Thursday, February 27, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Walter Mitty?

IN THOSE DAYS, over 30 years past, when it was not unusual in Dublin bookshops for patrons to discuss books with each other, a youth not very much older than I was at the time told me that James Thurber's writing was “total shite.” I glowered, bought My World and Welcome to It (1942), and shuffled out onto Nassau Street with the book stuffed into a paper bag. I was mainly interested in the pictures anyway.

By that time I was already fairly progressed in my reading of Thurber, who was a favorite of my father’s and consequently whose books, some of them at least, were strewn about the house. My mother claimed that Thurber was the only writer that made had her laugh out loud on a Dublin bus. Thurber’s best known story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which had first appeared in The New Yorker in 1939, was assigned reading for Ireland’s intermediate certificate English course (the “intercourse” as we called it), the national curriculum for students aged 12 to 15 years old. The story was therefore known to most Irish youth.

I have been rereading Thurber in recent months, more than 35 years after I first encountered him, partly in anticipation of the release of Ben Stiller’s film version of the Walter Mitty story, and partly because I had picked up a copy of the excellent compilation of Thurber’s Writings and Drawings (1996) in the Library of America series. In the intervening years since my early reading of Thurber I lived for a long time in the United States, first in New York, then a brief stint in Georgia, and now in Chicago where it snows a lot. Having more familiarity with locations and situations that once seemed exotic and urbane to me, at least when viewed from Dublin in the 1970s, I can now assess Thurber’s work with more culturally attuned eyes and significantly older ones.

Read on at the LA Review of Books (here)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thoreau's Body of Knowledge

Walking is a foundational practice, amounting in natural history to methodology. Charles Darwin in his Journal and remarks 1832–1836 more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) used the verb “walk”, or variants thereof, almost twice as frequently as the verb “sail” (walk, 94; sail 50). Darwin’s was more a journey on foot than a voyage by ocean. In fact “walking” is more prevalent in Darwin’s Voyages than it is in Walden, written by Thoreau that most legendary walker. Thoreau, however, has more to say about walking qua walking than Darwin. In his essay Walking (1862) Thoreau proclaimed that “I cannot preserve health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Thoreau’s walking is not, of course, mere exercise, nor is the essay Walking an instructional treatise though it does tell us something of the where (”the West”) and the how (“...shake off the village...”) of walking. The chiefest value of walking is that it carries the walker “to as strange a country as [he] ever expected to see.” Walking surprises us! Though half our walking time is taken up with the return to “the old hearth-side from which we set out”, nonetheless, the true spirit of walking consists of “the spirit of undying adventure”, from which we might never return.

For all of his talk of permanent leave-taking there is Thoreau claimed, a “harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape and a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life.” Thus there exists for Thoreau a non-trivial relationship between walking, our personal finitude, and finding our place in this world.

Read on here