James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings
In July 1951, after a quarter century of best-selling books, James Thurber was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His eyesight had been steadily deteriorating from a childhood game of William Tell, when his brother shot a toy arrow into his left eye, which had to be removed; his other eye was infected as well. By midcentury he was nearly blind—he had stopped drawing for The New Yorker in 1947—but he agreed to do one last drawing for the cover of Time, a self-portrait with dogs, sketched with chalk on black paper.
His mother was interviewed for the article and was asked about her son’s penchant for using his family members as characters. “Jamie always did exaggerate. You mustn’t believe a thing he says,” Mame Thurber told the reporter. Many of his most famous pieces took a bit of family history or a funny incident and turned it into an over-the-top farce in which his friends and family became high-strung, yet somehow endearing, basket cases. “In Thurber’s world everyone, except the dog, is a nervous wreck, and nothing really happens—the bed doesn’t fall, no ghost gets in,” Library of America publisher Max Rudin notes in a recent appreciation. “American humor suddenly found itself in the Age of Anxiety.”
The first—and still one of the most famous—of his stories about his family was “The Night the Bed Fell,” which became the opening chapter of his fictionalized memoir, My Life and Hard Times. We present it as our Story of the Week selection, as a pleasant distraction during America’s current anxious moment.