Interviews

James Thurber, The Art of Fiction No. 10

Interviewed by George Plimpton & Max Steele

The Hôtel Continental, just down from the Place Vendôme on the Rue Castiglione. It is from here that Janet Flanner (Genêt) sends her Paris letter to The New Yorker, and it is here that the Thurbers usually stay while in Paris. “We like it because the service is first-rate without being snobbish.”

Thurber was standing to greet us in a small salon whose cold European formality had been somewhat softened and warmed by well-placed vases of flowers, by stacks and portable shelves of American novels in bright dust jackets, and by pads of yellow paper and bouquets of yellow pencils on the desk. Thurber impresses one immediately by his physical size. After years of delighting in the shy, trapped little man in the Thurber cartoons and the confused and bewildered man who has fumbled in and out of some of the funniest books written in this century, we, perhaps like many readers, were expecting to find the frightened little man in person. Not at all. Thurber, by his firm handgrip and confident voice, and by the way he lowered himself into his chair, gave the impression of outward calmness and assurance. Though his eyesight has almost failed him, it is not a disability which one is aware of for more than the opening minute, and if Thurber seems to be the most nervous person in the room, it is because he has learned to put his visitors so completely at ease.

He talks in a surprisingly boyish voice, which is flat with the accents of the Midwest where he was raised and, though slow in tempo, never dull. He is not an easy man to pin down with questions. He prefers to sidestep them and, rather than instructing, he entertains with a vivid series of anecdotes and reminiscences.

Opening the interview with a long history of the bloodhound, Thurber was only with some difficulty persuaded to shift to a discussion of his craft. Here again his manner was typical—the anecdotes, the reminiscences punctuated with direct quotes and factual data. His powers of memory are astounding. In quoting anyone—perhaps a conversation of a dozen years before—Thurber pauses slightly, his voice changes in tone, and you know what you’re hearing is exactly as it was said.

 

JAMES THURBER

Well, you know it’s a nuisance—to have memory like mine—as well as an advantage. It’s . . . well . . . like a whore’s top drawer. There’s so much else in there that’s junk—costume jewelry, unnecessary telephone numbers whose exchanges no longer exist. For instance, I can remember the birthday of anybody who’s ever told me his birthday. Dorothy Parker—August 22, Lewis Gannett—October 3, Andy White—July 9, Mrs. White— September 17. I can go on with about two hundred. So can my mother. She can tell you the birthday of the girl I was in love with in the third grade, in 1903. Offhand, just like that. I got my powers of memory from her. Sometimes it helps out in the most extraordinary way. You remember Robert M. Coates? Bob Coates? He is the author of The Eater of Darkness, which Ford Madox Ford called the first true Dadaist novel. Well, the week after Stephen Vincent Benét died—Coates and I had both known him—we were talking about Benét. Coates was trying to remember an argument he had had with Benét some fifteen years before. He couldn’t remember. I said, “I can.” Coates told me that was impossible since I hadn’t been there. “Well,” I said, “you happened to mention it in passing about twelve years ago. You were arguing about a play called Swords.” I was right, and Coates was able to take it up from there. But it’s strange to reach a position where your friends have to be supplied with their own memories. It’s bad enough dealing with your own.

INTERVIEWER

Still, it must be a great advantage for the writer. I don’t suppose you have to take notes.

THURBER

No. I don’t have to do the sort of thing Fitzgerald did with The Last Tycoon—the voluminous, the tiny and meticulous notes, the long descriptions of character. I can keep all these things in my mind. I wouldn’t have to write down “three roses in a vase” or something, or a man’s middle name. Henry James dictated notes just the way that I write. His note-writing was part of the creative act, which is why his prefaces are so good. He dictated notes to see what it was they might come to.

INTERVIEWER

Then you don’t spend much time prefiguring your work?

THURBER

No. I don’t bother with charts and so forth. Elliott Nugent, on the other hand, is a careful constructor. When we were working on The Male Animal together, he was constantly concerned with plotting the play. He could plot the thing from back to front—what was going to happen here, what sort of situation would end the first-act curtain, and so forth. I can’t work that way. Nugent would say, “Well, Thurber, we’ve got our problem, we’ve got all these people in the living room. Now what are we going to do with them?” I’d say that I didn’t know and couldn’t tell him until I’d sat down at the typewriter and found out. I don’t believe the writer should know too much where he’s going. If he does, he runs into old man blueprint—old man propaganda.

