Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why No One Should Read "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" in High School

Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility. - James Thurber

James Thurber is one of my all-time favorite authors, a world-class humorist, one of the few examples - and certainly one of the first - of a humor writer who could be known almost entirely for his short stories. Almost entirely blind from a childhood game of "William Tell" gone wrong (an example my siblings and I could certainly have heeded better), he nonetheless became a famed cartoonist for the New Yorker, sketching his works on giant sheets of paper until he was left with drawings of stunning freshness in a style that Dorothy Parker referred to as having "the semblance of unbaked cookies." He was an absolutely original talent, the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain.

When I was younger, my dad would read me selections from some of Thurber's best works, My Life and Hard Times or Thurber Carnival, pieces most people only discover in their mid-twenties but seem to be written just for children. Hard Times, in particular, is one of those works that jumps beyond Thurber's reputation as a "funnyman for intellectuals" into the realm of perhaps one of the best pieces of American humor writing of all time. To this day, My Life and Hard Times is my go-to present for people whose tastes I respect (or those whose tastes I am trying to improve). His style feels remarkably fresh today, perhaps because we have grown into his style of self-deprecation and wry sensibility - as Thurber himself noted, "The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself. "

I bring this up because while anyone who stumbles their way through high school is offhandedly introduced to Thurber through "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which is a grave mistake. Not because "Walter Mitty" is anything less than a brilliantly evocative short story,but because high school English classes are no place for getting introduced to anything. It's completely the wrong atmosphere.

See, English classes are supposed to introduce you to new and exciting pieces of writing that you would never have read before. What they actually do is help you make the worst possible first impression of every writer in the history of the English language. English teachers think that they can assign humor writing and their ninth graders will find it funny, which they don't, because they're reading it to figure out the answers to the questions at the end of the chapters. Then they're scouring the story and looking for "themes," and reading the tiny bio of Thurber at the beginning looking for hints on how they're supposed to have responded to the work. Finally, they return to class, feeling that the whole exercise was entirely pointless since they don't feel particularly impressed with the story at all ("It was supposed to be about mankind's isolationism, but I just thought the guy was kind of a loser"). At this point, the teacher, who didn't really see the point in reading the story anyway ("it's all kind of silly. Let's hurry through and get to Pearl Buck."), gushes insincerely about Thurber's capturing of mood and the human condition for half a class period, and then moves on. And everyone is left with this vague recollection of this bumbling guy and how he was never paying attention to anything, which just gets filed away in the same distant mental shelf you keep the time you watched Dudley Do-Right on an airplane with no headphones.

Instead, paperback copies of My Life and Hard Times, along with a collection of Thurber's cartoons, should be handed out in senior English, in one of those random breaks between sections where there's not enough time to start something new before the end of the quarter. The teacher reads "The Night The Bed Fell" aloud to the class, then the students read the book over a weekend and try their hand at drawing a Thurber-esque cartoon. A small writing assignment will be assigned, having each student write a story of something that happened to them in a Thurber-ish fashion, and the stories will be read aloud. Whoever gets the biggest laugh gets bonus points.

And that's the sort of introduction Thurber deserves.


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5 Comments:

At October 31, 2008 6:18 PM, Blogger Erin said...

Glad you have such a high estimation of English teachers.

I always cringe at teaching "The Dog that Bit People" to 10th grade (it's in the required text) because they don't get it...I can do all those neat things, but their brains are too hardwired at this point to get them out of the "find the right answer" mode easily. I was even more devastated to find out that "The Night the Bed Fell" (my favorite Thurber) had been ruined by their middle school teachers! It's why I don't make a big deal about Keats in senior English. It's too heartbreaking to watch their reaction. It's tough breaking them free of the mental factory system.

 
At November 01, 2008 8:45 PM, Anonymous Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

The Night the Bed fell is my favorite Thurber as well! How can you ruin it?

 
At November 02, 2008 7:41 AM, Blogger Erin said...

I'm not sure, but judging by their reaction, after a much-hyped introduction, somehow those teachers managed. "Oh, this story...it was weird and stupid."

 
At November 02, 2008 10:44 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Yes, but you have to be mature enough to appreciate that Thurber is being intentionally absurd. If you're too young to get that, all Thurber will just seem "weird and stupid." It's like reading Dickens (other than a Christmas Carol) before you're 65- not a good idea. Though Dickens in the abridged version is great. He was a great storyteller, but paid by the word. Kind of like JK Rowling.

 
At November 05, 2008 2:54 PM, Blogger The Scylding said...

jonathan - I beg to differ on Dickens: I read "Great Expectations" when I was 14, and it hooked me on better literature. Remember, English is not my mother tongue either, so it was a struggle....

The secret life of Walter Mitty made an indelible impression on me - because it highlights what is possibly the biggest human foible - the storytelling we do to ourselves between our ears. After reading that story, you'll find yourself to be an ever-fresh source of amusement. And you will take yourself much less seriously...

 

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