The Thurber Prize

December 8: James Thurber was born on this day in 1894—or rather, as described in his preface to The Thurber Carnival, "on a night of wild portent and high wind in the year 1894, at 147 Parsons Avenue, Columbus, Ohio." In keeping with his hapless heroes and self-deprecating style, Thurber goes on to say that the portents didn't come to much:

The house, which is still standing, bears no tablet or plaque of any description, and is never pointed out to visitors. Once Thurber's mother, walking past the place with an old lady from Fostoria, Ohio, said to her, "My son James was born in that house," to which the old lady, who was extremely deaf, replied, "Why, on the Tuesday morning train, unless my sister is worse." Mrs. Thurber let it go at that.

The birthplace has been demolished, but Thurber's other Columbus home is now a museum and writing center. This year's winner of the museum's annual Thurber Prize for American Humor is Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist, a lampoon of the best/worst in contemporary fiction. Hely's hero is a downward-spiraling writer currently employed in an essay factory penning customized academic papers for student-cheaters. When he hears a contemporary author, Preston Brooks, read from his bestselling novel to a rapt audience, the essayist-for-hire has his eureka moment: anyone, most notably him, could fashion such an "intricate latticework of literary sewage":

Maybe you'll have to see this audience to understand my epiphany. …In the rows of the lecture hall, listening to Preston, their backs arched forward and their eyes expectant, were rows of college girls. Young women in little sweaters and tight jeans, pliant and needy. Girls with names like Sara and Katie and Chrissy, no doubt, who had read Chronicles of Esteban and Kindness to Birds while curved on couches in their bras and pajama bottoms, giving themselves over to this magician of words. Corn-fed girls from small towns, where girls were still graceful and feminine. Pageant winners and soccer players and swoony pseudopoets. Girls who were smart-cute and wildly passionate, who'd traveled from Connecticut and California to Shenandoah College to submit themselves to Preston Brooks. Their faces yearned with nameless desire, pleading with Preston to guide them and fill them with hard truths.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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