INTERVIEWER

Is the act of writing easy for you?

THURBER

For me it’s mostly a question of rewriting. It’s part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I’ve been working on —“The Train on Track Six,” it’s called—was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can’t be more than twenty- thousand words.

INTERVIEWER

Then it’s rare that your work comes out right the first time?

THURBER

Well, my wife took a look at the first version of something I was doing not long ago and said, “Goddamn it, Thurber, that’s high-school stuff.” I have to tell her to wait until the seventh draft, it’ll work out all right. I don’t know why that should be so, that the first or second draft of everything I write reads as if it was turned out by a charwoman. I’ve only written one piece quickly. I wrote a thing called “File and Forget” in one afternoon—but only because it was a series of letters just as one would ordinarily dictate. And I’d have to admit that the last letter of the series, after doing all the others that one afternoon, took me a week. It was the end of the piece and I had to fuss over it.

INTERVIEWER

Does the fact that you’re dealing with humor slow down the production?

THURBER

It’s possible. With humor you have to look out for traps. You’re likely to be very gleeful with what you’ve first put down, and you think it’s fine, very funny. One reason you go over and over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down. In fact, if there’s such a thing as a New Yorker style, that would be it— playing it down.

INTERVIEWER           

Do you envy those who write at high speed, as against your method of constant revision?

THURBER

Oh, no, I don’t, though I do admire their luck. Hervey Allen, you know, the author of the big best-seller Anthony Adverse, seriously told a friend of mine who was working on a biographical piece on Allen that he could close his eyes, lie down on a bed, and hear the voices of his ancestors. Furthermore there was some sort of angel-like creature that danced along his pen while he was writing. He wasn’t balmy by any means. He just felt he was in communication with some sort of metaphysical recorder. So you see the novelists have all the luck. I never knew a humorist who got any help from his ancestors. Still, the act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting’s fun. You’re getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not. I remember Elliot Paul and I used to argue about rewriting back in 1925 when we both worked for the Chicago Tribune in Paris. It was his conviction you should leave the story as it came out of the typewriter, no changes. Naturally, he worked fast. Three novels he could turn out, each written in three weeks’ time. I remember once he came into the office and said that a sixty-thousand-word manuscript had been stolen. No carbons existed, no notes. We were all horrified. But it didn’t bother him at all. He’d just get back to the typewriter and bat away again. But for me—writing as fast as that would seem too facile. Like my drawings, which I do very quickly, sometimes so quickly that the result is an accident, something I hadn’t intended at all. People in the arts I’ve run into in France are constantly indignant when I say I’m a writer and not an artist. They tell me I mustn’t run down my drawings. I try to explain that I do them for relaxation, and that I do them too fast for them to be called art.

INTERVIEWER

You say that your drawings often don’t come out the way you intended?

THURBER

Well, once I did a drawing for The New Yorker of a naked woman on all fours up on top of a bookcase—a big bookcase. She’s up there near the ceiling, and in the room are her husband and two other women. The husband is saying to one of the women, obviously a guest, “This is the present Mrs. Harris. That’s my first wife up there.” Well, when I did the cartoon originally I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs, but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

Incidentally, that cartoon really threw The New Yorker editor, Harold Ross. He approached any humorous piece of writing, or more particularly a drawing, not only grimly but realistically. He called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.” After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours. “So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.” “Well then,” he said, “what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?” I told him he had me there.

INTERVIEWER

But he published it.

THURBER

Yes, he published it, growling a bit. He had a fine understanding of humor, Ross, though he couldn’t have told you about it. When I introduced Ross to the work of Peter de Vries, he first said, “He won’t be good; he won’t be funny; he won’t know English.” (He was the only successful editor I’ve known who approached everything like a ship going on the rocks.) But when Ross had looked at the work he said, “How can you get this guy on the phone?” He couldn’t have said why, but he had that bloodhound instinct. The same with editing. He was a wonderful man at detecting something wrong with a story without knowing why.

INTERVIEWER

Could he develop a writer?

