John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the July 22, 2009 Providence Journal.
When I was growing up, my sense of humor was largely defined by James Thurber and his famous story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In our home, as in so many other upper-middle-class American families in the ’50s and ’60s, Thurber was the last word in sophisticated satire, whose only possible rivals were Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip and Charles Addams, of Addams Family fame.
I vividly remember my father and a friend of his, psychoanalyst and New Yorker devotee Alfred Flarsheim, gleefully reciting the highlights of Mitty’s heroic fantasy life– with particular emphasis on the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” machine sounds that accompany him on his death-defying, devil-may-care exploits in the air, in the courtroom and over the operating table. That the middle-aged Mitty was living a life of quiet desperation was central to the joke– his James Bondish daydreams occur while on a shopping trip to “Waterbury” with his overbearing wife, who reminds him “to get those overshoes while I’m having my hair done.”
Long before John Updike, John Cheever and Evan Connell portrayed him in fiction, the beleaguered, frustrated, middle-to-upper-middle-class white male was a fruitful subject for Thurber’s deft cartoons and writing. It is the Mitty persona, I imagine, that recoils in the Thurber cartoon in which a lawyer confronts a witness with a kangaroo and declares: “Perhaps this will refresh your memory.”
For years, I accepted the culture’s line on Thurber– I stipulated, as Edward Weeks wrote in The Atlantic, that he was “the No. 1 funnyman in the U.S.” And I had plenty of company: Even the resolutely unsophisticated and unfunny Reader’s Digest decreed that “James Thurber is one of the funniest men in America.” True, “much of his humor has been labeled ‘nonsense,’ but there is an uneasy feeling abroad that the inhabitants of ‘Thurber’s World’ of deranged sanity may be us.”
But something about Thurber’s approach to laughs has always made me uncomfortable. I had a sneaking suspicion that he was more than a bit off target in his send-ups of modern life, in the same way that Lewis Carroll was weirdly off key in his supposedly delightful “children’s” book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a very disturbing tale I don’t recommend for children. The Life magazine blurb in my yellowing mass-market paperback copy of The Beast in Me and Other Animals gives us a clue: While Thurber may well have been “the greatest working humorist of our day… his lethal, deceptively casual pot shots at human foibles continue to amuse the people he is insulting.” Well, why were they laughing if they were being insulted by killer words?
Recently, I got an insight into my uneasiness about Thurber and his canonization (most notably in a Library of America edition that puts him on the bookshelf right up there with Lincoln and Melville). By good fortune, I watched the excellent Thurber documentary made by my friend the painter Adam Van Doren, which favors its subject but nevertheless describes what was clearly a tortured soul. Thurber’s childhood– especially his accidental loss of an eye and his eccentric mother– made for a very complicated stew.
I won’t play amateur psychologist with someone I don’t feel I understand. But the unattractive aspect of Thurber that may have resonated with my unsentimental, often mocking father, was best described by Van Doren’s grandfather, Mark, the brilliant Columbia English professor and poet who was a good friend and admirer of Thurber’s.
In a filmed conversation with Archibald MacLeish, Van Doren the elder described how on first meeting Thurber, in 1941, the famous “humor” writer wept when they were alone together. Van Doren asked what was the matter and Thurber, who had recently lost his sight in his remaining good eye, replied, “this blindness is a punishment…. In my writings I have always dealt with meanness and stupidity. My subject has never been goodness and strength. I have always talked about poor, weak people. I made fun of them. So this is a punishment. I have been stricken blind.” A gross exaggeration, as Van Doren sought to reassure Thurber, but very sad coming from America’s Number 1 funnyman.
However, something else has shaken my faith in Thurber’s undisputed top ranking in the pantheon of humorists. By chance, last month I visited the Charles Addams Foundation, in Sagaponack, Long Island, where the great cartoonist of the macabre had occupied, with his third wife, his last home and studio.
Unfortunately, Addams’s spooky creations are best remembered through the silly TV series, The Addams Family, which aired in the mid-’60s, and a 1991 movie of the same name. But a tour of his comfortable, utterly unspooky house and its lovely Giverny-like garden dramatically revived my earliest feelings about Addams’s work– and my doubts about Thurber’s. Addams’s cartoons, displayed throughout the house among other memorabilia, were simply laugh-out-loud funny. And– odd for such overtly sinister humor– I didn’t feel bad, or mean-spirited, after I’d laughed.
Since Addams didn’t write pieces, the best point of comparison between him and Thurber is their respective reflections on the war between the sexes. Both cartoonists portrayed spouses in states of distressing confrontation– in Addams’s work they’re frequently at knifepoint or gunpoint. With Thurber, the wife is frequently oversized, aggressive, and spiteful, as in his cartoon where a tall woman looking down at her dismayed husband says: “When I Realize That I Once Actually Loved You I Go Cold All Over.” Ouch. I get the joke, and the ironic twist, but I don’t laugh when I scan this cartoon because it’s just too bitterly unhappy.
Addams’s portrayals of conjugal conflict do something quite different. A boring-looking, expressionless American couple is visiting the Coliseum in contemporary Rome; projected above is the husband’s fantasy of his wife being chased by a lion in front of huge crowd in ancient Rome. Very funny, as well as grim, yet not merciless. And Addams generously grants wives their due in relation to annoying husbands, as in the cartoon where an elderly woman greets her shaggy, unkempt spouse at the door: “This had better be good, Robinson.”
Moreover, Addams’s couples share the pain of life: the man tying his wife to the railroad tracks while she presses her finger on the rope to help him tie the knot; Morticia and Gomez in intimate embrace, side by side in front of a cold, unlit fireplace:
“Are you unhappy, darling?”
“Oh yes, yes! Completely.”
Somehow, Addams’s deliberately inhuman-looking characters are more humane and redeeming to me than Thurber’s chilly, uncompassionate caricatures. And they have a better feel for the restorative power of humor. There’s real warmth and good humor between the ghoulish Morticia and Gomez. Walter Mitty’s life is pathetic and discouraging, and his relationship with his wife is frigid. After all this time at the Thurber Carnival, I’d rather live with The Addams Family.