Sunday, May 1, 2011

Quintesentially American: Walter Mitty

James Thurber’s Walter Mitty – in fact, most of any of James Thurber’s male characters – is the most American in American literature. He’s the little guy, doomed to anonymous toil without finding grace from Horatio Alger, Wall Street, Hollywood, nor the very God Himself. What pleasures and wonders that lie in store for him do not lie, as George Orwell famously wrote, in the sad stucco box he calls home, but in the fecundity of the mind allowed to wander and to explore the grandiose dreams of life never to be possessed by the dreamer.

Who has not, while in line at the McDonalds drive thru, delivered an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. Who has not, in the drawings and doodlings made on the yellow legal pad during that boring office meeting, imagined a Mickey Mouse emerging from the flotsam and bearing the creator – the artist, the creator, the dreamer – to a wonderful Disneyesque world of fame, fortune, and lifelong satisfaction?

If you have not dreamed of this, or dreamed whatever dream you have, then you are not American. Indeed, you are not human.

Danny Kaye knows:

Ah, but that could be me, not the fabulous Mr. Kaye, on the big screen, you say. You would be right. In your own mind, but wrong in regards to reality – but what is reality but the nonsensical delusion of a world denied of our own individual greatness?

Let James Thurber tell the tale:

"We're going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" he shouted. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" repeated Lieutenant Berg. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The old man will get us through" they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.

"You're tensed up again," said Mrs. Mitty. "It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over."

Walter Mitty stopped the car in front of the building where his wife went to have her hair done. "Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done," she said. "I don't need overshoes," said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. "We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the car. "You're not a young man any longer." He raced the engine a little. "Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?" Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. "Pick it up, brother!" snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead. He drove around the streets aimlessly for a time, and then he drove past the hospital on his way to the parking lot.
. . . "It's the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan," said the pretty nurse. "Yes?" said Walter Mitty, removing his gloves slowly. "Who has the case?" "Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow, but there are two specialists here, Dr. Remington from New York and Mr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over." A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. "Hello, Mitty," he said. "We're having the devil's own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you'd take a look at him." "Glad to," said Mitty.

Don’t believe me he’s not quintessentially American? Read any of the comments on YouTube on this film, and you’ll see souls a-hungered.

No comments:

Post a Comment