The Beast in Me and Other Animals, by James Thurber

The Beast in Me and Other Animals

The Beast in Me and Other Animals is another of several Thurber anthologies of short pieces I’ve read over the years. I gather these pieces are all from the period 1928-1948. Some of the copyrights are later, but the Forward by Thurber implies the latest was written about 1948. The bulk of them are from the New Yorker, where he was a regular for so long.

Various of Thurber’s wonderful cartoons are included. Among them are a series of more or less straight drawings of actual unusual animals adapted from a decades-old natural history book treasured by Thurber.

Most of the pieces are either fiction or Thurber’s presumably partly fictionalized autobiographical stories. There are a few that are more journalistic however. The longest piece in the book—broken up into five parts—is one such: an account of radio soap operas. The book closes with a series of pieces two pages or so long each, collectively titled Time Exposures. As described by Thurber in the Forward, “These fragments of the New York scene were the result of random wanderings around the city from 1928 to 1936.”

I’ve been a Thurber fan since I first picked up one of his collections decades ago. I typically like his semi-autobiographical pieces a bit more than his purely fictional pieces, but there are plenty of both that I enjoy a lot. He has that rare gift of often being laugh out loud funny, while also manifesting considerable psychological and sociological insight into his fellow humans (and for that matter into himself—the wry, self-deprecating observer).

There are some gems in this collection, though overall I’d maybe rank it a little below average of the Thurber anthologies I’ve read. The Lady on the Bookcase, Thurber’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of how he comes up with his drawings, is a hoot, not to mention a welcome opportunity to look back at several of his more memorable cartoons, which he uses as examples for the piece. I love the fact that when he drew a hippopotamus (being confronted over having just eaten a man) for his two year old daughter, she immediately recognized it as a “hippotomanus,” whereas the New Yorker could manage no better an identification of it in its files than that of a “strange animal.”

Prehistoric Animals of the Middle West consists of descriptions—accompanied by Thurber drawings—of fanciful extinct animals posited by quack paleontologist Dr. Wesley L. Millmoss. (“Millmoss” is also the name of the unfortunate fellow eaten by a hippopotamus in the earlier mentioned cartoon. This Millmoss, though, reportedly was eaten in Africa by a “large piano-shaped animal.”) The writer allows himself a bit of skepticism about some of Millmoss’s theoretical creatures, but Millmoss’s professional peers apparently are more fully dismissive of him: “The old boy (Dr. Millmoss) has never dug up half as many specimens as he has dreamed up.”

I have to admit that, much to my surprise, the long piece on radio soap operas drew me in about as much as anything in the book. It’s a terrific piece of social history. It’s an example of how Thurber can be just as good when he chooses a straightforward, descriptive, journalistic approach, as when he fictionalizes and embellishes for humor.

For a time, soap operas on the radio were very big, but it’s one of those aspects of pop culture that somehow mostly doesn’t survive in our collective memory. I don’t mean of course that literally no one is aware there were soap operas on the radio back then. But if you ask people today to name a major pop culture phenomenon of the 1930s and 1940s, I would imagine most of those who didn’t respond with a blank stare would name something like big band music, or maybe Humphrey Bogart movies or Fred Astaire movies or something like that having to do with film. Unless they lived through the era, I seriously doubt many would identify it as the golden age of radio soap operas.

But anyone interested in that particular cultural phenomenon will find it nicely preserved in this lengthy Thurber piece. And it’s not just a description of the soap operas as you might find in an encyclopedia, but a thoughtful analysis of them, their writers, their actors, their sponsors, and their audience.

I was sufficiently caught up in the piece that after I finished it, I soon found myself online looking up one of the soap operas Thurber describes at the greatest length—Just Plain Bill, the story of a wise small town barber who consistently finds a way to solve all the problems of the troubled, less functional folks around him. I found a little information on it, but better yet found a recording of an entire episode, which I listened to.

Not that it was anything great, but I was tickled to connect with a Thurber piece in a new way like that.

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