THURBER

Not really. It wasn’t true what they often said of him —that he broke up writers like matches—but still he wasn’t the man to develop a writer. He was an unread man. Well, he’d read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and several other books he told me about—medical books—and he took the Encyclopedia Britannica to the bathroom with him. I think he was about up to H when he died. But still his effect on writers was considerable. When you first met him you couldn’t believe he was the editor of The New Yorker and afterward you couldn’t believe that anyone else could have been. The main thing he was interested in was clarity. Someone once said of The New Yorker that it never contained a sentence that would puzzle an intelligent fourteen year old or in any way affect her morals badly. Ross didn’t like that, but nevertheless he was a purist and a perfectionist and it had a tremendous effect on all of us: It kept us from being sloppy. When I first met him he asked me if I knew English. I thought he meant French or a foreign language. But he repeated, “Do you know English?” When I said I did he replied, “Goddamn it, nobody knows English.” As Andy White mentioned in his obituary, Ross approached the English sentence as though it was an enemy, something that was going to throw him. He used to fuss for an hour over a comma. He’d call me in for lengthy discussions about the Thurber colon. And as for poetic license, he’d say, “Damn any license to get things wrong.” In fact, Ross read so carefully that often he didn’t get the sense of your story. I once said: “I wish you’d read my stories for pleasure, Ross.” He replied he hadn’t time for that.

INTERVIEWER

It’s strange that one of the main ingredients of humor—low comedy—has never been accepted for The New Yorker.

THURBER

Ross had a neighbor woman’s attitude about it. He never got over his Midwestern provincialism. His idea was that sex is an incident. “If you can prove it,” I said, “we can get it in a box on the front page of The New York Times.” Now I don’t want to say that in private life Ross was a prude. But as regards the theater or the printed page he certainly was. For example, he once sent an office memorandum to us in a sealed envelope. It was an order: “When you send me a memorandum with four-letter words in it, seal it. There are women in this office.” I said, “Yah, Ross, and they know a lot more of these words than you do.” When women were around he was very conscious of them. Once my wife and I were in his office and Ross was discussing a man and woman he knew much better than we did. Ross told us, “I have every reason to believe that they’re s-l-e-e-p-i-n-g together.” My wife replied, “Why, Harold Ross, what words you do spell out.” But honest to goodness, that was genuine. Women are either good or bad, he once told me, and the good ones must not hear these things.

Incidentally, I’m telling these things to refresh my memory. I’m doing a short book on him called Ross in Charcoal. I’m putting a lot of this stuff in. People may object, but after all it’s a portrait of the man and I see no reason for not putting it in.

INTERVIEWER

Did he have much direct influence on your own work?

THURBER

After the seven years I spent in newspaper writing, it was more E. B. White who taught me about writing, how to clear up sloppy journalese. He was a strong influence, and for a long time in the beginning I thought he might be too much of one. But at least he got me away from a rather curious style I was starting to perfect—tight journalese laced with heavy doses of Henry James.

INTERVIEWER

Henry James was a strong influence, then?

THURBER

I have the reputation for having read all of Henry James. Which would argue a misspent youth and middle age.

INTERVIEWER

But there were things to be learned from him?

THURBER

Yes, but again he was an influence you had to get over. Especially if you wrote for The New Yorker. Harold Ross wouldn’t have understood it. I once wrote a piece called “The Beast in the Dingle” which everybody took as a parody. Actually it was a conscious attempt to write the story as James would have written it. Ross looked at it and said: “Goddamn it, this is too literary; I got only fifteen percent of the allusions.” My wife and I often tried to figure out which were the fifteen percent he could have got.

You know, I’ve occasionally wondered what James would have done with our world. I’ve just written a piece—“Preface to Old Friends,” it’s called—in which James at the age of a hundred and four writes a preface to a novel about our age in which he summarizes the trends and complications, but at the end is so completely lost he doesn’t really care enough to read it over to find his way out again.

That’s the trouble with James. You get bored with him finally. He lived in the time of four-wheelers, and no bombs, and the problems then seemed a bit special and separate. That’s one reason you feel restless reading him. James is like—well, I had a bulldog once who used to drag rails around, enormous ones—six-, eight-, twelve-foot rails. He loved to get them in the middle and you’d hear him growling out there, trying to bring the thing home. Once he brought home a chest of drawers—without the drawers in it. Found it on an ash-heap. Well, he’d start to get these things in the garden gate, everything finely balanced, you see, and then crash, he’d come up against the gate posts. He’d get it through finally, but I had that feeling in some of the James novels: that he was trying to get that rail through a gate not wide enough for it.

