Thurber Country, by James Thurber

Thurber Country

Thurber Country is one of several James Thurber anthologies I’ve read. I generally enjoy his writing quite a bit. I like his style of wry humor, and I like his insightfulness about human nature and ordinary people.

There are some stories and essays from his later years that I don’t like as much, as he became more of a curmudgeon and a scold.

The selections in this anthology come from late in his writing career—1949 to 1953—yet few if any of them have that disagreeable tone. The Thurber of this collection is the likable Thurber.

Unlike some of the other anthologies, this one does not include any of his cartoons (other than an uncaptioned drawing at the opening of most of the pieces).

I won’t go through all the selections, but I’ll mention a few favorites.

The Figgerin’ of Aunt Wilma is laugh out loud funny. Aunt Wilma is an elderly woman who ties herself in knots trying to do simple arithmetic. But instead of being humble about it, seeking help, feeling stupid, etc., she aggressively defends her calculating and insists all those around her are dull-witted or trying to cheat her. Her confidence is inversely proportionate to her ability. I appreciate this one because I’ve encountered this kind of person many times in real life—someone who is clueless about math, or more often basic reasoning—yet is more fiercely attached to their resulting dubious beliefs than someone who can actually think straight.

The premise of What a Lovely Generalization! is that Thurber has noticed that people make some pretty outlandish generalizations in conversation, and so he sets about saving some of his favorites. These include such notables as “There are no pianos in Japan,” “You never see foreigners fishing,” and “Peach ice cream is never as good as you think it’s going to be.” Some of the examples are funny enough on their own, but then when he explains the context of who said them and when, they’re especially hilarious.

Do You Want to Make Something Out of It isn’t necessarily one of the funniest or most entertaining pieces—though it’s fine—but it did pique my curiosity about the parlor game that is its subject. It’s a word game called “ghosts.” (He also explains a variant called “superghosts.”) It involves adding letters in turn to form parts of words, where you try to trap the next person into forming the whole word. So if it’s “alle” when it comes to you, you can make it “allet” in the hopes that the next person will be unable to think of anything other than completing a full word with something like “mallet” or “ballet.” (He can’t get out of it by just adding a random letter, say “alletq,” because he can then be challenged and would have to cite a word that contained that sequence of letters.) It sounds like it might be kind of fun.

The Girls in the Closet is an entertaining story of mistranslations. The one that is used as the title of the story comes from when Mr. and Mrs. Thurber were staying in France, found an old phone buried under a large amount of wiring in a closet, were puzzled, and asked their hosts about it. Unfortunately their attempt to say something like “There is a great deal of wire in the closet” in French came out as “There are too many girls in the closet,” leaving their hosts rather concerned about the mental state of their guests.

File and Forget and Joyeux Noël, Mr. Durning are wonderful tales of the frustrations of corresponding with customer service people or government people who allow things to drift farther and farther into illogic. (I can only imagine how he’d react to what we have to put up with nowadays, where contacting customer service almost always means working your way through a computerized menu and/or talking to someone in a foreign country who can barely speak English but works cheap.)

A Friend of the Earth is a fine story about Thurber instinctively despising a lovable old rascal type, the kind of small town philosopher that others perceive as wise and quite a card. I associate this story now with Keith Olbermann. It’s one of maybe a half dozen I happened to see him read on his “Fridays with Thurber” segment of the MSNBC version of Countdown, but it’s stuck with me more than the others, perhaps because it was one of the last he read before the network was bought out and he was canned.

I don’t know where I would rank Thurber Country compared to the others I’ve read—I suppose I’d have to go through them all systematically and remind myself which stories are in which book—but it’s a winner. I recommend it to Thurber lovers who happen not to have read these particular selections, and I think it would also be a fine introduction for those who are new to Thurber.

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