Literary Daybook, March 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 18, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 18, Brenda Kovner has sex with Philip Eastlake, Joseph Monti and Louis (each separately).
-- "Murdering Mr. Monti" (1994)
by Judith Viorst

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1939, James Thurber published "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in the New Yorker. It became one of the most anthologized stories in American literature, and his "ta-poketa-poketa" hero became the archetype for dreamy, hapless Thurber Man.

Thurber himself had the Mitty gene: He was such a fidgety, never-finished type that, in the early days, his exasperated wife used to sit him at the kitchen table, set the alarm clock for 45 minutes and tell him to get something done. This did not often work, but it did result in his first sale to the New Yorker in the late 1920s, a Mitty-esque story about a bumbler who couldn't stop himself going round and round in a revolving door and became famous by setting a world's record.

Thurber's relationship with the New Yorker lasted for decades, though the last years became contentious -- at times in a Mitty way, or in the style of Thurber's famous cartoons. Truman Capote was a teenage office boy at the magazine during this phase, and among his duties was to tend to Thurber's needs. These were considerable: Thurber had lost one eye when he was 6, the other had gradually deteriorated and by his early 50s he was legally blind. This escalated his drinking problem into alcoholism and his chronic moodiness -- his wife called them "The Thurbs" -- into a nervous breakdown; it also caused him to start having affairs, one of which was with the office secretary. It fell to Capote to deliver Thurber to these assignations, dress him afterward and return him to his chauffeur, who would eventually return him to his wife. Capote put Thurber's socks on inside out one day, and when his wife helped him undress that evening, just as she had helped him dress that morning, there were some tough questions. (One of them would not have been "Is Sex Necessary?" a question Thurber and E.B. White had definitively answered in their hilarious 1929 send-up of pop psychology.)

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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