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  • Thurber's Anatomy of Confusion
  • Martin Light
Catherine McGehee Kenney. Thurber's Anatomy of Confusion. Hamden: Shoe String, 1984. 235 pp. $22.50.

As Professor Kenney begins her book, she mentions several difficulties she believes she must overcome. One is the prejudice claiming that humorists are less incisive about the human predicament than tragedians and therefore do not warrant close and lengthy attention. A second is that if she writes a book she must take a scholarly and critical approach, because the books about Thurber's work so far have been satisfactory but only introductory. A third is that a writer of short pieces, like Thurber, gives the scholar or critic a less useful handle to take hold of than a novelist does. Professor Kenney's method was suggested by the metaphor of the "Anatomy," derived from Thurber himself, who was first to call his work "an anatomy of confusion." With that metaphor Kenney can proceed to dissect the writing in front of her, moving from the outer world to the inmost—the deepest—without being constrained by chronology. Hers is a book from which one can derive useful observations: her own, those of other writers, and those of Thurber, although not from letters and papers outside the main body of Thurber's work [End Page 773] .

Kenney's plan works well but does require the too-frequent repetitions of "anatomy" and "confusion," which sound like efforts to convince us of their viability. She guides us as Thurber performs his own dissection of a world filled with characters who cannot cope with machines, with other people, or with language itself. Her book rises in value as she substantiates her location of Thurber in a place "filled with emotional chaos, hard by the tragic abyss," where he asks the essential questions: why are we here? where are we going? why are ordinary people doing such senseless things? "Tiny, apparently inconsequential misunderstandings," she observes, "grow into monumental confusions—until the nature of reality itself is questioned."

She suggests that Thurber felt the powerful influence of Eliot, Joyce, and James. Her anatomic method, however, concentrates on but one area of the body at a time—first, the outer or surface area (social interactions); next, the mind; then the puzzle at the roots of language; and finally the profound mysteries of time and death. As a result, a subject worth thorough study, such as the influence on Thurber of those three eminent writers, is distributed among several chapters. The justification for advancing one step inward at a time is that each return to a particular text shows it to us like a prism, with differing colorations under various circumstances. So her discussion of Thurber's debt to James, for instance, occurs in several places but not coherently. She asserts, however, that the two authors are linked in "their claustrophobic domestic scenes, their endless wars of nerves and egos, the delicate probing of the modern temperament, the overriding sense of predicament and perplexity, the self-conscious characters, the clash of men and women."

Thurber said that humor was "emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect"; furthermore, reality was "transformed and, in a sense, created by each eye perceiving it." My Life and Hard Times, says Kenney, displays "universal chaos and familial confusion" from a considerable distance and with much restraint. When contemplating a Thurber cartoon, so seemingly simple and obvious, we experience (because of its minimal line and virtually no shading) a feeling that "the savageness and disorder of human nature [might] erupt through thin layers of respectibility and calm." Kenney rightly states that "nothing can explain these cartoons; they approach absurdist humor in which all rules of cause and effect have been negated." Thurber's "Fables for Our Time" renarrate legendary stories and reword our proverbial wisdom cynically and ironically, as befits our contemporary depressed, warring, and hopeless era. Finally, because the "frail human mind is the seat of all knowledge," says Kenney, Thurber turned to dissecting "the basic material of thought—language—[which] is the most common catalyst of confusion." In his later explorations of that subject, Thurber took apart "sentences, phrases, and words, attempting to see what lies...


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