James Thurber (1894-1961) is the outstanding American literary humorist of the twentieth century, whose writing spans two periods of American humor: pre- and post-World War II. Pre-war humor is characterized by a debunking of traditional values: the sanctity of women and marriage, patriotism, hero worship, and the supremacy of common sense. The hero of this era is the victim, the slightly neurotic man who does not fit into high-pressured city life. Post-war humor moves from playfulness to bitterness, from misogyny to misanthropy, from man's displacement in inhuman society to man's displacement in the world.
The theme of escape in Thurber is useful when placing him in these eras and when judging the quality of his work. The problems of twentieth century living, says Thurber, cannot be solved in a rational, logical manner. The only human response is to avoid, to work around the problem, usually by way of the imagination. As reality blackens in the post-war era, imagination in Thurber becomes a substitute for reality instead of the wholesome recreation it was in the earlier works. The more with- - drawn from reality Thurber becomes, the worse his writing becomes, until it is little more than sophisticated gibberish.
In Thurber's early work, escape is a pleasant necessity, it is the only way to maintain one's humanity in the face of the depersonalizing forces of machinery, bureaucracy, and the oppression of modern psychology. By imagining revenge or by creating better, inner worlds, man can preserve his sanity in a cruel world. Thurber himself creates Alice-in-Wonderland worlds because of his bad eyesight and his vivid imagination.
Women, of course, are the supreme threat in Thurber's pre-war stories. Like machinery and bureaucracy, women pose a threat to man's individuality. She has adapted and is invigorated by the very systems that threaten man. Women, like society, are representatives of reality, while the neurotic, slightly awry men are symbols of the better life of fantasy. And as with harsh society, women must be escaped from, usually by way of the imaginative recreation of better worlds. The classic escapee is, of course, Walter Mitty.
Thurber's cartoons also give us a graphic portrayal of the Thurber man and woman. She is overbearing, and he is intimidated. The cartoons are in themselves a means of escape: they are bizarre and other worldly, they defy rational explication.
Thurber's work takes on a decidedly different hue after World War II. The world situation, and Thurber's own blindness and mental breakdown dim his humor. The only route of escape in his stories ends in madness and death. Thurber quits writing these stories and instead retreats to the past and to fairy lands. In these tales, forms of escape themselves, the heroes are mythic, unrealistic ideals. Real heroes like Walter Mitty have been replaced in this period by unbelievable images, a symptom of Thurber's growing misanthropy and retreat from reality.
As Thurber's life deteriorated, so did his humor and the quality of writing, until character and situation had been replaced by his obsession with words. Words, in fact, become the primary reality for Thurber: when he is not harping about poor usage, he is playing exotic words games. The more idiosyncratic his escape becomes, the worse his writing becomes.
Escape, then, is a theme that runs throughout Thurber, and is a useful guide to the rise and fall of Thurber's humor and to the quality of his .works. In his early work, escape is good, being used primarily as a method for the preservation of humane values. Later, as the world and Thurber's health changed, the external madness of the world found in his earlier works is now internal, and escape becomes indicative of sickness instead of health. And.at last Thurber leaves behind him characters and situation, and withdraws to his pathological word games, and with this retreat, communication dies.
Delmer I. Davis
Helen F. Little
Karen J. Reiber
Master of Arts (MA)
Year Degree Awarded
Date (Title Page)
Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings
Thurber; James; 1894-1961.
Loma Linda University Libraries
This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.
Boyko, Carol Richardson, "Escape in Thurber : from delight to delirium" (1975). Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 559.
Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives