Friday, June 17, 2011

A Box to Hide In

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings and Drawings

Thurber’s illustration for “A Box to Hide In.” Copyright © 1935 James Thurber. Reprinted with permission.
James Thurber once wrote, “Everybody’s father is a great, good man, someone had said, and mine was no exception.” (The “someone” was actually Thurber himself.) His only child, Rosemary, learned that Thurber was her own “great, good man” in a roundabout way. Thurber and her mother, Althea, had divorced when Rosemary was an infant, and she didn’t see much of him for several years. “I thought Franny Comstock [her stepfather] was my father,” she told Harrison Kinney, author of James Thurber: His Life and Times. “I was somewhere around eight when my mother, who was about to divorce [Comstock], told me he wasn’t.” She then began to associate this new presence in her life with some of the fables and stories she enjoyed so much as a child (particularly Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf”). When Althea remarried, “some instinct” caused Rosemary to choose Thurber as her last name.

As a teenager, Rosemary became much closer to her father, often staying with him each summer. According to Kinney, Thurber “developed a full parental claim on her” during this period, paying her tuition at a private school and sending the headmistress a list of nearly thirty books that he thought should be required of students for summer reading: from Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy to Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. When she graduated, her father gave her twenty-seven books as a graduation present, which she loved but says, “My father never got over the fact that I didn’t want to be a writer.”

When Rosemary became a mother, her husband was upset that their daughter screamed whenever he picked her up. Thurber wrote to her with advice for the new father:
Tell Fred that the feminine sex should start off in proper terror of the males. It shows that nature is preparing the girls to do something about the other sex before it is too late. By the time you get this letter, of course, your daughter will be in love with [him] as much as her mother. It takes time to adjust to the greatest menace on the earth, the male of the human species.
For this week’s selection, we offer “A Box to Hide In,” a short Thurber story published a few months before Rosemary was born (she turns eighty later this year). It is also the selection Keith Olbermann chose to launch a popular series of Friday night readings in honor of his own recently departed father, who had suggested just before he died that the broadcaster read Thurber as part of his Countdown program. Olbermann had initially demurred, but his father persisted. “How often have I ever suggested anything for your shows? Try it. You never know.” Sometimes, it happens that fathers do know best.

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I waited till the large woman with the awful hat took up her sack of groceries and went out, peering at the tomatoes and lettuce on her way. The clerk asked me what mine was. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
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