INTERVIEWER

How about Mark Twain? Pretty much everybody believes him to have been the major influence on American humorists.

THURBER

Everybody wants to know if I’ve learned from Mark Twain. Actually I’ve never read much of him. I did buy Tom Sawyer, but dammit, I’m sorry, I’ve not got around to reading it all the way through. I told H. L. Mencken that, and he was shocked. He said America had produced only two fine novels: Huck Finn and Babbitt. Of course it’s always a matter of personal opinion—these lists of the great novels. I can remember calling on Frank Harris—he was about seventy then—when I was on the Chicago Tribune’s edition in Nice. In his house he had three portraits on the wall—Mark Twain, Frank Harris, and I think it was Hawthorne. Harris was in the middle. Harris would point up to them and say, “Those three are the best American writers. The one in the middle is the best.” Harris really thought he was wonderful. Once he told me he was going to live to be a hundred. When I asked him what the formula was, he told me it was very simple. He said, “I’ve bought myself a stomach pump and one half-hour after dinner I pump myself out.” Can you imagine that? Well, it didn’t work. It’s a wonder it didn’t kill him sooner.

INTERVIEWER

Could we ask you why you’ve never attempted a long work?

THURBER

I’ve never wanted to write a long work. Many writers feel a sense of frustration or something if they haven’t, but I don’t.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps the fact that you’re writing humor imposes a limit on the length of a work.

THURBER

Possibly. But brevity in any case—whether the work is supposed to be humorous or not—would seem to me to be desirable. Most of the books I like are short books: The Red Badge of Courage, The Turn of the Screw, Conrad’s short stories, A Lost Lady, Joseph Hergesheimer’s Wild Oranges, Victoria Lincoln’s February Hill, The Great Gatsby . . . You know Fitzgerald once wrote Thomas Wolfe: “You’re a putter-inner and I’m a taker-outer.” I stick with Fitzgerald. I don’t believe, as Wolfe did, that you have to turn out a massive work before being judged a writer. Wolfe once told me at a cocktail party that I didn’t know what it was to be a writer. My wife, standing next to me, complained about that. “But my husband is a writer,” she said. Wolfe was genuinely surprised. “He is?” he asked. “Why, all I ever see is that stuff of his in The New Yorker.” In other words, he felt that prose under five thousand words was certainly not the work of a writer . . . it was some kind of doodling in words. If you said you were a writer, he wanted to know where the books were, the great big long books. He was really genuine about that.

I was interested to see William Faulkner’s list not so long ago of the five most important American authors of this century. According to him Wolfe was first, Faulkner second—let’s see, now that Wolfe’s dead that puts Faulkner up there in the lead, doesn’t it?— Dos Passos third, then Hemingway, and finally Steinbeck. It’s interesting that the first three are putter-inners. They write expansive novels.

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t Faulkner’s criterion whether or not the author dared to go out on a limb?

THURBER

It seems to me you’re going out on a limb these days to keep a book short.

INTERVIEWER

Though you’ve never done a long serious work you have written stories—“The Cane in the Corridor” and “The Whippoorwill” in particular—in which the mood is far from humorous.

THURBER

In anything funny you write that isn’t close to serious you’ve missed something along the line. But in those stories of which you speak there was an element of anger—something I wanted to get off my chest. I wrote “The Whippoorwill” after five eye operations. It came somewhere out of a grim fear in the back of my mind. I’ve never been able to trace it.

INTERVIEWER

Some critics think that much of your work can be traced to the depicting of trivia as a basis for humor. In fact, there’s been some criticism—

THURBER

Which is trivia—the diamond or the elephant? Any humorist must be interested in trivia, in every little thing that occurs in a household. It’s what Robert Benchley did so well—in fact so well that one of the greatest fears of the humorous writer is that he has spent three weeks writing something done faster and better by Benchley in 1919. Incidentally, you never got very far talking to Benchley about humor. He’d do a takeoff of Max Eastman’s Enjoyment of Laughter. “We must understand,” he’d say, “that all sentences which begin with W are funny.”

