Friday, January 14, 2022

'The General Human Obligation to Gaiety'

The first “adult” book I remember reading, though it was simultaneously marketed for children, was James Thurber’s The Wonderful O (1957). I probably read it in 1959, the year I turned seven, or soon after. It shouldn’t be confused with Story of O by Pauline Réage, hot stuff published in French in 1954 and by Grove Press in 1967. I developed a taste not only for Thurber but for his New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley. Thurber was one of the casualties of my puberty, and I’ve seldom read him since (though I like some of his cartoons). S.J. Perelman hung on a little longer, and I never took to Dorothy Parker. 

Thurber died on November 2, 1961, and in its November 25 issue the Saturday Review published “Salute to Thurber,” four tributes to the humorist. The interesting one is “Universal Daydream” by Peter De Vries, who was hired by The New Yorker in 1944 on Thurber’s recommendation and remained with the magazine until 1987. He was a Christian and inveterate punster, one of our most irresistibly amusing writers, though his greatest novel, The Blood of the Lamb (1961), is based on the death of De Vries’ daughter from leukemia at age ten. Kingsley Amis called De Vries “the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.” He writes of Thurber:


“Now, there is a cliche that Thurber with his keen vision saw through to the bone. Life is no gift at all, but a purchase, paid for as we go, at prices that seem at times rather out of line. He paid as dearly as any man for his life and for his genius, with pains and privations, exactions of courage, and physical and moral trials that would have killed a dozen ordinary men. But the only time he ever complained was on your behalf.”


Here De Vries might be writing straight autobiography. Too long dismissed as a lightweight comedian of suburbia, De Vries is one of our finest comic novelists. It’s about time the Library of America got off its duff, forgot about Ray Bradbury and published some of De Vries’ two dozen novels, starting with The Blood of the Lamb and making sure not to skip The Mackerel Plaza (1958), Reuben, Reuben (1964), Let Me Count the Ways (1965), The Vale of Laughter (1967), and The Cat’s Pajamas and Witch’s Milk (published in a single volume in 1968). De Vries again, ostensibly on Thurber:


“This laureate of the illusory had no illusions. He beckons us to every oasis, but leads us to no mirage. If in his art he told the truth, in his life he told it off. In the last letter he wrote my wife and me, from abroad, in what we know now was his last, crushing round of troubles, he spoke strongly of the general human obligation to gaiety. We have a full shelf of Thurber to help us pursue it. The work of one who. to put it all another way, looked life squarely in the eye.”


[See De Vries’ “James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock,” published in 1943 in Poetry, where De Vries was editor from 1938 to 1944. It is also collected in Without a Stitch in Time (1972).]


Thomas Parker said...

The first adult book I remember reading was The War of the Worlds (though you might dispute its right to placed in the "adult" category). The second was Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, which I found on the bookshelf in a middle school history classroom and instantly fell in love with (though some anarchist had added obscene embellishments to the illustrations, which oddly enough meshed pretty well with Thurber's own style). Over the last half century, it may be my most reread book, and not just because it's short. "The Night the Bed Fell," "The Night the Ghost Got In" - they're always surprising, always funny, and Thurber's lovely, slightly melancholy voice has always been a model of prose style for me.

Speaking of the LOA, there are gaps that puzzle me too. Where is Thomas Wolfe? And especially, where is Erskine Caldwell?

rgfrim said...

Elements of Thurber’s wit arm a dinner table conversationalist. I tend constantly to quote his tribute to the uncle who died of Dutch Elm disease or his claim that “ I’ve got Parkinson’s Disease and he’s got mine.”

Baceseras said...

Amen to the idea of reissuing De Vries novels, but not from the LOA, that imprint more millstone than badge of honor.

And, rgfrim, I confess I've been quoting that joke for years (only with Bright's disease, not Parkinson's) and attributing it to Perelman by way of Groucho. At least one of us is right.