James Thurber: Wikis


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James Thurber

Born James Grover Thurber
December 8, 1894(1894-12-08)
Columbus, Ohio
Died November 2, 1961 (aged 66)
New York, New York
Occupation Humorist
Nationality American
Period 1929-1961
Genres short stories, cartoons, essays
Subjects humor, language
Notable work(s) My Life and Hard Times,
My World - And Welcome to It

James Grover Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961) was an American author, cartoonist and celebrated wit. Thurber was best known for his contributions (both cartoons and short stories) to The New Yorker magazine.



Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes (Mame) Fisher Thurber on December 8, 1894. 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 comedienne" and "one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known." She was a practical joker, on one occasion pretending to be crippled and attending a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.[1]

Thurber had two brothers, William and Robert. Once, while playing a game of William Tell, his brother William shot James in the eye with an arrow. Because of the lack of medical technology, Thurber lost his eye. This injury would later cause him to be almost entirely blind. During his childhood he was unable to participate in sports and activities because of his injury, and instead developed a creative imagination, which he shared in his writings.[1] 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 or more often a significant level of visual loss.[2]

From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended The 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.[3] In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.[4]

From 1918 to 1920, at the close of World War I, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the American Embassy in Paris, France. After this Thurber returned to Columbus, where he began his writing 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 also returned to Paris in this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.[4]

In 1925, he 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 his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor, E.B. White. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 when 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 would contribute 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.[1] Adams gave Thurber his only child, his daughter Rosemary. Thurber remarried in June 1935 to Helen Wismer. He died in 1961, at the age of 66, due to complications from pneumonia, which followed upon a stroke suffered at his home. His last words, aside from the repeated word "God," were "God bless... God damn," according to Helen Thurber.[5]


Thurber worked hard in the 1920s, both in the U.S. and in France, to establish himself as a professional writer. However, unique among major American literary figures, he became equally well known for his simple, surrealistic drawings and cartoons. Both his skills were helped along by the support of, and collaboration with, fellow New Yorker staff member E. B. White. White insisted that Thurber's sketches could stand on their own as artistic expressions — and Thurber would go on to draw six covers and numerous classic illustrations for the New Yorker.

While able to sketch out his cartoons in the usual fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, his failing eyesight later required him to draw them on very large sheets of paper using a thick black crayon (also, on black paper using white chalk, from which they were photographed and the colors reversed for publication). Regardless of method, his cartoons became as notable as his writings; they possessed an eerie, wobbly feel that seems to mirror Thurber's idiosyncratic view on life. He once wrote that people said it looked like he drew them under water. (Dorothy Parker, contemporary and friend of Thurber, referred to his cartoons as having the "semblance of unbaked cookies."). The last drawing Thurber was able to complete was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which appeared on the cover of the July 9, 1951, edition of Time Magazine.[6] The same drawing also appeared on the dust jacket of The Thurber Album (1952).

Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life, but he also wrote darker material, such as "The Whip-Poor-Will," a story of madness and murder. "The Dog Who Bit People" and "The Night the Bed Fell" are his most well known short stories; they can be found in My Life and Hard Times, the creative mix of autobiography and fiction which was his 'break-out' book. Also notable, and often anthologized, are "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "The Catbird Seat", "A Couple of Hamburgers", "The Greatest Man in the World" and "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," which can be found in The Thurber Carnival. The Middle Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze has several short stories with a tense undercurrent of marital discord. The book was published the year of his divorce and remarriage. His story "You Could Look It Up," about a midget being brought in to take a walk in a baseball game, is said to have been an inspiration for Bill Veeck's stunt with Eddie Gaedel with the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Veeck claimed an older provenance for the stunt, but was certainly aware of the Thurber story.[7]

In addition to his other fiction, Thurber wrote over seventy-five fables, most of which were collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). These usually conformed to the fable genre to the extent that they were short, featured anthropomorphic animals as main characters, and ended with a moral as a tagline. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, "The Unicorn in the Garden," which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn, which didn't speak. Thurber's fables were satirical in nature, and the morals served as punchlines rather than advice to the reader. His stories also included several book-length fairy tales, such as The White Deer (1945), The 13 Clocks (1950) and The Wonderful O (1957). The latter was one of several of Thurber's works illustrated by Marc Simont.

