Collecting Himself, by James Thurber

Collecting Himself

Collecting Himself is one of many Thurber compilations I’ve read. It is a little different from the others in that Thurber himself had no hand in putting it together. It came out almost thirty years after Thurber died, edited by the literary director of the Thurber House Michael J. Rosen. It consists of writings—and a few scattered drawings—that had not appeared in any previous Thurber compilation, and in many cases had never been published at all, and snippets of interviews of Thurber over the years. The theme of the book is writing and writers, so it consists of such things as Thurber’s descriptions of his own writing process, his assessments of other writers including book reviews, parodies of other writers, and his thoughts on the state of writing in general during his time.

I generally enjoy Thurber, but I’ll admit a certain percentage of his stuff is over my head. A little bit of it is that I don’t get some of the references from fifty to a hundred years ago and sometimes have little or no familiarity with the people he’s talking about, but frankly a lot of it is that my intelligence isn’t the kind of intelligence that can comfortably decipher the level of erudition at which he sometimes writes.

It could be considerably worse, as he puts such a value on clarity (“beautiful words so arranged as to present truthful ideas intelligibly”) that his highbrow stuff isn’t nearly as dense as the same ideas might be expressed by someone else. So I miss some things, but I get a lot too.

One point worth thinking about that Thurber makes about writing is that you shouldn’t be too rigid about rules of grammar and usage, but should recognize that differences can be situationally justified.

Take use of the comma, for instance. He bemoans his New Yorker editors’ insistence on overuse of commas, arguing that they can and should be left out when they don’t aid clarity. “Tall dark and handsome” needs no commas, he contends, because there’s no ambiguity that a comma would help clear up, no risk that a reader will think “tall dark” denotes a tall type of dark. Similarly, “red white and blue” is perfectly understandable without commas.

As a reviewer, Thurber is admirably unpredictable. He doesn’t automatically like everything by the big names that you’re supposed to like, and he doesn’t play the role of the impossible-to-satisfy curmudgeon who delights in trashing everything. He thinks Gertrude Stein’s writing is atrocious. He mostly likes John Steinbeck but hated The Moon is Down. He likes Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and regarded Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt to be the best book of 1922. He’s less than enamored with writers like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce who are more obscure than there’s any justification for.

I mostly didn’t enjoy the parodies as much as some of the other pieces, as I was typically not sufficiently familiar with the writer in question’s work to ascertain how accurate or funny the parody was.

Indeed, the book as a whole just didn’t appeal to me as much as most of what I’ve read by Thurber. The inside baseball stuff about the New Yorker, the attempts to analyze humor, the parodies of writers I’ve mostly not read—I guess I just get a lot more out of his fiction and maybe some of his more journalistic writings, neither of which is represented in this compilation.

Certainly Collecting Himself has its moments. I chuckled here and there, found an occasional observation insightful, and enjoyed a few shots he takes at deserving targets. (An example of the last being his response to a letter to the editor objecting to his negative review of The Moon is Down, which turned out to be from the book’s publisher, not exactly an unbiased source of indignation. The letter writer had called the review a “slap in the face.” Thurber’s reply closed with, “I am sorry about that slap in the face. I didn’t realize my hand was open.”) But it’s not the compilation I would suggest as an introduction for a reader new to Thurber.

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