Happy birthday James Thurber, author of "Is Sex Necessary?"
Thanks to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor on NPR today, we learned it was James Thurber’s birthday (12/8/1894-11/2/1961). He was a celebrated American writer and wit, best known for his short stories and cartoons in The New Yorker. While on staff there, he shared a small office and became great friends with E.B. White (hey, just like we became great friends when we worked and shared a desk at the online mag Nerve). Together the two wrote “Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do” (1929), the first prose book either of them had published (hey, just like we wrote our first book together, “The Big Bang”!). Of course, ours was a true-blue sex manual and theirs was a parody of sex manuals — a hilarious send-up of the new “sexologists” on the scene back then, like Freud and his compatriots. And while ours goes into shameless detail (there’s a chapter on fisting, fer chrisakes), their’s never really gets to the sex at all — and that’s its genius. There’s stuff about avoiding sex, high concept and completely unhelpful illustrations, what kids should tell their parents about sex, letters from readers, even a glossary (“Complex: Mental crack-up caused by an emotional, or physical, inability to get away from, or wind things up with, a person of the opposite sex”). It’s such a timelessly funny read, a special 75th anniversary edition was published in 2004 (not something we expect to happen with any of our sex manuals). As John Updike points out in his introduction to that version, Thurber and White were two men with sexist tendencies — par for the course in those times. But if you can get past all the wives-are-the-bane-of-men’s-existence crap (admittedly, it does grow tiresome), you’ll find an otherwise humorous companion piece to any of the more earnest, inclusive, women-friendly, and incredibly helpful sex manuals you might have in your library or on your coffee table (ours, ours, oh please ours!). Here’s an excerpt from the chapter ‘The Nature of the American Male: A Study of Pedestalism’ in “Is Sex Necessary?”:
The phenomenon of the American male’s worship of the female, which is not so pronounced now as it was, but is still pretty pronounced, is of fairly recent origin. It developed, in fat, or reached its apex, anyway, in the early eyars of the present century. There was nothing like it in the preceding century. Throughout the nineteenth century the American man’s amatory instincts had been essentially economic. Marriage was basically a patriotic concern, the idea being to have children for the sake of the commonwealth. This was bad enough, but nevertheless it is far less dangerous to get the commonwealth mixed up with love than to get the infinite mixed up with love.
There was not a single case of nervous breakdown, or neurosis, arising from amatory troubles, in the whole cycle from 1800 to 1900, barring a slight flare-up just before the Mexican and Civil wars. This was because love and marriage and children stood for progress, and progress is — or was — a calm, routine business. “Mrs. Hopkins,” a man would say to the lady of his choice (she was a widow in the case) — “Mrs. Hopkins,” I am thinking, now that George* has been dead a year, you and I should get married and have offspring. They are about to build the Union Pacific, you know, and they will need men.”
*The late George Hopkins.