Thurber's prose for The New Yorker and other venues also included numerous humorous essays. A favorite subject, especially toward the end of his life, was the English language. Pieces on this subject included "The Spreading 'You Know'," which decried the overuse of that pair of words in conversation, "The New Vocabularianism," "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?" and many others. Thurber's short pieces, whether stories, essays or something in between, were referred to as "casuals" by Thurber and the staff of The New Yorker.[8] Thurber wrote a biographical memoir about The New Yorker's founder and publisher, Harold Ross, titled The Years with Ross (1958).

Thurber also wrote a five-part New Yorker series, between 1947 and 1948, examining in depth the radio soap opera phenomenon, based on near-constant listening and researching over the same period. Leaving nearly no element of these programs unexamined, including their writers, producers, sponsors, performers, and listeners alike, Thurber re-published the series in his anthology, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948) under the section title "Soapland." The series was one of the first to examine such a pop culture phenomenon in depth and with just enough traces of Thurber's wit to make it more than just a sober piece of what would later be called investigative reporting.

Thurber teamed with college schoolmate (and actor/director) Elliot Nugent to write a major Broadway hit comic drama of the late 1930s, The Male Animal, which was made into a film in 1942, starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson. In 1947 Danny Kaye played the title character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film that had little to do with the original short story and which Thurber hated. In 1951 animation studio United Productions of America announced a forthcoming feature to be faithfully compiled from Thurber's work, titled Men, Women and Dogs.[9] However, the only part of the ambitious production that was eventually released was the UPA cartoon The Unicorn in the Garden (1953).[10]

Near the end of his life, in 1960, Thurber finally was able to fulfill his long-standing desire to be on the professional stage by playing himself in 88 performances of the revue A Thurber Carnival, based on a selection of Thurber's stories and cartoon captions. Thurber appeared in the sketch "File and Forget," dictating fictional correspondence to his publisher.[11] Thurber won a special Tony Award for the adapted script of the Carnival.[12]

In 1961, the episode "The Secret Life of James Thurber" aired on CBS's anthology series, The DuPont Show with June Allyson. Adolphe Menjou appeared in the program as Fitch, and Orson Bean and Sue Randall portrayed John and Ellen Monroe. A full series based on Thurber's writings and life entitled My World and Welcome to It was broadcast on NBC in 1969-70, starring William Windom as the Thurber figure. The show won a 1970 Emmy Award as the year's best comedy series, and Windom won an Emmy as well. The animation of Thurber's cartoons on My World and Welcome to It led to the 1972 Jack Lemmon film The War Between Men and Women, which concludes with an animated rendering of Thurber's classic anti-war work "The Last Flower." Windom went on to perform Thurber material in a one-man stage show.

An annual award, the Thurber Prize, begun in 1997, honors outstanding examples of American humor. In 2008, The Library of America selected Thurber’s New Yorker story “A Sort of Genius” for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.


Incomplete - to be updated

  • Is Sex Necessary? or, Why You Feel The Way You Do (spoof of sexual psychology manuals, with E. B. White), 1929, 75th anniv. edition (2004) with foreword by John Updike, ISBN 0-06-073314-4
  • The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, 1931
  • The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments, 1932
  • My Life and Hard Times, 1933 ISBN 0-06-093308-9
  • The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, 1935
  • Let Your Mind Alone! and Other More Or Less Inspirational Pieces, 1937
  • The Last Flower, 1939, re-issued 2007 ISBN 978-1-58729-620-8
  • The Male Animal (stage play), 1939 (with Elliot Nugent) and screenplay starring Henry Fonda, written by Stephen Morehouse Avery
  • Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, 1940 ISBN 0-06-090999-4
  • My World--and Welcome To It, 1942 ISBN 0-15-662344-7
  • Many Moons, (children) 1943
  • Men, Women, and Dogs, 1943
  • The Great Quillow, (children) 1944
  • The Thurber Carnival (anthology), 1945, ISBN 0-06-093287-2, ISBN 0-394-60085-1 (Modern Library Edition)
  • The White Deer, (children) 1945
  • The Beast in Me and Other Animals, 1948 ISBN 0-15-610850-X
  • The 13 Clocks, (children) 1950
  • The Thurber Album, 1952
  • Thurber Country, 1953
  • Thurber's Dogs, 1955
  • Further Fables For Our Time, 1956
  • The Wonderful O, (children) 1957
  • Alarms and Diversions (anthology), 1957
  • The Years With Ross, 1959 ISBN 0-06-095971-1
  • A Thurber Carnival (stage play), 1960
  • Lanterns and Lances, 1961

