cover image THE THURBER LETTERS: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber

THE THURBER LETTERS: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber

James Thurber, with Rosemary Thurber. . Simon & Schuster, $35 (816pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-2343-0

This new edition of Thurber's (1894–1961) correspondence to friends, family, lovers, fellow writers and, of course, New Yorker colleagues runs almost three times the length of the Selected Letters. A maturing portrait emerges, from bumptious young State Department code clerk during WWI to the man behind Walter Mitty, and the milieu of the old New Yorker comes similarly to life. The early letters to his Ohio State fraternity pal and college sweetheart are both sophomoric and romantic. After being posted to Paris and returning to the U.S. at the height of the Roaring 20s, Thurber's stylistic craftsmanship has begun to catch up with his sophisticated wit, which comes to fruition when he joins Harold Ross's New Yorker to edit, write, and rewrite "Talk of the Town" and draw dog cartoons. Thurber employs comedy adeptly and variously to woo several objects of affection and infatuation, to spar with the editorially prickly Ross and to construct droll personae to deal with life's predicaments and to amuse his recipients. The letters hit their peak of hilarity and exuberance in the late 1920s, just before he achieves unexpected fame as a bestselling author, with E.B. White, of Is Sex Necessary?. The chief pleasures here are the free and uncensored jokes (and drawings) and the occasional glimpses, behind Thurber's authorial mask, of a disappointed lover, discontented spirit, Civil War buff and Henry James devotee. For all the padding with prosaic entries, this carnival of correspondence, edited by Thurber's daughter and his biographer, fulfills its promise of wit and wisdom. 16 pages of b&w photos, 15 line drawings. Agent, Barbara Hogenson. (Aug.)