Today is the birthday (1894) of James Grover Thurber, cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit. Thurber was best known for his cartoons and short stories, published mainly in The New Yorker magazine and collected in his numerous books. One of the most popular humorists of his time, Thurber celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people. In collaboration with his college friend, Elliott Nugent, he wrote the Broadway comedy, “The Male Animal,” later adapted into a film, which starred Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.
Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes “Mame” (née Fisher) Thurber. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His father, a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor, is said to have been the inspiration for the small, timid protagonist typical of many of his stories. Thurber described his mother as a “born comedian” and “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known.” She was a practical joker and on one occasion pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer’s revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.
Thurber had two brothers, William and Robert. Once, while playing a game of William Tell, his brother shot James in the eye with an arrow, and Thurber lost that eye. This injury would later cause him to become almost entirely blind. Unable in his childhood to partake in sports and other physical activities because of his injury, he developed a creative mind which he then used to express himself in his writings. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran suggests Thurber’s imagination may be partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition that causes complex visual hallucinations in otherwise mentally healthy people who have suffered some level of visual loss.
From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended Ohio State University, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He never graduated from the university because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.
From 1918 to 1920, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the Embassy of the United States in Paris. On returning to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed current books, films, and plays in a weekly column called “Credos and Curios”, a title that later would be given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber returned to Paris during this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.
In 1925, Thurber moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E.B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of Thurber’s drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication; White inked-in some of these earlier drawings to make them reproduce better for the magazine, and years later expressed deep regret that he had done such a thing. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.
Thurber was married twice. In 1922, Thurber married Althea Adams. The marriage was troubled and ended in divorce in May 1935. They had a daughter Rosemary together, and lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. He remarried in June 1935 to Helen Wismer (1902–1986).
Thurber was stricken with a blood clot on the brain on October 4, 1961, and underwent emergency surgery. The operation was successful, but he died, aged 66, due to complications from pneumonia which set in. His last words, aside from the repeated word “God,” were “God bless… God damn”, according to his wife, Helen. Ironically, Thurber could be the poster child for the saying “the operation was a success but the patient died.” It would be suitably Thurberesque.
As a tribute here’s a few of my favorite Thurber quotes and cartoons:
I used to wake up at 4 A.M. and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out what sort of allergy I had but finally came to the conclusion that it must be an allergy to consciousness.
A drawing is always dragged down to the level of its caption.
You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.
The nation that complacently and fearfully allows its artists and writers to become suspected rather than respected is no longer regarded as a nation possessed with humor or depth.
Thurber’s ridicule of pretentious talk about wine and cheese led me to ask – what is a reliable cheese? In what sense can one rely on one cheese versus another? In some ways I see this as asking what the most versatile cheese might be. That question in itself is hard to answer. No single cheese covers the waterfront and some, of course, serve highly specialized needs. So I pondered a kind of “desert island” cheese question. If for some reason I were limited for the rest of my life to one kind of cheese, what would it be? This took a lot of thought plus a tour around the cheese section of my local market. Finally, I settled on brie. It’s one of my favorite cheeses anyway – has been all my life.
Brie is a soft cow’s milk cheese named after Brie, the French region from which it originated (roughly corresponding to the modern département of Seine-et-Marne). It is pale in color with a slight grayish tinge under a rind of white mold. The whitish moldy rind is typically eaten, with its flavor depending largely upon the ingredients used and its manufacturing environment. It is made worldwide, but the French government officially certifies only two types of cheese to be sold under that name: Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun.
Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized Brie, with an average weight of 2.8 kg (6.2 lb) for a diameter of 36 to 37 cm (14 to 15 in). It is manufactured at the town of Meaux in the Brie region of northern France since the 8th century, was originally known as the “King’s Cheese”, or, after the French Revolution, the “King of Cheeses,” and was enjoyed by the peasantry and nobility alike. It was granted the protection of Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status in 1980, and it is produced primarily in the eastern part of the Parisian basin.
Brie de Melun has an average weight of 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb) and a diameter of 27 cm (11 in). It is therefore smaller than Brie de Meaux but is considered to have a stronger flavor and more pungent smell. It is made with unpasteurized milk. Brie de Melun is also available in the form of “Old Brie” or black brie. It was granted AOC status in 1980.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that these AOC bries are the best, but they are distinctive and worth a try. But I’ve had a perfectly palatable brie made locally in Argentina as well as in Italy. Smoked brie is also worth a taste, but I don’t care for those with added ingredients such as spices or fruits and nuts. I can add them myself if the need arises. Brie is, indeed, versatile; it makes a nice sandwich on its own or with other things, it can be baked, grilled, or simply melted, you can use it for pizza, stuffing vegetables and so forth, and it works well with both sweet and savory dishes. This link provides an abundance of ideas (from which I also took this amazing photo):
Baked brie is a treat for me. Pop a whole wheel in a moderate oven – 350°F – for about 15 minutes until it is oozing and warm, drizzled with what you will – honey, preserves, spicy sauce – and then spread it on crusty bread. Or encase it in puff pastry and bake it until the pastry is golden.