On this day in 1894, James Thurber was born. The writer and cartoonist is probably best known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and his work at the New Yorker which published his short stories and cartoons.
Thurber was blind in one eye – a consequence of a childhood game of William Tell gone wrong (his brother tried shooting an apple of Thurber’s head and ended up shooting him in the eye instead). One theory is that following the loss of sight in his eye, he developed Charles Bonnet syndrome – a condition in which partially sighted people experience complex visual hallucinations – and this could have driven his creativity and imagination.
His troubled eyesight certainly contributed to his distinctive round wobbly way of drawing. A style described by Thurber’s friend Dorothy Parker as having the “semblance of unbaked cookies”.
“Some people thought my drawings were done under water; others that they were done by moonlight. But mothers thought that I was a little child or that my drawings were done by my granddaughter. So they sent in their own children’s drawings to The New Yorker,” Thurber wrote. “I was told to write these ladies, and I would write them all the same letter: ‘Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn’t been through as much.”
I think this is probably my favourite James Thurber cartoon. The matter-of-fact caption “I don’t know, George got it somewhere” is just beautiful. Several of Thurber’s drawings mention George, although George himself never appears. “This is known as The Figure In The Carpet, and will perhaps interest more psychoanalysts than art critics,” Thurber once explained. “If anyone ever drops round wanting to do a biography of me in two volumes, specially boxed for the Christmas trade, you might mention this little fact to him about George. I daresay he will prick up his ears.”
There have been one or two biographies, although not in two volumes specially boxed for the Christmas trade, but I’d recommend plunging into his words and drawings directly. They’re delightful. “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness” he once said. Words worth remembering in these current times.