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67: A STRANGE SOUND IN THE PANTRY

#67: A STRANGE SOUND IN THE PANTRY. There are two agreements on humorous writing: one, that it doesn’t age well, and two, that it represents (or performs) a kind of escape from the grim insistences of reality. The dust seems to be settling on Benchley and Stephen Leacock and Mr. Dooley and many such, but James Thurber’s recent inclusion in the Library of America series suggests him as a lonely possible exception to the first agreement. Reading through this new selection may also give us a chance to figure out exactly what kind of escape Thurber’s writing represents. He caught his own sources precisely in “Preface to a Life”: the “short boundaries” of “an existence of jumpiness and apprehension.” “He can sleep while the commonwealth crumbles but a strange sound in the pantry will strike terror in his stomach.” You laugh at Thurber, but not exactly as you do at Dickens or Twain, whose sense of cosmic malevolence can make you blanch. The aftershock with Thurber is lighter and less caustic. I know people who can’t abide him, who find him city humor, New Yorker to the bone, and deracinated. I’ll say I understand that—all those cocktail parties and arguing couples, all that smoke and alcohol; no one’s drunks are creepier than Thurber’s. But “city” in Thurber’s thirties meant something a little different then, something less dehumanized, and it gave spark and shape to his sentences: the nervousness gives rise to glorious commotion. And of course there are also the drawings: those turbulating, cyclonic women (“Catch me!”), those men motionless in what Thurber called “the inertia of the nonplussed,” and the impassive chorus of Thurber’s sad, silent bloodhounds. (Men, Women and Dogs is the essential Thurber title.) Thurber pre-empted the selectors when he did The Thurber Carnival in 1945, which has been most readers’ introduction to his work for years. But the Library of America volume (Writings and Drawings, 1996, cannily edited by Garrison Keillor) is a much broader selection, with later and uncollected pieces. My sole complaint (you know there had to be one) is the omission of “The Secret Life of James Thurber,” in which Thurber compares his own autobiography to Salvador Dali’s. “Let me be the first to admit that the naked truth about me is to the naked truth about Salvador Dali as an old ukulele is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts.” Read on.

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