Often placed alongside Mark Twain in the pantheon of American humorists, James Thurber (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Is Sex Necessary?) is perhaps worthy of his own surreal category. This map links Thurber to a few other artists with unique perspectives—including Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll, the Marx Brothers and John Lennon—to describe his wide circle of influence and remind readers that his signature silliness is ridiculously timeless.
In 1927 The New Yorker hired James Thurber as an editor. He shared an office with staff writer E.B. White, who later wrote the children’s classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Packed into small quarters (“just room enough for two men and two typewriters,” according to White), they collaborated on the magazine’s Talk of the Town section, which they wrote almost exclusively from 1927 to 1936. Thurber’s other main contributions were short stories and humorous essays, and the magazine continued to print them after Thurber left its staff in the mid-1930s. The New Yorker has published nearly a thousand Thurber pieces.
In 1929 Thurber and White cowrote the psychology spoof Is Sex Necessary?, the first book to feature Thurber’s illustrations. Described by fellow New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker as having the “outer semblance of unbaked cookies,” Thurber’s spare line drawings perfectly complement his uncluttered prose. Printed alongside his stories and in independent frames captioned with Thurber’s understated wit, his illustrations became a fixture at the magazine, the forerunners of today’s celebrated New Yorker cartoons. When Thurber attempted more elaborate drawings featuring crosshatching, however, White offered some characteristic advice: “Don’t do that. If you ever got good, you’d be mediocre.”
By 1925, four years before his film debut, comedian Groucho Marx was submitting his writing to the newly founded New Yorker magazine, signing his short fictional and autobiographical pieces with his given name, Julius H. Marx. He retained a lifelong respect for the giants of the literary world and dedicated his 1959 autobiography, Groucho and Me, to New Yorker writers Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Ring Lardner, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber and E.B. White: “these six masters without whose wise and witty words my life would have been even duller.” Thurber wrote the book’s foreword, which mentions his surprise, on first meeting Marx, at how quickly they became embroiled in a serious discussion of Henry James’s ghost story “The Jolly Corner”—not an easy read.
This conversation reinforced their respect for each other’s work—Marx had earlier touted Thurber’s book Is Sex Necessary?—and led to a correspondence that lasted until Thurber’s death. Still a fervent admirer in 1958, Marx invited Thurber to one of his performances: “If you can come, and drag along E.B. White,” Marx wrote in a letter, “I could then die happy, knowing that I had encountered…the literary class of our time.”
A lifelong theater enthusiast, Salvador Dalí was passionate about the potential for motion pictures as a vehicle for surrealist art, saying in 1927, “In art there is nothing to understand, just as there is nothing to understand in a comedy film.” He visited Hollywood for the first time in 1937 and wrote of his initial impressions to André Breton, a founder of the surrealist movement: “I’ve made contact with the three American surrealists, Harpo Marx, [Walt] Disney and Cecil B. DeMille. I believe I’ve intoxicated them suitably and hope that the possibilities for surrealism here will become a reality.”
Dalí cited irrational juxtaposition (a technique he often employed in his work to evoke the illogical nature of dreams) as the foundation of many Marx Brothers jokes, and he praised the brothers’ ability to switch seamlessly from absurdity to heartrending poignancy. Dalí recognized the members of the popular comedy act as the surrealists’ kin. In 1937 he wrote a screenplay for Groucho, Harpo and Chico, entitled Giraffes on Horseback Salads. Hollywood producers ultimately rejected it, finding its ultrasurrealism—it would have featured a dwarf, an indoor rainstorm and a drowned ox—too shocking and potentially marginalizing for movie audiences.
Salvador Dalí’s unconventional autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), fed his public image as a self-adoring exhibitionist. English author George Orwell reacted harshly: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.” James Thurber, however, was not offended by the book’s content as much as its selling price. At six dollars, it cost three times more than his own autobiography. His satirical New Yorker essay “The Secret Life of James Thurber” (1943) investigates why his life is worth less than Dalí’s.
Thurber draws self-belittling distinctions between his lackluster childhood and Dalí’s extravagant beginnings, including comparisons of their earliest memories. Dalí claimed to remember being in the womb, while Thurber first remembered accompanying his father to the polls to vote for William McKinley in 1900. But Thurber finds common ground in their creative development. Thurber likens Dalí’s bizarre youthful dream life to his own childhood misconceptions of idioms such as “she was all ears,” “tied up at the office” and “she’s crying her heart out,” which he visualized in a literal sense. This strange imagery shaped the “secret, surrealist landscapes” of Thurber’s youth.
