The Thurber Question

James Thurber died on this day in 1961. One of Thurber’s most popular books, co-authored with E. B. White, was Is Sex Necessary? (1929). As Thurber indicates in the preface, the book was a parody of pop psychology, especially of watered-down or would-be Freudians clutching their copy of The Interpretation of Dreams (first published November 4, 1899, it also has an anniversary this week,):

When Man first came into being, he did not think that the female was extraordinary. He did not think that anything was extraordinary. The world was unattractive, and a little dull. There was no vegetation, and without vegetation there can be no fancy. Then trees came into existence. It was trees that first made Man begin to brood. In pondering their leafy intricacies he got his first crude concept of beauty. He used to tear great branches out of trees and take them home to his cave woman. “Here,” he would say to her, “lie on these.” The man then reclined in a corner of the cave and watched the woman’s hair mingle with the leaves, and her eyes shine through them, until he fell asleep. His dreams were troubled. Woman came into his dreams as a tree, and then a tree came into his dreams as a woman…. It was something to think about. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Thus was the subconscious born, with all its strange mixture of fact and symbol.

The battle of the sexes, a favorite theme in Thurber’s writing and cartoons, approaches endgame in Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? (2005):

As a species, it’s possible that men are ever so last century. Are they any longer necessary for procreation? Have they proven themselves emotionally incapable of governing the country because they are really the ones subject to hissy fits and hormonal imbalances? Is their pillaging and plundering, war-mongering, empire-building Y chromosome melting faster than the Wicked Witch of the West? Is it time to dispense with all those oxygen-depleting men batting out opinions in newspapers, TV and blogs, and those computer-generated-looking male anchor clones on network news?

Dowd anticipates a far-future world in which the Y chromosome has “gone the way of the dial-up connection,” leaving women the field: “And we’ll run the world. In a manly way, of course.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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