Let's Reminisce: James Thurber's humor
By Jerry Lincecum
May 26, 2019
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As a young reader I was naturally attracted to humor, and one of the masters of that genre was James Thurber.  As well as being a humorist, he was a cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine, such as "The Catbird Seat," and collected in his numerous books.  I remember what a pleasant surprise it was to discover that the anthology of short stories we read in my freshman English class at Texas A&M included his story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”  Years later I saw the first film version of that story, made in 1947, and it was filmed again in 2013.


Like Mark Twain before him, Thurber became one of the most popular humorists of his time because he celebrated the frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people. He also wrote a Broadway comedy, “The Male Animal,” in collaboration with his college friend Elliott Nugent.  It was later adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.


One of his favorite subjects was dogs and their owners, as I have discovered by reading selections in a book entitled The New Yorker Book of Dogs, which includes some of his cartoons, drawings, and humorous writing.  One of his best-known short stories is "The Dog That Bit People," and in the Book of Dogs I find especially interesting some pieces he wrote for the New Yorker which parody an advice column for dog owners. However, the reader quickly realizes that Thurber has created questions that make fun of the dog owners and written his answers from a point of view that is both critical of the people and sympathetic to their dogs.  He also included simple drawings that were supposedly sent in with the questions.


For example, one question comes from a lady who says, “No one has been able to tell me what kind of dog we have.  I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures.  He only has two.  The other one is the same as this except he faces in the opposite direction.”


Thurber’s answer is that what she has is a cast-iron lawn dog.  He says the expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals.  He adds: “You could remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and cold chisel, or an acetylene torch.  If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct.”


Another query comes from a lady who has three Scotch terriers that behave like naughty children, taking things out of closets and down from shelves, etc.  Her veterinarian advised her to gather up the wreckage, set the dogs down in the middle of it, and say “Ba-ad Scotties!”  But she says this just seems to give them a kind of pleasure, and if she spanks one, the other two jump on her.


Thurber’s answer is a classic piece of understated humor.  In the first place, he says, it is not wise to have three Scotch terriers.  They are sure to get you down, and you are complicating the problem.  The dogs probably think you are entering into their spirit of play.  Their inability to understand what you are trying to get at will eventually make them sad, and then you and the dogs will drift apart.  He recommends dealing with each terrier and each object separately.


One source of great humor is finding a new and unique way of examining human nature.  That is what Thurber created with his “Pet Advisor” vignettes.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: