Happy Birthday, James Thurber!

image by hauntedpalace

Thanks to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor on NPR today, we learned it was James Thurber’s birthday (12/8/1894-11/2/1961). He was a celebrated American writer and wit, best known for his short stories and cartoons in The New Yorker. While on staff there, he shared a small office and became great friends with E.B. White (hey, just like we became great friends when we worked and shared a desk at the online mag Nerve). Together the two wrote “Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do” (1929), the first prose book either of them had published (hey, just like we wrote our first book together, “The Big Bang”!). Of course, ours was a true-blue sex manual and theirs was a parody of sex manuals — a hilarious send-up of the new “sexologists” on the scene back then, like Freud and his compatriots. And while ours goes into shameless detail (there’s a chapter on fisting, fer chrisakes), their’s never really gets to the sex at all — and that’s its genius. There’s stuff about avoiding sex, high concept and completely unhelpful illustrations, what kids should tell their parents about sex, letters from readers, even a glossary (“Complex: Mental crack-up caused by an emotional, or physical, inability to get away from, or wind things up with, a person of the opposite sex”). It’s such a timelessly funny read, a special 75th anniversary edition was published in 2004 (not something we expect to happen with any of our sex manuals). As John Updike points out in his introduction to that version, Thurber and White were two men with sexist tendencies — par for the course in those times. But if you can get past all the wives-are-the-bane-of-men’s-existence crap (admittedly, it does grow tiresome), you’ll find an otherwise humorous companion piece to any of the more earnest, inclusive, women-friendly, and incredibly helpful sex manuals you might have in your library or on your coffee table (ours, ours, oh please ours!). Here’s an excerpt from the chapter ‘The Nature of the American Male: A Study of Pedestalism’ in “Is Sex Necessary?”:

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One Comment

  1. I’m not remembering the details very well anymore, but after his death wallpaper was removed in his home and behind it was found a plethora of pornographic drawings done by the man himself in his characteristic simple line style. Thurber was a character and gave us many characters to enjoy including of course the great Walter Mitty. I haven’t read is sex necessary? in years, I’ll have to dig out my copy. Imagine working with Dorothy Parker and James Thurber. One could never feel “safe” and it would be wicked fun.

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