters to you and read them aloud?” After a painful pause the subject was quickly changed, usually by putting up the ping-pong table.
The publication in 1981 of The Selected Letters of James Thurber and in 2002 of The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber reveal Thurber actually to be, in Robert Gottlieb’s words “a compulsive correspondent as well as a sentimental one, churning out streams of letters,” as many as 1,200 a year. Most of his correspondents treasured them, although Janet Maslin notes in her review of The Thurber Letters that one of his old flames did destroy his lovestruck letters to her the night before her first child was born. Maslin clearly disagrees with the author of The New Yorker piece about the what might be gained by reading the letters of James Thurber:
With datelines ranging from "Hell, Friday" to the vacation spots frequented by Thurber and his second wife, Helen, these letters truly roam the wide world. They can—and should—be admired by anyone interested in comic genius, the lost art of great correspondence, the arcs of ambition, celebrity and age ("Our generation is melting away like snow in the sun," he wrote shortly before his death in 1961), the wonders of inspired whimsy, and the transformation of youthful enthusiasm into chronic dissatisfaction.
Of related interest:
  • Thurber’s “You Could Look It Up” was a recent Story of the Week.
  • Keith Olbermann reads a Thurber selection every Friday evening. Watch him read “A Box to Hide In” from the LOA collection James Thurber: Writings and Drawings.
  • The 2010 Thurber prize was awarded this week to Steve Hely for his literary-pretension-skewering novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist.
Related LOA works: James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (includes "The Letters of James Thurber"); Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education

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