Arnie Reisman discusses James Thurber’s wit and style

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Author James Thurber in 1954. — Fred Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons

In 1925, James Thurber and The New Yorker magazine showed up in Manhattan at the same time. It was love at first sight.

The fledgling magazine and the journeyman reporter from Columbus, Ohio, helped each other become literary lions. The New Yorker is a household name today. Though Thurber is less-known, his wit and literary style perfectly fit the vision of The New Yorker co-founder and editor Harold Ross.

In addition to regular contributions and cartoons for The New Yorker, Mr. Thurber wrote several Broadway plays and squeezed in 26 books and novels, several of which were made into films, including, most recently, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2013) starring Ben Stiller.

Thurber’s wit and style are credited as major influences by writers and commentators from Keith Olbermann to Norm MacDonald. After all, it was Mr. Thurber who observed: ”Progress was alright. Only it went on too long” and “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”

Island resident Arnie Reisman will take up discussion of Mr. Thurber and his work at 7 pm on Jan. 25 at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. The event is presented by the Vineyard Haven library and the Katharine Cornell Theatre and sponsored by Islanders Read The Classics (IRTC), an initiative from Islanders Write, the MV Times, and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association.

Come to think of it, Mr. Reisman may be the perfect man for the job. He and Mr. Thurber have much in common. Both are funny Midwesterners with a love of words and wordplaying across a wide variety of media.

Recently, The Times spoke with Mr. Reisman about James Thurber and his work.

“He’s got a wonderful style, an off-the-wall style, often describing someone being pushed to his limits using things that are simple, with a universal theme and making them outsized events,” Mr. Reisman said.

“Thurber has Island history. I started reading about him 35 years ago when we were renters and found a wonderful thing from him in The New Yorker about coming from Manhattan to the Island every August.

“He wrote it from the standpoint of his cook, who had never been out of Manhattan. In those days, the 1930s, you took an overnight train from New York to New Bedford, then another train to Woods Hole to get the boat to the Island and get a car service to drive you to Menemsha, where he rented a cottage with no electricity. The cook quit at Woods Hole and went back to New York, but the column paid for his vacation.

“There’s another interview in the Vineyard Gazette archives done by 18-year-old Polly Woolcott, later artist Stan Murphy’s wife, in which he decided to mess with her head, telling her he comes to the Island because he hates the ocean, stuff like that,” Mr Reisman said.

“He wrote wonderful diversions in a style that appealed to people comfortable with language because they were readers. Only a few — Roger Angell comes to mind — write that way now. Remember he was writing for newspapers and magazines, the pipeline for information in that generation. Attention spans were less limited, the amounts of competing electronic media didn’t exist,” Mr. Reisman said. “He was a curious mind, which is a wonderful way to go through life.”

Islanders Read the Classics: Arnie Reisman on James Thurber, Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 7 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven.