Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Greatest Man in the World

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

One of James Thurber’s illustrations for “The Greatest Man in the World” when the story was reprinted in his collection The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935).     
© 1935 James Thurber. Image reproduced by arrangement with Rosemary A. Thurber c/o The Barbara Hogenson Agency.
Shortly after selling his first piece to The New Yorker in 1927 (after a slew of rejections the previous year), James Thurber met and befriended E. B. White, who introduced him to the magazine’s founding editor, Harold W. Ross. Impressed, Ross immediately hired Thurber, who had been working as a reporter for the New York Evening Post, and made him an administrator. It didn’t take long for Ross and his colleagues to realize that Thurber had absolutely no talent for management. So Thurber took on copyediting chores, White became his new office mate, and the two men created or edited virtually all of the “Talk of the Town” pieces for the next eight years. “White taught me about writing, how to clear up sloppy journalese,” Thurber said in an interview a quarter century later. “He got me away from a rather curious style I was starting to perfect—tight journalese laced with heavy doses of Henry James.”

By 1931, when Thurber wrote “The Greatest Man in the World,” the magazine was regularly publishing his stories and drawings (including the first of 307 captioned cartoons that would appear in its pages). Thurber’s success happened despite—or perhaps because—his marriage and personal life was in shambles. “The only good that came out of that marriage,” White wrote to Thurber’s second wife many years later, “was that it made Jim so miserable that he doodled to take his mind off his troubles. And from the doodles came the drawings that enchanted the world.” William Shawn, who was hired in 1933, told Thurber biographer Harrison Kenney, “When I joined the staff, he was an established part of the New Yorker generation ahead of me, one of the founding fathers, already much more than a ‘Talk’ rewrite man; he was known internationally, and an important writer.”

“The Greatest Man in the World” is characteristic of Thurber’s satires and parodies: “genteelly vitriolic,” as The New York Times put it. At the time he wrote the story, Scribner’s magazine had been running a series of short “alternative history” pieces imagining what might have happened if events had turned out differently (e.g., “If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”). “To Thurber,” write Kenney, “the series begged to be parodied,” and his first New Yorker piece in this vein was “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” Then, inspired by the public adoration for aviator Charles A. Lindbergh after making the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1927, Thurber wondered what if, instead of a man as modest and gracious as Lindbergh, America’s next hero turned out to be an illiterate, ill-mannered, drunken boor.

Thus was born Jack “Pal” Smurch. Of course, Thurber wasn’t ridiculing Lindbergh himself; he was instead mocking the American susceptibility to hero worship—and the part played by the media in fostering such narratives. Perhaps not surprisingly, the figure of Smurch has often been invoked over the last eight decades—up through the present election cycle—when referring to certain politicians and celebrities. If anything has changed since Thurber’s day, it’s the more prominent role of the media in tearing down such figures after building them up.

*   *   *
Looking back on it now, from the vantage point of 1940, one can only marvel that it hadn’t happened long before it did. The United States of America had been, ever since Kitty Hawk, blindly constructing the elaborate petard by which, sooner or later, it must be hoist. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.