We Are Walter Mitty
James Thurber’s 1939 story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” follows a quiet daydreamer from the mundane to the fantastic and back. Mitty imagines himself in heroic adventures—as commander of a hydroplane, a quick-thinking surgeon, “the greatest pistol shot in the world”—only to snap back to reality, where his wife, a cop or a bag of puppy biscuits is always waiting, unimpressed. This map suggests there may be some Walter Mitty in everyone.
In a 1951 article published in the medical journal The Lancet, English endocrinologist Richard Asher compares Munchausen syndrome, whose sufferers feign symptoms of illness, to a disorder he newly names for another fictional fantasist: Walter Mitty. Asher suggests that, like the title character in James Thurber’s story, Munchausen patients invent personal histories of adventure to live out a glamorous fantasy. Citing the episode in which Mitty imagines himself to be a world-famous doctor, Asher writes that Munchausen patients “may be suffering in fact from the Walter Mitty syndrome, but instead of playing the dramatic part of the surgeon, they submit to the equally dramatic role of the patient.” Although not an officially recognized psychological disorder, Walter Mitty syndrome informally includes pathological liars, imposters and obsessive daydreamers.
Thurber was aware that the scientific community had adopted his character, but he contended Walter Mitty syndrome was not isolated to a small group of psychopathic cases; rather he believed it to be, in varying degrees, part of human nature. Thurber later wrote of the Lancet article, “All normal men are Walter Mittys some of the time, but it is only in such psychopathic cases that their condition is alarming.”
In a 1969 broadcast, radio raconteur Jean Shepherd dissected the fantasy trend that had pervaded pop culture in the previous 10 years. He focused on the contemporary string of hit plays about sexual fantasy, including Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, but Shepherd also mentioned the way athletes are idolized in sports books, such as George Plimpton’s accounts of his outsider participation in professional baseball and football, Out of My League (1961) and Paper Lion (1965). Shepherd called the fantasy phenomenon a “prolonged adolescence” and compared it to James Thurber’s notorious dreamer Walter Mitty. “We’re living in an age of galloping Walter Mitty–ism,” proclaimed Shepherd. “You see it popping up everywhere. Practically every other play is about a guy’s fantasies. Woody Allen is always doing this Walter Mitty–type stuff. A lot of people are living in the Walter Mitty era, in their mind.” Recognizing that Thurber had spawned a new genre—and anticipating a wave of imitators who could destroy conventional storytelling—Shepherd concluded his show with the sarcastic lament “Oh, James Thurber, what have thou wrought?”
Jean Shepherd’s semiautobiographical story “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” is the basis for the film A Christmas Story, whose child protagonist, Ralphie Parker, enjoys a series of Walter Mitty–type fantasies: vigilantism (saving his family from a gang of burglars), literary glory (receiving improbable commendations for a homework assignment) and parental comeuppance (his parents are wracked with guilt when he goes blind from soap poisoning). One of Shepherd’s fantasy sequences recalls Mitty’s daydream of being the greatest pistol shot in the world, especially in Shepherd’s description of women swooning over a talented sharpshooter:
Years later Shepherd excused Ralphie’s Walter Mitty–ish daydreams as kid stuff, suggesting that James Thurber’s hero reverts to a childhood habit because he is unsatisfied with, or simply unprepared for, the adult world.
Like Walter Mitty, Woody Allen’s character Allan Felix from the stage and film comedy Play It Again, Sam daydreams about stereotypical romantic icons—in Felix’s case, the strong, poised, self-sacrificing man repeatedly portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. A neurotic California film critic, Felix measures himself against Bogart’s image and imagines the actor’s characters coming to life to give him relationship advice. Dressed in his trademark trench coat and fedora, Bogart shares his thoughts on women, love and an outdated masculine ideal that ultimately falls flat to Felix’s ears: “Dames are simple. I never met one who didn’t understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45. Take my advice and forget all this fancy relationship stuff. The world is full of dames. All you got to do is whistle.”
Early in Play It Again, Sam’s reign on Broadway (1969–1970), New York City radio legend Jean Shepherd identified Allen as a creator of “Walter Mitty–type stuff”—situational plays spliced with segments that show what a character is thinking. Allen’s comedy often bypasses conventional dramatic monologue in favor of a protagonist confiding his obsessions to a fantasy figure.
Snoopy’s first appearance as a World War I flying ace, wearing aviator goggles and helmet, in the October 10, 1965, Peanuts comic strip, initiated a new era in the life of Charlie Brown’s lovable beagle. Prior to that, Snoopy had occasionally imagined himself as an athlete and an aspiring novelist, but his regular role as the flying ace battling his nemesis, the Red Baron, inside a rickety Sopwith Camel fighter plane far above the earth, cemented his reputation as a hopeless daydreamer bored with the commonplace activities of the Peanuts gang. In subsequent years Snoopy amassed a large portfolio of alter egos, including Joe Cool (wearing dark sunglasses and an attitude of smooth indifference), the Lone Beagle (a spoof on aviator Charles Lindbergh, nicknamed the Lone Eagle) and a world-class figure skater. In the 1985 television documentary It’s Your 20th Television Anniversary, Charlie Brown, Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, describes the dog’s characteristic fantasy adventures as “Walter Mitty–like.” Years later he elaborated on Snoopy’s escapism in an analysis befitting James Thurber’s Mitty, explaining that Snoopy “has to retreat into his fanciful world in order to survive. Otherwise, he leads kind of a dull, miserable life.”
Turned on to the thrill of participatory journalism by big-game-hunting novelist Ernest Hemingway, George Plimpton petitioned Major League Baseball for the chance to cover the 1960 All-Star Game from the pitcher’s mound instead of the press box. Plimpton later explained, “Sportswriters have never given the reader a sense of what it’s like to be part of a team, of the mystique, ritual, frights and fears of the game.” He captured his experience in Out of My League (1961), first of his many inside-sports accounts. Praising the book, Hemingway said it “has the chilling quality of a true nightmare. It is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.”
Critics frequently compared Plimpton to Mitty, noting how his various roles—including pitcher, football quarterback, boxer, golfer, hockey goalie, circus performer and New York Philharmonic triangle player, each guise full of new dangers, tactics and humiliations—suggested he was continually changing characters. “He was game for anything,” read The New Yorker’s 2003 obituary of Plimpton, “and made a comic art of his Walter Mitty dreams.” As Time magazine put it, Plimpton was a “successful Walter Mitty” because he was able to do what Mitty never could: live out his fantasies.