Posthumous Collections:

  • Credos and Curios, 1962
  • Thurber & Company, 1966 (ed. Helen W. Thurber)
  • Selected Letters of James Thurber, 1981 (ed. Helen W. Thurber & Edward Weeks)
  • Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, 1989 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • Thurber On Crime, 1991 (ed. Robert Lopresti)
  • People Have More Fun Than Anybody: A Centennial Celebration of Drawings and Writings by James Thurber, 1994 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • James Thurber: Writings and Drawings, 1996, (ed. Garrison Keillor), Library of America, ISBN 978-1-88301122-2
  • The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, 2001 (ed. Michael J. Rosen)
  • The Thurber Letters, 2002 (ed. Harrison Kinney, with Rosemary A. Thurber)

Short stories and articles

  • Thurber, James (8 January 1949). "File and Forget". The New Yorker 24 (46): 24–48. 

Biographies of Thurber

  • Burton Bernstein Thurber (1975); William Morrow & Co (May, 1996) ISBN 0-688-14772-0
  • Thomas Fensch The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber (2001) ISBN 0-930-75113-2
  • Neil A. Grauer Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (1994); University of Nebraska Press; Reprint edition (August, 1995) ISBN 0-8032-7056-9
  • Harrison Kinney James Thurber: His Life and Times (1995); Henry Holt & Co ISBN 0-8050-3966-X

Literature review

  • The Clocks Of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber by Charles S. Holmes (1972). Atheneum ISBN 0689705743; Secker & Warburg, May 1973, ISBN 0-436-20080-5


  1. ^ a b c "James (Grover) Thurber (1894-1961)". Authors' Calendar. 2004. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/thurber.htm. Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  2. ^ Ramachandran, V.S.; Sandra Blakeslee (1988). Phantoms in the Brain. HarperCollins. p. 85–7. 
  3. ^ Thurber House. "James Thurber". http://www.thurberhouse.org/james/james.html. Retrieved 2007-10-14. 
  4. ^ a b Thurber House. "James Thurber: His Life & Times". http://www.thurberhouse.org/james/life_2.html. Retrieved 2007-10-14. 
  5. ^ Bernstein, Burton (1975). Thurber. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. p. 501. ISBN 0-396-07027-2. 
  6. ^ "Time Magazine Cover: James Thurber - July 9, 1951". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. Time Inc.. 1951-07-09. http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19510709,00.html. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  7. ^ Veeck, Bill; Ed Linn (1962). "A Can of Beer, a Slice of Cake—and Thou, Eddie Gaedel," from Veeck — As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 11–23. ISBN 0-226-85218-0. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/852180.html. 
  8. ^ "The Business of Being Funny". The New York Times. Time Inc.. 1989-11-05. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE5D9113CF936A35752C1A96F948260. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  9. ^ "Priceless Gift of Laughter". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. Time Inc.. 1951-07-09. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,806164-1,00.html. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  10. ^ "The Unicorn In The Garden". The Big Cartoon Database. http://www.bcdb.com/cartoon/725-Unicorn_In_The_Garden.html. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  11. ^ Bernstein, Burton (1975). Thurber. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. p. 477. ISBN 0-396-07027-2. 
  12. ^ "A Thurber Carnival". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=2101. Retrieved 2008-03-01. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.

James Grover Thurber (8 December 1894 - 2 November 1961) was an American humorist and cartoonist.



