By Tara Mae
Although James Thurber was not a native New Yorker, he left an indelible mark on his adopted state. Born in Ohio on December 8, 1894, Thurber became known for The New Yorker, contributing both writing and drawings that while arguably rooted in a metropolitan sensibility nonetheless fostered a universal appeal and connection. Thurber’s best overture to everyday people was made through his iconic dog cartoons.
He and his wife Althea moved to Greenwich Village in 1925 and had a daughter Rosemary in 1931. Thurber found employment as a freelance writer. He had previously worked as a code clerk for the US Department of State in Washington, D.C. and at the embassy in Paris as well as a reporter for newspapers including The Columbus Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. In Manhattan, Thurber got a job at the New York Evening Post. Friend and fellow writer E.B. White introduced him to Harold Ross, an editor at The New Yorker. Ross quickly hired Thurber, and thus began a fruitful tenure at the magazine.
Initially, Thurber was an editor and writer there. In 1930, White, who shared an office with Thurber, discovered some of his drawings in a trash can. He rescued and submitted them to The New Yorker. Following the publication of their book Is Sex Necessary?, which featured Thurber’s art, it began regularly publishing Thurber’s cartoons. His distinct style was easily identifiable and canines were among his most frequently featured subjects. He drew the cover art six times.
Through his creations, Thurber immortalized beloved pets, including ill-tempered Muggs and scrappy Rex. The former apparently bit so many people that every year Thurber’s mother baked cookies for everyone out of whom he had taken a nibble. The latter did not brawl or bite as a matter of principle but was not one to back down from a fight. All of Thurber’s dogs are imbued with characteristics that he admired.
“Man’s best friend” is both a symbol and a cipher in Thurber’s work. A true dog lover, he dedicated Is Sex Necessary? to a revered terrier. To Thurber dogs possessed traits that people too often lacked, such as steadfastness, and had a sureness of being to which individuals should aspire. He noted that a dog is a “sound creature in a crazy world.” The men and women in Thurber’s pieces are commonly hemmed in by societal norms and burdened by conventions; the dogs are free from all such considerations. In this way, they are adored, even envied. The vast readership of The New Yorker could generally understand the comfort and familiarity of a good dog.
In stories and cartoons, Thurber’s husbands and wives usually fall into two specific categories. The men are mild-mannered and put-upon by their spouses. The women are dominating, psychologically, and even physically. This is evident in Thurber’s most famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” While driving his wife to run different errands, Mitty imagines that he is five separate characters; all men of intent, if not necessarily action. The final vignette concludes with him placidly smoking a cigarette in front of a firing squad.
Perhaps limited by the era and his own biases, Thurber does not address the clear subtext of such power dynamics; the wives are stymied by gender roles and exert control in the means most available to them, running their households. Thurber’s second wife did not fit the mold he made for his female characters. Helen Wismer Thurber was his caretaker, editor, and business partner from their marriage in 1935 until his death. He and Althea had divorced earlier that year, following periods of strife and separation.
Even after he and Helen moved to Connecticut and he resigned from his official position at The New Yorker, Thurber kept freelancing for the magazine, sharing essays, short stories, and cartoons. He also wrote plays and novels. Dogs remained prominent figures in his creative output, uncomplicated and unwavering. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and his play “The Male Animal” were adapted into films.
As of 1942, Thurber’s eyesight was failing and he began using a special magnifier called a Zeiss loupe to draw on big sheets of paper. The wobbly lines of his drawing style were probably due to falling eyesight more than aesthetic choice, yet they were his signature. He had lost his left eye due to a gruesome childhood accident (his brother shot it with an arrow during a game of William Tell), and his right eye was permanently damaged by the incident. Thurber eventually went legally blind, yet continued to write and sketch.
Known to lash out, perhaps from frustration, he tended to direct his vitriol towards women. Thurber even alienated White after insulting his wife Katherine, an esteemed New Yorker editor. He further offended former coworkers with the publication of his memoir The Years with Ross; the Whites felt that it was inaccurate.
Despite this, he was an established member of the New York cultural scene and a respected person in arts and academia. Thurber was an honorary member of the Algonquin Round Table for many years. A meeting place for some of the city’s most notable and notorious minds, his wit was well-matched with the group’s acerbic tongue. Thurber was offered multiple honorary doctorates; he rejected the one from his alma mater Ohio State in protest of its suppression of academic freedoms during the regime of the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
In the last year of his life Thurber’s behavior grew increasingly erratic, in part from a thyroid ailment. In October of 1961, he suffered a blood clot. The surgery to correct it was a success, but Thurber succumbed to pneumonia on November 2nd. Not all of Thurber’s contributions have aged gracefully, but many of his words and pictures resonate still with audiences. Thurber’s dogs, routinely stand-ins for his ideal that men did not achieve, remain both curiously cute and thought-provoking.