Tony's Reviews > Lanterns & Lances

Lanterns & Lances by James Thurber
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May 21, 12

bookshelves: essays
Read in May, 2012

63. LANTERNS AND LANCES. (1961). James Thurber. *****.
I have to admit that it wasn’t that long ago that I read “The Library of America’s” collection of Thurber’s work, but when I came across a stand alone copy of one of his best known works, I couldn’t resist. James Thurber (1894-1961) was born, raised and educated in Ohio. He ultimately gravitated to New York City where he eventually became a fixture on the “New Yorker” staff. This book, the last one published while he was still alive, is composed of many of the columns that previously appeared in “The New Yorker,” but some from other magazines, too. The particular edition that I found was published by Time-Life Book Club, a now defunct club that published some of the best stuff around. If you see copies of their books in a used book store, pick them up. They’re usually inexpensive, but provide excellent introductions by the Time-Life staff and a preface by someone knowledgeable of the author and his/her works. Back to Thurber. Thurber wrote 24 books, and two successful Broadway plays: “The Male Animal,” and “Thurber Carnival.” He was also noted for his simple line drawings – cartoons – which also accompanied his work. Lanterns and Lances contains 24 short articles. Most of them are humorous in Thurber’s dry way. In the piece, “The Darlings at the Top of the Stairs,” he bemoans little kids answering the phone. He has a way to get past them, however: “Oo tiss?” a tiny voice demanded when I called the plumber one day. “This is Tanta Twaus,” I said, “and Tanta Twaus won’t give you any Twissmas pwesents this Twissmas if you do not put Mommy or Daddy on the other end of this doddam apparatus.” “Appawata?” asked the tiny voice. At this point his mother, like a woman in transport and on her third martini, grabbed up the receiveer. “He said, ‘Appomattox,’ didn’t he?” she cried. “Isn’t that wonderful?” “Madam,” I said, chilling the word, “the answer to the questiion I just put to your son is Waterloo, not Appomattox. The next voice you hear will be that of me, dying in the flood of broken pipes and the rubble of fallen ceilings.” And I slammed up the receiver.” In the piece, “The Spreading ‘You Know,’ we find the following comment:
“The latest blight to afflict the spoken word in the United States is the rapidly spreading reiteration of the phrase ‘you know.’ I don’t know just when it began moving like a rainstorm through the language, but I tremble at its increasing garbling of meaning, ruining of rhythm, and drumming upon my hapless ears. One man, in a phone conversation with me last summer, used the phrase thirty-four times in about five minutes, by my own count; a young matron in Chicago got seven ‘you knows’ into one wavy sentence, and I have heard it as far west as Denver.”
Another plaint comes forth in “Such a Phrase That Drifts Through Dreams:”
“One linotyper I have never met became co-author of a piece of mine last year by introducing a bear into the story. He simply made one out of a bead that was lying around in the middle of the narrative. this set me to brooding, and for weeks I lay awake at night, in my fashion, playing unhappily with imaginary havoc wrought by single letter changes in the printed word. I still remember a few of them: ‘A stitch in time saves none...There’s no business like shoe business...Lafayette, we ate here...Don, give up the ship.”
I could go on like this for pages, but I hope I’ve teased you enough to make you want to find and read this book. Highly recommended.
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