August 19, 2022

Lengthy book on Thurber well-received, never dull> Introduction in high school bears fruit 60 years later

JAMES THURBER: HIS LIFE AND TIMES, by Harrison Kinney; Henry Holt and Co., 1,238 pages, $40.

Harrison Kinney, Houlton High School, Class of ’39, was introduced to James Thurber on the shelves of the Cary Library through Thurber’s “My Life and Hard Times” when he was in the seventh grade.

Fifteen years later, in 1948, while a graduate student at Columbia University, Kinney met Thurber in person in the New Yorker’s office while researching his thesis on America’s pre-eminent humorist of the 20th century.

And now, more than 60 years after that first introduction, Kinney and Thurber are still linked, in Kinney’s encyclopedic biography, “James Thurber: His Life and Times.”

Along the way, Kinney even wrote for the Bangor Daily News, though he may be the only one who recalls the story. It was a “crude writeup” of a high school dance requested by the BDN’s Houlton correspondent, who “rewrote it and mailed it in,” says Kinney. He proudly told his friends that it was really his story.

He was “active on the school publication,” says Kinney, and “had aspirations of being a writer.” He left Maine for education and career when he graduated from high school, never returning to live here, but he still keeps in touch with his County roots. He returned in August 1994 for his 55th high school reunion, and has “cousins galore; there are Kinneys all over Aroostook County,” he notes.

From his home in Carmel, N.Y., he would like all of those Kinneys, and others in Maine, to know about his Thurber biography. After all, it has been a long time in the works, starting with his thesis, then delayed while he raised a family and earned a living, first as a Talk of the Town writer for several years at the New Yorker and later as an editor for many years with McCall’s magazine.

Some of the reviews, he notes, have said he was a colleague of Thurber’s, though in fact Thurber did not do his writing in the New Yorker offices when Kinney worked there.

“I was in World War II, but you could not call me a colleague of Eisenhower’s,” he notes.

Nevertheless he had five interviews with Thurber and obviously spent a lot of time with research, all of which helped the manuscript grow into a 1,238-page book. Overall, the book has been well received, with the major negative being some reviewers’ questions about its length and time in the writing.

For example, in the Los Angeles Times review, Bill Barich called it an “exhaustive but ultimately winning book.”

In the Boston Globe, Robert Taylor wrote, “It is one of the excessively rare biographies of such ample girth virtually without a dull page.”

In The Washington Post, Heywood Hale Broun wrote, “Thurber’s love-hate relationship with the New Yorker makes up the most compelling portion” of the book and says that despite Kinney’s feelings for both Thurber and the magazine, he is “remarkably evenhanded.”

Kinney notes that both of his editors were former New Yorker staffers and veterans of the New Yorker’s credo of “completeness.” And, while Thurber has been the subject of several academic books, this is the first commercial biography. As such, it could warrant its encyclopedic approach as the Thurber fan’s primary source of everything there is to know about Thurber.

The book also includes a large number of photographs from Thurber’s life and a sprinkling of the humorous line drawings for which he is almost as well remembered as his writing.

Kinney says that E.B. White warned him that Thurber was “not a simple subject,” and that “it will take you at least 125 years.” Unlike some of the critics, White would undoubtedly be pleased that it actually took less than half that time.

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