THE GENRE of creative nonfiction is often said to have originated in the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s, in the markedly personal, idiosyncratic works of such writers as Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe; academics writing on the subject have traced its lineaments through all kinds of earlier authors, sometimes clear back to Pepys and Montaigne. And why stop there? Surely Thucydides and Suetonius should come in for a share of the credit (or blame) — and while we’re at it, why not Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book, with her lists of Squalid Things (“the back of a piece of embroidery,” “the inside of a cat’s ear”) or Hateful Things (“a hair on one’s inkstone”)? So far as I can tell, any writer describing his impressions of the world around him in highly personal terms reasonably qualifies as a writer of “creative nonfiction.”
Be all that as it may, current practitioners of the art owe a debt to a single American writer, the Ohio humorist James Thurber. Thurber is a Great American Humorist, whose comic genius usually places one rung below that of Mark Twain. I submit, however, that Thurber should be considered not below Twain, but alongside the sharpest satirists and critics of American life, such as Lewis, Nabokov, Le Guin, Vonnegut, DeLillo, Barthelme, Wallace, and Louis CK. Where many of those mentioned remade the techniques of fiction (as postmodernists, say, or by breaking new ground in speculative fiction), Thurber’s deliberate subversion of the most personal forms of writing, the essay and memoir, opened a path into an undiscovered country. His gift was in reaching beyond convention to touch the reader as a fellow human being, rather than as an intellectual or partisan, artist or crusader. The modern American essay rarely lacks a slight inflection of his voice: confiding, kidding, self-deprecating — one might say trusting.
Thurber especially delighted in the absurd, and in a type of pedantic goofing-off all his own.
Mr. Rudy Vallée, in an interview (or maybe it was in an article), has said that sometimes when he goes backstage he is saddened at the sight of members of his band sitting around reading detective stories. “They should try to improve their memories,” says Mr. Vallée, “by associating telephone numbers, for instance, with the date of the Civil War.”
This remarkable statement can be picked to pieces by any skillful Civil War telephone-number associator. In the first place, the use of the phrase “for instance” in the position we find it implies that Mr. Vallée thinks it is a good idea to sit around associating various things with the date of the Civil War (“telephone numbers, for instance”). Such a practice would confound even Salo Finkelstein, the lightning calculator. [...]
I still know the phone number of a girl who gave me the go-by in 1920, and now and then, as the years roll away, it flicks around the back of my head annoyingly, like a deer fly, upsetting my day. The phone number of the American Embassy in Paris, for which I no longer have any possible use, often keeps me awake at night: Passy 12. 50. Particularly on trains: Passy douze cinquante, Passy douze cinquante, chant the iron wheels on the rails.
This is, I think, partly what the idea of “creative nonfiction” is getting at; grouping the works of writers whose aims can’t be served by the standard operating strategies of journalism, nor those of memoir. Strict fidelity to “the truth” is irrelevant to such a writer. It’s not because he is trying to mislead, but for the opposite reason: he can’t use the ordinary, flawed lenses to focus on the particular truth he wishes to make us see, and so has resorted to grinding a new lens all his own.
Much of Thurber’s work contains evidence of this claim, but let’s consider, for the sake of illustration, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, published in 1935. The title page describes the book merely as “A Collection of Short Pieces, with Drawings by the Author,” and its contents page is a plain list of their titles. In the jumpy post–James Frey atmosphere of today I suspect this arrangement would not have gone over at all well, since some of these pieces are straight fiction, some are (apparently, or at least mostly) memoir, and others inhabit some fantastical space of their own; all are mixed together indiscriminately. Thus “Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife” — a short story in which the luckless Preble is berated by his eponymous Wife for going about murdering her all wrong — immediately gives way to “A Portrait of Aunt Ida,” the author’s (real) great-aunt, who emerges as a credibly bizarre, tragedy-loving wackadoodle. A bit later comes “I Went to Sullivant,” Sullivant being the (real) grammar school Thurber attended as a boy, which, we learn, was home to a fearsome baseball team.
[T]he dean of the squad was a tall, husky young man of twenty-two who was in the fifth grade (the teachers of the third and fourth had got tired of having him around as the years rolled along and had pushed him on). His name was Dana Waney and he had a mustache. Don’t ask me why his parents allowed him to stay in school so long. [...]
I believe the boys could have proved their moral right to the championship [...] if they had been allowed to go out of town and play all the teams they challenged, such as the powerful Dayton and Toledo nines, but their road season was called off after a terrific fight that occurred during a game in Mt. Sterling, or Piqua, or Zenia — I can’t remember which. Our first baseman — Dana Waney — crowned the umpire with a bat during an altercation over a called strike and the fight was on. It took place in the fourth inning, so of course the game was never finished (the battle continued on down into the business section of the town and raged for hours, with much destruction of property), but since Sullivant was ahead at the time 17 to 0 there could have been no doubt as to the outcome. Nobody was killed. All of us boys were sure our team could have beaten Ohio State University that year, but they wouldn’t play us; they were scared.