It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.

Cartoon captions

  • All right, have it your way - you heard a seal bark!
    • Cartoon caption, The New Yorker (30 January 1932); "Women and Men", The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments (1932); also used in "The Lady on the Bookcase", Alarms and Diversions (1957).
  • Le coeur a ses raisons, Mrs. Bence, que la raison ne connait pas.
    • Cartoon caption, The New Yorker (27 July 1935)
    • Borrowing from Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670 (published posthumously): "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point" (Translation: The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.)
  • Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?
    • Cartoon caption, The New Yorker (5 June 1937); "Word Dance--Part One", A Thurber Carnival (1960)
  • I love the idea of there being two sexes, don't you?
    • Cartoon caption, The New Yorker (22 April 1939); "A Miscellany", Alarms and Diversions (1957)
  • He knows all about art, but he doesn't know what he likes.
    • Cartoon caption, The New Yorker (4 November 1939). Parody of "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."
    • Variant: He knew all about art, but he didn't know what you like.
      • "Word Dance — Part One", A Thurber Carnival (1960)
  • Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair trigger balances, when a false or misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act.
    • Lanterns and Lances‎ (1961), p. 44
  • There are two kinds of light — the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.
    • Lanterns and Lances‎ (1961), p. 146; also misquoted as "There are two kinds of light — the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures."

From Fables for Our Time and Further Fables for Our Time

  • A burden in the bush is worth two on your hands.
    • "The Hunter and the Elephant", The New Yorker (18 February 1939)
  • It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.
    • "The Scotty Who Knew Too Much", The New Yorker (18 February 1939)
  • There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else.
    • "The Fairly Intelligent Fly", The New Yorker (4 February 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940)
  • Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.
    • "The Shrike and the Chipmunks", The New Yorker (18 February 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940). Because it is derived from Benjamin Franklin's famous saying this is often misquoted as: Early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy, wealthy, and dead.
  • You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.
    • "The Bear Who Let It Alone", The New Yorker (29 April 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940)
  • You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.
    • "The Owl who was God", The New Yorker (29 April 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940)
  • Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him. "The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; he was now browsing among the tulips.
  • Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.
    • "The Unicorn in the Garden", The New Yorker (31 October 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940)
  • He who hesitates is sometimes saved.
    • "The Glass in the Field", The New Yorker (31 October 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940). This is the moral of a fable in which several birds reject a Goldfinch's report that he ran into "crystallized air" while flying across a field, where workmen had left a large plate of glass upright. The Swallow rejects the offer to come along with others and prove the Goldfinch wrong.
  • Don't get it right, just get it written.
    • "The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing", The New Yorker (29 April 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940). The moral is ironic with respect to the fable, in which sheep do insufficient research before writing about wolves, resulting in the sheep being easy prey.
  • It is better to have loafed and lost, than never to have loafed at all.
    • "The Courtship of Arthur and Al", The New Yorker (26 August 1939); Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940). Parody of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Better to have loved and lost/than never to have loved at all.
  • Nowadays most men lead lives of noisy desperation.
    • "The Grizzly and the Gadgets", The New Yorker (date unknown); Further Fables for Our Time (1956); This statement is derived from one of Henry David Thoreau: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
  • Love is blind, but desire just doesn't give a good goddam. (sic)
    • "The Clothes Moth and the Luna Moth", The New Yorker (date unknown); Further Fables for Our Time (1956)
  • A word to the wise is not sufficient if it doesn't make any sense.
    • "The Weaver and the Worm", The New Yorker (date unknown); Further Fables for Our Time (1956)
  • All men kill the thing they hate, too, unless, of course, it kills them first.
    • "The Crow and the Scarecrow", The New Yorker (date unknown); Further Fables for Our Time (1956). This is derived from Oscar Wilde's statement "All men kill the thing they love..."
  • All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.
    • "The Shore and the Sea", Further Fables for Our Time (first publication, 1956)

