The second of three sons, Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 8, 1894, to parents Charles and Mary. At the age of six, he met with disaster. He and his brother played a game of William Tell, and Thurber wound up with an arrow in his eye. Lacking modern medical advancements, the eye suffered great damage, and Thurber lost his sight. With blindness in one eye and partial sight in the other eye, Thurber couldn't play the childhood games and activities most kids enjoyed. He thus stimulated a creative imagination to keep him company.
Thurber's father worked sporadically, spending much of his time unemployed. His mother tried to lighten the situation by being a practical jokester and comedienne. Both parents influenced Thurber's life as he later drew upon childhood recollections for his writings. It was in high school that Thurber found himself drawn to writing, providing him with an outlet for his imagination. A good student, probably smarter than even he realized, Thurber attended Ohio State University. But for the first couple of years he felt lost. Then Elliott Nugent came along, rescuing Thurber from obscurity by helping him join a fraternity and co-editing the campus magazine.
After spending five years at Ohio State, Thurber lacked sufficient course credits to graduate. His poor eyesight played a role because the mandatory ROTC class was beyond Thurber's capabilities to fulfill. Leaving school, yet unable to join the military, Thurber became a Department of State code clerk in Washington D.C. and then in Paris, France. After World War I ended, he returned to Columbus with the intention of being a newspaper reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. Thurber did well as a reporter and may have remained in his hometown if it weren't for the aspirations of his young wife, Althea.
Althea believed he could do more with his life and suggested they move to Paris. To his credit, Thurber worked very hard as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune before returning to New York as a writer for the New York Evening Post. Thurber's break came when a often-rejected humorous piece found acceptance in the newly founded New Yorker magazine. Joining their staff, Thurber and his co-worker E.B. White shared office space, and the two men became friends. White helped Thurber refine his writing skills, bolstered his courage, and raised his morale. Thurber began penning books and, at White's insistence, submitted his sketches for illustrations. Over the years, Thurber drew six covers and many illustrations for the New Yorker.
His writing brought him satisfaction and success, but his home life remained dismal. Unhappy with his wife and taking to heavy drinking, Thurber nevertheless produced creative pieces of work. In perhaps his most recognized book, My Life and Hard Times, Thurber reflected on his childhood and family ties, utilizing his humor to overshadow his pain.
Divorcing Althea, Thurber turned to Helen Wismer, a magazine editor, as his second wife. Helen supported him through his bouts of depression, a nervous breakdown, complete blindness, fits of drunken rage, and still some productive writing times. She never left him, giving his life a sense of comfort and stability that he may have lacked during his childhood and his first marriage.
For more than thirty years Thurber published short stories, essays, and cartoons for the New Yorker. He also penned children's books such as Many Moons and The Great Quillow. Over seventy-five satirical fables and a biography of Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, encompassed Thurber's career until toward the end of his days when he performed on stage eighty-eight times for A Thurber Carnival based on his writings. After his performances Thurber regressed into depression, suffered from a stroke, developed pneumonia in the hospital, and died on November 2, 1961 from a blood clot on the brain. Thurber was 66 years old.
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