His Life and Times
by Harrison Kinney , Henry Holt, 1,238 pages .
In a sense, any biography of James Thurber is superfluous. The facts and circumstances of his life come through so strongly in his writing that anyone familiar with Thurber’s work will also be familiar with the man himself. Whether it was “straight” history ( The Years With Ross, The Thurber Album ), broadly exaggerated family anecdotes ( My Life and Hard Times ), or short-story renderings of his own boisterous socializing and troubles with women (as in the Mr. and Mrs. Monroe tales), Thurber mingled fact and fancy to the point where some of his fiction holds more truth than his ostensible nonfiction.
Harrison Kinney has been gathering information on the Thurber conundrum since the 1940s, and he does not appear to have left much of it out of this hefty tome. In the course of his research he has read issues of Thurber’s high school newspaper, tracked down his teachers and classmates, interviewed his brothers extensively, reviewed old New Yorker payment ledgers, compiled a list of dogs Thurber owned, and evaluated disputes over who was in what speakeasy on which night in 1932. Kinney even quotes, for the first time in any book, letters Thurber wrote to a girlfriend, Ann Honeycutt, during an intense, passionate, but unconsummated eight-year affair while his first marriage was breaking up.
More than most people, Thurber inspired fierce attachment and equally fierce antipathy. After a few drinks he got over his painful shyness and turned into a spellbinding raconteur; after a few more he became nasty and vicious, attacking friend and stranger alike until dawn. A charming note of apology, often illustrated with one of his famous dogs, would follow in a day or two, and he would be back in his hosts’ good graces—at least until the next party. This pattern repeated itself hundreds of times, and some previous biographers have felt compelled to recount each instance. Kinney, clearly sympathetic, does his best to excuse Thurber for such outbursts.
With another writer this sort of quotidian documentation might seem excessive. With Thurber it is the key to understanding his creativity. Kinney does a masterly job of picking out the truth from the embroidery in Thurber’s past. In so doing, he gives some sense of the wonderful mixture of the eccentric and the commonplace that gave us Walter Mitty, The Last Flower , and “The War Between Men and Women.”