From other fiction

  • The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.
    • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1942)
  • "To hell with the handkerchief," said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.
    • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1942)
  • "Who are you?" the minstrel asked. "I am the Golux," said the Golux, proudly, "the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device."
    • The Thirteen Clocks (1951) page 32

From other writings

  • Boys are perhaps beyond the range of anybody's sure understanding, at least when they are between the ages of eighteen months and ninety years.
    • "The Darlings at the Top of the Stairs", Lanterns & Lances (1961); previously appeared in The Queen and in Harper's Magazine.
  • A pinch of probability is worth a pound of perhaps.
    • note for "a future fable", "Such a Phrase as Drifts Through Dreams", Holiday Magazine; reprinted in Lanterns & Lances (1961).
  • Now I am not a cat man, but a dog man, and all felines can tell this at a glance — a sharp, vindictive glance.
    • "My Senegalese Birds and Siamese Cats", Holiday Magazine; reprinted in Lanterns & Lances (1961).
  • Man has gone long enough, or even too long, without being man enough to face the simple truth that the trouble with Man is Man.
    • "The Trouble with Man is Man", The New Yorker; reprinted in Lanterns & Lances (1961).
  • The only rules comedy can tolerate are those of taste, and the only limitations those of libel.
    • "The Duchess and the Bugs", 'Lanterns & Lances (1961). The piece was "a response" to an award Thurber received from the Ohioana Library Association in 1953.
  • Discussion in America means dissent.
    • "The Duchess and the Bugs", 'Lanterns & Lances (1961).
  • Somebody has said that woman's place is in the wrong. That's fine. What the wrong needs is a woman's presence and a woman's touch. She is far better equipped than men to set it right.
    • "The Duchess and the Bugs", 'Lanterns & Lances (1961).
  • If I have sometimes seemed to make fun of Woman, I assure you it has only been for the purpose of egging her on.
    • "The Duchess and the Bugs", 'Lanterns & Lances (1961).
  • Her own mother lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house.
    • My Life and Hard Times (1933)
  • In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter.
    • My Life And Hard Times, referring to a fellow Ohio State student and football star.
  • I do not have a psychiatrist and I do not want one, for the simple reason that if he listened to me long enough, he might become disturbed.
    • "Carpe Noctem, If You Can", Credos and Curios (1962)
  • Every time is a time for comedy in a world of tension that would languish without it. But I cannot confine myself to lightness in a period of human life that demands light ... We all know that, as the old adage has it, "It is later than you think." ..., but I also say occasionally: "It is lighter than you think." In this light let's not look back in anger, or forward in fear, but around in awareness.
    • "Foreword", Lanterns & Lances (1961)
  • The dog has got more fun out of Man than Man has got out of the dog, for the clearly demonstrable reason that Man is the more laughable of the two animals.
    • "An Introduction", The Fireside Book of Dog Stories (Simon and Schuster, 1943); reprinted in Thurber's Dogs (1955)
  • The dog has seldom been successful in pulling Man up to its level of sagacity, but Man has frequently dragged the dog down to his.
    • "An Introduction", The Fireside Book of Dog Stories (Simon and Schuster, 1943); reprinted in Thurber's Dogs (1955)
  • I am not a dog lover. A dog lover to me means a dog that is in love with another dog.
    • "I Like Dogs", For Men (April 1939); reprinted in People Have More Fun Than Anybody (1994); slightly paraphrased in "And So to Medve", Thurber's Dogs (1955)
  • He picked out this sentence in a New Yorker casual of mine: "After dinner, the men moved into the living room," and he wanted to know why I, or the editors, had put in the comma. I could explain that one all night. I wrote back that this particular comma was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.
    • The Years with Ross (Little Brown & Co, 1957, pg.267)
    • Variant: From one casual of mine he picked this sentence. “After dinner, the men moved into the living room.” I explained to the professor that this was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up. There must, as we know, be a comma after every move, made by men, on this earth.
      • Memo to The New Yorker (1959); reprinted in New York Times Book Review (4 December 1988); Harold Ross was the editor of The New Yorker from its inception until 1951, and well-known for the overuse of commas
  • From now on, I think it is safe to predict, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party will ever nominate for President a candidate without good looks, stage presence, theatrical delivery, and a sense of timing.
    • said of the Kennedy-Nixon TV debates in an unpublished manuscript, (dated 20 March 1961); Collecting Himself (1989).
  • A drawing is always dragged down to the level of its caption.
    • The New Yorker (2 August 1930)
  • But those rare souls whose spirit gets magically into the hearts of men, leave behind them something more real and warmly personal than bodily presence, an ineffable and eternal thing. It is everlasting life touching us as something more than a vague, recondite concept. The sound of a great name dies like an echo; the splendor of fame fades into nothing; but the grace of a fine spirit pervades the places through which it has passed, like the haunting loveliness of mignonette.
    • “The Book-End,” Columbus Dispatch (1923) Collecting Himself (1989).
  • Sophistication might be described as the ability to cope gracefully with a situation involving the presence of a formidable menace to one's poise and prestige (such as the butler, or the man under the bed — but never the husband).
    • The New Yorker (2 August 1930), discussing cartooning
  • Speed is scarcely the noblest virtue of graphic composition, but it has its curious rewards. There is a sense of getting somewhere fast, which satisfies a native American urge.
    • Preface to A Thurber Garland (1955)