Salvador Dalí’s desire to incorporate diverse media into his art attracted him to John Lennon. Anthony Fawcett, Lennon’s personal secretary from 1968 to1970, wrote in his memoir, One Day at a Time, of the surrealist painter’s attempt to woo Lennon into collaboration:
At the end of my audience [with Dalí] he proceeded to make an object for me to take back to John. Using anything at hand—flowers, napkins, makeup—Dalí created a surreal bouquet with a strange face painted on top of it; finally he squeezed a tube of gold liquid paint to create a message for John and signed his name with an elaborate flourish.
Fawcett recalls that Lennon remained uninterested in Dalí’s artistic courtship. A year later, at the New York opening of Lennon’s exhibition of erotic lithographs, Bag One, Dalí arrived leading his pet ocelot on a leash. Despite Lennon’s indifference, however, Dalí had indeed infiltrated his subconscious. Lennon, who frequently used dream imagery in his work, later said, “I dream in color, and it’s always very surreal. My dream world is complete Hieronymus Bosch [16th-century fantastic painter] and Dalí. I love it. I look forward to it every night.”
In 1964 John Lennon published his first book, In His Own Write, containing what he called his “gobbledygook” writing—drawings, poetry and stories written in a teasingly cryptic, sometimes deliberately incomprehensible manner that reemerged in his later songs. Lennon regarded this style as distinct from his early pop lyrics: “I’d have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market, and I didn’t consider them to have any depth at all. To express myself I would write In His Own Write.” The book’s illustrations (along with those in its 1965 follow-up, A Spaniard in the Works) drew critics’ comparisons to the wavy line drawings of James Thurber. During a 1971 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Lennon acknowledged Thurber’s early influence:
I used to love [Thurber’s] stuff when I was a kid. There were three people I was very keen on—Lewis Carroll, Thurber and an English artist called Ronald Searle [illustrator of Thurber’s 13 Clocks & The Wonderful O reissue]. When I was about 11, I was turned on to those three. I think I was about 15 when I started “Thurberizing” the drawings.
John Lennon acknowledged James Thurber’s artistic influence on his wobbly line drawings but often cited Lewis Carroll as an early influence on his songwriting and poetry. Carroll’s poems in particular served as models for the nonsense verse of Lennon’s books In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965), as well as many song lyrics. “I was passionate about [Carroll’s] Alice in Wonderland,” Lennon said in 1968, “and drew all the characters. I did poems in the style of the Jabberwocky. I used to live Alice.”
In a posthumously published 1981 Playboy interview, Lennon reveals the origins of his 1967 songs “I Am the Walrus” (from Carroll’s 1872 poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a commentary on capitalism) and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
The images were from Alice in Wonderland. It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg, and it turns into Humpty-Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere, and I was visualizing that.
Elsewhere Lennon had remarked, “I always wanted to write Alice in Wonderland. I think I still have that as a secret ambition.”
James Thurber discovered a kindred spirit in Lewis Carroll’s “nonsense” poem “Jabberwocky” (1872), imitating its absurd distortion of language in his early poem “When the Linotyper Falls in Love”:
Tell me not in mournful muxbuz
Life is but an excvt bewtrpfg
For the soul of dzzftt that spblitz
And rubguppfg are not what they
In “What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?” (1939), Thurber lifts specific “Jabberwocky” language to convey an indescribable dialect: “In Della’s afternoon it is always brillig; she could outgrabe a mome rath on any wabe in the world. Only Lewis Carroll would have understood Della completely.”
Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland bolstered Thurber’s fascination with odd perceptions, which began with his own poor eyesight. Seven-year-old Thurber severely injured his left eye in a game of William Tell. He eventually lost the eye but gained surreal awareness. His essay “The Admiral on the Wheel” (1936) claims it increased his imagination: “With perfect vision, one is inextricably trapped in the workaday world, a prisoner of reality…. The kingdom of the partly blind is a little like Oz, a little like Wonderland…. Anything you can think of, and a lot you never would think of, can happen there.”