INTERVIEWER

Would you care to define humor in terms of your own work?

THURBER

Well, someone once wrote a definition of the difference between English and American humor. I wish I could remember his name. I thought his definition very good. He said that the English treat the commonplace as if it were remarkable and the Americans treat the remarkable as if it were commonplace. I believe that’s true of humorous writing. Years ago we did a parody of Punch in which Benchley did a short piece depicting a wife bursting into a room and shouting “The primroses are in bloom!”—treating the commonplace as remarkable, you see. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” I tried to treat the remarkable as commonplace.

INTERVIEWER

Does it bother you to talk about the stories on which you’re working? It bothers many writers, though it would seem that particularly the humorous story is polished through retelling.

THURBER

Oh, yes. I often tell them at parties and places. And I write them there too.

INTERVIEWER

You write them?

THURBER

I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “he’s writing something.” I have to do it that way on account of my eyes. I still write occasionally—in the proper sense of the word—using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps twenty words to the page. My usual method, though, is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind. Then in the afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her. I can do about two thousand words. It took me about ten years to learn.

INTERVIEWER

How about the new crop of writers? Do you note any good humorists coming along with them?

THURBER

There don’t seem to be many coming up. I once had a psychoanalyst tell me that the Depression had a considerable effect—much worse than Hitler and the war. It’s a tradition for a child to see his father in uniform as something glamorous—not his father coming home from Wall Street in a three-button sack suit saying, “We’re ruined,” and the mother bursting into tears—a catastrophe that to a child’s mind is unexplainable. There’s been a great change since the thirties. In those days students used to ask me what Peter Arno did at night. And about Dorothy Parker. Now they want to know what my artistic credo is. An element of interest seems to have gone out of them.

INTERVIEWER

Has the shift in the mood of the times had any effect on your own work?

THURBER

Well, The Thurber Album was written at a time when in America there was a feeling of fear and suspicion. It’s quite different from My Life and Hard Times, which was written earlier and is a funnier and better book. The Album was kind of an escape—going back to the Middle West of the last century and the beginning of this, when there wasn’t this fear and hysteria. I wanted to write the story of some solid American characters, more or less as an example of how Americans started out and what they should go back to—to sanity and soundness and away from this jumpiness. It’s hard to write humor in the mental weather we’ve had, and that’s likely to take you into reminiscence. Your heart isn’t in it to write anything funny. In the years 1950 to 1953 I did very few things, nor did they appear in The New Yorker. Now, actually, I think the situation is beginning to change for the better.

INTERVIEWER

No matter what the “mental climate,” though, you would continue writing?

THURBER

Well, the characteristic fear of the American writer is not so much that as it is the process of aging. The writer looks in the mirror and examines his hair and teeth to see if they’re still with him. “Oh my God,” he says, “I wonder how my writing is. I bet I can’t write today.” The only time I met Faulkner he told me he wanted to live long enough to do three more novels. He was fifty-three then, and I think he has done them. Then Hemingway says, you know, that he doesn’t expect to be alive after sixty. But he doesn’t look forward not to being. When I met Hemingway with John O’Hara in Costello’s Bar five or six years ago we sat around and talked about how old we were getting. You see it’s constantly on the minds of American writers. I’ve never known a woman who could weep about her age the way the men I know can.

Coupled with this fear of aging is the curious idea that the writer’s inventiveness and ability will end in his fifties. And of course it often does. Carl Van Vechten stopped writing. The prolific Joseph Hergesheimer suddenly couldn’t write any more. Over here in Europe that’s never been the case—Hardy, for instance, who started late and kept going. Of course Keats had good reason to write, “When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain.” That’s the great classic statement. But in America the writer is more likely to fear that his brain may cease to teem. I once did a drawing of a man at his typewriter, you see, and all this crumpled paper is on the floor, and he’s staring down in discouragement. “What’s the matter,” his wife is saying, “has your pen gleaned your teeming brain?”

INTERVIEWER

In your case there wouldn’t be much chance of this?

THURBER

No. I write basically because it’s so much fun—even though I can’t see. When I’m not writing, as my wife knows, I’m miserable. I don’t have that fear that suddenly it will all stop. I have enough outlined to last me as long as I live.