Letters and interviews

  • Comedy has to be done en clair. You can't blunt the edge of wit or the point of satire with obscurity. Try to imagine a famous witty saying that is not immediately clear.
    • Letter, March 11, 1954, to Malcolm Cowley. Collecting Himself (1989)
  • With 60 staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.
    • Quoted in New York Post (30 June 1955)
  • The laughter of man is more terrible than his tears, and takes more forms — hollow, heartless, mirthless, maniacal.
    • New York Times Magazine (7 December 1958).
  • I always begin at the left with the opening word of the sentence and read toward the right and I recommend this method.
    • Memo to The New Yorker (1959); reprinted in New York Times Book Review (4 December 1988)
  • When all things are equal, translucence in writing is more effective than transparency, just as glow is more revealing than glare.
    • Memo to The New Yorker (1959); reprinted in New York Times Book Review (4 December 1988)
  • Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, "How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?" and avoid "How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?"
    • Memo to The New Yorker (1959); reprinted in New York Times Book Review (4 December 1988)
  • The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.
    • Television interview with Edward R. Murrow on TV show Small World, CBS-TV (25 March 1959); transcript published in New York Post
  • We all know that the theater and every play that comes to Broadway have within themselves, like the human being, the seed of self-destruction and the certainty of death. The thing is to see how long the theater, the play, and the human being can last in spite of themselves.
    • Quoted in New York Times (21 February 1960).
  • If a playwright tried to see eye to eye with everybody, he would get the worst case of strabismus since Hannibal lost an eye trying to count his nineteen elephants during a snowstorm while crossing the Alps.
    • Quoted in The New York Times (21 February 1960)
  • Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.
    • Quoted in New York Post (29 February 1960)
  • My drawings have been described as pre-intentionalist, meaning that they were finished before the ideas for them had occurred to me. I shall not argue the point.
    • Interview, Life Magazine (New York, March 14, 1960).
  • I’m 65 and I guess that puts me in with the geriatrics. But if there were fifteen months in every year, I’d only be 48. That’s the trouble with us. We number everything. Take women, for example. I think they deserve to have more than twelve years between the ages of 28 and 40.
    • Quoted from an an interview with Glenna Syse in Time Magazine (New York, 15 August 1960); Time's editors corrected Thurber's arithmetic
  • One (martini) is all right, two is too many, three is not enough.
    • Quoted in Time Magazine (New York, 15 August 1960) from an an interview with Glenna Syse of the Chicago Sun-Times
  • My opposition lies in the fact that offhand answers have little value or grace of expression, and that such oral give and take helps to perpetuate the decline of the English language.
    • Letter to Henry Brandon after an interview with him, explaining his opposition to interviews; quoted by Brandon in As We Are (1961)
  • The difference between our decadence and the Russians is that while theirs is brutal, ours is apathetic.
    • Quoted in The Observer (London, 5 February 1961).

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