Can there really have been such people as the 22-year-old fifth-grader, Dana Waney, or his teammate, the even brawnier Floyd, who goes on to appoint himself young Thurber’s protector? I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I can tell you is that these heroes have lingered in my imagination for about forever, having left an exact, irreducible, irresistible impression, like a taste memory, specific and compelling as that of the Jolly Rancher Green Apple candies sticking to my teeth when I read this story for the first time. (They looked like slabs of stained glass.) The boy Thurber’s reverence for the raw magnetism of young, masculine strength, even when that power came attached to a limited intellect, is eternal; the story delicately balances that peculiar and familiar admiration and near-envy of boys for young men against the tough-guy Floyd’s goggling admiration for Thurber’s easy pronunciation of the word “Duquesne” (“Boy, dat’s sump’n.”) Did that “really” happen, as written? Could this sad, lovely, indelible impression have been produced any other way?
Recent years have seen a lot of contention regarding the liberties writers may take with “the truth”; matters here have been complicated by the scandals surrounding the aforementioned James Frey, as well as Mike Daisey, Jonah Lehrer, and others, who fibbed like crazy either out of laziness or a plain desire to mislead. I’d better put my cards on the table at once and admit that I believe all nonfiction to be to some degree “creative”; I say this despite having the greatest respect for those who’ve dedicated themselves to the pursuit of objectivity, even to the extent of refusing any participation in civic affairs in order to maintain an absolute impartiality. It’s just that I don’t believe impartiality can be achieved, “reality” being as provisional, facultative, and generally slippery as it is.
This conviction makes my journalist friends unbelievably furious, kind of in the same way Wittgenstein enraged Bertrand Russell by refusing to admit that it was certain that there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room. (You really can’t prove there isn’t.) Similarly, my own dining table has seen a mild-mannered Los Angeles Times reporter reduced to shouting and pounding her fist, glasses askew, when I defended David Foster Wallace’s authorial right to concoct all the whoppers he pleased in his semi-reportorial essays, like that cruise ship one, on the grounds that objectivity is purely chimerical, illusory. Caveat lector.
Thurber came in for a lot of flak about his elitist ivory-tower detachment from reality, in particular from leftists such as Dwight Macdonald at the Partisan Review, who in 1937 described the “timorous and bewildered” Thurber as a walking metaphor for a weakened and co-opted intelligentsia. These were the years of the Spanish Civil War, and blood on the left was running hot all over the world. But Thurber had his own ideas about the politics of his time. In a letter to Malcolm Cowley denouncing Granville Hicks’s anthology, Proletarian Literature in the United States, he wrote:
Those writers really want to be writers, making money, laying lovely women and handsome men. […] [T]hey don’t really want to be out suffering with the worker (after all, they remember Waldo Frank and his broken head and that it wasn’t the police or the strike-breaker who broke it).
(Frank, a Communist, had been badly beaten up by company thugs when he’d joined a Kentucky mining strike in 1932.)
Far from being too timorous and bewildered to take a political stance, in his correspondence Thurber reveals himself to be not only deeply conversant with but also openly contemptuous of the fashionable left. In a barn-burning letter to E.B. White written in 1938 (one can’t help wondering how much booze the famously inebriated writer had knocked back beforehand) Thurber wrote,
It is the easiest thing in the world nowadays to become so socially conscious, so Spanish war stricken, that all sense of balance and values goes out of a person. Not long ago in Paris Lilian Hellman told me that she would give up writing if she could ameliorate the condition of the world, or of only a few people in it. Hemingway is probably on that same path, and a drove of writers are following along, screaming and sweating and looking pretty strange and futile. This is one of the greatest menaces there is: people with intelligence deciding that the point is to become grimly gray and intense and unhappy and tiresome because the world and many of its people are in a bad way. It’s a form of egotism, a supreme form. [...]
Well, it is all a long way beyond me. I believe that it is also a long way beyond anybody living, and that Stalin and H.G. Wells and Malcolm Cowley don’t know any more about it than Rosemary [Thurber, his daughter, then aged about seven] and are simply befogging all the issues with a lot of persuasive crap.
Well, pretty much, as it turned out.
I think that maybe if women and children were in charge we would get somewhere. It is almost impossible to have any faith at all in the adult male in these days; he continues to boggle everything, as he always has boggled it. But because he is doing this I see no reason to go to pieces personally. I see every reason not to. I don’t think the barricades is an answer, nor giving up appreciation of and interest in such fine, pleasant and funny things as may still be around.
So: a principled man, a cynic of liberal convictions, at odds with the mood of the intelligentsia of his times. What was he going to do? Why, waver, equivocate, and finally roll his own; admit freely to his own bewilderment as the only sane response to a crazy world. All of which is to observe that Thurber’s humor was, really, dead serious.
In a 1938 letter to Katharine White, Thurber talked openly about his own politics with respect to the Spanish Civil War:
We’ve been in a lot of Spain, politics, war, arguments and talks, since getting to Paris. People, including me, never seem to understand exactly where I stand on all this. Sheean wanted to take me to Spain with him and on 2 scotches I said fine, but on Maturer Reflection — which is as mixed up in my case as the Heat of Argument — I decided I would only get in Spain’s way. I am somewhat convinced that Spain-politics-war, etc. is not Precisely My Field. Either writing about it or blundering around in it.
Thurber clearly knew that there were things he didn’t know and couldn’t understand. He presented his biases and doubts upfront, in a disguise thin enough that the reader can easily catch on.
In a 2004 essay on creative nonfiction, Jenny Spinner wrote:
Introspection is an inherent part of the genre [...] ‘personal presence’ — that manner of voice that announces the existence of a real person behind the piece, whether the subject is self or something else like old china, headaches, idleness, or hate.
Thurber’s complex, nuanced artistry wasn’t a matter of elitism or detachment. He was just light-years ahead of his time, is all.