The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

Yesterday morning, I drew the ten of hearts as part of my 2011 short story reading project. The suit of hearts was designated my “mostly favorites” suit – stories that I had read before and enjoyed. So, I went to look up what short story I had attached to that card. Lo and behold, it was James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I’ve read this very short story a couple times before, I think. At least once. The one time I definitely remember reading it was in a high school English class. I can’t remember the exact title of the class (although something about ‘social protest literature’ was part of it, I think).

One thing that is remarkable about that particular class, however, is that I have many specific first memories of books and stories that came from it. The teacher was perhaps best described as “a former hippie,” and I even remember one day in class we learned about Arlo Guthrie and the song Alice’s Restaurant, after which she tried to talk some of us who had a class together in the following period to walk in and burst into song with “You can get almost anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant…” Lacking her passion for protest, we decided not to follow her suggestion.

Other interesting assignments and exercises I remember involved analysis of political cartoons in The Indianapolis Star, a dissection of the lyrics of The Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby, reading the John Lennon story, “Araminta Ditch” ( which we learned was his thinly disguised way of saying “aren’t men a bitch?”). One day we also each had to bring in a record or tape of a song that had some deep, or protest-worthy meaning. (Im not sure, but I think I chose “Grand illusion” by Styx) Overall, despite its unorthodox curriculum, this class had a lasting impression on me and presumably my fellow students as well. I believe that this was also the class where I was introduced to the fictional character of Walter Mitty and his “secret life.”

The percentage of literary characters that make it into the mainstream of the modern English language is a tiny one. One such character who does make the cut, however, is that quintessential daydreamer and henpecked husband, Walter Mitty. This great short story starts in the crowded cockpit of plane, where the action is thick and frenetic. Just as the reader is about to strap himself in for a great adventure story, however, he – along with Mitty himself – is shaken back to the real world as his wife scolds him, “You are driving too fast, dear.” It was just a daydream, one of four crammed into this wonderful and impossibly short story. In his daydreams, Mitty is a man of action, respected, admired, and even feared. Unfortunately just the opposite of his true, mundane existence.

(Author James Thurber)

I also love the way Thurber transitions between the reality and daydreams in the story. In one case, after his wife admonishes him for not wearing his gloves, his next daydream finds him in the role of a world-famous doctor, snapping on his surgical gloves in order to save a life no one else can. Most readers have probably read this story either as a requirement in school or as part of their literary explorations. If you haven’t, however, now might be the time. It is available for free on-line. One place where you can find it is:

http://bnrg.eecs.berkeley.edu/~randy/mitty.html

What about you, have you read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? Any other Thurber recommendations? I’d love to hear of them.

-Jay

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