Saturday, August 04, 2007

James Thurber--"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1942)

James Thurber was at one time one of the most actively admired writers in the United States, at least by anthologists and middle school English teachers. I had a run of such teachers myself from 8th to 10th grade, two of them spinsters, who had been schoolgirls and college students during the height of Thurber's popularity in the 40s and 50s, and for whom his writing represented a certain accessible but slyly crafted, good-naturedly playful American quality that it was part of their function to pass on as one of the elements in the tenor of the national life. High school composition textbooks from the 50s and 60s frequently used selections from Thurber as examples of winning expository prose for students to follow. This was not a completely terrible idea. Like many of the famous magazine writers of the time Thurber was eminently readable, able to relate a story of usually endearing human interest without feeling the need to convince the audience, or himself, of his credentials, or that he was the smartest guy in the room before doing so. His art, and it seems most of his life, did not hinge upon any idea of himself as an especially great intellect, yet he occupied a prominent place in the national culture during what was probably the high point of its history, and he created, in Walter Mitty, at least one character who is still immediately referenced as an archetype; though, as I always find with the Monty Python television programs, the concept in this instance was the masterstroke, compared to which the execution lagged considerably.

The story of "Walter Mitty" however, the milquetoast, ineffectual denizen of Waterbury who daydreams about having attained greatness in any number of fields, clearly hit home with the American public, much of which over the last hundred years has spent a significant part of its collective life wandering around in a torpor wondering what exactly it exists for. Despite being only five pages long or so, the story inspired a full length motion picture starring Danny Kaye, which I have not seen (I presume Danny Kaye is dead now, but he was still kicking around in the late 70s when I was a child watching a lot of television, often appearing as a guest star on some variety show or providing the voice on a Christmas special, always presented as someone we were expected to respect as a great human being and be excited about as an entertainer, at which I always wondered 'Why?' I don't know who would be a comparable figure to a perplexed child in the present. Steve Martin?). While the dreamer is a staple figure in literature since Don Quixote, as with many modern developments in characterization Mitty is an especially disturbing evolution of the type. He has no personality, no will. His fantasies are vapid and passionless. They do not propel him to any action. He does not understand the substance of any of the things he dreams about; they are simply images of glamour and success he has picked up from movies and magazine articles and advertising. Anyone will recognize that he is bored with the sliver of life he knows, is intimidated by the vast part of it he doesn't know, and would like to escape from all of it. He wants no part of actually commanding a warplane or actually doing anything. He is no Don Quixote or even Mr Micawber.

Now it could be alleged that this character and I have more in common than I might like to acknowledge. His impotence as well as the extravagance of his fantasies are exaggerated , and therefore the effect of them on the reader tends to be more absurd than they needed to be, but surely the general attitude towards life which Mitty represents is a pretty recognizable mirror to this writer. He has no real share even in his dreams, a pitiable figure, truly a man without qualities--to the sensibility of the superior in person a typical democratic man, what is to be expected of a mediocrity in a meritocratic society--that is, having nothing to contribute to his society other than consuming goods and not causing trouble, he will lack a distinct self recognizable to other people, or even to work on with any seriousness in his own thoughts. While I sense all of these general themes in operation to some degree in my own existence, I will dare to assert that the harriedness, the nondescriptness, the detachment of thoughts from any relation to reality, even the boredness, while all well advanced in me, are as yet not quite so desperate, so obviously terminal as Mitty's. It is disturbingly within view though, I must confess.

Some brief notes on the writing: I do praise the economy and simplicity of the structure of the story, as well as the technique. I do not want to overload the page with quotes, but I will include a couple that I found mildly amusing in their absurdity within the context of the story:

"He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials."

"...Mr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over."

"A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires..."

"'With any known make of gun,' he said evenly, 'I could have have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.' Pandemonium broke out in the courtroom...suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty's arms."

"'I never see a man could hold his brandy like you sir', said the sergeant."

This story is much darker than it is generally presented to schoolchildren. It seems obvious to anyone reading it today that it must have been intended as such, but people really do not seem to have read it that way when it came out, and it may well not have been written with such an intent. Mitty is a weaselly, stupid little man, yet clearly supposed to be representative of the people and society from which he has sprung. On the few occasions when his mind is briefly turned upon his actual life he spends a good part of them devising false excuses and feigned injuries for his inadequacies. His life appears non-taxing and comfortable enough materially, yet existence is a burden to him because he has no appreciable adult mental life. Such an all-around schmuck is too revolting to the sensibility of a remotely lively mind to be a subject for gentle humor.

Thurber was from Columbus, Ohio, which is now become quite a large city population-wise, which I don't think it was in his time. He was born at 251 Parsons Avenue, that house unfortunately having been torn down in the 60s to make way for one of the interstates, whether I-71 or I-70 I forget at the moment. The house at 77 Jefferson Avenue where he lived with his parents while he went to Ohio State however is now a museum, though how long it will remain open--apparently no one except me likes to go to house museums of any kind anymore, because they are too boring--is anyones guess. The university seems to run this one and have some exhibits and people with some cachet coming through, so maybe it has a shot. In the area where I live we have the unenviable task of preserving two Franklin Pierce house-museums (Pierce, in case you have forgotten, was the President from 1853-1857, usually ranked solidly in the bottom 10 among chief executives). No one visits them, so every once in a while they throw the doors open and have a benefit night where for a modest donation a bunch of really old people encourage you to drink yourself into a stupor on cheap merlot while the local period-dressing musician entertains the crowd on the spinet and the world`s foremost Franklin Pierce imitator and his wife, the world`s foremost Jane Appleton Pierce imitator (this mainly involves wearing heavy mourning and sobbing a great deal; their son was killed when their train was derailed on the way to Washington for the inauguration) do some skits and try to persuade the room to join them in the barn for squaredancing. I actually enjoy these parties though, because there are few occasions left in modern life where you get to drink so much, and no one seems to notice. Also I think the houses and the artifacts they contain are worth saving. I will write more on this in some future post.

Thurber by the way is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus. Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace, is also buried there, as is Billy Southworth, manager of the 1942 and `44 World Champion Cardinals teams.

No comments: