n this day one hundred twenty years ago James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio. Probably Columbus would never entirely recover from the event. In Thurber’s recollections Columbus became a sort of bizarre never-never land where ghosts roamed and people were terrified of imaginary floods. One of my personal favorites, “The Figgerin’ of Aunt Wilma” (possibly anthologized in Thurber Country), takes what is really a trivial incident involving a penny-careful store proprietor and a woman whose strong subject is clearly not arithmetic and turns it into an epic confrontation between two very different people, each with a strong will and myopic view of life as she is lived.
When I was a kid I was extremely fond of Thurber, once I grasped the rudiments of reading, and went through everything of his we had in the house, even though half the time the material shot way over my head and landed somewhere off in the bushes of my imagination. The illustrations were fun too. My first acquaintance with “Excelsior” and “Barbara Fritchie” came from Thurber’s illustrated versions, and one of my first “real” books was Fables for Our Time (which one of my parents lent to a friend who never returned it).
In some ways Thurber’s work reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s—word play, and a surreal take on life that at least partially matched my own. Had I but known it, there was a fellow in Liverpool, some ten years older than me, who shared my enthusiasms to some extent—his friend Pete recalled him reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” innumerable times, and he did comic drawings explicitly modeled on Thurber’s.
John Lennon (for such was his name) would eventually make the whole pun-filled off-kilter writing thing pay off in spades, but it was a long road. In interviews he remembered Thurber fondly, though my personal favorite is one he gave in Australia. Asked about his influences he mentioned various rhythm-and-blues performers, and then his bandmate Paul said something like, What about Thurber, then? Well, yes, but he’s not much of a singer, Lennon replied.
Of course John Lennon came to a bad end, thanks to the zeal of a born-again Christian missionary, as I’ve recounted elsewhere. On what would have been James Thurber’s 86th birthday, Lennon was gunned down in New York City. I don’t suppose that his missionary-assassin knew that when he picked that particular month and day, but it was not entirely inappropriate to link the two in life and death. Mind you, if it were up to me to dispose these things, Thurber would still be going strong well into his second century, and Lennon would be opening a new exhibition of his art at seventy-four.