Thurber Reading – Preface To A Life – Countdown with Keith Olbermann

Thurber Reading – Preface To A Life – Countdown with Keith Olbermann

October 14, 2019 0 By Luis Garrison


OLBERMANN: All of Thurber is autobiographical,
but in nothing perhaps does he get closer to addressing his own idiosyncrasies, phobias
and tics than in something that most people shoot right past. Something I’ll read in a moment. Thurber really ticked off his own family with
everything else he wrote in the book, “My Life in Hard Times.” His brother in particular — brothers rather
really never forgave him for his exaggerated characterizations of them. But, he may have been harshest on himself
in the preface. I read some of “My Life in Hard Times” in
the James Thurber audio collection, which you can download on Amazon and iTunes and
everywhere else. From which, I’m happy to say I don’t make
dime. I’m reading tonight from “My Life and Hard
Times,” and Thurber has dated and date-lined this composition. “Sandy Hook, Connecticut, September 25th,
1933. ‘Preface to a Life,’ by James Thurber. Benvenuto Cellini said that, ‘A man should
be at least 40 years old before he undertakes so fine an enterprise as that of setting down
a story of his life. He said also that, ‘An autobiographer should
have accomplished something of excellence. Nowadays nobody who has a typewriter pays
any attention to the master’s quaint rules. I myself have accomplished nothing of excellence
except a remarkable, and to some of my friends, unaccountable expertness in hitting empty
ginger ale bottles with small rocks. At the distance of 30 paces. Moreover, I’m not yet 40 years old, but the
grim date moves toward me at pace. My legs are beginning to go. Things blur before my eyes, and the faces
of the rose-lipped maids I knew in my 20s are misty as dreams. At 40, my faculties may have closed up like
flowers at evening, leaving me unable to write my memoirs with a fitting and discrete inaccuracy
or having written them. Unable to carry them to the publishers. A writer, verging in to the middle years who
lives in dread of losing his way to the publishing house and wandering. There to disappear like Ambrose Bierce. And he has sometimes also has the kindred
dread of turning a corner and meeting himself sauntering long in the opposite direction. I have known writers of this dangerous and
tricky age to phone their homes, from their offices or their offices from their homes
ask for themselves in a low tone. And then having fortunately discovered they
were out to collapse in relief. This is particularly writers of light pieces,
running from 1,000 to 2,000 words. The notion that some of these persons are
gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead as matter of fact an existence of
jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of literature
in the house of life. They have the feeling that they have never
taken off their overcoats, afraid of losing themselves in the two-volume novel or even
the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of misadventures because they never
get so deep into them but that they feel they can out. This type of writing is not a joyous form
of self-expression, but the manifestation of a twitchiness that is once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows
why, a genius for getting in to minor difficulties. They walk into the wrong apartments. They drink furniture polish for stomach bitters. They drive their cars in to the prized tulip
beds of neighbors. They playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them
for old school friends. To call such persons humorous, a lose-fitting
and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set
in motion by the damp hand of melancholy. Such a writer moves about restlessly wherever
he goes, ready to get the hell out at the drop of a pie pan or the lift of a skirt. His gestures are the ludicrous reflexes of
the maladjusted. His repose is the momentary inertia of the
nonplussed. He pulls the blinds against the morning and
creeps in to smoky corners at night. He talks largely about small matters and smally
about great affairs. His ears are shut to the ominous rumblings
of the dynasties of the world moving toward a cloudier chaos than ever before, but he
hears with an acute perception the startling sounds that rabbits make twisting in the bushes
along a country road at night, and a cold chill comes upon him when the comic supplement
of a Sunday newspaper blows unexpectedly out of an areaway and envelops his knees. He can sleep while the commonwealth crumbles,
but a strange sound in the pantry at 3:00 in the morning will strike terror into his
stomach. He is not afraid or much aware of the menaces
of empire, but he keeps looking behind him as he walks along darkening streets out of
the fear that he’s being softly followed by little men, padding along in single file,
about a foot-and-a-half high, large-eyed and whiskered. It is difficult for such a person to conform
to what Ford Madox Ford in his book of recollections has called the sole reason for writing one’s
memoirs, mainly to paint a picture of one’s time. Your short piece writer’s time is not Walter
Lippmann’s time, or Stuart Chase’s time, or Professor Einstein’s time. It is his own personal time, circumscribed
by the short boundaries of his pain and his embarrassment, in which what happens to his
digestion, the rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationships with six
or eight persons and two or three buildings is of greater importance than what goes on
in the nation or in the Universe. He knows vaguely that the nation is not much
good anymore. He has read that the crust of the Earth is
shrinking alarmingly and that the Universe is growing steadily colder, but he does not
believe that any of the three is in half as bad of a shape as he is. Enormous strides are made in star measurement,
theoretical economics, and the manufacture of bombing planes, but he usually doesn’t
find out about them until he picks up an old copy of “Time” on a picnic ground or in the
summer house of a friend. He is aware that billions of dollars are stolen
every year by bankers and politicians and that thousands of people are out of work,
but these conditions do not worry him a tenth as much as the time he has wasted three months
on a stupid psychoanalyst or the suspicion that a piece that he has been working on for
two long days was done much better, and probably more quickly, by Robert Benchley in 1924. The time of such a writer then is hardly worth
reading about if the reader wishes to find out what was going on in the world while the
writer in question was alive in what might laughingly called “his best.” All that the reader is going to find out is
what happened to the writer. The composition, I suppose, must lie in the
comforting feeling that one has had, after all, a pretty sensible and peaceful life by
comparison. It is unfortunate, however, that even a well-ordered
life cannot lead anybody safely around the inevitable doom that waits in the skies. As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out,
‘The claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.'” “Preface to a Life,” by James Thurber. That’s “Countdown,” in New York. I’m Keith Olbermann. Good night, and good luck.