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It's impossible to read this massive biography of James Thurber without speculating on what its subject might have to say about it. That it would be the inspiration for a typically Thurberesque self-parody seems likely. That Thurber, a profoundly shy man who, in one of the many paradoxes that defined him, loved attention, would have been quietly pleased and fascinated by this exhaustive record of his life and career also seems clear.
Harrison Kinney first met Thurber in 1948, when the bemused author, upon being informed that he was the subject of Mr. Kinney's master's thesis for Columbia University, suggested that they talk. Mr. Kinney went on to interview many of Thurber's close friends and acquaintances and to read, seemingly, everything written either by Thurber or about him It is no small praise to say that Mr. Kinney makes a very good case for the need for a biography of this length (1,077 pages of text).
James Thurber was the preeminent literary comedian of America in mid-century. Twenty-six volumes of his antic, wry stories and drawings are available, and although Thurber died in 1961, his work continues to find new admirers. In the 1930s and 1940s Thurber was at the center of a remarkable group of writers and editors. His long relationship with The New Yorker helped to secure that magazine's unique popularity. And Thurber himself, an inspired mimic, disciplined craftsman, prodigious drinker and a man who battled a series of devastating physical maladies (he was legally blind for the last two decades of his life), is sufficiently fascinating to support a lengthy narrative.
Nonetheless, the book is so long and detailed in its recitation of even the smallest aspects of his career that it will primarily be of interest to devoted fans of Thurber's work. For them, of course, no work about Thurber could seem too detailed. Mr. Kinney has uncovered so much about Thurber's life (he was notoriously unreliable in his own recollections about his career and the genesis of his work) that this book is likely to be the definitive source on the man, the quarry from which any future writers will draw their material. Like all of the best literary biographies, James Thurber sends us back to the subject's work with a renewed curiosity and appreciation.