A few weeks ago I treated myself to James Thurber’s 1933 My Life and Hard Times, a fictionalized memoir of his early years in Columbus, Ohio. Thurber was the last in a line of American writers, starting with Mark Twain and moving through Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley, who defined American humor as a funny but melancholy body of work, characterized by the use of the American vernacular and the mining of a personal past for comic effect. By 1961, when Thurber died, comic essays like those found in The New Yorker turned more outward to a surrealistic parody of high and popular culture in the tradition of S.J. Perelman, Veronica Geng, and Woody Allen, instead of inward towards the self. My Life and Hard Times exemplifies the earlier trend, and it’s still rewarding, even 90 years later. In his preface to the book, Thurber discusses the character of such humorists:
The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. … This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbors, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.
There may be an echo of late T.S. Eliot of the Four Quartets period here; and indeed, in 1951 Eliot called Thurber his “favourite humorist” in Time magazine (Thurber, says his biographer Burton Bernstein, “felt that this was the best estimate of his work ever”):
[Thurber’s] form of humor … is also a way of saying something serious. There is criticism of life at the bottom of it. It is serious and even somber. Unlike so much of humor, it is not merely a criticism of manners — that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment — but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to.
Why Thurber’s style of humor and that of his predecessors fell out of favor at some point is hard to say. Sometime around 1960, perhaps, this country finally descended from neuroticism into some form of psychosis. I don’t know why that is, but I get the feeling that it’s somehow our fault.
For whose who feel an affinity with these writers, they are also documents of those who read them. Anyway, My Life and Hard Times and the rest of Thurber’s work are ripe for reconsideration; after all, upon the publication of the book, Ernest Hemingway said that Thurber’s “was the best writing coming out of America.” A good enough recommendation for me.