Mid-Century Flash Fiction: James Thurber’s Fables for our Time

James Thurber (1894-1961) occupies a rather unique place in this discussion of fairy tales and their creators: as far as I know, he is the only writer of fairy tales and fables who suffered a permanent disability in an attempt to recreate a legend.

As the story goes, young James Thurber, placing a perhaps admirable if inevitably misguided trust in his older brother, agreed to stand very very still with an apple on his head so that said older brother could shoot the apple off his head with an arrow, as part of their game of William Tell. Unfortunately, the young Thurbers lacked William Tell’s accuracy with an arrow, and so the arrow hit James Thurber’s eye instead of the apple. James Thurber lost his vision in that eye, and spent the rest of his life slowly going blind.

The injury also robbed him of a college degree: he was able to attend Ohio State University and pass all of his courses, except one, a mandatory ROTC course that required perfect eyesight. Ohio State did eventually correct this injustice—in 1995, well after Thurber’s death. In the meantime, Thurber had to live without the college degree most would agree he had earned.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Thurber responded to this by taking off to Paris for a bit, eventually shuffling between Paris and Ohio and various jobs, until he found himself at a party in New York City in 1926. There, his friend E.B. White, later of Charlotte’s Web fame, introduced him to Harold Ross, of “Hi, I’m the editor of The New Yorker” fame. It was the start of a lifetime of producing cartoons, essays and short stories for The New Yorker, including his most celebrated short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” later adapted into two Hollywood films and a Broadway play. Thurber also penned novels and the occasional play.

In 1939, Thurber began writing a series of short fables for The New Yorker. Later collected in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, the fables today would probably be classified as flash fiction: short, sharp retellings of themes from fairy tales and folklore, given brutal and cynical twists. The majority of the stories featured talking animals, making Thurber the second out of at least three New Yorker staff writers who ended up writing tales of talking animals. The third was Thurber’s friend E.B. White, whose Stuart Little would appear in 1945, at the end of World War II. The first was Walter R. Brooks, who had been regularly churning out books in his satirical Freddy the Pig series since 1926—a series which took on an increasingly sharp and urgent tone in the 1930s.

How much Walter R. Brooks influenced James Thurber is difficult to tell—Thurber had presumably at least heard of the popular series, but may not have read the books, which were, after all, aimed at children, not the staff writers who had replaced Brooks at The New Yorker. But the two had a similar response to the looming threat of another European war: talking animals and biting humor.

Thurber’s fables range from cynical to downright cruel. A few—such as “The Green Isle in the Sea,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker on February 17, 1940, “The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble,” from August 26, 1939, and “The Birds and the Foxes,” from October 21, 1939—make specific allusions to bombers, genocide, anti-Semitism and other contemporary events, with “The Birds and the Foxes,” in particular, both eerily prescient and a call to resist fascism. Many have endings that can be kindly described as bleak. But dark those most of the fables are, every once in a while, Thurber would respond with unexpected hope, or wisdom disguised as cynicism.

Some of the fables, such as “The Mouse Who Went to the Country,” “The Little Girl and the Wolf” and “The Hen Who Wouldn’t Fly,” are versions of well-known fairy tales, with greatly changed endings. Others, such as “The Stork Who Married a Dumb Wife,” merely allude to bits of other fairy tales and folklore—though Hans Christian Anderson would have struggled to recognize any of his storks in Thurber’s tales.

Most, however, are original fables, and all feature characters trying to break away from stereotyped roles, sometimes successfully (as in “The Little Girl and the Wolf”), sometimes not (as in “The Elephant Who Challenged the World.”) Women, animal and human, end up challenging gender norms and outright commands on a regular basis. Told to not pick up weapons, or to stay at home, hardly prevents them from picking up weapons (or in one case, a brick), getting revenge, and leaving home. One or two men, too, also challenge gender roles—not always successfully. But remaining static, and not breaking away from stereotyped roles can be equally dangerous—as in “The Birds and the Foxes,” Thurber’s most unmistakable warning against fascism and Nazis. The tale is careful not to blame the Baltimore oriole victims exactly, but is also clear: accepting the roles assigned to you by society can be deadly.

Each fable ends with a moral—sometimes a twist on a well-known proverb or saying, sometimes something Thurber just made up. Some of the morals contain puns that are either brilliant or tedious, depending upon your tolerance for puns. Mine is quite, quite high, so let’s go with brilliant. Some are brilliant despite not having pun. And some, as in a rather nasty fable about two sheep competing for a news scoop, ending with the moral, “Don’t get it right, get it written,” end up contradicting the story completely—while simultaneously expressing a thought strongly held by the characters. (I can’t help but think that this story might have been inspired by a real life event at The New Yorker.)

My favorite moral here is “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead,” a moral I feel many fellow night-owls can firmly agree with. (Let’s face it: Benjamin Franklin was wrong about many things, including the original of that one.) Followed by “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.” My favorite fable, however, is one of the more hopeful ones: “The Moth and the Star,” about a young moth who decides not to follow the pragmatic advice of his parents, but to fly to a star instead. It works.

Because the fables are all quite short—nearly all of them can be easily fitted on one or two paperback pages—the collection was expanded with a series of famous classic (read, not copyrighted) poems illustrated with Thurber’s cartoons. I’m frankly not sure just how much the cartoons add to the poetry—amusing as it is to see a man lounging with a cigar in a cartoon for Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” In some cases, it seems a mixed addition—the fun of the first few cartoons for Rose Hardwick Thorpe’s “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” is completely blown by the last cartoon, where the image of the spared convict made me shout, out loud, “YOU SHOULD HAVE LET THAT CURFEW RING, BESSIE, YOU’D BE SAFER!” and completely miss the point of the poem. But if you are interested in a cartoons of some famous poems, those too might be worth a look.

Thurber continued to write and draw throughout World War II and afterwards, although as his eyesight continued to fail, he eventually abandoned his cartoons. His works included five original fairy tale books for children, as well as collections of his short stories and essays, many edited by his second wife, Helen Wismer Thurber. He died knowing that many of his short stories, including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat” had entered the American literary canon.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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