Thurber & Hemingway

James Thurber’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas, in the Ernest Hemingway Manner” was first published in The New Yorker on this day in 1927. Although Hemingway was still a very new name — his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, had been published the previous year — his style was already a target:

…The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.
“Father,” the children said.
There was no answer. He’s there, all right, they thought.
“Father,” they said, and banged on their beds.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“We have visions of sugarplums,” the children said.
“Go to sleep,” said mamma.
“We can’t sleep,” said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.
“Can you sleep?” asked the children.
“No,” I said.
“You ought to sleep.”
“I know. I ought to sleep.…”

Despite Thurber’s jest (and his preference for a very different, “crumble-under-pressure” hero), he and Hemingway became friends in the 1930s and maintained a warm relationship for decades, the two of them dying four months apart in 1961. Below is the last paragraph of a letter Thurber wrote to Hemingway shortly before his suicide; though not sent, Thurber having been persuaded by his wife that his “chatty letter intended to cheer” was not likely to help, the letter indicates that Thurber’s attitude toward Hemingway’s novel is now a long way from parody:

The other night I dreamed that you and I were walking toward a sunset and suddenly the sun began to rise. Reminds me of a favorite book of mine. But, then, I had the same dream about two other men, when they were down, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. Carl was eighty-three on January 6 and Frost is even older. God bless you and keep you. I’ll see you in 1980.

Thurber’s parody appears in Christmas at the New Yorker (2004), an anthology that includes many of the magazine’s most famous writers over eighty years — E. B. White, S. J. Perelman, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Ford, et al. — as well as seasonal cartoons and art.


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.